7 Key Stages For Successful Lead Management

Tired of losing revenue, enduring frustration, and fighting between sales and marketing? Build an effective lead management process with these 7 key stages
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Written by Colby Renton

October 12, 2020

Your lead management process is an essential part of your marketing strategy. Think about it: Marketing generates qualified leads, passes them seamlessly and efficiently to sales, and sales/marketing processes them through to close. Your process is a combination of people, process, and technology: a shared capability for marketing and sales.

As a part of this process, you should know at any given moment what’s in your marketing pipeline, what will convert to sales, and the estimated resulting revenue. You should also know exactly which lead sources provide the most valuable leads (the ones with the highest value and probability to close).

How can you do this? An effective lead management process.

Having a good process allows you to:

  • Increase revenue
  • Decrease cost of sales; close/win more opportunities
  • Retain more customers
  • Invest ONLY in activities that generate real value for the business
  • Have COMPLETE alignment between sales and marketing
  • Know lead conversion metrics by level from end to end
  • Follow up with an interested prospect quickly
  • Enhance the customers’ experience when they are engaging with your organization

Two very important caveats to know before reading:

#1 – There are seven key stages to master. Each builds upon the other, so if one stage is poorly managed, the other stages will suffer and your entire system will leave company revenue on the table.

If you read through this and identify an early step that really could use work, that’s your starting point. Any other later stage will be less effective until you tackle the earlier stages.

Your lead management process will never improve without executive buy-in!

#2 – If you don’t have executive buy-in, this is doomed to fail. You need true top-down accountability and investment throughout each stage, especially as you continue to evolve and transform your organization.

Marketing can’t simply have a CRM report showing Sales follow-up rates. All this does is drive a wedge between the two teams. If the C-level isn’t driving needed change, showing the requisite patience, and holding both teams accountable throughout, then the company as a whole suffers.

So, ready to dive in? Click to jump to a stage:

Define SQLs | Define Stages | Automate | Document Flow | Optimize Scoring | Establish SLAs | Map Past The Sale

(You can also learn about our lead management consulting to accelerate this and more for your company!)

Why is lead management important?

  • Do you want to know how much revenue marketing is driving for the business?
  • Is tracking quality of leads important?
  • Would you like to have an idea of what sales is doing with leads marketing generates and identify what’s working and what isn’t?

A strong lead management process gets you able to answer these questions, and much more. Marketo found in 2019 that “aligned organizations had 67% higher conversion rates and their leads generated over 209% more revenue.”

Simply put, marketing won’t thrive 0 and won’t work well with sales – without an effective process!!

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Stage 1: Reach agreement on the definition of a qualified or sales-ready lead

At the very beginning, marketing and sales must come to an agreement on what makes a sales-qualified lead (SQL). Having these definitions ensures that only high quality leads are passed on to sales.

A SQL is someone who demonstrates a pre-determined “fit” and buying readiness based on measurable demographic and behavioral attributes that sales and marketing agree on:

  • Demographic attributes include things like contact name, phone number, and email address.
  • Behavioral attributes include a demonstrated interest or need, web page visits, high value form fills, inbound engagement, and so on.
Sales and Marketing have to truly work together for any chance of a strong lead management process

All too often, however, Marketing is working with one definition while Sales has a completely different baseline. It’s important for both to come to an agreement on what a sales ready lead is so that Marketing will pass only usable leads to Sales, which helps Sales as they don’t have to filter through junk to get to what they should be acting upon.

The value is in alignment. This value can’t be gained without doing the hard work of coming together in the same room and hashing out what is and is not a sales ready lead, which is defined by demographic and behavioral attributes.

Some examples may include:

DemographicBehavioral
Contact NameIntent Data indicates interest
Phone NumberWebsite visits (by URL / frequency)
EmailHigh-value form fill
Job TitleCart abandon
Company # Of EmployeesEmail engagement
Company Revenue RangeEvent attendance

Creating the sales-ready lead definition

So how does a company create this unified definition? Sales and Marketing must come together in the same room together and discuss it.

Marketing can facilitate the discussion on the value of common lead definitions and provide proof points and value statements as well as examples of digital body language and demographics. In return, Sales can provide Marketing with information about what they are trying to sell and how they are trying to sell it.

Working together, Sales and Marketing can develop and validate the definition (or definitions) of a sales ready lead, which will ultimately lead to greater SQLs as sales focuses their efforts on the highest-quality leads.

These definitions should be reviewed quarterly and updated with key stakeholders as needed. They should be baked into the technology CRM, and it should be ensured they are continuously used by all stakeholders.

Barriers and Accelerators

There are several barriers to accomplishing these goals. Getting Sales and Marketing to work together in the same room can be difficult, not to mention getting Sales and Marketing to agree on behavioral data that matters.

Whether or not Marketing can capture the behavioral/demographic data that Sales wants might also be difficult.

In addition, implementing the new sales-ready lead definition will be challenging. Both teams need to be educated on what the new definition of a lead is and what they are doing with it. There will be differences of opinion between different marketing stakeholders, and some stakeholders won’t hold people accountable for doing something with a qualified lead.

To overcome these barriers, there are accelerators:

  • A desire and a strong business case for change (to see Marketing contribute to the Sales pipeline).
  • Executive support from Marketing to focus on the quality of sales ready leads over quantity.
  • Executive support from Sales to act on qualified leads that are passed over from Marketing.

As long as there’s agreement between Sales and Marketing on the new definition of a sales ready lead, and as long as executives hold people accountable for new behaviors, you will achieve success and drive more SQLs.

Stage 2: Seek agreement on labels and definitions of customer acquisition/retention statuses

In your CRM, you’ll rely on statuses to determine success. Having an agreed-upon set of definitions enables seamless lead funnel management, captures lead lifecycle in a common language that everyone understands, and allows you to be predictive about revenue based on pipeline.

A lead becomes “sales ready” through a series of stages – a funnel that should be common between Sales and Marketing:

Your lead management will be far better if

You’ve already defined your sales qualified lead, but there are other stages that must also be defined. Marketing and Sales must find common ground here if they are to work together efficiently.

Sample lead stage definitions include:

  • Raw: You have an IP address but cannot connect it to an actual person.
  • Inquiry: You have captured an email through engagement (they have made themselves known).
  • Engagement: The lead is doing something.
  • Sales Ready Lead: The lead has shown enough interest (activity) to be marketing qualified or has filled out a “Contact Us” form and meets your established demographic minimum.
  • Sales Accepted Lead: Sales has accepted the lead from Marketing and agrees to review it within an established amount of time (for example, 24 hours).
  • Sales Qualified Lead: A lead is recognized by sales as having a viable need and is qualified by Sales. Sales can also reject and recycle leads.
  • Opportunity: This is an opportunity with a revenue value. Link the opportunity to the primary contact.
  • Rejected: This lead is non-targeted. It will never be a customer. The Rejected Reason field must be filled out.
  • Recycled: The lead does not meet sales criteria and is sent back to marketing for re-work.

There is a difference between stages and statuses.

Knowing statuses vs. stages for leads and your process is a key step
  • Stages represent an executive level view of the common funnel and broadly represent where and how a customer is engaging with your company. Think top, middle and lower part of the funnel (or early, middle and late stage).
  • Statuses are the detailed operational views of where and how a customer is interacting with your company. These are represented in the technology (both marketing automation and CRM).

It is the lead statuses that bring the marketing automation platform and the CRM together. Otherwise the systems are fighting each other.

Now that the systems are aligned, Marketing and Sales have visibility on the follow up actions needed on leads (rejecting, recycling, and so on).

A specific value is now assigned to a sales-qualified lead.

This value is built into your marketing automation platform, which triggers the status change and kicks the qualified lead over to Sales.

This system provides a wealth of value both to Sales and Marketing as well as the Executive team. Not only is there more transparency between all teams, there is also a common language between the teams and a predictability of lead flow. Sales and Marketing can work more efficiently and effectively, and productivity increases while budget management gets easier.

It might still be difficult to sell the value of a funnel with lead stages and statuses that are common between Sales and Marketing. Here is a suggested plan of action:

  • Understand the current sales funnel definitions and use.
  • Review current marketing stages, CRM statuses and the state of one common funnel.
  • Determine the gap between the two.
  • Meet with key stakeholders to share what was learned and take feedback.
  • Create one common funnel.
  • Gain agreement with key stakeholders.
  • Implement with/in process and technology.

Stage 3: Optimize prospect process flow using automation

Using automation to optimize your prospect process creates a defined flow for what happens to a lead upon acquisition. This ensures that no lead is left behind and the prospect/customer has a positive experience.

Marketing automation helps you acquire inbound leads via top-of-the-funnel marketing such as website personalization, SEO, landing pages and forms. It then helps you engage your customers:

  • New, hot leads are presented with relevant cross channel content via email, mobile, web, and social channels
  • Warm leads are encouraged to re-engage with your company and ideally turn into a hot lead
  • Cold or Unengaged leads can be sent content they may find interesting, which could bring them towards the warm stage

At this point, you’re ready to sell!

Leads are scored and dynamically passed to sales. Reps are now empowered with synced data, dashboards, and activity. This entire process is optimized because marketing identifies campaigns with positive return and becomes known as an effective cost center because it’s properly using available analytics.

The graphic below illustrates an example:

Here's an example of how marketing automation can streamline lead management within your organization

You can see from this graphic that the marketing automation platform plays a central role in the integration of your technology and the life of your lead. Once a new lead is created in the marketing automation platform (MAP), it’s dynamically passed between Marketing and Sales as it is nurtured, potentially recycled, and either won, lost, or rejected.

Related: Read our Executive’s Guide To Marketing Automation

Without This, It’s Chaos

If you don’t have marketing automation in place, you like face some of these challenges:

  • Sales remains too busy to update leads and key metrics that let marketing know if leads they’re passing are high-quality
  • Details that would help lead segmenting are left untouched and stale
  • Marketing is left guessing as to what sales is doing

Even companies with well-established MAPs can still face these challenges without proper implementation or have the right processes and rules in place!

Click here to grab this bundle has five must-have documents for any marketing leader!

Stage 4: Confirm/document lead routing

Confirming and documenting lead routing ensures any given lead is automatically sent to the appropriate person when the prospect meets particular qualification criteria.

Lead processing begins with the ˆ of the lead. When considering lead processing, you must consider what your best lead sources are. Lead sources include social (for example, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook), webcasts, tradeshows, sales sourced, and so on.

Lead processing is the flow by which a lead enters your system and becomes known to your marketing automation process, following through MAP and CRM until it is closed/won. This process needs to be documented, and it should include all the technology systems that contribute data to the contact/account. Ideally, all of these technologies are integrated so that the processing happens faster.

Lead processing matters because it clearly defines what will happen when a qualified lead arrives in your MAP. It helps marketing understand which lead sources are better than others in terms of sourcing leads. It also ensures a fluid process when leads are passed over to sales and back to marketing.

Routing vs. Processing

Lead processing is the flow by which a lead enters your system and becomes “known” to your marketing automation process (MAP), following it through MAP and CRM until it is closed/won. Lead processing is how a lead is processed through your technology.

Lead routing is the automated process by which we assign system qualified leads to the right sales person (by geography, product sales and so on). Automating lead routing ensures that the prospect is followed up with in a timely manner by the right person.

The value of lead processing and routing for Sales is they receive high quality leads in a timely manner, giving them higher conversion rates and improving first call quality. For Marketing, the value is found in the automation, timeliness, efficiency, and effectiveness of lead processing and routing. They’ll be able to nurture leads that sales will want to follow up on, and they will have higher conversion rates from SRL to Opportunity.

If Sales isn't getting the hot leads, you're leaving revenue on the table in your lead management process!

Marketing’s productivity will increase as will their ability to transparently track their output.

Many companies have a round robin approach with leads, while others leverage campaign parameters to designate a given lead to the right salesperson. If necessary, you can put “stopgaps” in place in the distribution of leads to slow down the routing process (for example, a manager receives all of the leads and then distributes them). However, not having a fast-track option prevents truly hot leads from getting straight to Sales.

World-class characteristics

Lead processing and routing need to be documented. The documentation should include all technology systems that contribute data to the contact and the account. Ideally, all the technologies used in this process are integrated, ensuring the process happens faster.

Lead processing begins with the source of the lead. Consider this: what are your best lead sources? They could come from your social platforms (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook), webcasts, organic or paid searches, your website, customer referrals, tradeshows, campaigns and/or third-party placements.

Wherever they come from, they should be given a specific naming convention. For example, a lead source from a tradeshow could be named “2021_TradeShowName_LeadManagementProduct.”

Here's what a strong lead management process could look like from a lead scoring perspective

Note the moments when a lead is looped back into Marketing for nurturing. This entire process and all of the technologies involved should be documented so that everyone (Sales and Marketing) understands the lifecycle of a lead.

Here is a roadmap to developing your lead processing and routing management process:
  1. Map your current lead flow by lead source and look for inefficiencies in the following five areas (remember to collaborate with Sales!):
    • Use of technology
    • The actual route of the lead
    • Who does what to the lead along each stage of the route
    • How long the lead stays in each stage
    • Data/intelligence being passed with the leads
  2. Once you have gathered this information, begin to modify your current lead processing to wipe out inefficiencies. Again, remember to collaborate with Sales!
  3. Work with sales to understand and determine the rules for routing the lead to the appropriate sales person.
  4. Ensure the technology supports optimal lead processing and optimal lead routing.
  5. Ensure the SLA supports the goals and required actions for lead processing and routing.

Throughout the planning and development phase, and especially as you enact your revamped lead processing and routing plan, it is important to maintain open communication between Marketing and Sales. If Marketing and Sales are both clearly educated on the new process, buy-in will be easy, and adoption will be quick.

Stage 5: Optimize prospect/customer scoring for automation

Lead scoring, while often the focus of everyone interested in lead management, is only part of the process. It can also auto-qualify leads based on a combination of digital behavior and demographic information.

So, what is lead scoring? It’s a methodology used to rank prospects against a scale that represents the perceived value each lead represents to the organization. The resulting score is used to determine which leads a sales or inside sales associate will engage, in order of priority. You determine what counts – for instance, downloading a whitepaper or watching a certain webinar would increase a person’s lead score.

This focuses sales attention on leads the organization deems most valuable, ensuring that unqualified leads or leads with low value are not sent to sales … which means they’ll know any lead you send them is worth their time!

This is a vital process … so much so, that if this is done poorly, it undermines everything else. But lead scoring is also only one-sixth of a winning lead management process.

Lead Scoring Determines What’s Sales Ready

In stage 1, you defined what “sales ready” actually means. Here, you build the process that automates it.

For your lead scoring, list out demographic, behavioral, and other factors that would positively or negatively contribute to a propsect's lead score ... and have both teams working together on it!

Remember, a qualified lead is defined using a combination of digital behavior and demographic information. Lead scoring is built to qualify leads based on this criteria. We assign a numerical value to specific actions (visits to the website, downloads of an asset, etc.) that a customer or prospect takes throughout their engagement with you coupled with key demographic information.

When the sum of their scores meets a pre-determined threshold, the lead is considered to be sales-ready (or marketing qualified) and is passed over to Sales for follow-up.

(re)Build Your Lead Scoring Model

Do this along with key Sales staff in a 1-2 hour working session. Keep the lead scoring model simple at first. As you being to pass leads to sales, collect feedback from Sales on the quality of the leads. You will want to adjust scoring if too many unqualified leads get through (suggesting that your algorithm is too loose) or if not enough leads are getting through (suggesting that your algorithm is too rigid).

As you build out your scoring model with your Sales partners, be sure to cover the following questions:

  • Which demographic variables are most important to your Sales team?
  • What demographic attributes are most common in closed/won deals?
  • Which behaviors represent buying interest?
  • Which behaviors should be weighted highest?
  • Which behaviors indicate negative buying interest?
  • Can you classify your behaviors into buying stages (early, mid or late stage buying activity)?

It’s also important to use one lead scoring model across the entire organization. You can customize the model for a business unit or product as needed, but there should only be one lead scoring model that everyone can refer to.

Once you have created your model (click for additional tips), it’s time to test and verify your new lead scoring design. We often suggest that our clients run a small pilot of sample leads through scenario tests with a newly designed lead scoring program.

  • Example 1: Existing closed/won customers
  • Example 2: Existing closed/lost opportunities/contacts
  • Example 3: Leads that were unqualified by Sales

Ask yourself this key question – Would these leads have been assessed correctly by our new scoring model?

If the answer is yes, it’s time to move forward with the next steps. Build out new lead scoring campaigns and if you have an algorithm in place, retire old scoring campaigns. Reset your lead scores (demographic and behavioral), rescore on demographic information and then monitor your new scoring programs for the next four weeks.

Four weeks after launching your new model, re-assess.

Ask Sales for feedback. Verify your design through a pilot test. (Are qualified leads meeting the MQL threshold? Are the right leads qualifying for scores? Are they where they are supposed to be in the funnel?) Finally, update your scoring model.

Scoring is an iterative process. Your model should be reviewed, at a minimum, every quarter. As your lead quality and volume stabilize, you can push that back to every six months.

To reiterate, while lead scoring is not the entirety of the lead management process, it is an important part of the whole. Good lead scoring increases Sales’ efficiency and effectiveness, Marketing’s effectiveness, and helps bring Marketing and Sales into tighter alignment. World class lead scoring is:

  1. Reflective of the definition of a sales-ready lead.
  2. Created by Marketing and Sales.
  3. Inclusive of digital body language (behavioral data).
  4. Limited to one lead scoring model with customization for a business unit, ABM or product as needed.
  5. An iterative process.
Upgrade your lead management process with TPG!

Stage 6: Establish and document a comprehensive Service-Level Agreement

A Service-Level Agreement (SLA) is a document which captures the roles and responsibilities of sales and marketing throughout the lead management process. It’s put into place to achieve better understanding and alignment between the teams.

Both sales and marketing must commit to follow the SLA in order to make the lead management process work. It will need to be put into place, monitored, and revised based on results.

Ultimately, the SLA is intended to assign joint accountability to sales and marketing for leads generated and to prevent lead funnel decay.

Components

The easiest part is documenting often roles and responsibilities. It basically says, as a Marketer, I’ll do this to help generate high quality leads for the business. In kind, as a Sales person, I agree to do this to manage the high quality leads we receive and work them to close.

In many cases, it’s a simple table:

SalesMarketing
View campaign engagement per contact in SFDCCraft go-to-market campaigns
Accept/reject marketing qualified leadsGenerate net new leads and expansion within customer accounts
Convert leads to contacts/opportunityCreate new content
Maintain account/contact infoScore leads and qualify them
Add primary contact info to opportunityNurture leads
Manage MQL queuesHand off leads to Sales
Read communications from MarketingCommunicate marketing efforts to Sales
Promote upsell and cross-sell of productsReport on marketing operations

World class SLAs map out the lead management process so that everyone involved knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing.

The other critical element: Time

How much time Sales has to accept a qualified lead once it has been kicked over from Marketing is a must-have for any SLA.

Usually, I see clients give 24-48 hours for a sales person to accept a lead. This is really just Sales saying “Yes, I see this lead and I agree to work it.” They would then need to change the disposition of the lead status in CRM to “Accepted Lead” or whatever language you use to indicate this has happened.

If the SLA says they have 48 hours to disposition a new lead, and nothing happens in CRM to indicate that the lead has been noticed by Sales, we would send an auto alert to the sales person – a reminder. If nothing happens within another 24 hours, we send another auto alert, but this time with an escalation copying their boss. If nothing happens in another 24 hours, we reassign the lead.

That is a typical example of a lead processing agreement that must be included in the SLA. It ensures that the leads that Marketing are generating are actually being worked by Sales. And we know that the leads are qualified based on the fact that we developed the definition of a qualified lead together and that the scoring algorithm was built to support that definition.

To help you visualize what that SLA looks like across the funnel, we’ve provided a high-level sample below:

Here is an example of a high-level service-level agreement between sales and marketing. You will have more granularity in your own SLAs.

As you can see, the SLA is involved at every stage of the life of the lead. The SLA provides huge value to both Sales and Marketing as it brings them into alignment. The SLA clarifies roles and expectations, providing a common process and language that allows the Marketing and Sales machines to work together as a joined unit.

Tips to implementing an SLA in your environment

In order to sell the benefits of SLAs, create a PowerPoint with the value to present to your company.

  • Meet with key stakeholders to show them proof points.
  • Ask for feedback, and create continuous visibility through meetings and dashboards.
  • Finally, create, communicate and sign the Service Level Agreement. Remember to review and revise the SLA quarterly.

There are, of course, potential barriers for implementing this. Sales might not agree to any implementation, or Sales might not agree to the terms of marketing’s ideal SLA. It’s important to get Sales leadership on board with your plan to create and implement an SLA before moving forward.

Key takeaway: Include sales in the SLA design process!

Another potential barrier accountability on both sides to the terms of the Service Level Agreement. Again, it is important for leadership in both Sales and Marketing to be on board with the SLA plan and to be educated on the terms of the agreement so that they can hold their staff members accountable.

Key takeaway: SLA adherence can be measured in the systems. Check adherence often, and be sure the sales team knows that you can zero in on the specific sales people who are not following process. Transparency is a motivator!

Stage 7: Establish the Foundation for Customer Management Analytics – from Acquisition to Advocacy

If we broaden the definition of lead management to define a Customer Journey Map process (for example, TPG’s Loop), then lead management becomes defined as a process methodology whereby a company attracts, acquires, and nurtures prospects until qualified to be passed to sales, and where sales is held accountable for processing those prospects through to close.

This is where a lead management model such as below comes in handy.

Marketing now interacts with customers during their many stages of product adoption and value recognition, encourages their loyalty and advocacy, and ultimately nurtures them back into a new buying cycle and re-qualifies them for sales engagement.

The components of the process remain the same, but additional stages beyond the first deal close are included.

Characteristics of Lead Management (Customer Acquisition)

Let’s put lead management in perspective. Lead management is the process of acquiring new business. It is also the practice of synergizing your customers, people, process and technology to produce a sales ready lead that converts at the highest possible rate into an opportunity and a closed deal.

From a people perspective, effective lead management is characterized by a tight working relationship between Marketing and Sales. From envisioning what will resonate with prospects to effective lead processing, both Sales and Marketing play pivotal roles.

The left side of the model speaks to the process by which we acquire new individuals and manage their journey through our engagement process. If we do this correctly, with the right messages, we will create a fluid experience for the prospect and optimizing outcomes for the company.

Characteristics of Customer Management (Customer Expansion)

Now let’s look at customer management. The right side of the model represents Customer management, which is also a process but specific to upselling and cross-selling current customers. It’s about expanding the current business relationship. Customer management is still the practice of synergizing people, process and technology, but in this case to optimize the customer experience with your company so that they will be inclined to give you more business.

In addition to Sales and Marketing, other key stakeholders include customer service, operations, IT – really any functional area that is interacting with the customer as they onboard, adopt and realize value. Careful planning, orchestration and functional alignment is necessary to create a singular view of the customer and improve the quality of the customer experience.

From the customer’s perspective, customer management is about creating the feeling for the customer that your business is easy to work with, easy to buy from, and interested in helping them solve their business problems.  Your goal then, as the partner to your customers is to help them optimize outcomes regardless of what part of your company they are interacting with.

Engaging With Our Customers/Prospects

So, how do we engage with our customers at every stage of their journey?

A prospect becomes qualified through a series of buying stages. Use these stages to map out your own customer journey stages and definitions in your lead management process, and identify key points when it makes the most sense to nurture them.

  • Should someone reach out on LinkedIn?
  • Is an email with a relevant piece of content worthwhile?
  • Do you have an assessment they can take to learn more?

These are just some examples!

Shift to viewing the funnel from the buyer’s perspective … with a few key considerations.

This customer journey map is a more accurate reflection of the entire product/service related engagement between a customer or prospect and their vendor/supplier/provider.

  • The model aligns all functions of the organization around optimizing the customer experience.
  • It more closely aligns marketing with sales and support and their relationships with customers.
  • It also incorporates customer status fields to reflect when a prospect has become a customer. This puts more structure around program planning and campaign planning for specific solutions and cross-sell/upsell opportunities.

Knowing your lead management maturity level can give you the knowledge you need to improve and adjust your market strategy. As you reflect on where your organization is, here’s a summary of the stages:

A summary of the 7 key stages of effective lead management process

Ready to improve your lead management?

It’s not easy, but it absolutely can be done! Get started with one of these options:

Click here to grab this bundle has five must-have documents for any marketing leader!

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