Forget ‘Lead’ Generation – Think ‘Need’ Generation

One of the greatest travesties I’ve seen in companies that serve manufacturing or industrial markets is the system for managing ‘leads.’

The approach I’m talking about  immediately renders the prospect or customer as a number. Less than human. It creates the impression that the primary concern of the company is gettin’ the dough and moving on to the ‘next one.’ It minimizes the problems  a prospect is trying to solve, while elevating the company’s bargaining position. And we rationalize this as ‘just how business is done …’

How many relationships – business or otherwise – are sustained or even last after a beginning like that?

Maybe some. But I’ve seen far more partnerships fail under the weight of this system than those that were built on loyalty. And exceeding expectations.

Imagine for a moment the last time you were on the phone with your cable company, power company, or another service provider, trying to resolve an issue. We’ve all experienced the frustrations. How many conversations have we all had, lamenting the crumbling of our entire society & culture, based on our loss of basic customer service and social skills?

I’ve had these conversations, and many, many times with company owners and marketing cats. They share your (our) frustrations when bumping up against the cold, hard truths of relationships built on a lead rather than a need. And then …

They return to their jobs of demanding or sustaining the same type of system that frustrates their own customer base in the same ways.

A customer isn’t a lead to be harvested, but a person serving something that needs help to grow. Yet, a lead-based system permeates an entire organization, where overworked and misdirected resources follow flowcharts or standard practices to build revenue rather than loyalty. Consider this:

  • A system that serves leads rather than needs passes the responsibility of gathering the customer’s problems & challenges to sales or applications engineers for engagement – costing time.
  • A system that serves leads rather than needs passes basic contact information down the line and counts this as success.
  • A system that serves leads rather than needs doesn’t bother following up with the customer – even if the company doesn’t get the sale – to see if they’ve been taken care of.
  • A system that serves leads rather than needs pushes automated, broad messaging designed to attract targets, to an audience that has very specific, real needs.
  • A system that serves leads rather than needs treats a new addition to a database as success.
  • A system that serves leads rather than needs looks to generate a contact, rather than one that shows the potential the customer can realize by partnering with us.

Is this you, or your company? Is the cycle of lead generation a seemingly unbreakable machine that can’t even be discussed or challenged?

Some customer relationships just don’t work out. That’s a fact. But many cease too soon because they begin on a foundation that leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of disappointment. These systems are often built on measuring a lead reaching a specific point in the chain through the seller’s organization, and less about the progress the customer is making at each stage.

Consider our own frustrations as we deal personally with lead generators. And then we must ask ourselves, ‘Are we generating something valuable, or just an invoice?’

AJ Sweatt
  1. Good points, but how do you structure your sales calls, handouts, web pages and all video and printed advertising to sens the message “That we are here to help you'” instead of high pressure demand for want your purchase order?

    • Ilmar, thank you so much for your visit and comment. I’m not suggesting that the system doesn’t have it’s advantages – of course, the currently accepted industrial marketing process must include administrative paths that mimic the company’s structure. I’m not saying to abandon the system, but to question our execution from the standpoint of the customer. Of course these are businesses that depend on revenue. But there are a broad collection of stakeholders that are effected by any industrial marketing strategy, and I’m asking for us to challenge those premises to improve the customer experience.

  2. oh, AJ. You know how I feel about this. I have spent 30+ years in sales and marketing and have refused, for those 30+ years, to focus on ‘lead’. My ‘need’ approach has netted me fewer ‘speedy results’ vis a vis immediate Sales but more than makes up for it by an astonishing retention rate once I get the customer in the door. And since everybody knows it costs way more money (and time) to get new customers than to retain the ones you’ve got…well….guess who wins out in the end!

    It doesn’t take all that much to ASK REAL QUESTIONS, then PAY ATTENTION and LISTEN to your customer, potential or existing. Alas, I fear it’s a dying art.

    • It’s balance, AB. A system must be in place, but it’s what’s being done within and on behalf of the industrial marketing system that I’m suggesting we challenge. You know, your note reminds me of a great quote that’s bee circulating recently – ‘Your product is your marketing.’ Ultimately, if what you’re offering to the market sucks it doesn’t matter how well you market it. Still, I think there’s a balance between a system useful to maintaining and managing the company & serving the customer to and beyond expectations. We’ve let it swing too far to the other side, I’m afraid.

  3. Great post, AJ… Listening to The Voice of the Customer is the single-most important thing that an organization must do. The VOC is what should drive improvement efforts and how information and material flow through your entire organization.

    Indulge me for a moment to illustrate one way we’re doing this at VIBCO – it’s called our Virtual Van Visit™ program. We KNOW that installing and mounting a vibrator is the most important factor for actually solving customers’ material flow problems. For the longest time, we played phone charades and spent crazy amounts of our time, and our customers’ time, fixing bad installations. So we needed to solve that.

    The concept is so simple – we get a photo of the installation area and we mark up the user’s actual photographs with the best mounting location and best product for the job. You can see an example at: http://www.vibco.com/industries/virtual-van-visit

    I think about when I had to install a closet system and what a freaking nightmare it was to figure out what pieces I needed, what hardware, where to put each shelf, etc. Imagine how much happier I would have been if I could have just taken a picture of my closet and sent it off to a CS agent, and then gotten back a marked up photo and materials list for installation (and a quote for the whole shebang). Woooo-eee. I would have done a few more closets, maybe…

    Cheers, AJ. Always appreciate your posts and your point-of-view.

    • That’s an awesome approach, Linda – a van ride to the Gemba! And that gives me an interesting idea: Make sales & service more of a virtual Gemba walk through the customer’s space, or challenges. I love what you guys have done. I hope anyone takes this post as an opportunity to question & rethink what they’re actually doing, from the prospect’s or customer’s perspective. If that’s all that happens, I’d be tickled. Thanks for the note and the visit, and my best to everyone at VIBCO.

  4. Thanks for addressing this topic AJ! Thanks to Linda Kleineberg, I found it! VIBCO is a recognized leader in manufacturing excellence here in RI and Linda has been instrumental in getting the word out about the importance of lean concepts across the organization.

    I agree with your position regarding leads and know first hand how rampant this problem is. I am fortunate to see both sides of the buyer/seller equation from a neutral position. The shift from high volume, low mix to low volume, high mix is done. That means that understanding the needs of the customer/prospect on every project is front and center to sales success.

    So many of our clients and prospects are looking for a short-cut to the sale. Our company focuses on the the early stages of prospect qualification and spends much time on the importance of continuity from that point all the way to customer satisfaction survey. Companies embracing lean effectively end up at the sales process at some point and start to see it as the process it is. It can be managed, measured and controlled and it most certainly doesn’t look like the “lead lists” from the old days!

    I look forward to reading more!

    • Amen, David. I was looking to address what goes on behind the warm, comfortable blanket of the organization, the one that insulates everyone in an organization from many realities on the outside. But your perspective is welcomed – it comes from both of ’em and that’s even more valuable, I think. I see it a lot like gym memberships – everyone has the opportunities these days to ‘join’ but few do. Even fewer still go regularly & see results. And all those that never joined or did but gave up move on with the belief that it doesn’t work. Maybe that’s good for your business, but I sure wish more would challenge their status quo and improve. And yeah, Linda rocks. Thanks for stopping by. Don’t be a stranger.

    • David – You’re too kind. I’m glad to introduce you to AJ’s blog… I always find his point-of-view compelling and his voice authentic.

  5. I am so glad I came across your post, AJ. I’m a firm believer in relationship-building as one of the most important parts of the sales/marketing process. I reside within the B2B world, where it can be very easy to lose your humanity. Social media, in my opinion, has opened doors for B2B execs and buyers to be perceived as real people – not just logos. With this growing awareness, people are realizing that they want to be treated like people.

    I especially agree with your bullet point: “A system that serves leads rather than needs doesn’t bother following up with the customer – even if the company doesn’t get the sale – to see if they’ve been taken care of.” How very true. Even if the sale never happens, the lead should at least be left with a favorable impression — the stuff referrals are made of!

    Glad to see this post and look forward to reading more in the near future.

  6. I think so many companies are looking to fill a lead quota for their sales funnel that they forget they are dealing with people on the other end of the line. You can gather every scrap of data about that person’s certain demographic and behaviors and tendencies but you still have an actual human being on the other hand to work with, not a spreadsheet.

  7. You speak in truths AJ! Reading your article reminded me of a very specific company I once worked for where the system and overall culture was always driven by the “lead” system vs. a need focused system. Any company, just like the one I used to work for, that stays on this path will eventually cannibalize itself from existence.

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