How to Qualify a Lead: The Battle-Tested B2B Framework
May 29, 2018 | Robbie Richards
No matter which way you skin it, an efficient sales process is what fuels the high-growth B2B companies. Product planning, marketing funnels and sales enablement will only get you so far — after that, it’s all about scaling the sales machine. You need to reach the right prospects, fill your pipeline with quality leads, and eventually turn those folks into paying customers. According to OpenView Partners, the fastest growing companies can attribute 51% of annual revenue to inside sales efforts, compared to just 16% from self-service:
This is why companies obsess over building and optimizing large sales teams and processes. If done correctly, it can have a significant impact on the bottom line. But, as you’ll see in this article, many businesses get it wrong. And, it all starts with marketing efforts that fill the top of the funnel with poor quality leads:
Or, put another way, poor lead qualification. Every time a sales rep interacts with an unqualified lead, you’re losing money. Sure, there are literally billions of leads out there, but only a fraction of them are qualified. It is the responsibility of the marketing team to generate as many qualified leads as possible for the sales team.
- Have enough money to afford your solution
- Have the authority to say “Yes, let’s buy this”, not “Um, I’ll have to check with my boss”
- Be aware they need a solution like yours to solve their pain
- Be going to buy soon — not when they’ve raised a seed round in 2 years time
Like most things in the strange science of B2B selling, this isn’t set in stone; a lead that isn’t going to buy now could be persuaded by content or a sales demo that agitates their pain points. A lead that’s halfway down a competitor’s funnel could be hooked into yours with a tasty piece of “bait”.
Content saturation and more educated buyers aren’t the only things making the sales process more difficult to manage. A 2016 study found that the average group size involved in B2B buying decisions is 6.8, up 25% from 5.4 just 18 months previous. It’s essential to understand that the mindsets and business situations of individual leads evolve over time. They evolve as their business grows, as they evaluate solutions, and as they are nurtured by your content.
To visualize this dynamic, we say that buyers are on a journey. Specifically, the journey from lead prospect marketing qualified lead (MQL) sales qualified lead (SQL):
Leads are the people behind your CRM data. The names and email addresses that made it into your database through marketing, prospecting, or otherwise. A list of leads is like a Californian river in the 1850s — mostly silt and gunk, but with chunks of pure gold. You’ve got to pan that river to find prospects.
Prospects are leads with the kind of problems/ challenges you can help with. For a lead to qualify as a prospect, you must have proof they at least have a need for your product or service. That could be directly ascertained through a sales call (making them an SQL), or if they’ve offered that information through your marketing channels (making them a MQL).
MQLs are leads that have shown direct interest in your product/service through a specific marketing channel.
Maybe someone signed up for an ebook that explains how to solve their problems with your product. Maybe they’ve been on your email list for a while, and have been nurtured by your content. It’s not certain if they’re ready to buy yet, but you have enough information to infer they are the right kind of person to target.
SQLs are the leads that have been qualified by sales. They have the budget, and they’re ready to hand it over.
The reason it’s useful to divide leads up into these categories is because you need to approach them differently depending on their stage of the buyer’s journey. To put it simply:
- Leads and Prospects need to be nurtured. Moving these folks through the funnel requires content that aligns with their business pains, agitates the problem, and introduces your product as the solution. This can take a while, especially in the B2B setting.
- SQLs need to be pushed to the point of sale. While MQLs are less qualified than SQLs (the lifeblood of your sales team), both are positioned to become your customers. They need calls and emails from sales, invitations to bottom-funnel webinars, and access to sales enablement material like competitor comparisons, fact sheets and demos.
The importance of qualifying a lead before they are handed off to sales
As many as 79% of all marketing leads are never converted to sales. To put that in perspective, imagine how much prep work your company did to get an MQL. And now imagine that only 21% of it was worth spending money on.
Hurts, doesn’t it? According to Steven Tulman, 67% of your lost sales come from sales reps not qualifying leads properly before going ahead with the rest of the sales process — and even after all that wasted effort, just 27% will actually end up qualified:
It’s no surprise, either — only 56% of companies have systems for qualifying marketing leads! If you’re part of that 56%, putting a qualification system in place instantly puts you out of reach of your competition because you’re laser-focused on the leads that will make money while they’re stuck chasing dead ends.
And when I say “stuck chasing dead ends”, I really do mean it. Teleprospecters — who work through a list of unqualified leads — make between 100 and 500 calls for every one lead they qualify. That’s a grim success rate of between 0.2% and 1%. By making calls to qualified leads instead, your process is 10-50x more efficient.
Qualifying Leads: 7 Step to Screening out the SQLs
Understand your buyer profile
“71% of companies who exceed revenue and lead goals have documented personas vs. 37% who simply meet goals and 26% who miss them” — Cintell, Understanding B2B Buyers 2016 Benchmark Study Your buyer profiles are a set theoretical model that represent different types of ideal customers.
Who are they? What do they want? What industry are they in, and what position? What is their pain?
By defining your buyer personas, you can make accurate assumptions about how to approach a lead and make the qualification process much easier — if the leads you’re generating don’t match the persona, they can be disqualified without any further wasted time and money.
Here’s some of what goes into a buyer persona (depending on what you’re selling you might want more specific criteria or guidelines):
- Company size
- Job title
- Main challenge / goal
- How your business helps with this
- Personal values
- Pet peeves
- Common objections
- Information sources
If you have documented buyer personas, check them against the MQLs and SQLs that actually end up converting — do they match?
Understand the lead scoring model
When you’re working with big lists of leads, it’s not scalable to describe how qualified they are in freeform terms — how do you search and filter without structured data? You need to be attaching metrics that signify how qualified a lead is.
Most modern CRMs give you the ability to centralize sales and marketing data, and interpret that data for any sizes a lead may convert — these signs can be generalized into rules which form your lead scoring model.
How to build a lead scoring model
A lead scoring model isn’t something you can knock out overnight, nor can you just grab someone else’s and apply it to your business. It needs to be built on top of historical data, such as:
- The behavior of past deals and current opportunities
- The specific interactions with your marketing material a lead had before converting
- The sales campaigns that touched your converted prospects
- An informed combination of everything above, weighted by importance
By analyzing the patterns and common trends in behavior of your customers prior to the point of conversion, you can create a template to judge whether or not a completely different lead will also convert. Of course, you’re making assumptions, but these assumptions are far more calculated than the leaps of faith you’d have to make without a lead scoring system in place.
A tool like MadKudu can help you turn dry data into actionable insights based on the rules you set, and predictive analysis. For more information on creating your own lead scoring model, check out this article.
Understand Interest vs. Intent
The difference between interest and intent is the difference between a genuine opportunity and what sales would mistakenly label as an ‘opportunity’ in the CRM. A lead could be super qualified in every other way, but if the intent to purchase isn’t there, you’re either going to need to do more work to change their motivation or disqualify them.
As the graphic above demonstrates, a prospect with intent behaves differently to one with interest. It could be looked at as the difference between a lead that engages with 20 pieces of top-funnel content vs. one that has visited your pricing page 5 times.
A shallow view would be that the former lead is more qualified because of the higher engagement numbers, but really all they’re doing is research and you don’t know if that’s anything to get excited about. Returning repeatedly to the pricing page, however, is a strong signal of intent to buy.
Understand whether your services or expertise can solve the problem or help a prospect reach their goals
Is whatever you’re selling a good fit for a particular company, department, or individual?
Each layer of the onion has different motivations, goals, fears, and needs — you need a framework so you can efficiently identify a good or bad fit, and also know how to sell with regard to these factors. This is achieved through understanding how your product solves a specific problem, and in what way. For example, this buyer persona example from Hucace clearly outlines the goals and challenges of their ideal customer:
With a resource like that, Hucace can instantly make the distinction between a lead that needs their product and one that could do without it. It all comes back to creating good buyer personas.
Understand the decision-making process
The increased availability of content, comparisons, and online marketplaces has loosened sales’ grip on the buyer — 57% of sales professionals report that customers are now less dependent on salespeople for decision-making than they were just 2 or 3 years ago.
There has been a pendulum shift – the buyer now has the power in the sales process. Forrester research indicates that 74% of business buyers conduct more than half of their research online. This emphasizes the importance of content marketing, sales enablement, and lead nurturing campaigns. During the pre-purchase evaluation phase, B2B buyers are impacted by the following:
- Rational motivations of the company. This is how your solution aligns with the buyer’s organizational goals. Considerations include ROI and strategic importance.
- Rational motivations of the individual. This is how your solution will change the life of the individual decision-maker. Individuals want to make their job easier, and be better at it.
- Emotional motivations of the company. This is how attuned your solution is to the brand and ethos of the buyer. You wouldn’t catch The Rainforest Alliance stocking up on break room coffee that was farmed unsustainably, for example.
- Emotional motivations of the individual. This is how your solution has the potential to make the individual feel good and look good to their boss.
How many people are involved?
The number of people involved in B2B solutions purchases has climbed from an average of 5.4 two years ago to 6.8 today, and these stakeholders come from a lengthening roster of roles, functions, and geographies.
This increased group size increases friction. Each individual has their own priorities and motivations:
To accommodate for larger group sizes, it’s helpful to gain access to more than one contact in an organization and have a robust set of personas prepared that account for other people being involved in the buying decision.
B2B buyer cycles are much more complex — create content for every stage of the funnel
In a connected world with 2,000,000 pieces of content created daily, buyers have more information, more choice, and more complex buyer journeys than ever before. What was once a 3, 5, or 20-horse race is now a free-for-all, with your customer’s limited attention split between more competitors and channels. Smart businesses use this to their advantage by creating strategic content across the entire funnel, and adjusting their sales processes to account for leads at different parts of the journey (like you’re seeking to do by reading this article):
Help your prospects realize they have a problem they need to solve by publishing awareness-generating content at the top of the funnel. Help your prospects during the evaluation stage by providing fact sheets and competitor comparisons. Help your prospects see the value of your product/service by providing interactive demos and tools to calculate the potential ROI.
Understand the right questions to ask
While some of lead qualification process can be done with automation, most of the work is done by salespeople getting leads on the phone and asking them questions. Which are the right questions to ask? Here are some of the basics to consider. (Bear in mind that we’re going to look at some pre-made question frameworks later on that you can use in your business.)
- How much are you looking to spend on a solution? Companies that don’t have the budget to afford your solution should be immediately disqualified. If you’re bringing in a ton of leads that don’t have the budget, consider reevaluating the company size you are targeting in your marketing personas.
- What do you want [product] for the most? Their #1 use case will make their #1 pain point obvious, and this will tell you whether the lead is qualified or not based on whether you can meet that need or solve that pain.
- How have you tried to solve the problem so far? This question offers insight as to where they are in the buyer’s journey, further determining the need for your product. You also get insight into which other products they have evaluated.
- What happens if you do nothing about the problem? This gives you an idea as to what’s at stake. Are they burning through money with their current solution and getting low return? If the lead doesn’t seem too worried about the current state they’re in, likelihood of a sale could be low.
- Who would be the key decision-makers involved in a purchase decision like this? This question has three benefits. First, it lets you know how much friction you can expect in the sales process ahead. Second, it gives you an idea about the decision-making authority of the contact you have right now. And, importantly, it gives you a point to ask to be put in touch with others in the group.
Understand how to best capture the information
Interactive tools like quizzes, calculators and assessments provide a great vehicle to automate part of the lead qualification process. Think of it this way: as a user is working through an assessment, they’re providing you with a wealth of info like company size, buyer journey stage, budget, or anything you can think to ask that would help you decide if they’re a fit. Leads can be qualified or disqualified at any stage of the funnel, and there are different kinds of interactive content you can use to facilitate the process:
Let’s look at some specific examples of interactive content that powers lead qualification at every stage of the funnel.
Top-funnel interactive campaigns
Accessible, general-interest campaigns work well for top-funnel lead qualification:
Above is an example of an interactive assessment created by Curulate on SnapApp. It’s fun to use, but in reality the user is providing vital qualifying information, such as whether their marketing is currently being constrained by budget, time, metrics, or their team.
The last step is a lead capture form, which sends personal information to the CRM along with a ton of information that helps qualify or disqualify them.
The company and work email fields allow the CRM to get details that enrich the lead’s profile with company size and location — all useful data points that help with qualification without explicitly requesting the fields and increasing friction.
Middle-funnel interactive campaigns
In the words of Kapost, middle-funnel campaigns seek to “align a buyer’s needs to relevant products or features, gauge a prospect’s readiness to buy, and move the right people closer to purchase”. At this stage, interactive content that introduces product features and has questions about the lead’s budget and timeframe would be ideal. One type of interactive content that fit this criteria is assessments:
This support benchmark assessment from Five9 — which plays on the user’s competitive curiosity — judges the lead’s readiness to buy based on their pain. A user with a low score or disappointing metrics is more ready to do something about their problem, than one who scores well.
Bottom-funnel interactive campaigns
Bottom-funnel leads need a little push before they convert. This ROI calculator from HubSpot is the ultimate bottom-funnel campaign, showing a convincing hard-cash argument to prospective HubSpot customers that are ready to buy:
After collecting information that can easily qualify a lead’s business (and disqualify businesses with too little income to afford the solution), HubSpot shows professional charts and hard data that relate to your exact business situation.
If you’re looking for more inspiration, here are 28 other examples of B2B companies using interactive content to streamline their lead qualification process.
With the help of an analytics platform and some basic attribution models, you can unpack the buyer journey and analyze common paths to purchase.
Which channels drive your most qualified leads? Which channels are most effective at nurturing them, and which act as the final touchpoint prior to conversion?
Marketing attribution is a weighty topic, explored in-depth in this article.
Automate the lead qualification process
According to Datanyze, most lead qualification is done 100% manually – 22% of salespeople still don’t know what CRM is while 40% still use informal methods like spreadsheets. Qualifying every lead by hand is wasteful, and that waste compounds if the quality of MQLs drops. Lead qualification can be automated with sales software, as B2B SaaS company Lengow did in this case study. In the study, Lengow uses Hull and Datanyze to add enriched data to leads that request a demo, and then send a notification to Slack for every qualified request.
This meant tat Lengow was able to close leads faster, combating the 50% drop off in response rates they found when taking longer than two hours to follow up. You can also automate the collection of data such as company size, job title, and goals by simply including these as required fields on lead forms, like Freshbooks has for this gated ebook:
Many CRMs also allow you to automatically enrich lead data from sources like Google and LinkedIn, which can fill in the gaps automatically and save salespeople spending a lot of time on manual prospect research.
Here’s an example of that in Pipedrive:
With enriched data, you can set rules to determine what that lead is worth.
A lead with 1,000,000 employees might be super qualified for an enterprise SaaS product, but that same lead would be a waste of time for a younger product that isn’t fully compliant with enterprise restrictions — these criteria can be used to automatically disqualify leads before they have the chance to waste the salesperson’s time.
Time-Tested Lead Qualification Frameworks
While every business is unique, each buyer can be broken down to a set of data points – budget, authority, challenges, timing etc. There are many frameworks that help salespeople extract these data points. Let’s take a look at the two big ones — BANT and MEDDIC.
First devised by IBM sales teams, BANT stands for:
- Budget. How much is the prospect able to spend on a solution? Can they afford it?
- Authority. Does the contact have the authority to buy, or will you need to get approval?
- Needs. Do the needs of your prospect match the capabilities of your solution?
- Timeframe. How quickly do they need a solution?
While the birds-eye view of BANT makes it seem simple and rigid, each criterium can be determined with questions that match your specific business. For example, Process Street has open-sourced the actual BANT sales process they use internally. You can see how it can be expanded upon, and even automated:
MEDDIC was developed at Parametric Technology Corporation by the sales development team in the 90s. The firm had a reputation of one of the high tech world’s most successful sales teams, according to Sales Meddic: After the sales teams adopted the MEDDIC qualification process, sales grew from $300 million to $1 Billion and PTC met or exceeded revenue targets every quarter for 5 straight years.
MEDDIC stands for:
- Metrics. Which metrics is the prospect looking to impact with a solution? What would constitute a successful implementation?
- Economic buyer. Does the contact have the authority to make a final “yes” or “no” decision. If not, who does?
- Decision criteria. Are there any legal, technical, compliance-related, or budgetary constraints that could get in the way of purchase?
- Decision process. What is the timeline and process from here to a sale? How many people are involved, and when can we expect events to move along?
- Identify pain. What is the consequence of doing nothing? Why did you start looking for a solution?
- Champion. Is this contact going to influence others to purchase?
According to HubSpot, MEDDIC is best suited to complex enterprise sales, while BANT is more general-purpose.
Red Flags in the Lead Qualification Process
Red flags can differ depending on your business model, but here are some real-life examples that could apply to your qualification process. Software sales rep Yevgeny Kedrun says the #1 red flag is when a prospect doesn’t want to get on the phone.
“I never had a client with whom I didn’t have at least 5 minutes phone chat”.
Similarly, PureB2B executive president Johanna Rivard says the most common red flags can be boiled down to unreliable communication.
Dodged calls, missed meetings, and repeated reschedules are all signs the prospect simply isn’t committed enough to buy:
“When this happens, try to connect with the prospect one last time. Get feedback about why they keep canceling to try to remedy the situation. But, should they cancel again, maybe it’s time to move on. This isn’t the type of client you want to be working with.”
Another big warning sign — and one that could be fatal to the deal — is an unwillingness to discuss pricing and budget. This is likely because the lead doesn’t have the authority to decide on budget, or because the lead isn’t planning on spending anything.
Ready. Set. Close.
This crash course will have equipped you with everything you need to know to qualify leads, identify star prospects, and filter out the time-wasters. You know the difference between SQLs and MQLs, how to decode a lead’s information to make an informed judgement, and how to automate the qualification process. That’s everything you need to improve the efficiency of your business’ sales systems.
However, the best attitude to lead qualification is one of continuous improvement. As your business grows, your marketing strategies will evolve, and the market conditions will change — your lead scoring model will need to adapt with them.
The more your lead scoring model is informed by the data and sales reports you gather, the more time your sales team will be able to spend on the phone with the right people. Focusing on lead qualification has compounding returns. Analyze more data, dial in the sales process, and get better results.