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Blurred Lines: Is Lead Qualification a function of marketing or sales?

At their INBOUND conference a few weeks ago, marketing automation company Hubspot officially announced their expansion into new territory: inbound sales. For a long time Hubspot has owned the inbound marketing territory, so why is their expansion into the sales arena a critical indicator of the state of the sales and marketing industry?

Hubspot’s latest tool, Signals, enables salespeople to “connect at the right time with context.” Hubspot has essentially packaged marketing insights, such as real-time site activity, for salespeople, and Signals leaves me wondering: is lead prioritization a function of sales or marketing?

Lead Prioritization vs. Lead Qualification vs. Lead Scoring

The conversation goes like this:

Sales: “We need a higher volume of qualified leads.”

Marketing: “We gave you plenty of great leads. You must not have contacted them the right way.”

It continues for some time in this vein. Most companies are structured so that marketing holds accountability for creating leads; sales for closing deals. The handoff from marketing to sales spurns the majority of disagreements between the two departments. Was it the incoming runner who dropped the baton, or the outbound runner who took off too fast?

The confusion stems from two monumental shifts in the sales and marketing industry: the proliferation of information online, and the decline of cold calling. Marketers have access to a wealth of knowledge about customers, and innumerable websites and tools and applications have emerged to provide them with specific prospect data; more information is available today than ever before, and marketers have never had such prolific access to good leads. Simultaneously, buyers completely tune out sales and marketing messages that are not immediately relevant; the old-fashioned cold call is rarely effective anymore.

Yesterday’s marketing organizations procured lists of data, and sales qualified them with cold calls. The lines have blurred, and no two companies qualify leads the same way. The gray area that divides lead generation from deal closing usually falls partly on sales and partly on marketing, and herein lies the root of the argument: who’s to blame for slow pipeline development?

A hundred different definitions have cropped up to classify the process of deciding which leads deserve a phone call and which leads should go back to the bottom of the barrel to be scraped up in times of desperation, and they all point to a new function of the sales and marketing function that has entered the business lexicon in the past five years: the marketing technologist.

The New Sales & Marketing Role

Under whose dominion does lead qualification fall: marketing or sales? Both. And therein lies the problem.

Sales earns compensation for converting and closing leads. Marketing earns compensation for generating leads. Where sales carries the quota responsibility for converting leads, marketing is in charge of creating the content and email campaigns used to do most of the converting.

As prospects reject cold calls and innovative data providers offer high quality, customizable lead lists aggregated from the web, the lead qualification function is edging further into marketing territory. The problem stems from many organizations’ inability to shift lead qualification away from sales.

A number of companies have developed a system under which the marketing team is accountable for lead quality:

Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL)

Before passing any leads to sales, marketing develops scoring criteria that weed out the worst leads. For most companies, marketing qualified leads require little else beyond correct information. As inbound marketing grows in popularity, marketers diminish their control over the leads that opt in to web forms and self-enter their systems. For inbound marketing to be effective, marketers have to diminish the amount of wrong data their reps spend time researching and calling.

Sales Accepted Leads (SAL)

Before adding leads to the pipeline, sales has the authority to approve whether or not leads are up to their preferences.

This system holds the marketing team to lead standards while still allowing it to bring in the quantities it needs to reach large audiences.

The Convergence of Marketing & Sales

Marketing and sales have always been neighbors on the org chart, but as lead management becomes a larger concern for many organizations, the lines between marketing and sales blur. It’s the exact reason why a leading marketing company has released a tool for salespeople; Hubspot knows that sales data comes from the marketing department, and aims to expand its footprint in the murky lead qualification territory: a zone that they know will ultimately come back to the jurisdiction of their target customers, the marketers.

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