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When potential buyers hear about your product or service, they're usually not in a position to buy. So how does a small business get interested buyers from early awareness to purchase intent? They do so through a series of consistent, relevant communications that educate the potential buyer and offer the benefits of using the product or service. This is what marketers call lead nurturing and it's a vital part of the sales process and often gets neglected by many companies.

In a world of endless options and tight budgets, it is easy to see why the sales cycle has lengthened and in turn, has made the nurturing of leads even more critical.

A useful example of lead nurturing can be found in the life insurance industry. Many consumers are hesitant to buy life insurance not only because they don't like to think about their potential demise, but also because they perceive it as something they can't afford "right now."

But over time, people reach new milestones and subsequently their needs change. An insurance agent can keep track of life-changing events in their customers' lives – such as a marriage, a new home purchase or a new baby – in order to continue the nurturing process.

Companies can take a cue from this needs-based approach and use it to help determine what events relate to their products or services. While each business is different, there are a couple of fundamental approaches to follow to set up your own lead nurturing program.

1. Make use of marketing automation

The first approach is something all entrepreneurs and marketers can begin to execute. Taking this path, however, involves purchasing a program that has marketing automation functionality such as Infusionsoft or Spectate.

First set up a series of around nine to 11 e-mails that will be sent to someone who downloads a report, article or white paper off your website after they provide their contact information in exchange for that piece of content.

Once that piece of content is downloaded, your marketing automation program will trigger the prepared e-mails and should address key concerns, educate them about problems you have solved, market trends and how your product or service will benefit their business.

After having a chance to hear from you on multiple occasions your potential buyers will get to know about how you can help with their needs and will increase your chances of generating a sales qualified lead out of a download on your website.

2. Consistent follow-up

This next approach is more appropriate for an entrepreneur running his or her own business and who may not have the money for marketing automation software.

Start by sifting through your current database to determine which leads have not been contacted in at least three to four months, or even as far back as six months. If you don't keep a record of past prospects who were initially not interested, now is the time to start. Circumstances change constantly and what may not have been a good fit for your prospect back then may be ideal now.

It is absolutely essential to develop a comprehensive database that includes enough information about your prospect to keep the nurturing process going. Obtain their birth date and life event information and keep track of each of your contacts with that prospect. Note any personal information they share with you so that you can refer to it when you speak with them again.

This requires a shift in your selling, away from the "hard sell," to a more conversational or "soft sell" approach. Not only will this help you learn to nurture your leads, but you'll also be developing a relationship-building selling process that is far more effective than the hardest sell.

Keep a constant cycle going for your nurturing process. If you get a definite no, then it may be time to move on. However, if you don't get a definitive answer or a "not right now," keep this prospect in your files and schedule a new time to touch base with them in the future. While you want to avoid over-contacting the lead, keeping in touch is an important part of the relationship-building process. Keep your initial contact light, discuss their current situation and from there, you'll get a better senseof what you need to do to make that sale. Even the coldest leads can warm up over time, especially with careful handling.

The key is focusing on noting down important information you receive for each call and then bringing it back up when you talk with the person again. They'll know they're more than just a number in your database and you'll be building a foundation for future trust and future sales.

If you want to successfully nurture your database, you've got to make sure you have the right approach. As mentioned , over-contacting a lead can lead to disaster. The key is not being a nuisance, but keeping relevant stories, market data, and information about what you do at the top of the customer's mind. You can combine direct mail, email and phone contact to increase your chances of making that sale. Send a birthday or a congratulatory card when appropriate and schedule a phone contact about a week after that card arrives.

Keep the conversation going and sooner or later, you'll be able to overcome their objections and make that sale.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Ryan Caligiuri is the founder of Ryan Caligiuri International, a growth consultancy focused on developing programs that generate credibility, competitive advantages, leads/demand and new revenue streams for small to medium sized enterprises. Ryan is also the founder of The Growth Network a mentoring program that teaches entrepreneurs and marketers best practices, frameworks and strategies to become business growth generators. Engage with Mr. Caligiuri onTwitter.

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