Sales qualification is the process that a company goes through to determine a prospect’s likelihood of becoming a paying customer. 

While sales is still the driving force behind most qualification efforts, organizations today need to work closely with marketing in order to properly qualify leads. One of the reasons for this shift is the need to adapt to the rapidly evolving customer journey.

In this post we cover the basics of sales qualification, why it’s important, and how to qualify leads in a way that makes sense for your business.

Sales qualification terminology

The first step in any lead management process is developing a shared terminology. The definitions presented in our previous article about lead disposition are probably a good starting point:

  • Prospect: Anyone in your database who has ever expressed a basic level of interest in your product or service.
  • Marketing qualified leads (MQLs): Prospects whose activity indicates that they are more likely to become customers based on prospect scoring (as compared to other prospects). 
  • Sales qualified leads (SQLs): MQLs that have been reviewed and passed to sales for follow-up.
  • Opportunities: Converted SQLs who have expressed a willingness and ability to buy.

For the purposes of this article, let’s add one more:

  • Unqualified lead: Anyone who doesn’t show a clear need for your company’s products and/or services, or meet other sales qualification criteria.

Your definitions may differ from the ones above. The main point is to align your teams with a shared understanding of key definitions and their meaning. After all, it’s hard to qualify deals when no one speaks the same language.

Why is sales qualification important?

You might be wondering why sales qualification is even necessary. Isn’t the point of business to provide your goods or services to as many customers as possible?

Not every person who comes to your website or calls your business is a good fit. Prospective customers realize that they have wants and needs. However, they do not have perfect knowledge about how your solution can fulfill those wants and needs. Therefore, sales qualification is an essential process that helps you to:

Create order and avoid chaos

A good sales qualification process—especially one that effectively uses lead scoring—makes it easy for staff to identify prospective customers who are likely to convert. Instead of staring at a massive database of hundreds of raw contacts, sales qualification winnows the list to a manageable size to ensure your team is working on best-fit deals.

 

Increase return on advertising spend

Marketers spend a lot of time optimizing digital advertising campaigns and website content to maximize engagement. Downloading a whitepaper, requesting pricing, or subscribing to a newsletter are a few common ways that prospects may engage. However, not every person who provides an email address is ready to purchase—or ever will. Sales qualification provides marketers essential feedback for understanding the types of campaigns and initiatives that deliver high quality leads.

Provide a better customer experience

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Imagine that you have a need, and you come across a service that you think meets your needs. You ask to speak to a sales rep, who fails to ask any meaningful questions and then begins pressuring you to make a purchase. This doesn’t create a good customer experience. Therefore, sales qualification is a fair and prudent way to ensure a positive experience for everyone, especially for the customer.

Scale business 

Processes help you scale and grow. Therefore, a sales process that qualifies prospects is vital for attracting and converting the right customers, even as your market share expands. Qualifying one customer is easy. Qualifying 10,000 customers is not easy, but a well-defined sales qualification process can make it more manageable.

Sales qualification frameworks

Sales qualification frameworks create a structured approach to qualifying prospective customers. One of the most widely-used approaches is the BANT framework, as pioneered by IBM in the mid-20th century. 

BANT definition: A set of four criteria (budget, authority, need, time frame) that helps sales professionals objectively evaluate the viability of business opportunities.

With BANT, the prospect is evaluated across four key criteria:

Budget: Does the prospect customer have a budget, and does it fit with your pricing model?

Authority: Does this specific person have the authority to make the decision to move forward?

Need: Is there an actual need that your solution could fill?

Time Frame: By what specific date does the prospect hope to solve his or her problem?

Although BANT is arguably the most well-known sales qualification framework, there may be other frameworks that better fit your business. Spend time researching sales qualification frameworks and find one that makes sense for your industry and business model.

Sales qualification questions

So, how can you know that prospective customers have the right budget, authority, need, or time frame? Ask them.

Sales qualifying questions form the foundation for determining if a prospect is a good fit for your business. By asking the right questions at the right time, you put yourself in a better position to understand the person’s situation, challenges, goals, and objectives. 

But, what types of questions should you ask? Should you ask them all at once? Email or phone call?

Although there are no one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, here are some recommendations to get your creative juices flowing.

 

Where to ask

Take a fresh look at your customer journey map. How do prospective customers typically interact with your company? Does every customer require an in-depth demo process, or do most customers just want to go through a self-service checkout process? Your business model, product or service type, and customer buying process will play a major factor in determining “where” to ask your sales qualification questions. Other than the obvious channels (such as phone and email), what are other ways to collect data about the prospect’s needs? 

Here are a few ideas:

  • Optional form fields, such as revenue size or number of employees
  • Chatbot prompts that ask targeted questions 
  • Exit intent banners on your website
  • Surveys that are powered by automated marketing emails 

When to ask

As illustrated by the previous examples, the sooner you can begin to build a unified view of the prospect in your CRM, the better. However, some prospects are less willing to reveal information until a person from your sales staff proactively reaches out.

Developing an effective lead scoring program simplifies the decision to initiate outreach. Once a prospect has exhibited the proper level of “interest” by visiting certain webpages or engaging with a predefined number of emails, a lead scoring system will automatically adjust the prospect’s score to a higher level. Data enrichment integrations and social media discovery features in your CRM may provide additional context. Deals that reach a certain threshold are then flagged for further review and passed on to sales. In this model, data serves as the foundation for knowing when to ask.

What to ask

Questions asked via a chatbot could be quite different than those asked during a 30-minute phone call. It all goes back to the purpose of the question. Earlier in the process, you may just be looking for basic insights about the prospect. However, as the relationship advances, you may need to ask numerous open-ended questions that get to the heart of the situation. 

Let’s use my marketing consulting business as an example. Using BANT framework as a guide, here are a few questions that I might ask a prospective client during an initial consultation:

Budget

  • What types of marketing programs are you currently running?
  • Are you working with another marketing consultant?
  • Do you already have an established marketing budget?

Authority

  • Who else at your company will be involved in this project?
  • Do we need to include anyone else in these conversations?

Need

  • What are the goals that you’re trying to achieve?
  • What have you tried in the past?
  • What is your vision of success for marketing?

Time Frame

  • How quickly are you looking to move forward?
  • Should we plan to kick things off next week?

It’s time to build a better sales qualification process

Implementing a scalable sales qualification process can be beneficial for both your company and the people that you serve. Your sales and marketing teams will find it easier to identify and convert likely customers into paying customers. And, the prospects who decide to convert will go into the relationship feeling confident that your solution adequately meets their needs. 

Recommit to building a stronger sales qualification process. Your team and your customers will appreciate it.