Lead Qualification: Lessons Learned from the Trenches and Front-lines

July 5, 2016 – Buyers now have more resources than ever before and will usually be more than 50% through a buying process at the point of contact. As a result, lead qualification has increased in popularity. Many qualification processes have involved automation based on the prospect’s content and/or website activity, and the rise of Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL) through these activities has exploded onto the business scene. Their buzz in sales and marketing circles has never been higher.

While automation is a great way to track, score, and be electronically responsive, there is incredible value in qualifying MQL through a brief phone conversation, utilizing strategic internal resources. If done properly, the result of this more personal qualifying effort leads to better sales/marketing alignment, increased velocity in the pipeline, and most importantly, a more satisfying experience for the buyer.

Why Qualify?

Before you begin to qualify MQLs, it is important to build or evaluate your existing lead definitions. Review the leads that were passed to your sales team – often called sales acceptable lead (SAL) or sales qualified leads (SQL) – over the past 12-24 months.  What factors made the best performing leads?  More importantly, what factors made the worst performing leads? Trends should become apparent with respect to a buyer’s title, size of the company, lead source, budget/lack of budget, etc.

Identify these items and then get feedback from your sales team and sales leadership. Do they agree with this assessment or not?  Can they add other factors that occur later in the sales cycle that you can qualify in the initial call?

Gaining the sales team’s feedback and most importantly, agreement on the definition of a SAL/SQL, is one of the cornerstones of sales/marketing alignment within an organization.

Qualifying in this manner also gives you solid confirmation that your marketing activities are effective.  Automation can take very educated guesses about buyer behavior, but there is no substitute to directly hearing, through a phone conversation, about the path that a buyer took to find you and research your business. Often times. you will get extra information on how to optimize those activities and make items like your keyword/pay-per-click strategy, website design/focus, and thought leadership activities more effective as you log call after call.

Who Should Qualify?

Because this activity is relatively new in most organizations, it’s natural to struggle with who should be your primary lead on qualifying MQLs within the company. More and more organizations are developing or have created a formal Demand Generation department, but qualification should have a very distinct responsibility and focus within that group.

Whether that responsibility comes from the Sales or Marketing department is a common question as well. In my personal experience, I’ve worked in both departments as a Demand Generation professional. The key is to have a fundamental understanding that qualification is going to be a hybrid of marketing and sales interaction, and Demand Generation teams can be the link between those two groups. Whoever does your MQL qualification should have regular access to both marketing and sales leadership and participate in both team’s status and strategy themed meetings, so that they can incorporate items from those discussions into qualification phone calls.

How Should You Qualify?

Making contact quickly when an MQL is generated is crucial to the likelihood that it becomes a SAL/SQL.  Many studies have also shown that responsiveness within minutes of notification has a tremendous impact on the chances of an MQL becoming an active opportunity in a seller’s pipeline. It’s important to ensure that whoever is responsible for qualifying MQLs has their inbox connected to automation systems and website forms. Also, anyone who takes calls through the switchboard needs to know who to pass those inquiries to.

Once a qualifying call is established, best practices are to send that buyer a meeting invite and to confirm that call prior, in order to ensure the likelihood that it occurs.  At the beginning of that call, identify yourself as the person responsible for identifying the buyer’s needs, answering any questions they may have about the company or services you provide. Then based on their needs, coordinate the next steps with the right people at your organization.

Don’t assume that the buyer already knows who they’re talking with. Many times, they assume that they are going to be talking with a salesperson and come prepared to be sold to. This explanation puts them at ease and in many cases, they disclose information that they may withhold from a salesperson as a negotiation tactic.

The call outline should be:

  • How did they learn about your company? (lead source)
  • What needs do you have? What vision do you have in solving those needs?
  • What questions, if any, does the buyer have about the company, products, or services?
  • Confirm the SAL/SQL definition items that you established with your sales team.
  • How does the organization make purchasing decisions and who is responsible for those decisions?
  • Next steps (intro phone call with seller, demo, proposal, etc.)

Sometimes the call goes in a different order depending on the buyer, but as long as you are capturing the above items, you should gain enough information to fully qualify this buyer for your sales team.

Important. Post-Qualify Activities:

Once qualified leads have been passed over to your sellers, getting their feedback and tracking results are important demand generation best practices. I recommend using your CRM or marketing automation system by giving your sales rep a “Lead Status” or a similar field where they can input the result of their initial call/demo/meeting etc., and allow you to track the quality of the SAL/SQLs that you are supplying.

This knowledge allows you to more effectively manage your budget on lead sources that have the best revenue impact for your company. Using opportunity level data is certainly important to this evaluation, but many organizations skip lead result or lead conversion to opportunity metrics. This is a fundamental mistake in discovering how sellers get opportunities into their funnel.

I also highly recommend allowing the person or team responsible for qualification to join the traditional “pipeline meeting” where sellers discuss the statuses of their opportunities with their managers.  Hearing how SAL/SQLs are performing, weeks or months after they were generated, gives demand generation professionals great insight into ways that they can improve the qualification process for the next MQL qualification call they make.

Lead qualification is an evolving activity. In my 2+ years at SPI, we’ve tweaked the qualification process several times to respond to changing buyer behavior, and add or remove qualification criteria that our sellers have requested.

Joining this call also sends a clear message to the salesperson that you hold them accountable for the proper handling of SAL/SQLs that they’ve received, and that they can hold you accountable for the quality and quantity of SAL/SQLs that you generate for them.

I would love to hear feedback on your qualification efforts and to provide insights on how to make your process more effective.  Please send me a message at swagner@spisales.com or call me directly at 704-227-7633 and let’s get started!

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