Photo credit: Gerard Stolk (vers la réunification)

The Number One rule in B2B marketing: Never, ever, pass an unqualified lead to your sales force. Why? Because they’ll hate you in the morning… But seriously, if the role of B2B marketing is to provide leverage to sales, then burdening a sales rep with a prospect who is not a realistic potential buyer is no help. The rep will reach out, find a prospect who is in the earliest stages of research or, worse, in a company that is never going to fit your solution, and a whole lot of time and effort has just been wasted. In this kind of situation, the lead should stay with the marketing team, where the relationship can be developed, and nurtured, until it’s ready to take up a salesperson’s valuable time.

But all this assumes that the marketing team has a clue about what kind of lead is ready for a sales rep. Enter the concept known as lead qualification.

Lead qualification is a process, beginning with a meeting of the minds between sales and marketing about what constitutes a qualified lead. The first step is for the marketing team to sit down with key sales personnel—a couple of experienced reps, and a few senior managers—and work together to identify a mutually agreeable set of lead qualification criteria.

In large enterprise marketing, the most common criteria have traditionally been around a concept known as BANT, or budget, authority, need and timeframe. These days, BANT is passé, thanks to changing B2B buyer behavior. As the wise observer Ardath Albee recently pointed out in a thoughtful dissection in the Business Marketing Institute’s newsletter, a slavish devotion to BANT will miss all kinds of opportunity, and take sales people down a path toward frustration.

Instead, marketers today should be looking for more subtle clues to determine whether a lead is ready for the sales team. These days, essentially, qualification criteria can be divided into two categories:

  1. Account characteristics. These would be items like company size, whether revenue volume or number of employees. Industry. Parent company. How many contacts at the account do we have on our database? Potential sales volume. How many departments in the company might use this product? How much of, or how often, might they need the product? Predisposition to buy from us. Are they past customers of ours? Are they similar to our current customers?
  2. Behavior. What is their digital body language, like visited our website, or downloaded some content? What search term were they using to get to our site? Have they attended one of our seminars? How did they first come onto our radar—was it a referral, or perhaps we met them at a trade show? Would they recommend us to their colleagues? Are they willing to call us back? Did they ask to talk to a salesperson?

Often, the most important criteria will emerge from an inspection of the prospective customer’s buying process. Here’s an example from the specialty chemicals business. King Industries, Inc., a manufacturer in Norwalk CT, relies heavily on exhibiting at trade shows for their lead generation. King’s sales cycle is a long one, taking up as much as five years. This makes sense, since the buyers need to try out the product in their own labs, and often the chemical formulation is developed particularly to meet the customer’s specifications. Given this, the first step in the buying process is going to be requesting a sample of the chemical.

So King’s trade show qualification criteria center around sample requests. If an engineer stops by the booth and requests a sample, the King marketing team knows that prospect is serious, and gets a sales person involved right away. As you can see from this example, it’s a good idea to match your lead qualification criteria to the way your customers do business.

According to a 2012 study by Marketing Sherpa, only 31% of B2B marketers have a well-organized qualification process in place. So get going. If you get on top of lead qualification, you will be way ahead of your competition. What is your company doing to determine whether a lead is ready to hand off to a salesperson?