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By Alan Chatfield


Beyond Alignment: Qualification across the Funnel

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the relevance of MQLs to B2B marketing, particularly in the context of ABM. Forrester would have you believe that leads are a dead-end concept, holding back B2B marketers from delivering the real value of accelerating opportunity progression through the funnel. Most marketers I speak to are still focused on bringing in new opportunities rather than developing existing ones. Neither perspective is wrong. It’s simply a matter of business priorities.  

Even Forrester recognise that marketing has an essential role in building demand, and identifying potential new target accounts. No one is saying that marketing should stop running top-of-funnel campaigns. However, Marketing is expected to contribute across the buying cycle, which requires alignment between sales and marketing at all stages of the funnel. The difference is in the qualification process and how much influence marketing has over lead generation.   

The Limits of Marketing Qualification

It is undoubtedly true that sales generated leads have a higher conversion rate than marketing generated leads. This is inherent to the different roles of sales and marketing in the enterprise. As much as we talk about the importance of personalisation, Marketing is rarely a one to one conversation. This results in pretty significant differences between marketing qualification processes and sales qualification processes. Sales qualification happens further down the funnel, so takes place much nearer to deals closing.  

There is a fundamental limit to how qualified a marketing lead can be. Marketing can’t identify immediate purchase intent on the basis of the typical campaign engagement. The channels available to marketing are not sophisticated enough to gain that level of insight about individual prospects. Telemarketing exists to close that gap, but it’s often too scripted to properly tease a project out of a reluctant prospect.   

That doesn’t invalidate the need for marketing qualification. It just requires proper recognition of what lead attributes marketing are expected to qualify. Marketing can do more to pre-screen obviously bogus leads before they reach telemarketing, let alone sales. Qualification absolutely can and should be looking to ensure that leads relate to actual people at an account that fits the target market. 

Bridging the Divide 

Forrester are right to say that too much emphasis is placed on the traditional divide between leads and opportunities. A lead is merely an early stage opportunity. The existence of a separate lead object in CRM systems is an administrative convenience for screening potential opportunities before they’re qualified, no more than that. It shouldn’t be the centrepiece of the marketing funnel. Lead to opportunity conversion is an important stage in the sales process, but it is merely one step in many.  

Marketing teams have frequently chosen to align sales handover to occur when leads are converted to become opportunities. This is usually because it makes user training easier, but it does make sense from a reporting perspective too. It neatly marks the key milestone when marketing can claim credit for the lead as part of their KPIs. Changing handover processes does sometimes require reconsidering what an early-stage opportunity looks like.  

Full Funnel Alignment 

There needs to be greater acceptance of the time taken to qualify new opportunities, and what information will be missing before that process is complete. A newly converted opportunity might not have an estimated close date or value. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of creating an opportunity without such critical details. It depends on whether discovering budget and purchase timeframe is the job of sales or telemarketing. It is this level of detail which needs to be agreed upon as part of any alignment process.  

If marketing is expected to contribute at all stages of the funnel, then agreement needs to be reached on what that bottom-of-funnel contribution looks like, as well as how it is measured. In many organisations, marketing influence revenue is not a key KPI, only marketing generated revenue. This in itself is a problem because a large part of marketing’s contribution is ignored. Ultimately, strong alignment is about more than just shared priorities, as important as that is. It requires recognition of the different strengths of each team, and how each is best placed to contribute to the bottom line.