A beginner’s guide to lead qualification

What is a lead? A traditional sales person would tell you a lead is someone with 1) financial means and 2) possible interest in what you’re selling. Be careful though this simplistic approach is a trap that can land you in a lot of trouble.

In traditional sales, sellers are often taught verbal tricks to steer a conversation and ‘win over’ their prospect. This has given sales reps a reputation of being manipulative smooth talkers, their goal being to entice their ‘victims’ into doing something that is mainly in the seller’s interest. In certain industries this certainly holds true.

The result of a traditional approach to sales? Prospects who are left irritated by wasting time and money with yet another scummy sales person, a sales profession taking yet another reputation hit – making any well-intentioned sales professional’s job even more difficult.

Who is doing the qualifying?

Why does this happen? It might be the sky-high commissions that blind these sales people and make them stop at nothing to achieve their distorted image of success. Whatever the reason, traditional sellers will do everything they can to qualify themselves as quickly as possible with their potential customer, whoever that may be.

Fortunately, this trend is slowing down as the sales profession is evolving. Still, many sales professionals make the same fundamental mistake: they focus on qualifying themselves as being the ultimate expert, trustworthy, and possessing all kinds of positive qualities to earn their leads’ attention.

While this seems intuitive to inexperienced sellers, they put unnecessary pressure on themselves, their conversation partners lose interest and their output is low.

Here’s the deal: people are not interested in who you are or what you can do. They are interested in what you can do for them. To know what you can do for them, you have to get to know them first.

Get to know your leads

There is a way to get better leads, have productive conversations with them and close more deals. The key is to flip the script — let your leads sell themselves to you. Let them show that they are qualified for what you have to offer. Once you truly grasp this concept, you’ll change from a pesky sales rep, to a trusted advisor.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should pressure your leads on every sales call while sitting back, nonchalantly putting your feet on the table while your lead is begging at your feet to buy from you. It means that qualification is mutual – that’s how you should approach your discovery conversations.

Qualifying leads isn’t solely the sales person’s job. To properly qualify your leads, marketing and sales should work together, regularly evaluating leads that sales receives and figure out when is the right time to hand over a lead.

Every lead that goes to sales, should be able and ready to speak to a sales person. Reach out too early and you risk irritation because you will be perceived as an intrusive sales person. Reach out too late and they might have already found another solution.

So, how do you do it? How do you separate good from bad leads and find the right timing?

Qualifying a lead is all about 2 central questions:

  1. Does this person have a problem that you solve?
  2. Is this person ready to talk to sales about it?

You should only reach out to a contact if you can answer both answers with “yes”. If you can’t, it’s a no go! It doesn’t matter what the reason is — the end of the month approaching, that bonus when you hit quota, or simply a lack of leads that makes you reach out to everyone – you’ll lose more than you gain by reaching out to leads that aren’t ready for you yet.

Identify the fit

To see if it makes sense for both parties to talk to eachother, it is important that you know whether you are helping someone with your product or service. You may attract a lot of people with your marketing efforts, but you might not be able to help many of them. That’s okay. You just need to find who is qualified to buy from you.

To make your search easier, make a profile of your ideal customer. Include multiple characteristics that someone has to have in order to qualify for your offer. The more checkboxes a lead ticks, the better the fit.

Let’s put it into practice. What could an ideal customer profile for a company that builds and sells speedboats look like? Here’s an example:

Annual income of at least $ 250,000 per year
Has a boating license
Lives on the coast
Enjoys water recreation

A lot of this is dynamic and contextual. In other words: depending on your situation, you can determine how strictly you need to qualify. If you’re just starting out and still discovering your strength, or if you urgently need more leads, you can decide to be less strict and accept leads that don’t meet all your requirements.

Determine sales-readiness

Now that you know how to discern the good from the bad, it’s time to learn about timing. When do you reach out to a good fit lead? If you are too early, you risk coming across as an over-eager sales person, causing irritation and potentially ruining a great opportunity. Reach out too late, and the lead might have already found another solution.

In order to find the perfect timing, it’s essential for marketing and sales to work together. Marketing should collect data about actions that leads take that show interest in your business, online as well as offline before talking to sales. Analyze this data to find out which actions led to succesful sales conversations. Also, look at unsuccesful sales conversations to learn where it went wrong, to avoid future mishaps.

Don’t have any data yet? Then start collecting it now, and make intuitive estimations. Experiment, and test these estimates to get closer to the ideal timing.

Using the Lead Qualification Framework

Now that you know why it’s important to qualify your leads and what principles you need to take into account, it’s time to put all this into practice. Say hi 👋 to the the Lead Qualification Framework. This framework is basically a model that we’ll use to easily visualize the lead qualification process.

Vertical: fit

First, we need to make a split based on fit – do the lead’s needs match what you’ve got to offer? Use the Ideal Customer Profile exercise outlined above to test for this.

Horizontal: sales-readiness

This split is all about timing. Whether or not a contact turned out to be sales-ready will become apparant from sales reaching out to them. They’ll either welcome your call, gently stall you, or brush you off entirely.

Whatever the outcome is, we can broadly categorize it as either being ‘sales ready’ or ‘not sales-ready’. That’s the horizontal dimension of this framework.

In more technical terms, a lead that ends up being both a good fit and sales-ready is called a ‘Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL). It means that marketing deemed this lead good enough for sales.

The sales rep still has to confirm that this is actually the case. If it does turn out to be true, we then call it a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL).

Is a lead qualified by marketing, but not by sales? Then you need to redefine your definition of a qualified lead. Maybe you need score for different actions taken by a lead, or more of them all together before they turn out actually qualified.

The more your MQLs turns out to be SQLs as well, the better your lead qualification is. This means that the leads provided by marketing are good both in terms of fit and timing. Read my guide on distinguishing MQLs from SQLs to learn more about these often confused lifecycle stages.

Horizontal: hand-raisers

So, what do you do when a lead asks for sales explicitely – eg. by calling, submitting a contact form or starting a live chat? This can occur at any time during the funnel and it can be completely unexpected based on previous obverved actions from a lead. Get ready to be surprised! Maybe one of your satisfied customer recommended them to you and they’re excited to speak to sales right away, or it’s just someone who prefers moving fast and skipping some the steps you deemed a qualified lead must take.

The unique thing about these leads is that they are 100% ‘ready for sales’. After all, they approached sales by themselves. These leads can still turn out to be a bad fit based on whatever you discover during the conversation with them, but overall they convert much higher than MQL’s so these instant SQL’s are always warranted to follow up as soon as possible.

Marketing & sales role division – who does what?

The Lead Qualification Framework enables you to structurally measure and improve your lead quality. You do need to have a place to store all this data. A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system is essential. You need to be able to measure all actions a lead can undertake and their results. This applies both to marketing-related actions (page views, offer downloads, webinar participation, etc.) as well as sales-related actions (call logs, email opens, deal records, etc.). A good CRM will do this for you automatically.

It is mostly up to marketing to ensure that the ‘Poor Fit’ dimension of the framework is populated as little as possible. By properly defining your personas and creating the right expectations through your messaging you avoid misunderstandings that might lead someone to become a bad fit lead.

It is also up to marketing to investigate MQL’s that are returned to them by sales because they were deemed ‘not ready for sales’ and to sharpen the definition of an MQL accordingly.

It is up to sales to properly qualify all delivered leads, to proactively contribute towards improvement of the lead qualification process by sharing all discoveries with marketing and of course to follow up with good leads in a way that achieves results. Time to sell!

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