Those may be the leads you want, and the leads that close, but you’ll go crazy (and possibly broke) trying to generate exclusively leads that look like this. A better way, that not only yields the most sales-ready leads now but also a growing pipeline of opportunities down the road, is to keep the funnel wide, wide open at the very top and narrow/filter through a series of qualification stages before the right leads get to a sales rep.
Below are five basic stages of lead qualification. Some companies get far more sophisticated, but for most readers this framework could very quickly segment and operationalize your existing and new leads into the right buckets, make the best use of your sales team’s time, and significantly subsidize lead generation budgets in the months ahead.
Stage 1: Names
This is the most basic level, with virtually no filter. This might not even require lead capture through a registration form. It can include names captured via a trade show drawing, newsletter sign-ups, those who registered for a white paper with little more than a name and email address (even if it’s a personal address like Gmail or Hotmail).
It can also be a qualified list you purchase or aggregate, but for the purpose of this framework let’s assume each of these names have done something to proactively give you their contact information (no matter how sparse).
There’s no direct action with this list until another, simple layer of qualification.
Stage 2: In-Profile Leads
These individuals still haven’t expressed any interest in your product or service. But you can start to narrow your list based on basic criteria to determine which of your compiled names even have a chance of becoming a customer.
This step assumes you already have defined what a qualified prospect looks like. On the surface, that means the right company and the right individual, based on title or role. This step can also include filtering by particularly important company characteristics that can be identified externally – things like whether the company has a particular public initiative (going carbon-neutral, for example) or whether they have customer login capabilities (if you’re selling online transaction or security capabilities, for example).
The vast majority of good leads at this stage are qualified but not ready to buy. That means they’re in-profile, the right company and/or individual, but they haven’t exhibited any specific interest or buying signals. Yet. Hence the next stage:
Stage 3: Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs)*
Now we start to get into the jargon and acronyms you may hear in a variety of lead scoring and marketing automation circles. At this stage, the right-profiled prospect has exhibited some level of interest or early buying behavior.
It can be site traffic patterns you’re watching via a service such as Optify or Hubspot. It can be a demo request following a couple months of webinar registrations. Tools from Optify and Marketo, for example, can also help you score leads based on site visit frequency, type of content they check out, duration of visits, and a variety of other weighted activities.
The more advanced marketing automation systems can automatically pass to sales the leads that pass a certain lead score threshold. But you can also do this manually.
Many companies pass these leads directly on to the sales team, but the leads haven’t necessarily indicated they’re ready to buy. They’ve only exhibited certain activities that tell us they could be close. Hence, some companies have instituted phone-based lead qualifiers to take MQLs and further qualify them for potential sales activity.
Stage 4: Sales-Accepted Leads (SALs)*
Leads that pass the above stage with a high-enough lead score go to the phone-based lead qualifiers. Their job is to get the prospect on the phone and ask the questions that prospect behavior and tracking can’t easily capture. This includes company and/or individual priorities and pain points, specific prioritization and/or timing to solve the problem, and interest (based on those answers) in learning more about a possible solution.
Some of these leads will now be qualified and ready to buy. Some will be qualified and have a need, but the timing isn’t right (for a variety of reasons). Some may have been incorrectly scored and need to go back to marketing (i.e. back to stage 3).
Stage 5: Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs)*
These prospects are qualified and ready to buy. They have a timeline, they have identified or have access to budget. They are the decision maker and/or have the decision-maker actively engaged and on the same page re: prioritization and timing. They also likely have a “compelling event” in the company or industry that’s driving urgency.
For many organizations, these leads are immediate Opportunities. They’re active deals in the pipeline with an expected or estimated close date.
If you’re an organization that currently pushes all leads directly to sales, moving from a two-step process to a five-step process may be a bit intimidating. If so, start slow. Add just one additional stage first (only send sales the in-profile leads, for example). Then add another when you feel ready.
*These terms first appeared in 2006, when SiriusDecisions published their report titled “Demand Creation: Five Metrics that Matter”