3 Strategies To Calm The Battle Over Sales Lead Contribution

Published: September 21, 2010

This was the gist of a very controversial assertion made by a senior marketer from a very well known BtoB technology company during dinner at our ITSMA Marketing Leadership Forum when he said: “An overemphasis on leads is damaging our relationship with sales.”

You could hear the proverbial pin drop in the room after he said it. On the one hand, what he was saying seemed ludicrous. How could emphasizing leads not improve the relationship? The perceptions that marketers send nothing but junk leads to sales and fail to measure the impact of those leads on revenue have been hurting marketers’ relationships with salespeople — and the business — for at least a decade.

But his point was that marketers will never be as good at handling leads as salespeople are. In my research, I’ve never seen anyone claim that marketing contributes anywhere near 50% of the leads that turn into sales. Most anecdotal estimates I’ve heard range from 10-35%.

Now, you could argue that if marketers improved their ability to generate, nurture and manage leads from start to finish that those numbers would improve.
But can we ever say that marketers will become the leading contributors of leads that wind up as closed business? Maybe if you’re selling Apple iPads, but if you’re selling complex BtoB services and solutions? Seems doubtful.

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Meanwhile, an overemphasis on leads causes salespeople to devalue the things that marketers really do best. The mysterious arts of reputation, idea marketing, segmentation and value propositions move from mysterious to stupid in the eyes of salespeople if only viewed through the prism of leads.

In the current climate, the psychosis over leads to continuous pressure on marketers to provide more and better quality leads. The overall success of marketing is defined by increases in those two things. But, argues this marketing leader, are we going to allow our success to be defined this way? If so, we will never win. Salespeople will never respect us because we will never contribute as much as they do.

While I don’t think we can just walk away from the lead problem and go back to designing logos, I do think we need to compartmentalize it a bit. We need to be measured on what we really do well — the creative, right-brained stuff. Here are four ideas for how to calm the battle over leads:

1.    Create a lead system of record– The most contentious aspect of marketers’ contribution to revenue is that it can’t easily be measured. That means installing a system that can follow leads from the web site to sales and back again. Marketers can send more leads to sales every year and still be seen as failing because they can’t track those leads. Other functions have systems of record. We need one, too. Within that system, we need to agree on ground rules for lead management — such as the definition of a qualified lead, lead scoring, etc. People respect rules more when they’re written in stone.

2.    Agree on a realistic level of contribution. Most reasonable salespeople will agree that marketers can only do so much in terms of lead generation. Sure, the totals should go up each year, but the proportion of leads supplied by marketing can’t be expected to rise forever — otherwise, why do we need salespeople? Sales and marketing leaders should decide on a target goal of proportion of contribution and then get on with it.

3.    Split the short term from the long term. It seems only fair that marketers should be judged more for their contribution to longer-term revenue — to the sales pipeline rather to sales themselves, in other words — than to short-term revenue goals. Most marketing leads are people who are not ready to buy. We need to make allowances for that. We need to get past this battle over leads and get back to doing what we do best.

Chris Koch works with ITSMA’s leadership team, executive councils, business partners, clients, and subject matter experts to carry out surveys and develop compelling research and thought leadership on marketing and sales trends, solutions and technology industry issues. He most recently served as executive editor for CIO, a trade magazine for chief information officers and other IT leaders. He was responsible for conceiving, assigning and editing feature stories and columns on IT strategy, and directed and developed content for special sections and surveys. Koch also authors his blog on BtoB marketing though leadership.

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