When a firm commits to attracting clients online, lead qualification becomes an important subject. This article outlines the proper approach and provides clarity on how to steer an inbound lead towards a conversation with your principals or business development.
Note: This article was originally written on 5/5/2015, and has been recently updated.
In most professional services firms, business development success equates to landing a handful of new clients in a given year. Two or three strategic accounts with large scale initiatives are often all you need to achieve revenue and growth goals. And, most firms repeatedly tell me that “if they don’t know what key opportunities they’re pursuing before the year begins they’re sunk.” While that’s all well and good for this year, where will next year’s opportunities come from? Marketing, of course.
One of your most critical jobs as a marketer is to attract and identify next year’s handful of strategic accounts from the thousands of people interacting with your marketing activities (events, speaking opportunities, website, etc.) throughout the year. The more your firm focuses on marketing with content to generate inbound leads, the more critical having a proper lead qualification process will become. A good lead qualification process should encompass both those accounts on and off your business development radar.
A Lead is a Person
Before we talk about lead qualification, we have to come to agreement on what a lead is. One of the common refrains in professional services firms is that “this is a project based business.” As a result, a lot of firms think of a lead as a project opportunity. This is demonstrated both through firm vernacular (principals will talk about projects as leads) and reinforced by common tools and software (the Dodge database for A/E firms provides access to leads, which are published project opportunities that you can import directly into your CRM). Other firms think of a lead as an account — a company or organization that procures a service.
While I agree that most firms’ revenue is made up of a collection of discrete projects, a project cannot hire your firm. And, while companies hire your firm to solve problems (if you’re a consulting firm) or to design and build infrastructure (if you’re an A/E firm), the opportunity doesn’t start with the organization. It starts with a person. It’s the people in the client organization that hire you to complete a project or solve a problem. Therefore, every lead is first and foremost a person. Therefore, a proper lead qualification process has to start with the people that buy services.
Noted business development consultant Blair Enns has often defined a lead as “a clue to a sale.” Using that definition as reference, a lead:
- Is a person that could hire you either now or at some point in the future.
- May state a need explicitly (they’ve contacted you and requested that you call them or have asked you to participate in an RFQ/RFP).
- May demonstrate a potential need implicitly (by reading your thought leadership, subscribing to your newsletter, or attending one of your industry speaking events).
- Is someone you’ve never worked with and most likely have never spoken with directly (witnessed by their lack of prior presence in your CRM).
- Can be identified by demographics (someone who is either in a position to hire or is known to have hired a firm like yours in the past).
- Can be identified primarily by behaviors (you may be unsure if they typically work with a firm like yours but are indicating they might need or want to based on their actions on your website, for instance).
The rest of this article concerns itself with the four main stages of lead qualification:
- New Leads
- Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs)
- Sales Ready Leads (SRLs)
- Contacts + Accounts
The diagram below depicts the entire lead qualification process visually:
When it is first created in your system, a lead is considered new. A lead should stay at this stage until it is either qualified (or disqualified) by marketing in some way. A new lead can enter your system in a number of ways:
- Individually — You met someone at an event and are adding them to your marketing database.
- In Batches — You sponsored a tradeshow or built a list in someway (either on your own or you purchased a list) and are adding them to your system as a group.
- Automatically — An individual signed up for your newsletter or directly requested contact through a form on your website.
Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs)
Your first task in qualification is to determine which of your new leads fit with the types of clients you hope to attract. For most professional services firms, MQLs represent a subset of your total leads database that you have determined to be a good fit for your services based largely (if not exclusively) on their firmographics and/or demographics.
Some examples of firmographics:
- Industry — Maybe your firm operates only in 1-2 specific industries. To be marketing qualified, a lead would have to be someone from one of those key industries.
- Company Size — Maybe you’ve found that only a certain size of organization is likely to both afford your services and get the most impact from them. To be marketing qualified, a lead would have to meet that minimum threshold of employee size or revenue level.
Some examples of demographics:
- Role — Maybe you only have success selling into certain functions in a client company. Perhaps you provide HR consulting and require access to only decision-makers within the HR function. You may choose to only qualify leads that fall within that function.
- Title / Seniority — Maybe you’ve found your firm is most successful with decision-makers at a certain level within the organization; perhaps the C-suite and a tier below. You may choose to only qualify leads that fall within that level of seniority of the company.
Every new lead that comes into your system should be qualified by your marketing department and either promoted to a marketing qualified lead or rejected before any business development resources are dedicated towards her. This does not mean that every new lead needs to be qualified right away. It does mean that marketing functions as a steward of the firm’s senior leaders to ensure that the potential new accounts they’re working on meet the fundamental requirements of what constitutes a valid business opportunity for the firm.
The more your firm builds an audience and starts attracting leads online, the more critical this first qualifying step will become. Leads generated online are often incomplete. You may know little more than a person’s name and email address. Yet, it’s quite possible that some of your future best clients and strategic accounts are hiding in that data. Having a process to qualify those leads and assign them to a principal, consultant or business development professional at the appropriate time is critical.
A new lead that doesn’t meet your baseline characteristics is considered worked (she should be kept in the system and you may continue to market to her, but you won’t assign any further business development resources towards her unless she makes a direct inquiry).
Sales Ready Leads (SRLs)
I know you may be cringing as you read this. Most firms don’t think of themselves as selling anything and most firms don’t have a sales function (at least they don’t call it that). The purpose of this article is largely to map the process of client acquisition to generally accepted sales and marketing language and create relevant definitions for each critical stage along the way. So, bear with me.
The primary objective of your marketing effort is to create conversations with a sufficient number of qualified potential clients such that your principals or business development people can close those 4-5 new client projects needed to make your revenue goals. Every firm is different so the actual number of conversations and meetings your firm needs to get those projects will vary. It could be 20-30, 50-60, or something else entirely. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you’re measuring the relationship between initial meetings and new client work over time so you can understand what’s required to be successful. Ultimately, a sales ready lead is anyone who’s ready to have a conversation with your firm. Sales ready leads come in two forms:
#1 – Direct Inquiries
These are people that directly request contact from someone in your firm. This may be via an email to a partner, the completion of a web form, or a telephone inquiry. A direct inquiry does not mean that you should abandon your marketing qualification process. In fact, the marketing function should be qualifying every direct inquiry that doesn’t go straight to a principal to see if the lead represents one of the firms’ ideal client types. This due diligence is critical and valuable to the principal responsible for follow up. Every direct inquiry, no matter how small, should receive a response. So, even if the lead fails your marketing qualification criteria, it should be assigned to someone for outreach. Depending on your firm, direct inquiries may represent all your sales ready leads. For other firms, it may represent a small minority of leads.
#2 – Implicit Inquiries
These are people that are interacting with your marketing activities and are indicating through their actions that they might be looking for a firm like yours, but for one reason or another, they haven’t made a direct inquiry yet. I tend to believe that some of these people need a little nudge. A delicate, and well-timed outreach from a firm’s principal via email or the phone to a lead that has been demonstrating buying behavior should be a critical aspect of your business development process. How you will identify leads of this type:
- Digital Behavior — A marketing automation system will enable you to track the on site activities of known visitors to your website (anyone who completes a form or clicks on a marketing email). You should be using this information to develop a picture of your leads’ interests and drawing some inferences about where they are in their buying journey. Discussion-ready clients consume different types of content than those that are still in learning mode. Specifically, they consume marketing content (practice overviews, people bios, case studies).
- Lead Scoring — Your marketing automation system allows you to assign points to both a lead’s demographics and her digital behaviors. You should assign individuals with point values for all interactions with your thought leadership marketing efforts and higher point ones when they access marketing content. As a result, leads with higher lead scores should represent marketing qualified leads that are interacting more with late stage content. Leads with a certain lead score are often considered sales ready and should be routed to a principal, consultant or business development professional for proactive outreach.
Some things you should not do with this data:
- Store it without permission. GDPR raised the stakes on the importance of formalizing an understandable privacy and data protection policy for anyone that subscribes to information on your website. In a nutshell, best practices now are to confirm a subscribers location and ask them to opt-in to both receive your content and acknowledge receipt of your published data protection and privacy policies.
- Call anyone who downloads an article or eBook. Just because I read your eBook does not mean I’m giving you an invitation to a conversation. That’s just one small indicator that I’m engaged in your story. If I walked into a retail store and the moment I looked at a price tag a sales person jumped out of nowhere, I’d feel pressured and frustrated. One behavior is not the whole story.
- Reference how you use it. There’s nothing more creepy than getting the, “Hey, I saw you visited our website today…” message from a company. Be respectful. We all recognize that we’re being tracked these days and for the most part we’re okay with it if it’s adding value. If you want to reference the insights from your data, make it relevant and useful. “Hey, I saw you read our eBook on building more innovative teams, I thought you might be interested in this article profiling 5 highly innovative companies in your industry.” Relevant, personal follow-up referencing digital behavior is not only appropriate, but welcomed.
- Sell it or share it. This is relatively obvious and goes without stating.
Contacts + Accounts
The meeting. Generally, a firm’s initial meetings with a potential client represent the transition from marketing to business development. This is when marketing takes a back seat and personal selling and relationship building should take over. Incidentally, this is also the point when a lead should be converted in your CRM system — removing the lead from the Leads Info Center in Deltek Vision (or the leads database in Salesforce) and simultaneously transitioning her to become both a Contact (in the Contacts Info Center in Deltek Vision or the Contacts database in Salesforce) and a Company (in the Clients Info Center in Deltek Vision or the Accounts database in Salesforce).
Having a proper lead qualification process will help you drive efficiency, productivity and accountability into your client acquisition efforts and tie marketing activities to outcomes. It’s your responsibility as a marketer to know (or have access to) these numbers when asked:
- Which marketing activities generate the most and/or best leads.
- The percentage of your leads that are inbound vs. outbound.
- The percentage of inbound leads that become marketing qualified (all outbound leads should be marketing qualified before they ever enter the system).
- The percentage of your marketing qualified leads that become sales ready.
- The percentage of sales ready leads that yield actual conversations or meetings.
- The percentage of meetings that become qualified project opportunities.
- The percentage of qualified project opportunities that become won business.
Your CRM and your marketing automation systems will be critical resources to help you implement this process and measure your outcomes.