Nobody likes a cherry picker: The importance of intelligent lead routing

by in Sales


There’s been a Darwinian evolution of sales tools over the past few years. One significant sales activity, however, hasn’t advanced as much as you might expect. Lead routing (the process by which leads are assigned to reps) continues to be one of the important tasks for a sales team, yet many companies still rely on primitive approaches.

Is your organization getting the right leads to the right sales reps? An ill-informed lead routing strategy can prove disastrous for sales teams. Without an effective strategy, leads will fall through the cracks and won’t be given the attention necessary to convert them into paying customers. If routing is sub-optimal, a conversion will be too.

It’s shocking how many companies still rely on antiquated methods of lead routing. Many companies rely on the “round robin” approach, a “push” method where leads are evenly disseminated to reps in a systematic, cyclical manner. While this method ensures leads are distributed to reps quickly, it involves little, if any, strategy. Failure to intelligently scrutinize a lead before routing it to a particular rep can be a great disservice to a rep. Chances are that an arbitrarily selected rep won’t be the best suited to accommodate and advance a particular lead and the chances of conversion will decrease. While the round-robin approach implies fairness, it doesn’t cater to the individual skills of sales reps.

Another popular but primordial approach is the “cherry picking” approach. It’s great in theory as it ensures that the “hottest” leads are picked up quickly. A study by Professor James Oldroyd found that if a sales reps can respond to a lead within 5 minutes, he/she is 10 times more likely to contact a lead, and 6 times more likely to qualify a lead than by waiting even 30 minutes. Unfortunately, with a cherry-picking approach, many leads are left behind in “dead” queues. As well, the approach offers minimal visibility into top sales performers because any smart rep will prioritize selecting leads from the pool that he/she believes to have a higher potential to close. A sales rep may be a less effective seller but be very quick to grab the “hot leads” that are more likely to convert. They’ll simply wait for a new batch of leads to arrive, quickly snatch up what he thinks are the best ones, in turn leaving potentially promising leads neglected, and many team members at a disadvantage.

Sales reps are not created equally. Each sales rep has a distinct aptitude for converting a lead.  It’s time to move beyond the likes of the “round robin” and “cherry picking” approaches and become more strategic in our lead routing initiatives. You are already collecting a plethora of data on each lead, so why not put it to good use?  Here are five criteria that you should consider when developing your lead routing strategy.

1. Geographic territory

Matching leads and reps based on geographic location accomplishes three important objectives. First, it allows sales reps to coordinate outreach efforts with their typical work schedule and avoid time change shuffling. Second, if a company is globally dispersed, it minimizes the odds of language barriers. Third, communication is less likely to be hindered by differences in regional jargon. Even minor regional word differences—like “y’all” vs. “you guys,” “soda” vs. “pop” vs. “soft drink,” or “supper” vs. “dinner” can disrupt the flow of a conversation. The more effective a rep is speaking the same language as the prospect, the better they’ll be at building trust and loyalty. The more efficient you are at pairing reps with leads according to geographic location, the more likely conversion will be.

2. Vertical expertise

Different reps are more familiar with different verticals and markets. Some reps may have prior experience working in a specific industry and will likely be better in tune with industry-specific workflows and use cases for a particular product or service. Other reps may have had previous experience selling to customers in a particular industry and will likely be better in tune with industry-specific jargon, requirements, and common customer questions and objections. In this case, they’ll also be better able to “name drop” and demonstrate industry-specific “social proof,” and will be more likely to know where to find relevant industry-specific marketing collateral (such as case studies). Jill Rowley in The ABCs of Social Selling found that only about 33% of buyers trust brands but 92% of buyers trust recommendations from other buyers. Industry-specific case studies and marketing collateral can do wonders in moving conversations forward.

3. Sales expertise

Rather than relying blindly on a cherry picking or round robin strategy, it’s much more effective to match reps to leads based on skillset. Different reps have different selling strengths. Some reps, for example, are more tech savvy and better equipped to address questions and concerns related to product specifications or technical features. Some reps may be more up to date on competitor offerings (perhaps a rep has previously been in the employ of a competitor) and will be better equipped to handle resistance related to competitors’ offerings. Some reps may simply be better negotiators and more effective in rationalizing pricing. You can use several leading indicators to route leads based on sales expertise. If, for example, a lead has landed on your radar by clicking on a security white-paper, there’s a good chance this lead will ask about security compliance. If, on the other hand, a lead has submitted a pricing request, they’re far more likely to be wooed by a rep that is a better negotiator and able to justify the price by conveying value.  

4. Commonalities

There’s a central principle in psychology called the self-similarity principle. It states that, when making network contacts, individuals tend to choose people who bear a resemblance to themselves in terms of experience, training, worldview, etc. The reality is that we gravitate towards people who are similar to us. According to Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, “similarity literally draws people together.” Keep this in mind when assigning reps to leads. Perhaps, using LinkedIn or another medium, you’ve discovered that a rep and a lead have both worked at the same company, grew up in the same hometown, have many mutual connections, and/or hail from the same alma mater. All these connections can do wonders in terms of strengthening rapport between a rep and a lead, and in advancing the sales conversation in the direction of conversion. One bit of cautionary advice: Don’t be “creepy” in drawing attention to commonalities. Robert Graham offers the following example, “Don’t be too pushy. “We both went to Tennessee!” is less effective than “I noticed you’re in Ann Arbor. Are you a Wolverine?””

5. Uncommon commonalities

Once the commonalities between a sales rep and a lead have been factored into your lead routing strategy, you should next attempt to identify “uncommon commonalities.” According to Adam Grant, professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of the book Give and Take, “uncommon commonalities are those similarities that we share that go beyond the superfluous or obvious ones”. Grant argues that it’s this type of commonality that truly makes a difference. When we identify a connection built on something that is particularly unique, we establish a bond that is more powerful than one grounded on superficial similarities. Consider the following example. If you travel 15 miles away from your home and meet a stranger who lives in your same city, the commonality wouldn’t be all that surprising. However, if you’ve travelled 5,000 miles from your home to a different country, it would be surprising to meet a stranger from your same city. The more “uncommon commonalities” a rep has with a lead, the more likely you’ll be able to establish rapport and move the needle towards a deal close.

To route leads effectively, sales reps can leverage Salesforce, which allows reps to assign leads based on specific criteria. Distribution Engine from NC Squared is a great native Salesforce app that provides even greater functionality. Managers can filter by rep seniority so that a greater proportion of leads are assigned to more tenured reps. Managers can also establish hourly or daily caps to limit the number of leads assigned to any given rep at a given time. Sales reps can create granular filters based on their lead routing criteria. They also have access to an in-app toggle that allows them to indicate their availability at a given time (they’ll only receive leads once they’ve indicated they are available to work leads). At Node, we’re building your personal sales analyst, which will take some of the guesswork out of lead prioritization.

Sales teams need to exercise discretion when selecting a lead distribution program. The most appropriate method will vary based on a sales organization’s structure and strategies. Once you’ve solidified lead routing criteria, the next step is to implement the rules and chosen criteria and automate the process. Sales organizations can benefit greatly from automated lead distribution, According to a 2013 study, automated distribution alone can increase conversion rates by 87% due, in large part, to response speed improvements.

For a sales organization to be successful, lead routing must be optimized. Hopefully, the days of round robin and cherry picking will soon be behind us. To maximize the effectiveness of their teams, sales managers need to become more intelligent about distributing and routing leads. Criteria such as geographic vicinity, industry knowledge, sales expertise, commonalities, and uncommon commonalities can go a long way in optimizing routing. When you route leads effectively, sales teams can shorten average sales cycles and improve sales close rates.




About The Author

Rebecca Hinds
Rebecca Hinds - View more articles

Rebecca Hinds graduated from Stanford University in 2014 with a M.S. in Management Science and Engineering. In 2013, Rebecca co-founded Stratio, a semi-conductor company developing infrared sensors. The company was selected by the Kairos Society as one of the 50 most innovative student-run businesses in the world.