When, exactly, should your marketing team hand off a lead to the sales team?
Not sure? If there’s any confusion around how to hand off leads, you’re likely losing out on a healthy amount of potential revenue.
The transfer between marketing and sales is time-sensitive. It will have a significant impact on whether a lead eventually becomes a customer. Put simply; time kills deals.
Transfer leads too early, and your sales team will waste time with prospects who aren’t ready to buy and or are just not a good fit. Transfer to sales too late, you’ll likely end up losing deals to more timely competitors.
That’s why all your revenue generating teams must work together to decide precisely when lead handoff should happen.
The criteria for delivering MQL’ should be evaluated continuously because your sales funnel requirements will need to adapt to your company’s changing needs as you grow and expand.
In this article, we’ll explain exactly how to optimize the marketing to sales handoff and ultimately increase conversions by:
- Clarifying terms and definitions in the sales funnel
- Defining the exact requirements for how to hand off leads
- Paying careful attention to the “handshake phase” between stages
- Explaining how leads enter the funnel in the first place
- Optimizing the criteria over time
Let’s dive in.
First, Align on Sales Funnel Terms
It’s so important that everyone on your team is on the same page about the terms and definitions used throughout revenue-generating functions and processes.
For example, “lead” generally means something different to Sales than it does to Marketing. That’s why many customer-facing teams use more precise terms to specify which type of leads specifically.
Of course, each business may have its own definitions for sales funnel stages and how to hand off leads. Your team will have to decide on the terms and criteria that make the most sense to you.
But for most companies, “lead” stages are defined in the following way:
- Marketing Lead (ML) – These are the leads (or contacts) that have identified themselves by providing an email address or phone number and have interacted with your content online.
- Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) – Marketing leads are considered “qualified” when they indicate that they’re especially interested in the product by metaphorically raising their hand. Perhaps they fill out a contact form, or they make a demo request. Companies who want to capture intent earlier build lead scoring models that use Fit and Engagement criteria to identify intent before customers raise their hand. In general, these leads are considered “ready” for sales since they have shown a strong intention to purchase.
- Sales Accepted Lead (SAL) – These are the MQLs that the sales team has vetted and deemed ready for further sales attention. The criteria for this decision should be developed collaboratively between Sales and Marketing.
- Sales Qualified Lead (SQL) – The sales team has qualified these leads via a phone conversation or email interaction. They have determined that they are a good fit and likely to buy. These leads are ready to enter the sales process officially.
Define Handoff Requirements
Anyone responsible for revenue knows that timing is crucial when it comes to landing new customers.
According to Salesforce’s “State of Sales” report, 76% of sales professionals surveyed considered timing to have “an extreme or substantial impact on converting a prospect to a customer.”
To get that timing right, sales and marketing teams must identify the criteria that indicate readiness for the sales process and know when and how to hand off leads.
Your specific business will have unique criteria to address. However, many of the same criteria apply to all businesses.
Here are a few examples that we see many companies use to identify the ready and relevant leads for the sales process:
- Job Titles – In some cases, only the people in certain positions will have decision-making power when it comes to making an actual purchase. For example, it’s not uncommon for employees in junior roles to do initial research. Although their role is essential and you need to engage with them, some companies may decide that a lead must be a CEO or VP level. (Of course, depending on your product, the junior staffer might be precisely the person you want. It all depends on your target personas.)
- Vertical Markets – If you’ve done an excellent job defining your ideal customers and markets, you’ll know which verticals are the sweet spot for your product. Although there can be exceptions, it’s generally better to transfer leads to sales if the prospective company operates in one of the verticals your product serves best.
- Geographies – For various reasons; logistical, technical, legal, some locations might not make sense to do business. If you’re offering a physical product, this can be even more important.
- Existing tech stacks – If you’re selling software, integrations or dependencies can be significant sales-readiness factors. Ensure that integrations the prospect requires are ones that you can support.
- Company revenue or employee count – Even if an MQL seems to meet all the other criteria, an inability to pay is a hard disqualifier. You’ve probably noticed that essentially we are using a modified BANT (Budget, Authority, Need, and Timing) approach. We are just doing it earlier to deliver better leads to sales sooner. This is a core component of our Revenue Acceleration Manifesto.
- Level of engagement – This is a big one. Our post “3 Common RFM Analysis Myths Debunked” begins to dive deep into engagement specifically. We will be publishing more on this topic soon. In general, a lead is “ready” for handoff when their interactions with your website, emails, content, Etc… are happening frequently and recently. There is a ton of nuance here, including whether the interactions are with “high intent” content or not, what constitutes engagement, and reasonable recency and frequency thresholds. Stay tuned for much more on this topic.
Don’t Overlook “Sales Accepted Lead” Status
Overlooking the Sales Accepted Lead stage happens much too often.
SAL is the stage between MQL and SQL. It’s what we call a “handshake stage.” During the SAL stage, the sales team can take a closer look at leads to assess their actual quality against predefined criteria.
There will inevitably be the occasional false positives in the marketing funnel. Some leads that seem like they should go to sales based on set criteria might not be a good fit.
Ideally, leads will only be in SAL status for a very brief time. After being reviewed, likely by sales development reps (SDR), these leads will become SQLs or reverted to MQLs.
Clear Criteria for Qualifying Marketing Leads
So far, this post has been about the criteria for qualifying sales leads.
But there certainly can’t be any qualified sales leads if there aren’t also qualified marketing leads at the top of the funnel.
That’s why the sales team needs to be involved with helping marketing define what should be an MQL and how to hand off leads that have a higher purchase intent. Sales can even work with marketing to help develop messaging that emphasizes the use-cases and functionalities that they know from experience appeal to ideal prospects.
Customer Support/Success can be a big help here too!
The importance of the alignment between sales, marketing and customer success/support cannot be overemphasized. This alignment is crucial; if there’s any disconnect between targeting, marketing qualification and sales qualification, the entire value chain is compromised.
If you’re still stumped, check out our article on how to use your lead generation process to create better buyer personas.
Analyze, Refine, Repeat
Having a shared understanding of how to measure success is key to evaluating performance at every funnel stage. And although subscription numbers, customer growth metrics, and conversion rates are all critical, the ultimate success measure should always be revenue.
To understand what should trigger leads to move from one stage to the next, you need to understand which customers add the most value (revenue) to your business over the long-term.
The characteristics of the most valuable customers will undoubtedly evolve. So, each stage of the sales funnel process’s requirements also warrants regular monitoring and continuous improvement.
If your marketing and sales teams have close working relationships and can iron out the nuances and refine the criteria together, the results will be unmistakable. This tight working relationship evolves when you’ve made a conscious and concerted effort to align the work of all of your revenue-facing functions.
In this post, we’ve learned how to hand off leads, and how to define the different types of leads for your business. The next step is for you to implement these ideas into your own plan.