The essential starting point for building a tighter alignment and a more productive relationship between marketing and sales is developing a joint framework for qualifying sales leads. Without a common understanding of who constitutes a qualified lead, it’s simply impossible to get marketing and sales on the same page.

Marketers and salespeople frequently have differing perspectives about who is a qualified lead. When I’m working with a client on a demand generation project, I interview marketers and salespeople separately, and I ask a simple question:  How would you define who constitutes a legitimate sales lead?

The marketers typically say that a qualified lead is someone who works for a company that is in their target market, has an appropriate job title, and has expressed interest (in some way) in what their company offers. The salespeople, on the other hand, will usually say that a legitimate lead is someone who meets the marketers’ criteria and whose propensity (and ability) to buy has been established using criteria such as BANT.

When this kind of disparity exists, is it any wonder that marketing and sales are often at odds?

The solution to this problem, of course, is to involve both marketers and salespeople in the development of a lead qualification framework that both groups will use.

There’s certainly no need to start from scratch when you’re developing a lead qualification framework. With a few minutes research using Google or another search engine, you can find many examples to use as a guide.

Many B2B companies use the Demand Waterfall(TM) developed by SiriusDecisions as the basis for their lead qualification framework, and SiriusDecisions has also developed a “Lead Spectrum” that defines seven lead qualification levels. I am an admirer of the work that SiriusDecisions produces, and I have referred to their models on several occasions in earlier articles.

When it comes to lead qualification frameworks, however, I usually recommend that companies start with a simpler model. Then, you can add lead stages or lead qualification levels if you identify specific needs for the additional detail. The objective is to develop a lead qualification framework that contains as much detail (but only as much detail) as you really need.

The “starter” lead framework that I typically use with clients has four lead qualification levels – Inquiry, Profiled Lead, Sales-Ready Lead, and Sales Opportunity.

The conceptual approach underlying this framework is simple. The first significant event in the lead qualification process occurs when someone identifies himself or herself and indicates some initial interest in your company (or, more likely, in a content resource your company has published). This makes the individual an Inquiry.

Your first task is to determine which of your Inquiries fit within your target market. Depending on what information you collected when the individual identified himself or herself, you may be able to perform this task without needing more information from the lead. For example, if you have a company name, a few minutes of research will enable you to determine whether the company fits your target market definition (in terms of size, industry, etc.). On the individual level, you may have collected a job title during the initial identification, but if not, a little research should enable you to obtain that information. If a lead fits within your target market, you then have a Profiled Lead.

For marketing/sales alignment purposes, the most critical lead stage to define is what I call a Sales-Ready Lead. In an optimized demand generation system, marketing is primarily responsible for acquiring new leads and for nurturing leads until they are sales ready. Once a lead becomes sales ready, sales assumes primary responsibility for managing that relationship. What transforms a Profiled Lead into a Sales-Ready Lead is the level of interest the lead expresses (either explicitly or via behavior) in what your company offers. For a discussion of how I define Sales-Ready Lead, see my earlier post titled What is a “Sales-Ready Lead?”

The final lead stage used in my starter framework is Sales Opportunity. The critical defining characteristic of a Sales Opportunity is that the prospect’s buying process has advanced far enough that you can reasonably project when a buy/no-buy decision will be made. In other words,  with a Sales Opportunity, you can forecast (within reasonable parameters) when a prospective deal will close.

A simple lead qualification framework is not that difficult to develop, and it can drive a significant improvement in marketing/sales alignment.