Q: My problem is not generating leads, but converting those prospects to customers. It seems we're getting lots of people in, but only a small percentage become clients. Can you help me figure out what's standing in the way of sales?

A: A low conversion rate-from leads to sales-is a common sales and marketing problem many businesses face. First, I suggest reviewing and fine-tuning your media selection. An advertising or direct-mail campaign that targets too wide an audience may yield a lot of unqualified prospects-tire kickers who are interested but who are not qualified to become customers because of price or other requirements.

What characteristics must your best prospects possess? Write down a brief description of your target audience, then reexamine the readership of the publications in which you advertise, the broadcast audience makeup and the list criteria you use when buying direct mail to be certain you're reaching your best prospects.

Next, examine your marketing materials, including brochures and sell sheets, to be sure they don't make inflated claims that your product or service can't deliver. In that instance, prospects may respond to your materials but feel let down when they find your claims are unrealistic. On the other hand, your marketing materials may accurately present the benefits your product or service offers, but your sales staff may fail to present them properly. In both cases, these errors can pose significant sales barriers.

A sales process that's too lengthy or that puts the responsibility on the prospect to act can also cost you sales. How many steps must your prospects take from the time they respond to your media until they finally become clients? Put yourself in their shoes, and walk through your sales process. Then eliminate as many steps as possible, especially those that require prospects to take action on their own, such as by calling you or returning to the store if you're in retail.

Many sales are also lost because entrepreneurs and their staffs simply fail to ask for the business. So train your staff in consultative selling-that's uncovering and filling needs in a friendly, noncombative and supportive way-to help improve your conversion rates.