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    Qualifying Prospects

    Advertising and other marketing communications help prospective customers become aware of their need for a product. Then, for expensive or complex products, follow-up sales activity leads a prospect through the sales process and closes the sale.

    Early in the process, prospects collect material necessary for making an informed, confident purchase decision. People who are just beginning to learn about a product category are usually not yet ready to talk to a salesperson, even though this person is best able to answer specific questions.

    Salespeople are trained and motivated to spend their time on the most productive prospects, but determining who is a high-quality prospect and who is not can be difficult. A process is needed to help determine the likelihood that the prospect will soon make a purchase.

    A company's Web site can help qualify inquiries so that salespeople don't have to spend any more time than necessary.

    Why Qualify Prospects?

    For years the inquiries that result from advertising have been handled by companies in two ways. One approach has been to mail a stack of brochures with a "bounce-back" card that can be sent back when the prospect is ready to talk to a salesperson. The other approach has been to send gathered leads directly to salespeople in order for them to contact the prospects.

    Both of these techniques have problems. Often, prospects have not reached that point in the decision process where they are ready to talk with a salesperson. And sometimes, contacting the quality leads takes too long. Plus the company's resources are not allocated efficiently.

    Today, the Internet can help solve these problems by identifying the optimum point in a prospect's decision process when it is most appropriate for a salesperson to become involved.

    How to Qualify Prospects

    Sales consultants and trainers have traditionally taught that a few basic questions about a prospect must be answered before a salesperson can close a sale. Each sales-training consultant may have different versions of these questions, but, in general, they are as follows:

    • Does the vendor have a product or service that fits the prospect's needs?
    • Has the prospect made a commitment to make a decision within a normal or reasonable time frame?
    • Has a budget been approved by the prospect's management?

    Many companies train salespeople to delve deeply into some or all of these questions. Sometimes visitors are simply gathering information to become educated about a product category; however, it is frequently assumed that visitors are evaluating products to make a purchase decision. A few qualification questions can reveal whether they are prepared to seek management approval for the purchase in the near term. While the prospect may turn out to be a valuable customer in the future, it may be best in the near term for the company to provide education and information through e-mail and the Web site.

    Collecting Qualification Data on the Web

    Practically every company that uses its Web site to generate leads has an inquiry form. Some companies collect just contact information. At other Web sites, inquiry forms have so many questions that visitors feel it takes too long to complete.

    While it's not likely that Web visitors would specify the amount of their budget on a Web form, many people are comfortable answering a few questions -- questions that can be used to help qualify the prospect.

    For instance, many people answer questions dealing with the time frame for making a decision. If most of your sales occur between 6 and 12 months after the initial contact with a prospect, you can expect your visitors to answer questions on a form that includes this range. You should also include values on both ends of that range, such as "Now" and "In the future."

    Surprisingly, one of the best techniques for collecting information about prospects' needs via the Web is to have a large text box where they can describe their needs in their own words. Visitors with a solid understanding of their needs and a clear set of objectives will sometimes provide a detailed description that indicates they are qualified prospects.

    Some companies can apply automated rules to qualify prospects from Web data. However, most companies need to have a sales administrator review the information and make a preliminary judgment about how the lead should be processed.

    In some cases, such as when a visitor is clearly gathering preliminary information for a project, an e-mail might be all that's needed to maintain contact.

    For more qualified leads, the sales associate can forward information to the appropriate salesperson for direct contact. When that's combined with contact information and other data from the Web form, a salesperson can easily follow up with the prospect.

    The initial qualification process of Web leads can quickly put the prospect in touch with the appropriate salesperson or can direct the person to appropriate information on the Web site. At the same time, continually refining the lead-generation and qualification process can pay off by keeping salespeople focused on qualified leads that can quickly generate revenue.

    Cliff Allen is the co-author of the book One-to-One Web Marketing; 2nd Ed., published by John Wiley & Sons, and has consulted with companies on strategic marketing for 20 years.

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