If You Think Your Lead is Qualified, Think Again

Brian Onorio
Brian Onorio

Is the stream of interested contacts flowing through your sales pipeline producing the close ratio you’d expect?

Have you ever wondered at what step in the sales process you can relax and start counting on a close?

Are you looking for a way to make your lead vetting more efficient and reliable?

Developing a steady pipeline of qualified leads is the ultimate objective of every organization. But the criteria for what your specific team views as “qualified” might not be so universal. Having a company-wide understanding of the unique levels of qualification fosters consistent productivity, and ushers more appropriate contacts further through the sales and marketing funnel, saving precious time and resources for all.

All prospects go through a typical buyers’ journey, in which they first identify a pain point (Awareness Stage), research solutions (Consideration Stage), and choose the best product or service to resolve the issue (Decision Stage). Prospects will come to you as they are researching potential solutions to their challenges. Just as you see your company’s offerings as unique and special, so, too, do your competitors view theirs. For this reason, qualification should be continuously aligned with your sales process, with qualification markers at every stage along the sales cycle (especially if yours is a lengthy one). Rather than the old phrase, ABC: Always Be Closing, make your modus operandi is ABQ: Always Be Qualifying.

Organization-Level Qualification (Interest Stage)

At this basic level of qualification, you are considering if this account fits into your company’s buyer personas (your ‘ideal’ or ‘most likely’ customers). There’s a bit of educated guesswork that goes into this stage, but some telling questions are:

Is your product or service applicable to the prospect’s industry?

Does the prospect have an actual need with a plan to buy (or just shopping for info)?

Leads at this basic level can come from many different sources — web form submissions, events, referrals, networking — where communication is information-seeking and doesn’t necessarily qualify (or disqualify) the contact’s sales worthiness. These communications are simply an introductory handshake available to anyone, regardless of their authority or intent to follow the journey through to an eventual purchase.

Opportunity-Level Qualification (Connect Stage)

This next-level qualification is where you determine whether your prospect has a specific need that your product or service can answer, and whether your particular offerings are an appropriate fit within their organization. It is at this stage that they begin to open up with specific answers to pain points they’re facing. The more detail they give you about what they want to change or fix, the more time they’ve probably stewed over this ‘painful’ need.

The goal of your overall sales process should be identifying these opportunity-level qualified leads for whom your offerings are genuinely beneficial. Rather than a vulture circling a wounded animal, your goal should be philanthropy and advocacy towards a common goal.

During subsequent engagements, synergies (or lack thereof) will continue to surface between your offerings and their needs. Both parties consider (or start to dismiss) the potential for a cooperative partnership. Continue vetting your lead by reaffirming items discussed during previous conversations, as priorities and needs may – and often do – shift.

Square pegs and round holes will never work in the long run, so don’t force the issue. Spending time and effort on a prospect who can’t pass this qualification level is a costly inefficiency for all involved.

Follow BANT to Identify Qualified Leads

The initial discovery call or meeting is your opportunity to probe for qualification markers, and most importantly, LISTEN.  Ask open-ended questions using the BANT methodology (Budget, Authority, Need, and Timing) to reveal more efficient, honest responses than close-ended ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ questions will.

Budget: What budget is the prospect working with, and how do my offerings align?
Authority: What decision-making authority does my prospect have to sign off on this purchase?
Need: What are the prospect’s pain points or challenges and how do my offerings solve for this?
Timeline: When is the prospect planning to buy? Is this a priority for them right now?

Your prospect’s BANT responses will determine where they fall on your organization’s internal qualification hierarchy. By the end of this phase, you should have a good idea of how to move them through (or remove them from) next stages of qualification.

Stakeholder-Level Qualification (Decision Stage)

Buyer Persona?  ✅
Your Solution = Their Need?  ✅

The third level of qualifying a lead is determining whether your point of contact is the final authority in making a purchasing decision. A good indicator of decision authority is marked by your prospect’s detailed knowledge of company goals, challenges, and needs. (Generally speaking, the less detail your lead has on these issues, the less insight or authority they have in applying solutions). Whenever possible, qualify more than one decision-maker to have several access points into the purchase.  Some qualification questions to ask at this level:

Will this purchase draw from your budget?
What other leads or company contacts are involved in the decision?
What are the criteria for this purchase decision? Defined by whom?

Once you know the prospect’s pain points, end goals, and decision-making authority, you’re now equipped with the tools to inform appropriate next steps. Quality is far more important than quantity, so use discretion when advancing prospects to next levels, and qualify on all 3 levels during every conversation before moving forward.

The qualification process rarely occurs on linear, confluent paths, so be prepared to qualify (and re-qualify) your lead until the contract is signed. Don’t be lulled into complacency by assuming that verbal indications or affirmations along the way equal a ‘done deal’.  The most valuable asset you control is your time, so be discerning in your efforts spent towards lead qualification. Your sales pipeline and success ratio will thank you in the end.