What's a lead but a customer contact, right? You've got a name, address, phone number, maybe an e-mail address. There's some indication of interest in the product or service you sell. With a good lead ? a past customer or someone pointed to your company by one ? that's a lot of interest. But there's always interest of some kind because that's what a lead is.

Here's the thing: that interest in your product, your service, or your company, is subject to change. People who feel slighted, used, or have any reason to mistrust you can go from being reasonably interested to dramatically uninterested in what your business sells. And how they're going to feel has a lot to do with the way that lead is handled.

The fact is that your phone staff is going to touch just about every lead your company generates. That's true whether it's an inbound caller who's just seen your TV or newspaper ad, or a prospect your demonstrators met at a home show two months ago. And even in cases where you've booked the lead at the door (when canvassing) or on the show floor (at a home show), there are still confirmation calls, dispatch calls, follow-up calls, and rehash. All involve telephone personnel.

Serious Challenge

Managing these phone contacts is a challenge and a critical one for a fairly obvious reason: manage them badly and those leads you've spent time and money to acquire mysteriously drop away as your set and confirmation rates dip. On the other hand, manage them well ? efficiently, promptly, diligently ? and you bring the lead-gathering process to a successful completion. That is, you move on to the appointment and then the sale.

The first challenge is staffing. Many phone rooms operate with too few people. That's even truer when you consider the number of calls that need to be made to maintain efficient lead flow. Then consider that these types of leads (inbound/outbound, etc.) need to be handled in different ways and in different time frames.

Internet leads, for example, require prompt and rigorous action. You have to reach the prospect on the phone, within a few minutes of receiving his or her e-mail, or they've already called someone else. So say your phone staff is forced to multitask. They're squeezing in calls, or taking them, between administrative tasks, such as paperwork. An Internet lead arrives and no one sees it for a few hours or until the next day. The upshot is that you probably lost out on that inquiry for which you paid a purchase lead company $50 or $75.

One solution is part-time help. Most phone room employees are paid $8 to $12 an hour. If having them on staff for a four-hour shift on a given day allows you to increase your efficiency by as much as one more lead, then you just scored a lead for under 50 bucks. That's almost unheard of these days. Unfortunately, too many business owners are penny-wise and pound-foolish in this regard. Part-time help during peak hours when the contact rate is high can yield high returns. Just be certain to give your part-time workers a specific scope of calls and hold them accountable to a predetermined standard or goal. Keep in mind, incentives work better than quotas.

Stay in Focus

A second obstacle to efficient lead handling is lack of focus and direction. For instance, in many phone rooms, people who field inbound calls from media are also directed to make outbound calls. That's OK as long as you set aside a certain amount of time for the outbound calls. When they overlap, you're in trouble because it's simply impossible for a telemarketer to get in the rhythm of making outbound calls if he or she is also responsible for answering the phone when it rings. Our brains aren't built like that.

What's more, you just gave them the perfect excuse for falling short of expectations. They will always complain that the reason they haven't realized better results in their outbound calling is because they were preoccupied fielding inbound calls. The same is true when owners or managers attempt to stretch their payroll dollars by having certain employees handle both administrative and telephone duties. This is a major dilemma. Sir Isaac Newton famously said (and proved) that an object in motion takes the path of least resistance. Human beings do so as well: Give a person two or more tasks or jobs to do at the same time, and they'll automatically do the one that requires the least amount of rejection, difficulty, or concentration.

Here's a solution: Whenever possible, have designated staff handle a specific responsibility or type of phone call. If that's not feasible, then manage the time of your people by assigning specific hours for specific tasks. Then set realistic expectations and goals as to the results you expect on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. This can be based on number of leads set or on overall sales volume.

Compensation Is Key

A last challenge is developing a compensation system that gives staffers an incentive to do their conscientious best when it comes to handling your leads. Without the proper pay plan, you'll likely fall victim to poor or neglectful lead handling.

The underlying strategy is to make certain that a minimum level is accomplished in each category before any particular staff member becomes eligible for a bonus. In other words, no incentives or commissions will be paid out unless that minimum standard is met. As an example, you may not begin paying your employee commission on Internet leads until a minimum dollar amount in net sales on those leads has been reached. Or you may not choose to pay your confirmer on any bonuses on demos unless a minimum demonstration rate has been established for the time frame in question.

These means ensure that no particular lead category or type of phone call is neglected. The point is to increase the efficiency in handling the leads you already have. Do you really want to see those leads you're paying $250 or $300 for dry up and blow away? You're the leader. It's in your hands, not theirs, to make efficient lead handling happen.

?Sales and marketing consultant Tony Hoty has been a home improvement company salesperson and owner. Visit his website at tony@tonyhoty.com or call him at 888.447.3969.