A few years ago, James B. Oldroyd, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was approached by the CEO of InsideSales.com, Dave Elkington.

Elkington and InsideSales.com were seeking an answer to a question that had eluded sales professionals since products started being sold on the Web in the 90s. Namely, they wanted to know how and when sales reps should react to sales leads online.

Presented at MarketingSherpa's 2007 annual summit, the study, How Much Time Do You Have Before Web-Generated Leads Go Cold, offered some rich information on the subject. Among the findings, available here, Oldroyd discoverd that Wednesdays and Thursdays are the best days to call, between 4 and 6 p.m. is the best time slot to call and make contact, and the odds of reaching the lead decrease by more than 10 times in the first hour of contact.

But beyond finding the appropriate timing to responding to sales leads, there are other more qualitative issues to address, especially in the age of inbound marketing, which shakes up the conventional sales process.

For those outisde marketing circles, 'inbound marketing' is defined by a company's ability to draw customers to its site by blogging and social media, as opposed to 'outbound marketing,' which represents a company's traditional advertising and PR campaign. Inbound marketing has presented a shift of resources especially within small companies, where the ROI is often much greater than hiring outside agencies to draw attention to the brand.

"The last 50 years, it's been all about cold calling and outbound marketing," says Chad Levitt, a marketing consultant based in Boston. "But within the past five years or so, the technologies of search, blogging, social media, through tech has given rise to the ability to create content and have people find your product service and solutions on the Web."

And as consumers' interaction with brands online shift, your company's sales process should respond accordingly. Here are a few tips on how to develop leads from inbound marketing campaigns and how to make sure you can close the deal.

Harnessing Inbound Marketing Leads: Create Content and Become Known

HubSpot, an inbound marketing software platform for small to medium sized businesses, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, culled together a few statistics that reveal the importance generating original, useful, and thoughtful content through social media and blogging: Among its research, it found:

  • 84 percent of 25 to 34 year-olds abandoned a website because of intrusive advertising.
  • 57 percent of businesses say their blog helps recruit new customers, while companies that blog get 55 percent more Web traffic than those who don't.
  • 67 percent of business-to-consumer brands have gained a customer via Facebook.

If your company doesn't have the budget for a full-fledged inbound marketing software program, Levitt says you can start small. He recommends having interns or hiring freelancers to run even a small-scale inbound marketing campaign by putting up keyword-rich blog posts and responding to Facebook and Twitter followers, directing them to the appropriate departments and entering them into the CRM. After a few months, your company be able to gauge whether or not the inbound marketing scheme is generating a significant return on investment.

"The biggest mistake companies make is saying they don't have enough time, but that's just not true," Levitt says. Inbound marketing isn't necessarily intended to displace the traditional marketing, but could provide diversified top-line lead generation for the company.

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Harnessing Inbound Marketing Leads: Don't Make Assumptions

Just because you have a new Twitter follower or new Facebook fan, doesn't mean you have a new customer.

"Inbound e-mails or calls are exactly like cold calls except that the leads have taken the first step by contacting you," writes Ari Galper, a sales expert and consultant. "This means that the inbound 'warm' leads we get so excited about are actually no different from 'cold' leads. Why? Because you can't assume you have any more of a relationship with an inbound lead than you do with someone you cold call."

Treating online leads—be they from recent Twitter followers or website visitors who have downloaded a white paper—as if they're guaranteed customers could leave a bad taste in the customer's mouth. Experts say doing so can show the lead that you're not interested in delivering the right product for their needs. Besides, the customers may not have the budget to buy your product or service, so pitching them too early in the process may turn them off for the prospect of a future sale.

"Although it's true that inbound leads are obviously open to talking with you because they contacted you first, you can't assume that your product or solution is a match, so your job is still to find out the truth of their situation," Galper writes. "If you assume you're a match just because they called you, you'll be resistant to finding out the truth about what's on their mind."

One tip from Maria Pergolino, who specializes in inbound marketing for Marketo, a revenue performance management company in San Mateo, California, is rather than begin with a sales pitch, start by offering more relevant information that might not be available on your site. "Once someone shows interest, offer them vertical-specific content like industry-overviews, analyst reports, buyer's guides, etc.," she writes in a Marketo post. "This will help drive demand for your entire industry and create better educated buyers who are more likely to make purchases based on value instead of price alone."

If a customer walks into clothing store and picks up a T-shirt, the sales associate shouldn't ask "Would you like me to wrap that up for you?" The same goes for inbound marketing leads: don't be presumptuous—offer information and determine their needs before making the pitch.

Chad Levitt says he you should choose your words carefully when following up with a customer who visited your site or downloaded a free product. "Say, 'I noticed you downloaded X, what can I help you with?" If they stall or try to change the subject, Levitt recommends then saying "Well, other customers that downloaded this were interested in X, Y, or Z."

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Harnessing Inbound Marketing Leads: Question Whether They are Good Leads

Say leads are flowing in. Whether those leads are qualified is an important distinction. In some cases, chasing leads—even inbound leads—can be an opportunity cost not worth risking. Chad Levitt says it's increasingly important for small businesses to become savvy about finding information about those customers through their CRM tool.

"Every company should be taking data from their CRM," he says. "There's ways to map buyer behavior. When you get all that data, it allows you to understand their decisions."

This is especially true in the B2B marketplace, where historical information on a prospect can be valuable. If, for example, the same "prospect" had approached your company ten times and still never bought anything, you may want to devote your resources elsewhere.

From a managerial perspective, having data to qualify leads is important, too. When sales reps don't hit their quotas, they are notorious for blaming the marketing department for delivering less than stellar leads, says Levitt. Having hard data to show the relative strengths or weaknesses of a lead will be able to mitigate any disagreements between departments.

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Harnessing Inbound Marketing Leads: Setting Up a Response Team

Who in your organization handles requests for more information about a particular product or service? Is it someone from the sales department, marketing department, or customer service?

Having a consistent, organized approach to responding to leads will ultimately set your company apart. Without doing so, you run the risk of letting good customers fall through the cracks, and perhaps even worse, pestering customers by having multiple employees reach out.

"Does a business development rep call them or does the sales rep call them?" says Leviit. "The sales model is incredibly important." 

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