The best fiction writer is able to get into the heads of his characters, understanding their desires and fears in order to portray them realistically. All the while, he's guiding them along towards a stirring conclusion. But as is often the case, the writer ends up realizing how little in control of the story he is—that in fact, the character is as much leading the writer. So who's guiding who?

In the case of the relationship between the sell side, marketing and sales, and the buy side, the customer, the question is, who qualifies who? After all, in today's world of Internet-savvy, well-informed buyers and sales & marketing efforts driven by intelligent technology, both sides have the ability to size each other up long before any actual face-to-face contact is made. This might explain why prospects are now reaching out to sales later and later in the buying cycle. In fact, according to a study conducted by CEB and Google, the average B2B buyer now goes through 57% of the sales process before reaching out to a rep.

Whatever the case, it's the responsibility of marketing to focus on both sides of the coin: making a favorable impression to the prospective buyer, and honing in on the most sales-ready leads for sales.

Marketing of the future

Last week, we touched on the subject of lead nurturing, so we won't go into it here. But it's no secret that content marketing will become increasingly important moving forward, along with its inherent benefits of powering lead nurture campaigns. From the first opt-in, your organization's message must be consistent and strong, as well as reassuring. This is not the arena for hard selling. Rather, the point is to convey to the potential buyer that your business is capable of easing their burden because it understands their pain points. What's more, you are the expert and your advice matters.

This is how you establish a relationship of trust that will lead to you being qualified by the buyer.

Automating lead management

Track website visitors throughout the buying process and assess sales readiness.

On the other hand, not all potential customers are the right fit for your company. Therefore, from their very first entry into your site, your backend lead management system should be working to qualify them. Who are they? Where are they located? What pages are they most interested in? And most importantly, do they represent solid leads?

Lead Intelligence

With some systems, this type of information is actually obtainable almost right off the bat. And they don’t rely on form fills, which only 2% of visitors complete anyway. Instead, they track the anonymous visitor's IP address, match it to a corporate identity, and sync with third party data mining companies to learn important details about the person's company such as size, location, and contact details of decision makers.

Meanwhile, though still technically anonymous, all of the visitor's activities are being logged nonetheless, including pages visited, time spent on pages, and keywords searched to reach the page, as well as the method through which the page was entered, whether it was organic or paid search, a referral, social media, etc.

This information is applicable in many ways. For one, it eliminates the need to buy lists. Rather, lists can be built organically based on actual traffic coming in to a site. In addition, leads can be qualified much faster because the system will combine its knowledge of visitors with their activity to build a profile around them. Learn immediately whether a person is a competitor, a vendor, or a lead. And then track their activity to know just how hot or cold they are. Prioritize and sort, so that when they finally fill out a query form, you'll already know the context of their interest, and can qualify them based on that alone.

When you finally pass the information onto the sales team, the rep will be able to act quickly, and equipped with intimate knowledge of exactly what the lead is interested in. A Harvard Business Review study shows that companies that follow up with a query within an hour are nearly seven times as likely to qualify the lead. But follow up on a query with intimate knowledge of exactly what he or she seeks, and your chances increase significantly.

Sales Readiness

With this kind of initial intelligence getting absorbed into your system, your lead nurture campaign and scoring system can immediately kick into action. With the aim of objectively qualifying leads, the first order of business is to define what comprises a sales-ready lead.

When you consider the statistic that only 25% of the leads passed on to sales are legitimate, it makes sense why so many leads are lost. Which is why the push for marketing and sales alignment has become such a hot topic recently. The definition of a sales-ready lead will differ from company to company, but it shouldn't differ from department to department. And because lead management falls at the intersection of both marketing and sales, the two camps must work together to establish their criteria for a qualified lead.

CRM integration

While marketing automation and lead management software was developed independently from CRM, most are capable of integrating with it. Since sales and marketing have the same company-wide goals, the synchronization of the two systems can enable both teams to follow a lead from start to finish.

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Some food for thought: Companies that automate lead management see a 10% or greater increase in revenue in 6 to 9 months. The payoff for automated lead management is huge.

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