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If you want to start an argument, ask a room full of Sales and Marketing people to explain the difference between a Lead and an Opportunity. You’re guaranteed a bun fight.

But why does the difference between a Lead and an Opportunity matter?

It matters because every business wants to generate more Leads in order to drive revenue. Consequently organisations are focussing increased attention on the effectiveness of their lead management process.  And to implement an effective lead management process, Sales and Marketing must agree on the difference between a Lead and an Opportunity.

But that can be harder than it sounds.

However if Sales and Marketing can’t agree on the difference, then how can they agree on when a Lead should become an Opportunity? And if they can’t agree this, then it’s simply not possible to implement a robust, end-to-end Lead and Opportunity management process across the organisation.

It’s a challenge we’ve helped many businesses resolve. So here’s our definitive guide to the difference between a Lead and an Opportunity.

Sales person’s definition of a Lead

Why is there so much confusion in the first place? After all, most Sales and Marketing people will acknowledge that a Lead is the first step in the sales cycle.

The reason is that to a sales person, a Lead can just as easily come from an existing customer or known prospect, as a brand new one. It’s simply the start of the sales process. The process may not be sufficiently advanced to warrant creating a formal Opportunity in salesforce.com. But it has at least started.

So from a sales person’s perspective, a Lead reflects a broad range of early stage, potential opportunities that require action. It’s these opportunities, both early and late stage, that show on the salesforce dashboards that focus on sales performance and funnel visibility.

Marketing person’s definition of a Lead

A Marketing person’s perception of a Lead can vary in two important ways in the absence of an agreed organisational definition.

First, a Lead is often a person or business that will potentially make a purchase at some undetermined point in the future. Marketing may hand the Lead to Sales, but not necessarily with the expectation that a sale will immediately result. The Lead is a potential customer that may engage in a future sales process.

Second, Marketing often defines a Lead as being a brand new company or person. The business or contact didn’t previously exist in the database. Indeed the role of Marketing in many businesses is to increase the overall prospect base for long term benefit, rather than directly impact immediate revenue over the next month or two.

Sales are under pressure to close deals in the short term. Marketing want to nurture the Lead. It’s this contrast in expectations that frequently results in Sales to complaining about the quality of Leads created by Marketing.

Definition of a Lead in salesforce

These differing definitions of a Lead mean Sales and Marketing fail to agree on the difference between a Lead and an Opportunity. This directly obstructs the implementation of an effective Lead management process in salesforce.com.

So what constitutes a Lead in the salesforce.com CRM system?

In fact, salesforce uses the term Lead in several different ways. Let’s take them step by step.

1. Lead as a brand new enquiry

Start by thinking of a Lead in salesforce.com as a brand new enquiry, from a business and person you’ve never previously heard of.

For example, let’s say you’ve a Web-to-Lead form set up on your web site. Web-to-Lead is an easy, standard way to integrate salesforce with your web site. It means anyone that fills in your Contact Us form will be automatically inserted into salesforce.com as a Lead.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do? Click on the Find Duplicates button on the Lead page layout. This will identify any matching Leads or Contacts that already exist in your salesforce database. Let’s assume you don’t find any.

Now you make an outbound telephone call to the Lead. Essentially, one of three basic outcomes is going to result from the conversation:

  • The Lead is a dead end.
    It turns out the person isn’t interested in any further dialogue. Or perhaps it was a student simply looking for research information. Either way, set the Lead Status to Closed. You don’t necessarily delete the Lead from the database, but no further action is anticipated.
  • The Lead is a definite maybe.
    The Lead is moderately interested in your products and services. He doesn’t want to speak to a sales person – at least not yet. But you agree to send a brochure, product specification or price list.So this time set the Lead Status to Contacted. You might also create a follow up Task to call the Lead again in the future.
  • The Lead is a sales Opportunity.
    The Lead agrees to a meeting or phone call with a Sales person. Or he requests a quote. In other words, he gives you some indication that he’s a legitimate potential customer. He’s a Qualified Lead.

This time leave the Lead Status alone. Instead, click on the Convert Lead button. Salesforce will convert the Lead into three separate records; an Account; Contact; and Opportunity.

Here’s the process in a flow chart diagram.

Process diagram for qualifying a new Lead in salesforce

The Account represents the business or organisation. The Contact is the person employed by that organisation. And the Opportunity represents the potential sales deal.

It’s this early stage Opportunity that many Sales people will regard as a Lead.

Indeed Sales people may be reluctant to use the term Opportunity. It raises expectations about the outcome. It creates visibility of the deal in the sales pipeline dashboard. And from the sales person’s perspective, the Lead may – or may not – have been properly qualified before it was converted to an Account, Contact and Opportunity.

All legitimate issues. Before we address them, let’s deal with several other ways salesforce.com uses the term Lead.

2. Leads that match existing Lead records

Let’s go to back to our person that filled in the Contact Us form on your web site.

In our example we assumed that there were no existing Leads or Contacts that matched our new Lead. We established this by clicking on the Find Duplicates button on the Lead page layout.

What if one or more matching Leads had been found?

Search for duplicate leads in salesforce

No problem. Use the Merge Leads button to merge the various Leads into a single record. Then make your qualification call.

Here’s the process diagram.

Lead qualification process diagram with duplicate lead records

3. Leads that match existing Contact records

How can an existing Contact be created as a Lead in salesforce? Well, there’s a number of ways.

For example, Leads can be created by importing the spreadsheet that contains a list of people that came to a booth at an exhibition. Some of those people may well be existing Contacts.

Or say you’ve a Web-to-Lead form on your web site that allows visitors to register for an event. When an existing Contact registers he’s created as a Lead. The same thing happens if you’re using Web-to-Lead to enable visitors to download a document from your web site.

In any of these cases, when you click on the Find Duplicates button you may find there’s a matching Contact.

Click the Find Duplicates button to find Leads that match existing Contacts

Here’s three ways to deal with the Contact-as-a-Lead situation.

  • Convert the Lead without making a Qualification call.
    During the Lead conversion process, salesforce will help you merge the Lead into the existing Contact record. If the Account Owner is already actively engaged with the Contact – on an existing Opportunity for example – then perhaps it isn’t appropriate to make the qualification call.
  • Convert the Lead and then make a Qualification call.
    This is the common approach when it’s the Account Owner that is dealing with the Lead. He or she merges the Lead into the Contact record and then makes a call to the Contact.
  • Make a qualification call before Converting the Lead.
    This approach is used most frequently when Marketing or Inside Sales is dealing with the Lead. They make call to the Lead, cognisant of the fact that the person already has a relationship with the company. Following the conversation the Lead is converted, but Marketing or Inside Sales make a human decision on whether to simultaneously create an Opportunity.

Here’s the process diagram for the last of these scenarios.

New Lead Qualification Process Diagram with Matching Account and Contact

To Convert a Lead without creating an Opportunity, check the box “Do not create Opportunity upon conversion” during the convert process. It’s underneath the Opportunity name on the Convert Lead page layout.

When to Convert a new Lead into an Opportunity

Let’s go back to our first example. The one in which we found no matching Leads or Contacts. At what point should we convert the Lead to an Opportunity?

In fact, salesforce doesn’t mandate when you should do this. It’s up to you. The conversion point in the lead management process will vary from business to business. The key is to define the Lead Qualification criteria with the Sales team and convert the Lead when it meets these agreed criteria.

Defining who should convert a new Lead into an Opportunity

If new Leads are assigned immediately to Sales as soon as they arrive, then it will be the Sales person that converts the Lead to the Opportunity. This is the case in many businesses. There simply isn’t the resource available to have someone other than the Sales person deal with new Leads.

This is a high risk approach though. Remember, Sales are under pressure to meet short term revenue targets. If new Leads require patient nurturing in order to become sales opportunities, there’s a significant risk Sales will quickly start ignoring the Leads passed over by Marketing. Better to use a marketing application such as Pardot, Marketo or Hubspot to automate the nurturing process and transfer the Lead to Sales when the agreed qualification criteria are met.

What if Marketing or an Inside Sales team qualify the Lead before it can be converted? As a general rule, the team that performs the qualification activity should convert the Lead to the Opportunity. But to make this work, a robust Lead qualification process needs to be in place, with agreement between the qualification team and Sales on the criteria that will allow an Opportunity to be created. Again, a marketing application can add power and sophistication to the lead nurturing and lead qualification process.

If there’s ambiguity on the definition of a qualified Lead then it’s better to have Sales perform the conversion process.

The difference between a Lead and an Opportunity in salesforce

So, a meaty answer to what seems like a straight forward question – what’s the difference between a Lead and an Opportunity? At least now you’re ready to referee the argument that breaks out when you ask the question!

Whichever way you look at it, Leads are the first step in the sales process. An effective lead management process requires the difference between a Lead and an Opportunity to be clearly articulated and agreed between Sales and Marketing. What’s the first step in achieving this? Agreement on the qualification criteria that determine when a Lead can be converted into an Opportunity.

Free lead management process diagram download

Want to get your hands on the diagrams used in this blog post? No problem, fill in the form to download the diagrams in Powerpoint. Use them starting point for creating your own lead management process.

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We’ve worked with many businesses to define and implement detailed Lead management processes. We also help companies implement salesforce.com and marketing automation applications including Pardot, Marketo and Hubspot. Simply get in touch for an informal discussion on how we can help your business innovate your sales and marketing process to boost revenue.

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