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  • Writer's picture Jim Mcwhirter

Inbound Leads – Is Qualification Replacing Your Discovery?

Is your sales pipeline qualification driven or discovery driven?

Today’s best in class B2B companies are unifying sales and marketing better than ever before. Strong alignment and communication between the departments is critical for maximizing functional execution at each pipeline stage and maximizing results.

As it relates to the process of inbound lead generation, the path from initial inquiry through qualification to sales hand-off can sometimes get clunky. The big question that always needs to be answered by every company, is when in their process does an inbound lead that originates with marketing (MQL), get passed over to sales as an SQL? While both teams have an important role to play in improving conversion rates, not getting the combined/complete sales process right can be very costly.

According to many definitions, an MQL becomes an SQL when both:

· The lead is qualified

· The prospect has indicated they are ready to talk to the sales team

This can result in one of the biggest challenges, which is separating marketing initial qualification criteria (MQL) from sales discovery (SQL). Could the emphasis on qualifying rules be causing you to shortcut or miss discovery opportunities?

Put another way, is a full discovery:

· Being completed and by who?

· Being replaced with qualification?

o Is your qualification process causing you to exit potential opportunities too early?

Although this definition above may work well for highly transactional business, for many others it can lead to ineffective, diminished or even missed opportunity.

If You Want to Improve Conversion Rates, do More Discovery (Not Less).

For most companies, discovering information about your customer, their organization and their needs is the most critical step in the sales process. It should never be skipped, rushed, or built upon assumption. The idea that customers know what they want and that we can then qualify this and move to solution without discovery, can be consequential to sales outcomes.

Research shows that top performing sales reps spend more time and energy digging deep to discover the root cause and impact of their customer needs and challenges. They bring sector and industry expertise to help customers elucidate critical business issues, define key metrics, identify opportunities for improvement, etc., etc. The primary objective should not be to confirm if a customer knows what they want and is ready and able to buy. The goal of discovery is to get information that can help build an ROI.

Giving Information is Not Sales Discovery

Every time someone downloads a white paper or reads a blog, it doesn’t mean that they want to be contacted by a salesperson. Lead magnet techniques (in their various forms) create an excellent touchpoint that can be timely, educating and used to separate the ones that are not solution viable. Connecting in a helpful (nurturing) way can definitely increase engagement.

However, when does lead nurturing become an information dump? Although having a Business Development Rep (BDR) reach out to give more information and answer high level questions is helpful, it doesn’t replace a collaborative two-way discovery (as outlined above). The better you are understanding critical business objectives, goals and challenges, the easier it will be to map back your solution.

If your nurturing process shifts from creating interest into a product dump, you may miss the moment to have the prospect cross from a buyer’s journey into a sale cycle. Impactful discovery isn’t built on simply giving information and providing clarity. Sometimes, you have to challenge buyer assumption, fine tune your business case and create some discomfort to get them over the status quo gravity. It is where you create momentum … don’t miss the opportunity!

Qualification of Inbound Leads is not Sales Discovery

Please don’t let your company get inbound lead qualification mixed up with discovery. Getting this wrong or mixed up could be costing your business. Just because the customer found you through a digital marketing channel (download, page views, infographics) doesn’t mean you handle your sales discovery requirement differently than one generated through outbound initiatives. Checking qualification boxes to see where they are on their buyer’s journey is not a replacement to creating demand and uncovering critical business issues through a consultative sales process.

Let’s look at a company that might be using BANT to qualify a lead prior to forwarding for sales assignment. The still popular BANT (Budget, Authority, Need, Timing) qualification framework was invented by IBM in the 1960’s for enterprise B2B items that costed somewhere between a car and a house.

Although the BANT framework is still a great tool for assigning resources and winning at an enterprise sales level (for more on this please see Jeff Goldstein’s Winning the Six figure Sale, with the complexity of a B2B buying decision today, can we really expect a person who finds us online to have a budget, timeframe, clearly defined need and autonomous decision-making process.

I’m not saying that as a salesperson you want every single inbound query or lead form

submission passed to you. Of course, there is junk and it is great to have someone prequalify the junk prior to it coming to you. But if a lead fits several of the company’s target market criteria, as a sales professional or leader you should always want to take a shot at doing a proper consultative sales discovery. Your presales qualification process should not be set to only allow prospects who believe they know what they want into the sales pipeline.

There are exceptions. For example, businesses that provide transactional based subscription- SaaS services. In this high-volume transactional sales model where you have an explicitly defined customer need at a low price, you risk letting your marketing team’s BDRs use qualification to replace discovery. See the pipeline on the left where your sales process might not require a discovery.

For the many other salespeople who sell something with an investment of more than $100/month, they still require a discovery to create value, differentiation and trust through a collaborative discovery process where the buyer’s path isn’t quite as clearly defined. Be wary not to overly adopt popularized SaaS based sales models that may not fit your business type. What works for one business model may not works for your business.

Some lead scoring systems can be used as an objective way to gage interest and trigger the booking of a discovery meeting. We emphasize avoiding static approaches that do not account for the complexity of decision making within today’s B2B world. If you have too rigid a qualification process before the handoff to sales, you may miss what could have been solid new logo opportunities.

Sales Discovery is Not High-Level Qualification

A sales discovery is not asking questions to check the qualification boxes. For example, using BANT again:

1. Do you have a defined BUDGET for our services?

2. Do you have the AUTHORITY to make a decision?

3. Do you have a clearly defined NEED for our services?

4. What is your purchase TIME frame to buy our products and services?

We caution any company that is mixing this up with discovery.

In today’s world, the answer to all of these questions may be flexible or non-applicable at an early stage of your sales process. For example, if someone called me up and asked me if I have a budget of $10,000/month and the authority to spend $10,000/month on my marketing needs this month, the answer is, “NO”. Convince me that I will have a ROI of $20,000/month and the answer becomes, “YES” and, “can we start tomorrow please.” The qualification criteria of a BANT or other system are much more applicable later in the cycle after discovery.

The job of modern consultative sales professionals is to educate and collaborate with prospects to help see the “why” (ROI) of buying from you and your company. This momentum is primarily generated during discovery. Confirming or qualifying how far along somebody is on their “magical buyers’ journey” is not discovery. Instead, try to guide the buyer on your sales journey – something that you can control and get better at. If after a sales driven discovery you are unable to create enough value or engagement for the prospect to move to align their buying proves with your company’s sales process, then you can close the opportunity. But don’t close it before.

Is it Marketing’s Job to do Discovery?

Marketing got them in the door for you – but who should do discovery?

We have all read the stats on how many people are involved in a business change decision today. Building the unique and differentiated business case for your services may take several meetings with several different people before you even get to solution. This can take time, effort and skill. For most B2B companies, this cannot be done during an BDR pre qualification call.

If you’re a sales leader and your people are unable to run a proper discovery (first meeting) using drill down questions and insights, then train them.

To many discovery meetings is a good problem to own and execute on; we don’t believe they are for Marketing to solve. If your BDRs are not comfortable that your AEs are following a discovery process, they may eventually start doing them themselves which will mess up your process.

A final point for sales

As salespeople, we can sometimes get a little picky about the quality of the inbound leads we are receiving. I would always recommend to my team to be extremely grateful for every inbound lead your marketing team can get you. Think of them as a bonus and not a replacement to the heavier lifting of outbound efforts.

If you’re looking for inbound sales leads to come on a silver platter, with every prospect fully vetted for fit, authority and ready to buy, then you may be setting your expectations a little high.

Focus on improving discovery skills instead of focusing on the lead quality. Please reach out and we would be happy to assist.

Keep the Momentum!

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