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Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitor

When it comes to leads, our follow-up rate is abysmal. How can I motivate our salespeople to follow up on the leads we collect at trade shows?

When a good lead goes bad (i.e., when your perfectly good exhibit-marketing lead is pushed aside by salespeople), it's likely due to one of four problems.

First, you haven't effectively qualified your exhibit-marketing leads, and have lumped in lookie-loo attendees with ready-to-buy prospects. This critical error sends salespeople on a needle-in-a-haystack search for quality leads. And as such, it not only wastes their time; it makes them doubt the quality of every lead you send them.

Second, you haven't provided your salespeople with the type of lead info they're looking for at that specific trade show and at that specific time. Perhaps you didn't ask an important question on your lead form, or failed to qualify prospects using criteria that makes sense to your salespeople. Or maybe salespeople need much different information than they did, say, six months ago.

Third, you haven't mapped out a clear follow-up plan to which both marketing and sales can commit. As the old saying goes, if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.
Finally, maybe your salespeople are simply unmotivated. Salespeople are often driven by incentives and recognition, and if they aren't getting enough of both, they're likely a pretty angry, ineffective mob.

So here are several ways to help you bypass these common lead follow-up problems. They'll help grease the wheels of your company's lead-management strategy and help keep your good leads from going bad.

1. Get sales-department input. You can supply salespeople with reams of lead data, but if it's not the info they need to move that lead closer to a sale, those reams are meaningless. So as soon as you begin planning for a show, sit down with your sales-department managers and ask them what information they need you to obtain from each lead. In addition to attendees' contact details, most salespeople need information about which products attendees are interested in, company size, purchasing power, buying plans, product perception, etc.

But perhaps they also need to know if the attendee purchased from the company in the past, if he or she had a good or bad experience, or what a prospect thinks about your competitor's products. Granted, a four-page lead form is overkill, but make the most of attendees' time and that of your salespeople by creating a succinct lead form that gathers the data your sales team requests.

Also ask sales managers to help tweak your lead-qualifying criteria. What do they consider a hot lead, versus one that's medium hot or cold? And what follow-up process can they commit to for each type of lead? For example, can they follow up on hot leads within three days of show close, medium leads within two weeks, and cold leads within six months? You want to make sure that sales and
marketing are operating with the same definition of the word "quality" - and are on the same page in terms of follow-up expectations.

Finally, make sure that you hold these sales-input meetings on a regular basis - as opposed to once a year. The lead info salespeople need today may be different than what they need three months from now. And if your exhibiting calendar covers a wide range of industries with an equally wide range of target attendees, ask for sales input for each individual show. For example, if you sell products to multinational retailers and family-owned Midwest construction firms, your salespeople are likely looking for different lead information from each target audience and thus, from each individual show.

2. Use appropriate techniques. Whether you're using a no-frills paper lead form or a whiz-bang online capture-and-management system, your lead-capture method should have the following main functions: 1) multiple-choice questions, and 2) a way to take notes.

Multiple-choice questions allow staffers to breeze through the standard qualifying questions. Staffers can then switch to more casual conversations that allow them to obtain information about specific product interests, product awareness, competitive-product perspectives, etc. Staffers can then note this data on the form.

After the show, the marketing department can use the answers to the multiple-choice questions to qualify the leads into basic hot, warm, and cold piles, and then read through the notes to further qualify them. Once salespeople receive the qualified and sorted leads, they can quickly hone in on the notes. Even the slightest bit of personal info about a specific lead and his or her needs can help salespeople move the lead closer to a sale.

3. Plan post-show follow-up. Hopefully, during your initial meeting with the sales team, you hashed out some parameters for how long salespeople have to follow up on A leads, B leads, and so forth. But also make sure you establish an organized strategy for the lead follow-up process.

For example, after marketing has qualified and sorted the leads, how will they be distributed to salespeople, and which salespeople will receive which leads? That is, will the best salespeople get the highest-quality leads, or will the leads be distributed equally among the team, or equally according to regions?

Also, who will track this follow-up and ensure that attendees have received the information requested? What happens to a lead that doesn't buy immediately? Which database does this lead "live" in - one owned by marketing or one owned by sales?

Granted, some companies have electronic lead-management systems that make lead tracking a piece of cake. But even then, the marketing and sales departments should be able to tell where each lead is at in the process, who is handling which lead, and the current status of each one. Without a well-established process, including a plan for precisely who is responsible for what, your well-earned leads could end up lost in a black hole of disorganization.

4. Motivate your sales staff. It sure would be nice if someone other than the exhibit manager motivated the sales team to follow up on trade show leads. But when the success of your program is judged at least in part by the number of sales leads it generates, then you should probably work with the sales manager to add "motivate salespeople" to your to-do list.

Contests are one way to keep those salespeople dialing. For example, give an award to the first person to successfully contact or close X number of leads after the show. Rewards can be anything from a $50 bonus, to a restaurant gift certificate, to an extra day off (courtesy of your company's management, of course).

Also consider simply recognizing a job well done. For example, present top achievers with a plaque during a sales meeting or at a company meeting. Or, write a thank-you letter to be added to his or her personnel file. Any little "atta boy" or "atta girl" goes a long way toward motivating recognition-hungry salespeople.

So if your lead follow-up rate is in the dumper, implement these four strategies to not only obtain the information sales needs, but also to organize salespeople and motivate them into action.

- Linda Musgrove, president, TradeShow Teacher, Aventura, FL

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