• Inbound leads are always welcome, but they can be tricky for sales reps to actually convert.
  • Sales IQ co-founder Tony J. Hughes has proven strategies for turning inbound leads into paying customers. It starts with the context of their outreach, due-diligence research, and personalized communication.
  • Tony shares three simple questions that improve engagement with buyers and help you build an irresistible business case for their organizations.

I’m not here to make friends is the narrative of several reality TV villains from “Survivor” to “The Bachelor.” But it’s also a valid strategy in any high-stakes environment, whether it’s a remote jungle or a candlelit mansion. And it might be worth keeping in mind as we navigate the wilds of selling in a turbulent world.

“When we’re selling, people don’t want to be qualified by you,” says Tony J. Hughes, sales innovation director of Sales IQ Global, the Sydney-based sales enablement platform he co-founded with Luigi Prestinenzi. “They don’t want to be given the Spanish Inquisition.”

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

“And they don’t want another friend,” he adds. “They’re busy and stressed and want to get home to their families. Big organizations are looking for fewer suppliers or vendors in the stack, not more.”

When a prospect reaches out first, we can’t necessarily assume they’re already sold on what you’re offering. So how should we best leverage inbound leads?

Tony believes success in sales – and life itself – is all about making a positive difference in the lives of others. “That’s what selling is all about: making a difference for your clients, professionally and personally,” he says.

On an episode of INSIDE Inside Sales, Tony talks about best practices for converting inbound leads. Plus, he shares three questions to ask that will improve engagement, help you better understand your buyer, and ink more deals.

Context is king

Marketers often see drumming up inbound leads as thankless work. They think sales reps don’t appreciate them nearly enough for everything they do. That’s because salespeople often use a flawed opening gambit, says Tony.

“Context determines everything when you’re creating a conversation as a salesperson. The number one biggest mistake salespeople make is they try to answer an unasked question – why go with you (rather than your competition) instead of getting to the most powerful issue: why is the customer considering change at all?” 

inbound lead generation

Inbound leads, especially those generated by marketing, typically mean a prospect watched a video, requested a demo, attended an event, or downloaded a white paper or some other type of content.

“So you need to make sure that your outreach is in context and go pragmatically,” he adds.

Tony also recommends doing research to personalize the conversation you have with those leads. 

“Buyers today have three expectations of us,” he says. “They expect us to truly know them, to personalize the conversation and content. And they expect us to be mind readers, anticipating what actually matters to them.” 

They expect salespeople to know them on four levels: “their industry, not ours; their company or organization; the clients they’re seeking to serve, and them [the prospects] in their roles.”

Market forces  

Another type of inbound lead is a prospective buyer evaluating the market. 

“At any given point in time, only 3% of the market is in that window in which they’re looking to buy,” Tony says. “If they’re researching, they’ll be in an earlier phase.” 

But here’s the problem: these kinds of leads usually have a lot of questions.

“They may even say, hey, I’m gonna email you a spreadsheet with 1,327 questions I need you to answer. And give me your price.”

So salespeople try to get more information. Who’s making the decision? What’s your budget? 

“We tend to use these qualification acronyms,” Tony explains. “Depending on your industry, you might use something like BANT (Budget, Authority, Need, Timeline). You might use an acronym like MEDDIC or NUTCASE. There are all kinds of these crazy acronyms people use to qualify deals.” 

But here’s the thing: prospects tend to contact us feeling like they’ve done their research and they’re in control. 

“That’s a really disempowering place to be,” says Tony. 

Three golden questions

Tony has a surefire method that ensures a deal is “truly qualified for us as sellers,” based on “the degree of engagement we have with the buyer” instead of the results of a kooky qualification algorithm. 

You’ll know they’re truly engaged when a prospect gives you access to two things: key people and quality information. 

“There’s always somewhere between three and five, maybe up to seven people or groups in an organization that need to form a consensus before they’ll change,” Tony says. 

He sees that scenario as a sales pro’s biggest competitor. Depending on the industry, between 25% and one-third of potential deals in our funnels get lost. And not to competitors, but to clients deciding to do nothing.

But robust, meaningful engagement can help move the needle on that particular deal and differentiate you from everyone else (even the status quo). Tony says you can do it by asking three questions:

  1. What’s happened inside your organization that’s caused you to be looking at this right now?
  1. If the organization was to make this investment, what better results would it expect? And/or what better results are you specifically expecting to get from this initiative in your role? 
  1. Where do you see the risks in getting this implemented successfully? 

What not to say

What you shouldn’t ask is: What’s happened in the organization to cause you to think VanillaSoft would be the best solution for you? 

“You paint yourself as a seller if you use that phrasing,” Tony explains. “And if they refuse to answer this question, you’re not getting engagement, which means you should probably qualify out.”

If they wonder why you’re asking, let them know you’re trying to understand what the business case would look like for them. 

His three magic questions help uncover the trigger event, issue, opportunity, or problem inside the organization. 

“It’s a much more intelligent way of finding out who’s involved in the approval process – rather than asking whether someone has the authority to make the buying decision themselves. That turns people off.”

Stop and de-risk

“As sellers, we need to realize that between opening and closing is the middle,” Tony says. “And the middle is where most deals go to die.”

Deals crumble for two reasons, he argues: 

  • The buyer doesn’t perceive a strong enough business case (or “not enough commercial value, especially to offset any risk of change”)  
  • There’s a lack of consensus in the organization

If the prospect resists question #3, explain that you want to help them “de-risk the initiative.” 

This depends on what you sell, but if it’s obviously a change program within the organization, you can assist in building a strong business case and make sure they get consensus from key stakeholders. 

That way, “it doesn’t just get approved, but you get proper executive support to make sure it’s successful,” Tony says. 

Use leadership language

Before you ask the questions Tony talked about, you’ll need to bridge the gap between the prospect’s outreach and your need to qualify them. 

sales process

But calling a prospect and saying, Hey, Mary, I noticed you downloaded a white paper. Can I organize a demo or answer any questions? – doesn’t provide much value for the potential buyer,” Tony explains. “It’s too passive.”

A better approach is to address their specific role. If Mary is a CFO, you might open with: I noticed you downloaded the white paper. I’m reaching out because we work with CFOs in the fast-moving consumer goods industry and I noticed that your company is… 

“Then you play back in attributes you’ve noticed about them or a trigger event you think is relevant,” says Tony. “That will get the conversation focused on business values. Don’t focus on the low-level thing they did that created the inbound lead.”

You should acknowledge it, of course, as context for the conversation. 

“But the role of all salespeople is to keep elevating the conversations to business value,” Tony says. “Talk the language of leaders – results in terms of dollars, percentages, and key metrics they measure company or organizational results on.” 

That ensures you don’t “get delegated away.”

Remember, at the outset, you’re “just trying to establish whether you’ll be the best fit for them,” he notes. “That creates great alignment with people, and they’ll lean into the conversation, rather than pull back.”

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