Monday, February 13, 2012

Generating Sales Leads

The sales funnel is your firm's life blood. Fail to fill it adequately with sales leads and you'll experience a corresponding drop in revenues. How many leads you need varies by firm, of course. Yet every firm would like do better at both identifying leads and converting them into sales.

A/E firms often struggle above the funnel, not doing enough of the sales prospecting activities that generate solid leads. Many technical professionals readily admit that they lack both the skill and passion for prospecting. But their discomfort is largely with the common caricature of lead generation--making random cold calls and glad-handing at networking events.

There is much more to successful lead generation, and a role for virtually any willing professional. Here are what I'd suggest are the primary ways to identify new leads:

Talk to your existing clients. For most firms, repeat business constitutes roughly 80% of their revenues. Obviously, existing clients are the first choice in lead generation. Yet I've encountered many project managers over the years who were reluctant to ask clients about other work. They didn't want to risk spoiling the relationship by turning into the stereotypical salesperson.

Of course, you don't have to turn into a salesperson to seek new opportunities with a client. If you're truly focused on helping your clients, that will naturally lead to discussing other needs, problems, and solutions. Still, it might be helpful to have someone other than the PM--like your designated Client Advocate--to explore other ways to serve the client.

Don't fail to ask your clients about referrals or possible leads with their peers or colleagues. Referrals are the number one way that clients learn about professional service providers. A referral also helps short cut the trust-building process with a new client. It's well documented that the best way to get more referrals (in addition to providing great service) is to simply ask for them.

Do your research. Researching clients and project leads has never been easier, yet it's still widely overlooked as a lead generation technique. The objective is to get advance notice of client needs or a developing project before the RFP is released. You might be surprised how many doors such research can open for your firm.

A friend of mine used to be the city engineer for Minneapolis. He described a situation where they had a substantial drainage and flooding problem in one neighborhood. Despite articles about the problem in the StarTribune, not a single engineering firm contacted my friend about the issue until the RFP was published. If this could happen in a major city like Minneapolis, what about in the region your firm serves?

While the internet makes market and client research readily available, it can still be time consuming. There are steps, however, you can consider to ease the burden. There are ways to have the information sent to you. Google Alerts, for example, allows you specify certain search terms (e.g., the name of a prospective client) and have relevant links emailed to you. (To avoid being overwhelmed with email notices, be very specific with your search terms!). Twitter can also be an effective tool for research and lead generation.

Mine your network. One of the best ways to uncover new leads is to draw on the relationships you already have. I mentioned clients earlier, but you have many other potential sources for leads among the people you know. Sometimes it's just as simple as talking to them.

Most of us do an inadequate job of keeping in touch with those in our network (me included). We get too busy and distracted. Besides the potential for leads, networking is valuable because it nurtures the all-important relationships we've developed through our work. It's a shame to let those atrophy.

Networking works best when you have the interests of others in mind. Don't just call people to see if they can help you, but call to see if you can help them. Share leads, news, information, and insights. Not only is that the right thing to do, but it motivates others to return the favor, producing more leads and referrals than you'll get if you focus on your needs. Check out this earlier post on networking tactics.

Make effective use of marketing. Most clients don't hire A/E firms on a frequent basis, so it can be difficult to time your contact with clients when they have an imminent need. That's where marketing comes in. You can stay in front of the client on an ongoing basis through your marketing efforts, without being a pest.

But not any marketing will do, and few A/E firms market effectively. To achieve what I call Level 5 marketing--where the client is contacting you--you need to provide valuable content. The usual self promotion rarely works in this way. Clients contact you because you've already helped them through your articles, white papers, blog posts, email newsletter, conference presentations, webinars, etc.

Level 5 marketing can contribute a substantial portion of your sales leads. I witnessed this in my last marketing position, as Director of Corporate Communications for a national environmental firm. Our content-driven marketing strategy resulted in prospective clients calling us fairly regularly. Now that I'm on my own, the majority of my sales leads come through marketing--like writing this blog.

Next week I'll share some ideas for tending leads once you've uncovered them. In the meantime, you might appreciate this white paper on online lead generation from my friends at Hinge.

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