By Jeannette McMurtry October 5, 2006 -- Even the most clever and compelling, and best executed marketing campaign can get hung up on one underlying issue: you don't know how to close a lead once you get it. It's amazing how many great marketing programs stop once the phone starts ringing. Yet this is when strategy and execution become increasingly critical. Once you've gotten prospects' interest in your brand, they are looking for reasons to do business with you or check you off their list and move on to your competitors. Clearly if you let this happen, you've just wasted the money and resources invested in the campaign that sparked their interest in the first place. And just as clearly, your ROI only goes up if you know how to turn a lead into a customer. To get the most out of your marketing investments, you need to have a plan to "convert the lead." Here are some suggestions: Immediate Response Immediacy sends the signal that you care about their need Nothing hurts you more with prospects than making it difficult to get information about you. When you list a phone number to call for information, make sure it is answered immediately --no waiting-- and that the caller gets exactly what they need right away. Don't forward callers to voice mails; find someone who can take the call live. When they ask for a company brochure or the like; get it there immediately. Email them a PDF or Express Mail a package, even if they're just across town. Immediacy sends the signal that you care about their needs, not just yours, and that you will respond in a like manner when you get their business. It's Not About You Send them precisely what they are looking for It's too easy to send information to prospects that is all about you. And it's just as easy for them to ignore your response because they can't relate or don't need another sales pitch--they get those daily. Instead, probe each lead and find out what matters to them. Are they looking for educational materials to help them make wise decisions; are they comparing prices? Are they looking for specific technology or services? Send them precisely what they are looking for; and then slip in some information about your brand, not the other way around. Move Upward You need to become an insider and the source they turn to for solutions to their problems In many cases, when you get a meeting, it's not initially with the ultimate decision maker. You need to prepare a plan to get your story told up the ladder. As John Vail, formerly a Senior Relationship Executive with American Express, and current sales consultant, put it, " You need to become an insider and the source they turn to for solutions to their problems." As an insider, you will increase your chances of getting an audience with the decision maker, or getting your initial champion to sell your product for you. Your sales materials must be about solutions, not your competitiveness, and must be worthy of the CEO's attention or whomever it is that makes the decision regarding your product or service. Have a Plan Creating a plan for each prospect and customer is key. You need to know what the account potential is; anticipate issues that you can resolve and provide solutions. According to Vail, "Your plan will change from call to call as the customers' needs change, and as you get to know the various players of influence." Vail also suggests that you need to keep improving your product to make it easier to use, and to find new uses. A classic example is when Arm & Hammer started positioning its baking soda as air freshener for refrigerators. How can you make your product more useable, valuable and more entrenched in your customers' culture and business? As a company gets more dependent on you throughout their enterprise, their loyalty grows. Vail also suggests finding ways to get more of your products into one company. As a company gets more dependent on you throughout their enterprise, their loyalty grows. They not only learn to rely on one source for many of their business-critical needs, but also get economies of scale they can't get elsewhere. Both of these make it costly for a company to switch brands. "If you only have one product, try to get it more ingrained in the culture, or spread throughout various departments and locations. You can do this by offering extra services and solutions that gives your brand a competitive edge," says Vail. An example: GA Wright Marketing not only offers direct marketing programs from creative, printing, mailing to fulfillment, they offer online solutions so customers can go online and make changes to their artwork, customize marketing materials, and send orders to the print queue. This added service results in a lot of convenience that is hard to give up to go to another competitor. Arm the Champion Don't rely on your first point of contact to tell your story as well as you do. Give them the materials to promote you within. If they need statistics to prove your worth, research the latest research for your product category and send it along. If the struggle is choosing between you and another brand, produce a brand comparison chart and then add some extra value to your deal that no one else is offering. The key is to know what they need to communicate up the ladder in order to get you an audience, or close the deal for you. Bottom line, every marketing plan needs to have a sales strategy. Plan ahead to make sure you are ready for every lead you generate, and create a plan for every prospect and customer you want to keep for the long term.