Startups selling larger sized deals don’t generally concern themselves very much with managing a pipeline of leads at the beginning.  Most of the BtoB focused companies I know have started with 1 or 2 sales folks managing their own pipeline of leads which have come from them mining their own list of contacts along with any good contacts other folks in senior management might have.  This is usually the best way to land a couple of deals when the company is young and unheard of and the software is still unproven.

Once the company has a few deals under its belt however, the idea of doing some proper lead generation usually comes up.  The most common lead generation activities I see are online events (web conferences or web casts), or content on the web site such as demos, white papers or analyst reports.  The biggest mistake I see smaller companies make is to hand all of these leads directly over to their sales reps without doing any additional lead nurturing or lead qualification.

One of the most important part of any lead generation program is the process you put in place to actually nurture those leads to the point where they are “sales ready”, i.e. they are ready to talk to a sales rep.

I like this stat from Brian Carroll’s B2B Lead Generation Blog (yeah it’s old but I don’t think this has changed much):

After doing numerous lead qualification programs, we have found that only 5 to 15 percent of those who download white papers are truly sales-ready leads. So don’t pass white paper inquiries to your sales people until they’re more rigorously qualified as sales-ready leads.

No wonder sales folks think that the leads that marketing delivers to them are crappy!?  At a larger company I used to work at we used to have a rule that a lead needed to be “touched” at least 4 times before we decided it was sales ready.  That meant they had viewed 2 webinars, downloaded a white paper and viewed an analyst report.  After that we could pass them to a sales rep.  Sure, at any point in the process, we allowed the prospect to identify themselves as sales ready by saying they wanted a rep. to call them, but otherwise we tried not to jump the gun and “sell” them too soon.

A prospect that has attended a webinar or downloaded content on your website but answered “no” to the question “Would you like to have a sales rep. call you?”, really means it!  They are looking for information.  The best thing you can do for that prospect is to contact them and find out what additional information you can provide and make sure that they are aware of any new content you have created.  Having your sales person call this lead before they are ready is frustrating for the prospect and is a waste of your sales person’s time.

Some further reading:
Modern B2B Marketing has a nice blog post with Five Tips for Effective Lead Nurturing which outlines the difference between true lead nurturing and what they call “random acts of marketing”
Great article from MarketingProfs: How White Papers Can Turbo Boost Your Lead Generation Campaign, talks about how to get the word out about your educational content.
Larry Chase’s post 10 White Paper Marketing Tips has some great tips for writing good copy to promote your whitepapers and get more mileage out of them.
Another great post on the B2B Lead Generation blog called “When is a free download no longer free?” talks about the process for calling folks to find out what you can do for them next (rather than having sales reps call to sell.