Outsourcing Your Lead Qualification

Your Web site, marketing, advertising campaigns, and salespeople drive leads via inbound phone calls, Web forms, email, or even live chat. Your sales staff could respond to these "live" leads, but is that the most productive use of their time, and is it the job they're best suited for? Or is your outsourced contact center a better option, given their infrastructure, people, and processes? And where does CRM fit into the process?

For a variety of reasons, an outsourced contact center may be a better choice than your inside sales or marketing staff. While your salespeople are good at converting qualified leads into sales, your contact center is good at being a first responder and qualifying inbound leads—so it may be a smarter allocation of resources to have the contact center handle this important process at the top of the sales funnel. Not only are their agents trained to qualify leads, but the contact center has a technology infrastructure that includes a CRM system already in place—an infrastructure designed to enable them to handle a large volume of calls, emails, and chats. The contact center also has a proven workflow for efficiently qualifying and advancing leads while conveying the personality of your brand.

Once you decide to use your contact center for this purpose, ensure you get the most benefit by integrating your CRM system with theirs. Cloud-based systems are made for this kind of integration and collaboration, but you can also work with a contact center's on-premises operation. With integrated systems, the agent at the center sees the same screen as your staff and can update customer records and leads in your CRM database in real time.

Drilling down further into operations, if you're using an integrated system, you should build custom screens to enable agents to qualify leads efficiently. It's a good idea to solicit advice from the contact center on such decisions as how best to sequence the fields, what items to put in drop-down lists, and how to minimize free-form writing. As experts in this function, they can suggest ways to make the process more efficient for them and more useful for you.

Scoring the lead via answers to a carefully chosen set of questions makes it easy to determine whether or not a lead should be forwarded to the sales team. Is it a dead lead—a tire-kicker that still requires a response but perhaps not as much attention? Is it a lead that needs nurturing? Or is it a hot lead ready to be sold? Determining the type of lead will determine how the agent responds and the next step in the sales process.

Playing to the Strengths of a Contact Center

Contact centers have a number of advantages over an in-house sales and marketing staff in responding to inbound leads. They include:

Availability. Contact centers are better equipped to staff for shifts outside of normal business hours, so they can provide a real-time response to inquiries that come in after hours and on weekends, when your sales staff is most likely not available to provide coverage. Some leads, like those coming from direct mail or the Web, may not require an immediate response. On the other hand, leads from TV or radio ads may require a live, real-time response. To provide that, you need trained representatives available when the prospect calls.

Rapid response. The more quickly you respond to an inquiry with a courteous, complete answer, the better your chances are of turning a prospect into a customer. Rapid responses engage prospects in a dialogue with you and move them along to the next step in the sales process. In fact, the Harvard Business Review found that "firms that tried to contact potential customers within an hour of receiving a query were nearly seven times as likely to qualify the lead (which we defined as having a meaningful conversation with a key decision maker) as those that tried to contact the customer even an hour later—and more than sixty times as likely as companies that waited twenty-four hours or longer." An outsourced contact center is better equipped to provide the rapid response that accurately qualifies a lead.

Scalability. A contact center can cost-efficiently add agents as necessary to handle whatever volume of inquiries you receive. Spikes in volume at the holidays, or during heavy promotional periods, can be accommodated with no loss in quality or response time. In-house sales staffs can't be scaled up or down as easily.

Consistency. A contact center can work with you to develop a template that ensures consistent and complete responses to all inquiries. However, a tight script may not be the best option; contact centers with skillful agents who pride themselves on "brand care" can conduct natural conversations that still reflect your brand personality. In addition, a contact center will respond without fail to all inquiries—even those that may be scored very low—so no prospects or potential sales slip through the cracks.

Speaking the brand. Companies may worry that an outsourced contact center doesn't know their brand personality and won't represent it well when speaking to prospects or customers. Contact centers that specialize in brand care overcome this objection by immersing themselves in the culture of a brand so they can "speak the brand" as well as company employees can.

Professionalism. Using a contact center with well-trained agents and tight QA procedures ensures that all responses are professional in style, content, and tone—all of which creates the right impression for prospects—and that you don't lose good leads because of a potential lack of professionalism.

Personalization. A high-touch contact center can send formatted responses or personalized ones—both of which should reflect your brand's personality. Many brands use a hybrid approach, depending on the nature of the inquiry. Personalized responses get a better result, and a contact center has more capacity to write them and more experience doing so than most in-house staffs.

Follow-up. A contact center can send automatic follow-up messages to prospects, asking if they received the first response and encouraging them to take the next steps in the sales process. While an in-house staff can do the same, it's often not a high priority. Contact centers have the discipline and established workflow to do the kind of prompt follow-up that can turn weak leads into strong ones.

Optimizing the Sales Process

Once you've decided to have your contact center qualify leads, you should work with them to measure, analyze, and optimize the top of your sales funnel. By matching responses against your ideal customer profile, you'll be able to refine your ability to quickly and accurately score leads. Optimize the qualifying process by experimenting with the questions agents ask, how they're presented, and even how many are required. Be sure to establish baselines and define goals so you'll be able to track progress and measure success.

By relying on the contact center to qualify and score leads, you free your sales staff to focus on the bottom of the funnel and spend their time doing what they do best: working up pricing, negotiating contracts, and closing business. Note also that the right CRM system makes the entire process seamless, so that prospects aren't aware of any separation between the outsourced contact center and your company.

Your marketing department has its hands full generating leads and building your brand image—that's their core competency. Your sales staff should be busy converting prospects-that's their core competency. And the core competency and most valuable role for your outsourced contact center is qualifying leads. Assigning them that responsibility lets everyone do what they do best, and increases the efficiency and effectiveness of your entire sales and marketing process.

Wendy Shooster is co-CEO of Global Response, a Florida-based outsourced contact center.

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