Prospecting in Sales: What Defines a Qualified B2B Lead in 2019?

March 12, 2019

When dealing with an ambiguous business term, it’s often written that if you were to ask ten people to define said term, you’d likely get ten different responses.

Such is the case with a “qualified lead” when prospecting in sales. The B2B landscape has been renovated and re-renovated since the dawn of digital, yet much of the contention and confusion surrounding leads remains.  

There are several reasons for this. For starters, a qualified lead is defined differently across the web. One person says it’s this, another says it’s that, and yet another says it’s neither of those. And they all may be right because a qualified lead is subjective. Then again they might be wrong. Terms like “prospect” and “lead” are used interchangeably throughout the industry even though they have different meanings.

One could say we’re getting hung up on semantics. That’s a weak argument, particularly in B2B setting where the buyer’s journey is comprised of several stages. When we lack clear definitions, we lack direction. A suspect should be treated differently than a marketing-qualified lead (MQL) which should be treated differently than a sales-qualified lead (SQL). If we don’t know the exact differences, we’re prone to serve up experiences that cause potential buyers to scratch their heads and seek the warm embrace of a vendor who understands them.

Before we dive into what constitutes a “qualified” lead, let’s step back because it’s helpful to know where leads fit into the overall sales funnel. Tightly defined funnel stages and lead definitions are a hallmark of aligned sales and marketing teams. That matters to sales pros because sales and marketing teams that work together are 67% better at closing deals.

Prospecting in Sales: B2B Funnel Stages

Our attempt to define the sales funnel revealed funnels of all shapes and sizes, each with its own terminology and stages. And some company’s funnels are incredibly intricate. When you boil it down though, B2B sales funnels contain, at the least, the following three stages:

Suspect

Suspects include anyone who could potentially buy from you but haven’t yet indicated an interest. If you were to performed an advanced search on LinkedIn, using filters to only surface people who can legitimately become customers, you would have a list of suspects (though this is often referred to as a prospecting list).

Lead

I like how Dan Purvis describes the difference between leads and prospects: “The easiest way to get our heads around the term is that the lead is the start of the journey. A lead is someone who may be interested in a product or service that you provide, but you have no context as to why … A lead is a person who has provided at least some basic information that suggests a potential interest in buying from you.”

The only part of that I’d push back on is “you have no context as to why.” While this may be true in some instances, I’d argue that you need context to qualify the lead. So while the lead may not expressly provide a reason for showing up on your radar, there are plenty of contextual clues for the finding. Plus, there are instances where a lead may provide context, such as filling out an optional form field.

Prospect

“The main difference between a lead and a prospect is that your lead has moved beyond one-way communication and has now engaged with you,” says Purvis. “Such two-way communication suggests that the lead has real potential to buy from you.”

What is a Qualified Lead for B2B Prospecting in Sales Today?

At many B2B companies, leads are further broken down into marketing-qualified and sales-qualified leads. No matter how basic or advanced the funnel though, teams must answer the same question: When does it make sense for sales to step in and reach out?

Teams can ill-afford to fumble this handoff. Reach out too early and we risk putting off a potential buyer, causing future engagement attempts to be met with hesitation. Reach out too late and the potential buyer may have already narrowed their list of potential vendors without us.

Finding that sweet spot is paramount. We can get there by looking backward.

What do your successful sales leads have in common? (Other than the fact that they’re all customers.) What was true of them at the moment sales initiated contact? What common attributes did they share?

What do your unsold sales leads have in common? And again, what common attributes did they share when sales made first contact?

Reconciling attributes against results is what will allow you to create a formulaic lead qualification process, often referred to as lead scoring. Once you start to look back at deals sold and unsold, certain attributes will pop out as being more telling than others.

The following attributes may apply to your contacts, your accounts, or both. You can get as detailed as it makes sense to within each attribute, and there are dozens of potential attributes not included below that might make sense for your company. Most B2B companies won’t care about detailed personal demographic information the same way a B2C marketing might. But professional and company-related attributes (most of which you can glean from LinkedIn) often merit deeper analysis because they have a stronger correlation to who’s likely to engage with a B2B sales rep and who isn’t.  

Common Attributes to Consider for B2B Lead Scoring: A Checklist

  • Demographics

    • Age

    • Gender

    • Location

  • Professional traits

    • Job title

    • Job function

    • Seniority

    • Memberships (Associations or LinkedIn Groups)

    • Years of experience

  • Company traits

    • Company size

    • Company type

    • Industry

    • Employees

  • Engagement

    • Specific content assets viewed

    • Time spent with your brand’s content

    • Quantity of content viewed

    • Email engagement

    • Event attendance

    • Downloads

    • Types of offers accepted

    • Follows your company

    • Follows people at your company

    • Content sharing

    • Prior direct engagement

    • Inclusion in ad campaigns

  • Social media

    • Current social connection to lead

    • Follows your company

    • Number of connections between your company and account

    • Senior-level connections

  • Other considerations for point rewarding and docking

    • Percentage of the form filled

    • Specific form fields filled or ignored

    • Sales rep’s connection to lead

The more work you put into it and the longer you use it, the more sophisticated and reliable your lead scoring system becomes. If you’re interested in getting started, here’s a guide on creating a beginner lead scoring model from the folks at SnapApp. But know that you don’t necessarily need a complex system to better qualify leads and time your outreach. If you don’t currently have a lead-scoring system, then even a simple checklist will greatly benefit your lead qualification process.

Example of a Simple B2B Lead Qualification Checklist

  • Does this individual have influence in a buying committee?

  • Does their company have a demonstrable need for our product or service?

  • Has the individual shown signals of purchase intent?

  • Is there a clear opportunity for me to reach out and deliver value?

  • Is there a mutual connection who can introduce me?

  • Have they engaged with our brand’s content before?

As with the lead-scoring model, some factors should be given greater weight. For instance, a potential lead may not have engaged with your brand before, but if a mutual connection or a strong buying signal exists, those factors may be enough to qualify the lead.

So, what defines a qualified lead today? Since this definition should be driven by lead data correlated with engagement and close rates, perhaps a better question is, who should define qualified leads at your company?

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