The Sales-Marketing Conflict: Defining a “Lead” and Why It Matters for Lead Qualification

Written by Yaron Ismah-Moshe

Jan 4, 2021

If you’ve worked in a B2B organization before, then you must have heard the term “lead” get thrown around a lot. It’s used so often that you’d think everybody is on the same page regarding its definition. Yet, it’s a major point of contention between your sales and marketing teams, especially when it comes to lead qualification. 

See, marketers can rack up quite a huge number of leads at the end of every month… only for sales reps to complain about lead quality. In fact, 23% of salespeople say what they need most from their marketing team is “better quality leads.” There is a reason why the saying “when the company is doing well, it is because of sales; when it’s not, it’s marketing’s fault” is so popular with the sales crowd, and to some extent, it rings true. 

In turn, sales reps dismiss many marketing leads as low-quality so readily and without cross-verifying. They end up delaying follow-ups and even outright ignoring said leads, losing out on opportunities that could have been converted. What’s worse, is that this could also lead to them wasting time talking to or giving demos to people who will never even buy their product/service.

The result? Only 5% to 10% of leads actually convert to paying customers. To make matters worse, companies with poor sales and marketing alignment have actually  been known to experience gradual annual revenue decline.. 

Clearly there’s a disconnect somewhere in your lead qualification framework. So how can you rectify it?

Redefining the Term

Here’s the thing—at the end of the day, marketers and salespeople will have fundamentally different takes on what qualifies as a lead. That’s precisely why the terms sales-qualified leads (SQL) and marketing-qualified leads (MQL) exist. Each department has different goals.

From a marketing standpoint, a lead is someone they can keep in touch with. This could be through a phone number, an email address, a social media handle or any other contact information. Marketers only need to keep them interested and engaged long enough until they agree to have a sales conversation later. 

Depending on how a company operates, an MQL has to meet a set of predefined conditions too such as firmographics, personal information, and some behavioral indicators like website visits.

By a sales person’s definition, someone who has expressed the barest hint of interest isn’t automatically a lead. Depending on how the conversation goes, they could either get a potential customer or a whole lot of nothing for their efforts. There is frankly a better use for the time spent chasing after unqualified leads, like sending follow-ups or calling a more promising opportunity. To sales teams, a lead is someone who asks for a demo or signs up for a free trial. Simply put, it’s someone who’s ready to make a buying decision. They need more than just intent; some basic qualification and validation of need is to be expected. 

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Finding a Middle-Ground

In an ideal world, the friction between marketing and sales teams would be non-existent. Both departments would take into account the other’s needs and build their processes around those so they can work together to achieve mutual goals. In reality, however, that’s easier said than done. But that doesn’t mean that both departments just have to always be at odds with each other.

The first step to achieving marketing-sales alignment is finding a middle-ground. Rather than fixating on each department’s definition of a lead, marketing and sales must put the debate to rest and agree on an internal definition of what a lead is. Essentially, this is someone who ticks all the boxes of your customer personas and expresses clear buying intent. Or more accurately, an individual who is “sales-ready”, preferably has the budget authority and is their company’s decision-maker. Then and only then may they be considered actual leads and handed off to the sales team.

What about leads that aren’t considered sales-ready? Should you stop letting them into your sales cycle altogether? 

No, because that would be unrealistic and counterproductive. Someone who was interested enough to download a free eBook related to what you’re selling can make a purchasing decision in the future and still adds value to the sales pipeline. It’s just a matter of putting checks and balances in place to keep marketing and sales properly aligned, and continually guide them through the sales funnel. 

This is where automating your lead qualification process comes in.

Automating Your Process

So, how exactly does redefining a term help in qualifying leads? For one, it fosters cooperation between marketing and sales, keeping any inter-department competition friendly. But most importantly, it allows you to focus on fine-tuning your process through the following steps:

Use Your Buyer Personas As Your Basis for Leads

As mentioned above, your buyer profile should be your working definition for what a lead is. But don’t just stop at surface level characteristics like job title or company size. Look closely at your historic data for which leads close more often and narrow down your approach. 


Have an Effective Lead Qualification Process in Place

Next, work on segmenting your sales leads. The handoff to a sales rep should only happen if a potential lead meets the requirements set by the new definition you set and they take a sales-specific action. Lead scoring and lead tracking should take care of this for the most part, but more vetting doesn’t hurt.

Measure Success and Scale When Necessary

Lastly, your lead qualification process should not be set in stone. Just because it works now, doesn’t mean it will yield the same results 3 or 5 years down the line. Make a habit of tracking marketing KPIs and sales analytics data to find areas of improvement. Having the right tools really makes a difference, especially when you’re ready to take on more leads at a time.

Of course, the root cause of the marketing-sales misalignment isn’t solely because these departments can’t agree on the definition of one term. But addressing the albeit small problem is a big first step in the right direction.

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