What Makes a Sales Qualified Lead… Sales Qualified?

In a nutshell, sales-qualified leads (SQLs) are leads worthy of a direct follow-up from your sales team. But without a well-thought-out way to identify SQLs, your marketing department will be more likely to deliver leads to sales that they think are qualified but really aren’t. 

This problem is actually more common than you might think. In fact, MarketingSherpa has reported that 61% of B2B marketers send all of their leads directly to Sales, even though only 27% of them are actually qualified! What's more, 79% of marketing leads never convert into sales, mostly due to a lack of targeted lead nurturing efforts.

The result? Your sales team wastes precious time reaching out to people who aren’t interested or ready, the sales cycle becomes progressively drawn out, and your productivity and closing rates suffer.

That being said, research highlighted by InsideSales.com shows 35-50% of sales go to the vendor that responds first – which presents marketing teams with an interesting challenge. How can you effectively deliver thoroughly qualified leads to sales before a competitor seizes the opportunity to scoop them up?

This is exactly why jointly defining and implementing a system with Sales for properly scoring and vetting SQLs is one of the most important exercises a business can do to improve efficiency, shorten the sales cycle and ultimately increase the company's revenue. Here are four tips you can use to make this happen:

1. Align Your Marketing and Sales Efforts

You've probably heard it all before. One of the biggest complaints you might hear from Marketing is that Sales doesn’t effectively follow up on their leads. Meanwhile, Sales claims that the leads Marketing is delivering aren't any good. Hopefully, your departments are relatively in sync and avoiding this problem. But if there is this type of tension between them, achieving greater marketing & sales alignment—including the establishment of a shared definition for a sales qualified lead—should be a top priority.

Arrange a meeting with various marketing and sales team members, and discuss topics like:

  • What sources tend to produce the most qualified leads?
  • What website form submissions should determine immediate follow-up from sales?
  • Which submissions do not?
  • What messages resonate with prospects during sales conversations?
  • What factors usually seal the deal?
  • And what makes a lead unqualified for sales? Any red flags?

It's also a good idea to take a good, hard look at the buyer's journey for your best customers. What source did they come from? What website pages did they visit? What forms did they fill out? How did they conduct their market research? And of course, what happened in the sales conversations that compelled them to buy. Answers to these types of questions will help you formulate ways to better content. Marketing will also have a much more solidified definition of an SQL, and with this shared definition in place, your marketing team can better align its efforts with the needs of the sales team. 

Here is some more information on what types of data your marketing and sales team members should be sharing to maintain efficiency and transparency.

2. Utilize Lead Scoring to Track MQLs

Prior to becoming an SQL, most leads are identified as marketing qualified (MQLs).  MQLs are prospects that have been flagged by marketing as more likely to become a customer, in comparison to other leads. They have indicated an interest in your company by performing certain actions, such as registering for an event, downloading a white paper, or clicking through several lead nurturing emails – and they also fit one of your target buyer persona descriptions.

Marketers can track this process using marketing automation software (we use HubSpot to do this), and set up a lead scoring system to assign or deduct point values for a lead based on information they learn about them. Once a lead reaches a certain point threshold, they can then be transferred to Sales with a much higher likelihood of being truly qualified for that conversation.

Two areas that typically factor into lead scoring are "Best Fit" and "Level of Engagement":

  • Best Fit refers to how well your lead aligns with your company's definition of an ideal customer (again, refer to your buyer persona!) The more explicit information Marketing can gather throughout the lead conversion and nurturing process depends on what kinds of questions you ask for on landing page forms when offering resources on your website in exchange. Examples could include contact properties such as job title, industry, company size, etc. – whatever will help you determine if this lead fits in with the type of customer to whom you want to sell your products and/or services.
  • Level of Engagement is typically determined by behavior-based data and helps measure the lead's interest and readiness in making a purchase. Engagement takes into account the online behaviors of your lead; website activity, number and type of offers downloaded, email activity, social media interaction, etc. It’s critical to keep an eye on a lead's level of engagement so your sales team can reach out to them with the right message at the right time.

3. Create Content for Each Stage of the Sales Cycle

In order to effectively nurture leads and help get them more "sales-ready", it's crucial that you have content available for prospects in each stage of the sales cycle. Break your funnel into three sections (top, middle, and bottom) and create content that a reader in each phase would find valuable. 

TOFU: top-of-the-funnel prospects aren't necessarily looking for a solution yet. This is where you can leverage educational blog posts, eGuides, white papers, videos, infographics, and so many other content formats to address common challenges buyers in your industry regularly encounter, as well as questions about hot-button topics. You'll be able to collect additional information as leads download more of these offers, and you can more successfully gauge their interest in your company, as well as your interest in them!

MOFU: Prospects in the middle of your funnel know they need a solution, and they are starting to consider their options. MOFU contacts are more likely to respond to case studies, webinars, long-form content, competitor comparison sheets, checklists, and online self-assessments.

BOFU: Leads at the bottom of your funnel are just about ready to buy. This is where Sales should play a greater role. Content that specifically highlights what you are able to do for the prospect, as well as offers such as demos, presentations, consultations, and interviews, are effective ways to appeal to this audience.

4. Use the BANT system

The BANT system is another popular way to qualify an SQL. If you're unfamiliar with the term, BANT stands for Budget, Authority, Need, and Timeline. Along these lines, it's important to find out:

  • Does the prospect have the budget? Are they willing to make a purchase to solve their pain point?
  • Do they have the authority to make a decision? Is the contact part of the decision-making process or simply assigned to conduct some research?
  • Does the lead have a specific pain point or need – and can your product or service really help to alleviate it?
  • What is their timeline to make the purchase? Do they have time to meet a salesperson? When is the prospect looking to make a decision?

Ideally, a business should use a combination of these vetting methods to separate the tire kickers from sales-qualified leads. And, of course, once the lead is handed over to Sales, the sales team will do additional discovery to make sure the lead is a viable opportunity!

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Tracy Horton | Director of Client Success
About the Author
Tracy Horton, Director of Client Success

Tracy Horton has been an integral part of PMG since 2015. She’s a strategy, sales, technology and SaaS ninja, and loves to write about sales and marketing integration (as ninjas do). While she’s fighting off the evil forces of low SEO rankings and poor marketing strategy, she somehow finds the time to write blogs – and loves hearing from readers. So, if you want to know more, let her know!