Losing the Lead

Losing the Lead

September 2021 | Marketing Operations

In 2005, Sirius Decisions invented the MQL. In 2021, Forrester are trying to kill it. Can marketing ever truly replace the humble lead record?

In 2005, Sirius Decisions invented the MQL. The concept of a marketing lead is as old as the hills, but the demand waterfall brought a structure and taxonomy to lead management that has become the gold standard throughout the industry. MQLs have been a key metric for B2B marketing teams ever since. That metric is formalised in a lead quality definition that is agreed between marketing and sales, hopefully ending the age old dispute over what makes a good lead.

Not even ABM has succeeded in usurping the MQL from its place at the heart of the marketing funnel. Although, it has brought into sharp relief many of the fundamental limitations in how CRM systems manage lead records. The CRM lead object was originally intended as a dumping ground for suspect data. Sales would qualify the good leads, before converting them into a contact and an opportunity. Meanwhile, the bad leads would be disqualified or deleted.

The Unwanted Burden

That's all fine in theory, but sales have never wanted the job of screening lead records. That burden has instead fallen on marketing, and more recently on lead development teams, who have been specifically employed to pre-qualify leads until they're ready to become an opportunity.

On the other hand, many sales reps have spent the last twenty years diligently ignoring any leads assigned to them. At least that's what it seems to marketers frustrated by the refusal of sales reps to convert leads using the proper conversion process. For Sales, opportunities are the only things that matter because that's how they're measured. The impact of neglected leads ultimately falls onto marketing through less accurate attribution and lower campaign ROI.

The Data Challenge

Compounding this issue is an entire set of data and technology challenges that marketing experience when handling lead records. The underlying split in CRM between lead and contact records is an artificial one. When segmenting a campaign audience, there is no real difference between the two. Sure, they might be at different points in the funnel, but even that distinction can't be taken for granted.

Marketing automation platforms frequently combine leads and contacts into a single list, with little practical difference between the two types of records. This leads to duplicates in some systems because many companies create leads for existing contacts. Marketo and Pardot both struggle with the consequences of allowing such duplicates on their platforms. Eloqua takes the opposite approach, merging leads and contacts, which blocks the ability to create multiple leads for the same contact as well as complicating integrations.

New Opportunities

The ultimate solution to this problem is to change the role of the lead record entirely. Microsoft Dynamics treats leads as an early stage opportunity, hiding the fact they're separate records by showing them as part of a single process flow. Leads are expected to be associated with accounts and contacts. They also are supposed to have a probability and a lead value. Many Salesforce users are trending in the same direction by requiring new leads to be linked to a contact as well as an account.

Ideally, leads should already be linked to both accounts and contact on creation. In an ABM funnel, you may want the ability to add multiple contacts to the Lead too. This has the additional benefit of providing all the necessary relationship history to telemarketing teams prior to calling a lead. All this is possible with the right tech stack. There are plenty of ways to implement lead to account matching on a tight budget. I've even done it using custom flows in Salesforce or Dynamics.

Treating leads as early stage opportunities rather than as a separate entity helps with sales alignment. Always create a new lead record for every enquiry passed to Sales, and then simplify the conversion process so that it's quicker than creating a new opportunity. It should simply be a button that progresses the deal into the next step in the sales process, just as you would in any order stage of the sales process. Unfortunately, Salesforce makes this difficult by preventing the creation of sales paths that span both lead and opportunity records. Let's hope that changes in a future release.

Real Alignment

At the recent Forrester Summit, Sirius Decisions took a more extreme approach. They suggested that the lead record should be completely replaced by opportunity records at all stages of the funnel. Marketing Automation should directly create opportunities whenever a lead is passed to CRM for follow up. This certainly simplifies funnel reporting but could lead to operational issues in many organisations.

Typically, sales work opportunities and telemarketing work leads. There is a clear delimitation in ownership between the two teams, with each record type optimised to the needs of that business function. They generally have a very different set of fields. It's a setup that works given the internal politics that bedevils the relationship between marketing and sales. Everyone has clarity on who owns what, and the handover process can be formalised using a methodology that makes sense for everyone. None of these obstacles are insurmountable, but it will require Sales to give up control over the opportunity object, so that it can be adapted to fit both Sales and Marketing. Following that is a change management process, with new SLAs, new handovers and the associated re-training.

Technology Transformation

At the moment, all these operational challenges are academic though, because few martech platforms are currently designed to create opportunities. All these platforms import opportunities to facilitate closed loop reporting, but that's typically a one way sync with a limited use case. Some organisations even block that basic integration on legal or security teams to prevent external agencies working in marketing automation from seeing sensitive pipeline information. It's definitely possible to create and update opportunities directly from Eloqua and Pardot, but it does require significant customisation.

No doubt these challenges will be sorted over time, but in the interim, technology is keeping the humble lead record alive. Sales teams simply aren't set up to allow marketing to directly create opportunities, and not every business has the tech stack necessary to do so. Analyst best practices always need to be adapted to the unique circumstances of every business. This one is no different. In many organisations, sales and marketing alignment is becoming a reality rather than a mere talking point. ABM programs have brought sales and marketing closer together. Removing the distinction between leads and opportunities is the next logical step in that journey.

Banner Photo by Austris Augusts / Unsplash

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.