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Since 2003, more than 1,700 companies have come to me, asking for help in getting more benefits from Salesforce. I’ve concluded that no topic causes as much befuddlement in Salesforce as to how to design the lead process.

You’re guaranteed a bun fight if you ask a room full of Sales and Marketing people to agree on how and when leads should pass between the two teams.

Whatsmore, Sales often complain that the leads they get from Marketing are rubbish. Marketing complains that Sales don’t phone the leads they do pass across.

Nevertheless, resolving this situation and achieving a robust lead process is critical. If you don’t, valuable opportunities will get missed, meaning lost revenue. Also, there will be a shortage of meaningful lead conversion metrics and marketing KPIs that can power a continuous improvement in performance.

So it’s worth sorting out.

Fortunately, you’re in the right place. In this guide to the lead process in Salesforce, I’ll:

  • Describe the difference between a lead and an opportunity in Salesforce.
  • Explain the lead process that works in many companies.
  • Highlight how terms like Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) and Sales Accepted Lead (SAL) fit into a well-structured lead process.
  • Give you free lead process diagrams and templates that you can adapt to your business.
  • Point you to a free lead conversion dashboard for Salesforce.

Let’s start.

Difference Between A Lead And An Opportunity

Unfortunately, the lead process often breaks down at the start because Sales and Marketing disagree on the difference between a lead and an opportunity.

However, clarity is essential, although often that’s harder than it sounds.

Why is there so much confusion? After all, most people agree that a lead is the first step in the sales cycle.

Here’s why it’s a problem.


Sales Definition Of A Lead

To a salesperson, leads come from both existing customers and prospects.

The lead can be an inquiry from an existing customer. Or a new prospect freshly arrived through the door.

Either way, the sales process has started. The salesperson may or may not believe that things are advanced enough to justify creating an Opportunity in Salesforce. Nevertheless, the qualification part of the sales process has started.

In other words, for a salesperson, leads reflect a broad range of early-stage, potential opportunities that require immediate attention.


Marketing Definition Of A Lead

The way a Marketing person views a lead often varies in two crucial ways.

First, a lead is a person or business that will potentially purchase at some undetermined point. That point may be a long time from now.

Second, for Marketing people, a lead is usually a new company or at least a new person. Often, they do not exist in the database already. Indeed, the primary role of Marketing in many businesses is to increase the overall lead database for long-term benefits.

Traditionally, Marketing may hand the lead to Sales, but not necessarily with the expectation that a deal will immediately result. The lead is a potential customer that may engage in a future sales process.

In contrast, to a salesperson, a lead is someone ready to enter the sales process right now.

Unfortunately, this difference in expectations explains why Sales often complain about the quality of Leads created by marketing.

That’s not to say Marketing doesn’t deliver sales-ready leads to salespeople. They can, and they do.

That is, providing the lead process is right.

Salesforce Lead Process

Sales and Marketing often disagree on the difference between a lead and an opportunity.

However, in Salesforce, it’s clear. The word ‘lead’ has a specific meaning. It’s a record under the Leads tab.

The lead process describes how new leads are created, nurtured, converted, and handed-over to salespeople for opportunity management.

Here’s how that process can work in simple terms.

Let’s follow this through with an example.


Lead As A New Enquiry

Start by thinking of a Lead in Salesforce as a brand new inquiry. This inquiry is from a business and person of whom you’ve never previously heard.

For example, let’s say you have a Web-to-Lead form set up on your web site. Web-to-Lead is an easy way to integrate Salesforce with your web site. It means anyone that fills in your Contact Us form automatically appears in Salesforce as a lead.

The lead now exists. What’s the first thing that should happen in the lead process? Answer: check for duplicates.

In Salesforce Classic, you had to click the Find Duplicates button to do this.

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Now, however, you can use the Duplicate Rules to identify matching records.

For now, let’s assume you don’t find any matching leads, accounts, or contacts.

Next, you make an outbound telephone call to the lead. As a result, one of three outcomes will determine what happens next in the lead process.

1. The lead is a dead end.
It turns out the person isn’t interested in any further dialogue. Perhaps it was a student only looking for research information. Or the customer is not in one of the markets you support. Either way, set the Lead Status to Closed. No further action is necessary.

2. The lead is a definite maybe.
The person is moderately interested in your products and services. She doesn’t want to speak to a salesperson – at least not yet. Nevertheless, you agree to send a brochure, product specification, or price list.

So this time, set the Lead Status to Contacted. You also create a follow-up task to call the lead again in the future.

3. The lead is a sales Opportunity.
The lead agrees to a meeting or phone call with a salesperson. Or she requests a quote. In other words, she gives you some indication that she’s a legitimate potential customer. Let’s call this a qualified lead.

This time you 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.

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

It’s this early stage opportunity that many salespeople will regard as a Lead.

Indeed salespeople are sometimes reluctant to create an opportunity or receive one created by Marketing.

That’s because it tends to raise expectations about the outcome. The opportunity is visible in the sales pipeline dashboard. And from the salesperson’s perspective, the lead may – or may not – have been adequately qualified by Marketing before converting to an account, contact, and opportunity.

All valid issues. Unfortunately, this highlights one of the common pitfalls with the lead process in many companies.

What Happens To Converted Leads

When you convert a lead in Salesforce, you have a choice.

The choice is whether to create an opportunity.

Let’s say you leave this box unchecked.

As a result, the opportunity links back to the Salesforce campaign that generated the lead.

Not only that.

The Lead Source carries through from the lead to the opportunity.

Consequently, you have potent reports and dashboard charts, providing information on campaign performance. This information includes marketing metrics and KPIs that enable powerful alignment between Sales and Marketing.

Unfortunately, here’s what often happens instead.

The person converting the lead sets the checkbox to True—the lead converts without an opportunity.

Then, here’s what typically happens:

The salesperson engages with the contact. If the salesperson identifies a legitimate deal, she creates an opportunity.

However, here’s the problem:

The opportunity no longer has any relationship with the campaign or Lead Source. That means there’s no way to gather marketing metrics that describe the success of campaigns or channels.

Consequently, creating an opportunity when the lead converts should be an essential part of your lead process. There are some exceptions that I’ll explain. However, as a rule-of-thumb, if you want high-quality information that drives marketing improvement, create opportunities when leads convert.

Nevertheless, here’s a common objection to this from Sales.

The opportunity is not qualified. It shouldn’t show up on the pipeline report, with all the pressure to close deals successfully that entails.

Fair point. However, to solve that problem, create a new opportunity stage. Call it prospecting, qualification, opportunity validation, or suchlike.

When the lead converts, default the opportunity to this initial stage. Make sure everyone understands it’s acceptable for deals to fall out of the funnel from this stage. After all, if you’re not going to win the sale, it makes sense to close it out early.

Often, companies will exclude these early-stage deals from the main pipeline report and dashboard chart. They create a separate report that focuses only on the initial-stage opportunities.

Consequently, they have great metrics on marketing campaign performance and a clear understanding of the early-stage pipeline.


Exceptions To The Lead Conversion Rule

Here are the two exceptions to the rule that you should create an opportunity while converting a lead.

First, an opportunity already exists. In other words, the account and contact are already in Salesforce, together with an opportunity. You don’t want to create a duplicate opportunity.

Second, no opportunity exists. This situation also most commonly happens when the account and contact already exist. The person downloads an eBook, for example, as part of your ongoing lead nurturing process. However, you do not believe there’s currently a legitimate opportunity.

In both of these cases, convert the lead into the existing account and contact records.

Refine the Lead Process

In our first example, we assume it’s good to phone the lead as soon as the record appears in Salesforce.

That’s probably okay if the person completes a Contact Us form.

However, it many cases, the person is not ready to receive a call. That’s because they are still at the pre-salesperson, information gathering stage.

For example, if you download our eBook ‘12 Charts That Should Be On Your Salesforce Dashboard‘, you won’t get a phone call from us.

That’s because we know people aren’t sales-ready. Instead, they are searching for advice on how to get better pipeline visibility. The eBook is one of the tools we use for getting pre-qualified leads into Salesforce.

It works pretty well.

Next, we use lead nurturing to build further engagement and credibility with these people.


Lead Nurturing

Lead nurturing means providing prospective customers with a regular stream of high-value content that educates and informs. This content raises your profile and credibility with these people and makes them more receptive to doing business with you.

For example, after people download our 12 Charts eBook, here’s the first email in our lead nurture process.

As you can see, it directs people to this blog post that explains in detail how to use one of the essential 12 charts that should be on your Salesforce dashboard.

After that, we continue to send weekly emails that always give great advice on how to get more benefits from Salesforce.


Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs)

A Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) is a person or company in the database that Marketing defines as sales-ready. Sales-ready means that based on behavioral and segmentation data, the person is ready to engage in a mutually beneficial dialogue with a salesperson.

In other words, when a lead reaches the status of MQL, Marketing believes it’s appropriate to ask a salesperson to engage in the sales process. Often, a lead scoring and grading threshold identifies this critical point.

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Usually, in the lead process, when reaching the MQL status, ownership of the lead passes to a salesperson.

You may also want to let the salesperson know by using a notification email.


Sales Accepted Lead (SAL)

A Sales Accepted Lead (SAL) means a salesperson formally accepts responsibility for a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL). This acceptance means the salesperson agrees to engage with the lead and drive the sales process forward.

You might be wondering:

Why wouldn’t a salesperson accept responsibility for a marketing qualified lead?

The answer is that this often happens when:

  1. The lead does not meet the agreed MQL definition.
  2. Salespeople do not trust the leads coming from marketing.
  3. Salespeople have enough on their plate with existing opportunities.

In the first case, the salesperson rejects the lead because it does match the agreed MQL criteria. For example, the lead score velocity is not high enough, there’s no phone number on the lead record, or the lead is not in the target market or country.

The second and third are more likely to apply when there is no definition of an MQL. Effectively, the salesperson says the marketing leads are not high enough on the priority list to warrant spending any time on them.

With these concepts in mind, let’s look at how the end-to-end lead process works in many companies.

Lead Process Template

This diagram describes a lead process that incorporates the MQL and SAL concepts.

You can download a PDF of this example lead process using the form below.

It’s essential to agree on the end-to-end lead process across both sales and marketing. It’s also critical that you decide on the MQL definition that’s relevant in your business and put in place metrics in Salesforce to measure the process.

Lead Process Metrics

In many companies with a robust lead process, there’s an agreement on how quickly Sales will respond when passed an MQL.

For example, this might be 24 or 48 working hours, excluding weekends.

I recommend you set these metrics up in Salesforce:

Make sure there are reports and dashboards to measure this metric. Agree with Sales on what happens if the time limit is exceeded; for example, the salesperson receives email notifications, or the lead ownership even passes to another team member.


Lead Conversion Dashboard

Earlier in this article, I explained how to get robust metrics and KPIs on the lead process.

However, you might be asking:

What’s the easiest way to get these reports and dashboard charts in my own Salesforce environment?

The answer is to install our free Lead Conversion Metrics dashboard. You can do that by visiting the AppExchange Listing.

The dashboard contains reports and charts that quantify leads by channel and lead source. Critically, it also includes metrics on the outcome of converted leads. It even allows you to compare win rates on opportunities that came from converted leads versus opportunities created directly on the account.

Next Steps

Getting the lead process right can be challenging. People in your team may have conflicting views on exactly how the process should work. Likewise, there will be differing opinions on how to define an MQL and the SAL steps.

Your solution:

Ask us to facilitate the lead process design workshop. We’ll help you cut through the ambiguity and implement an effective process customized to your specific business.

Get in touch to find out more.

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