Sales Qualification: How to Optimize Your B2B Lead Conversions

The line between sales and marketing is so blurred that HubSpot’s CMO, Mike Vlope, came up with the term SMarketing to explain the overlapping duties and potential synergies between the two departments.

It’s no wonder then that defining and converting marketing and sales-qualified leads can be an elusive task for many revenue leaders. Without set directions and expectations for the lead nurturing and qualification process, your team is left guessing how to filter prospects in the funnel. 

To beat the confusion and improve conversion rates, you should clearly define marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) and sales-qualified leads (SQLs) for your company and develop objection handling tactics and follow-up sequences aimed at informing and educating your prospects. 

We have found that prospecting is a lot like dating, and if you work towards building relationships rather than banking revenue, you’ll wind up gaining both. 

Here we’ll go through how to build a sales qualification strategy that will help you optimize conversions and make your company a memorable mentor in your audiences’ eyes. 

What is Sales Qualification?

Sales qualification is used by marketing and sales departments to vet leads for readiness and willingness to buy based on how prospects respond to qualifying questions.

An optimized sales qualification process helps your team maximize their time with prospects that are more likely to purchase by moving leads from MQLs to SQLs when specific buyer signals are identified.

What is a Marketing-Qualified Lead (MQL)?

You know that first casual conversation in a budding relationship. You’re just getting to know each other. You have common interests, but nobody can predict where things are going.

A marketing-qualified lead is a lot like that. In sales, an MQL is defined as a prospect matching your ideal client profile that responds to your outreach. 

The level of intent is not well-known at this point. The prospect has taken notice of you, and If you play your cards right, you will have the opportunity to continue the conversation. Sure, the prospect isn’t ready for a big commitment yet, but who is that early in the game? 

But the big question is, “Should I consider an objection an MQL?” 

Naturally, your first instinct is to say “no.” 

Nobody wants to be that guy in the bar who can’t take a hint. 

What if, instead, you’re more like Dr. Venkman in Ghostbusters subtly dripping out one-liners to Dana. The back and forth exchange between the two leaves you with that will-they-won’t-they kind of excitement.

That’s the feeling you want with your prospects. 

But how do you ride the fine line between arrogance and charm with the charisma of Bill Murray?

We’ll get to that a few scrolls down. For now, let’s talk about the next step in the prospecting relationship. 

What is a Sales-Qualified Lead (SQL)?

And by next step, we mean moving from a marketing-qualified to a sales-qualified lead which is kind of like planning the first date. 

To put it more directly, a sales-qualified lead (SQL) is a prospect who desires a better understanding of a company’s offer. This could mean the prospect asked about pricing, requested product information, or agreed to a discovery call. 

You’re not walking down the aisle, but you’re getting to know if there’s a shot at a real relationship. There’s still plenty you have to learn about each other before saying “I do.”

Unfortunately, not every encounter ends in happily ever after. Accounting for the pitfalls that can cut a potential partnership short will leave your company less vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of sales.

How to Set Your Company’s MQL to SQL Conversion Goals 

Conversion rates vary by industry and channel, but your marketing and sales team should aim for a little over 1 SQL for every 10 MQLs generated as a starting point. The MQL to SQL conversion rate calculation is pretty simple:

conversion rate = SQLs / MQLs

Naturally, certain leads, like client referrals, will flip faster and more frequently. 

That doesn’t mean you should focus only on the highest converting lead funnel. Like a well-balanced diet, a revenue stream requires a variety of leads from the prospecting pyramid to live a long and healthy life. 

As your pipeline grows, you’ll be able to set more specific goals based on the lead source and build a more predictable sales cycle for both inbound and outbound sales campaigns

To optimize your MQL to SQL conversion rate, refine your team’s relationship-building skills with these qualification processes designed to take things to the next level. 

Outbound and Inbound Qualification Sales Qualification Frameworks

The approacher and the approached play by different rules when it comes to selecting a mate or, in this case, a vendor. To avoid seeming pushy or aloof, the qualification process for outbound and inbound prospects varies depending on the situation.

Outbound Sales Qualification Process

In outbound, you are approaching the prospect. You haven’t built enough interest or trust to start demanding any sort of commitment, so you can’t expect to be met with open arms when diving right into the big questions. That’s why when converting MQLs to SQLs, you can’t go straight into Budget, Authority, Need, and Timing, or BANT, to qualify outbound prospects.

Why BANT Qualifying Doesn’t Work with Outbound Prospects

You wouldn’t ask someone if they’re ready to start a family on the first date. So it stands to reason that asking BANT qualifying questions to convert an MQL to an SQL will send your prospects running in the other direction. 

Instead, you need to engage in more subtle tactics to gauge compatibility without making things awkward. Here’s what that looks like.

Budget > Company Demographics: Think about your current accounts and the companies’ attributes. How many people are employed? What’s the estimated revenue? Did your clients use a competitor before switching to yours? How much did the competitor’s solution cost? All of these questions can help determine if similar prospective companies are in a position to buy. 

Authority > Prospect Demographics: Before an outbound campaign launches, create documents detailing ICP and buyer persona data to take the guesswork out of identifying decision-makers. Every company’s procurement process is a bit different, but this way, you’ll be more likely to land in the right inbox.

Need > Intent and Keyword Data: The most advanced lead databases give you insight into the pressing problems specific companies are trying to solve through 2nd and 3rd-party cookies that track keyword queries and search engine user behavior. Putting this robust data to work can help you eliminate the need for extensive account-based research.

Timing > Expressed Interest: While the intent and keyword data help narrow in on the companies searching for your solution, interest in your outbound outreach is the best way to tell if the prospect is ready to have a serious conversation about developing a partnership.

As you can see, when it comes to vetting prospects in outbound outreach, a significant portion of the process is done in the list-building phase. But that doesn’t help you convert prospects from MQLs to SQLs. You need stellar messaging, valuable sales assets, and a playbook of rebuttals to lead prospects through the sales funnel to make that transition. 

How to Convert Outbound MQLs to SQLs

You will have a percentage of prospects in your outbound campaigns curious enough to jump right into a discovery call. However, if you only convert those leads from marketing to sales qualified, you’ll miss out on the majority of your opportunities. 

Even when tracking buying signals, many people you approach are in the awareness or consideration phase. These prospects have on research blinders and need more than just a vague inclination of your problem-solving abilities to divert their focus. 

You can build rapport with prospects by offering concrete evidence such as case studies, helpful explainers videos, “how-to” guides, and free trials while edging out the competition.

But what about those prospects who are quick to the draw with rebuttals? 

Let’s go back to our Ghostbusters analogy. In the beginning, Dana flat-out turned down Dr. Venkman, but he was clever enough to pique her curiosity and crack open a window of opportunity. 

The same curiosity invoking charisma can be applied to converting MQLs to SQLs. An objection is an opportunity to introduce inquisitiveness instead of pressure into your pitch. Even if right now isn’t a good time, you want to be remembered without being resented. 

To successfully achieve this effect on your prospects, you have to shift your approach from selling to informing, which all comes down to wording. 

Turn Leads into an MQLs Through Sales Qualifying Copy

Too many sales executives write their first message like it’s a 30-second commercial stuffed in between a primetime tv show. But your prospect’s inbox is not CBS, and you are not peddling Pantene. 

One of the most freeing and rewarding things you can do is write like you’re speaking directly to another person sitting across the table. 

So instead of starting with, “Did you know” or “Have you heard about” go with something like, “Can I get your advice?” or “Can you point me in the right direction?” because no one is looking to catch your pitch that came out of left field. 

The body of your messaging should softly touch on your value proposition without completely negating your good-natured introduction. Nothing says bait-and-switch more than a sharp hook in the center of a sentence. 

And finally, the call-to-action should relate to your opening statement. If you go straight for the meeting, your prospects could think you are coming on too strong.

Here’s an example of how you can show genuine interest in helping your recipients. 

Hello Bob,

Hope you’re having a great day. Could you point me in the right direction? 

This is Robert from Subscribe Tribe. Since Made to Fit is an industry leader in fashion subscription services, I wanted to share some ways companies similar to yours have increased their recurring customer base by 20%, month-over-month. 

Would you be the best person to speak with regarding these trends? If not, who would you recommend?

This kind of messaging works because, when it comes down to it, you’re just a person getting in front of a prospect asking them to consider you. 

But even then, you will have objections to overcome. So, let’s go over some tactics you can use to rebuttal rebuffs and turn those MQLs into SQLs. 

Turn MQLs into SQLs Through Objection Handling

Imagine you founded the company mentioned above, Subscribe Tribe. Your product helps SaaS startups gauge customers’ interest in their solution based on metrics such as platform engagement, advance feature utilization, and support tickets submissions. You have solid case studies with verifiable success rates and have already launched your first outbound campaigns. Surprisingly, you are experiencing more pushback than expected.

Here’s how you could respond to the most common objections from prospects:

The “Not It” Objection

  • Prospect: “I’m not the right person, and I am unsure who is.”
  • You: “Thanks, John. I did some more research and believe that Max would be the appropriate person to speak with on this topic. Could you introduce me?”

By taking this approach, you’re showing that you value their time while verifying that you’re not reaching out to every VP and c-suite in the directory. The targeting might have been off, but you’ll be more likely to gain an internal referral by using a specific decision maker’s name. 

The “Right Place, Wrong Time” Objection

  • Prospect: “We’re in the middle of a big development phase. Can you check back later?”
  • You: “I understand you’re busy. We definitely don’t want to waste any of your time. We only want to provide you with some knowledge concerning how companies similar to yours 10x their customer retention without sacrificing revenue. No strings attached.”

You never know when today’s discovery call will become tomorrow’s sale. And who do you think the prospect will remember once it’s time to push play on growth? The person that took 30 minutes to provide a personalized demo or the one that agreed to check back in three months?

The “But the Budget” Objection

  • Prospect: “We maxed out our budget for the quarter.”
  • You: “That’s okay. We’re not looking for a commitment. We’d just like to show you how companies like yours are achieving 20% increases in upgrades so you can stay up-to-date on the latest trends in subscription-based SaaS platforms.”

Budget is probably the most challenging objection to overcome, but when it comes down to it, ROI plays a huge part in a company’s readiness to buy. The only real way to deflect an empty coffers confession is to cut the commitment strings attached to the discovery call. 

The “We’re Spoken For” Objection

  • Prospect: “We’re currently using a comparable platform and are happy with the results.”
  • You: “95% of our clients already had a vendor, and we understand that may be an excellent relationship. We’d just like to show you how clients similar to you have decreased customer churn by 50% with simple adjustments to their onboarding that took less than a week to implement.”

Switching cost is a considerable concern for many companies. There has to be extreme pain or gain to encourage decision-makers to take the leap, especially if the solution in place is working well enough. To show prospects what they are missing, explain how you bridge a gap that most competitors have failed to cross. 

While these rebuttal techniques successfully boost conversions, there is always room for improvement. Here are some ways you can increase your conversion rate. 

How to Optimize Your Team’s Outbound Conversion Rate

Seasoned sales teams record prospects’ objections and document the tactics that work and those that don’t. By compiling a playbook of rebuttals, your team can continually learn from a variety of experiences, and new hires will have a stronger foundation for objection handling right out of the gate. 

MQLs and unresponsive prospects that don’t convert right away should be documented as well and added to follow-up campaigns based on their position in the funnel. Use those opportunities to test different value propositions and segments. 

The great thing about optimizing for conversions is that much of what you learn from outbound campaigns can be modified and transferred to your inbound efforts. 

Inbound Sales Qualification Process

Counter to outbound, inbound prospects are approaching you, but you have to make yourself available. You can build an attractive offer and dress it up with your best content; however, if you don’t get out and mingle, your team will spend most of their time waiting for the phone to ring. 

Once you finally find that mix of strategies that fill your funnel, you’ll find the advantage of inbound marketing is the ability to qualify prospective clients utilizing the BANT method we discussed earlier. 

How to Vet Inbound Prospects with the BANT Qualification Framework

Your tools and online presence will determine how you implement BANT qualification into your inbound marketing. We won’t spend a lot of time going through the ins and outs of martech. Though, It’s important to note that as you build out your marketing strategy, there are SaaS options that will score a prospect’s buyer readiness based on content consumption and online behaviors. 

But for most companies, high-value marketing assets, social influence, and SEO tactics can combine forces to create a qualification machine even in the absence of advanced tools.

For example, depending on the significance of a lead magnet— such as an ebook or template — you can gate the content with various BANT questions. 

Think about the last time you enrolled in a webinar. Do you remember filling out a signup form with fields like:

  • Budget – “How many employees are in your department?” 
  • Authority – “What’s your current role/title?”
  • Need – “Are you using any of these tools currently?” 
  • Timing – “What’s the biggest challenge you hope this webinar will solve?”

This information exchange helps the host determine if the webinar is attracting the right audience as well as defines what stage of the buyer’s journey each prospect is in. Follow-up emails and calls from the marketing team can help further qualify the prospect until more direct sales conversations are booked. 

How to Convert Inbound MQLs to SQLs

When a lead requests a demo or starts a free trial, it’s easy to recognize the shift from MQL to SQL. The lines are more blurred when it comes to content downloads and event participation. For this reason, it’s important to build content not just around an SEO benchmark— even though SEO is vital to online visibility — but also around the buyer’s journey. 

By creating a content roadmap that guides your audience from the awareness to the decision phase, your prospects emit conversion signals like a GPS tracking device so you can meet them where they are in their journey. 

But first, you have to put your company on the radar with content that drives engagement. 

Turn Leads into MQLs Through Solution-Based Content

Attracting leads is the hardest part of inbound. Everyone nowadays has an ebook on solving an industrywide problem or a webinar on implementing the latest trends. While helpful content pieces like these are crucial to generating MQLs, it’s hard to get noticed with all the noise clamoring for your audience’s attention.

One of my favorite authors, Robert Cialdini, explains in his book Pre-Suasion that what is focal is causal. In other words, whatever we perceive as important — despite its statistical significance — is considered more influential. What this tidbit of wisdom means for marketing and sales professionals is that we have to consider what is top of mind for our audience when creating content, even if their focus is not the root problem.

For instance, let’s go back to our fictitious company, Subscribe Tribe. Suppose you have evidence that SaaS trials not requiring a credit card actually increase retention rates. You have a new feature that raises the conversion of these trial subscribers by 25%. However, your general audience sees other churn contributors as more important, like failed payment processing. 

Creating content around the former will not bring leads into your funnel because it’s not something they see as a related topic. A better alternative would be to focus on specific methods proven to reduce payment-related churn while introducing credit card exempt trials as a key solution. 

To turn visitors into MQLs, Subscribe Tribe could email a free, high-converting messaging template to those interested in enhancing recurring revenue metrics.

By trading value-add assets like templates and training sessions for contact information, the prospects are permitting you to nurture the relationship. 

Turn MQLs into SQLs Through Buyer Journey-Based Follow-Up 

The prospect may have made first contact, but the rest of the courting process is up to you. For inbound, it’s ideal to develop follow-up sequences based on how the content correlates with the buyer’s journey. 

A prospect who signs up for a demo is definitely more sales-qualified than one who’s downloaded a “how-to” guide, so you shouldn’t send the same message to both. The demo-ready prospect needs help determining the competitive advantage of available options, while the downloader needs to understand the impact of a problem so solutions can be considered. 

In essence, follow-ups should preemptively answer questions, rebuttal objections, and remove roadblocks. This kind of crystal ball approach, where you anticipate the fears and aspirations of your audience, can help you develop a sense of camaraderie based on trust and mutual goals. 

And remember, what is focal is casual. By offering advice and staying present in your prospects’ inboxes, you become the focal point of the solution. 

Conclusion: Sales Qualification Framework Implementation

It becomes easier to personalize the lead nurturing process for a more natural MQL to SQL conversion by thinking of prospecting as relationship building rather than big-game hunting.

That doesn’t mean you have to be a dating expert to sweep your prospects off their feet. You just have to be willing to put in the time and effort to see if the relationship is worth fighting for. 

And just like with dating, it takes time to figure out what makes you and your prospects click. Each new experience is an opportunity to learn, grow, and refine how you approach your next potential client. 

Have Questions? Need Help?

Would you like to dive deeper into optimizing your sales cycle? Learn more about how to take your sales and marketing growth strategies to the next level.

If you need help defining and refining your sales qualification process, Martal Group is always ready to help. Book a call with our team today to go over your current challenges.

Vito Vishnepolsky
Vito Vishnepolsky
CEO and Founder at Martal Group