Jacqueline DooleyMay 22, 2020

From MQL to sales: 5 steps to make the process effective

Marketing is all about the funnel, particularly for companies targeting B2B buyers with complex solutions and inherently long pipelines. For the past two decades, the B2B marketing team’s focus has been on generating a high volume of leads at every stage of the pipeline.

To this end, marketing qualified leads (MQLs) are the most desirable — and elusive — leads to get into your pipeline. Qualifying leads can be difficult and time-consuming. It is also inherently inefficient, with roughly 94% of B2B leads amounting to zero sales.

In fact, Gartner predicted the demise of the MQL as far back as 2017, correctly pointing out that focusing on MQLs for the sake of numbers alone doesn’t necessarily translate to revenue or growth.

At Ocean.io, we’re not ready to abandon the MQL completely but we do think the process of moving the MQL from initial contact, to qualification, to final sale can be done better. So let’s talk about how we can cast the MQL in a more meaningful light by offering five steps to help turn an MQL into a sale more effectively.

Step 1: From funnel to flywheel—put your customer at the center

To get to the heart of identifying an MQL, marketers need to move away from the funnel mindset and begin to think about what happens when a lead becomes a customer.

This requires a fundamental shift in how marketers identify and reach out to prospects. It brings sales into the forefront of your marketing strategy and expands the role of marketing to sales. It puts the customer at the center of your business growth strategy. HubSpot calls this the flywheel versus funnel approach.

Source: HubSpot

HubSpot explain this approach, “With the flywheel, you use the momentum of your happy customers to drive referrals and repeat sales. Basically, your business keeps spinning.”

Service, marketing and sales are all connected on the flywheel, supporting the foundation that fuels business growth — your customers.

The flywheel ensures that customer satisfaction is your top priority. It forces marketing and sales to collaborate so that everyone understands who the company’s best customers are. This enables both teams to identify the most qualified leads.

The idea behind customers forming the center of your growth strategy is connected to the way B2B buyers identify and select new technology solutions — primarily via word of mouth.

The following illustration of the B2B buying journey by Gartner demonstrates the circuitous path that B2B buyers take prior to making a purchase decision.

Source: Gartner

The Gartner illustration remains somewhat funnel-like in that it starts with a discovery process (e.g., problem identification) that moves to solution exploration, and more focused requirements building before landing on supplier selection.

If you zoom in to see the specific actions associated with each stage of the buying journey, it quickly becomes apparent that word-of-mouth dominates the B2B buyer’s research process. From peer discussions on social media to contacting former colleagues to end-user input, buyers clearly value peer recommendations and feedback when considering a new solution.

The main ingredient behind turning customer satisfaction into business growth (fueled by MQLs) is tied to your CRM data.

Step 2: Think accounts, not leads

Your CRM platform contains the information you need to generate MQLs that closely mirror the profiles of your most profitable customers.

We recently wrote about how CRM data can be used to fuel a growth over marketing approach by helping you identify what companies produce the most viable, interested leads. This growth approach, otherwise known as account-based marketing, is inherently more concerned with identifying high quality leads versus generating a large quantity of leads.

Good lead quality considers the following:

  • Depth: Lead depth is more than just a simple metric such as conversion rate. It considers all relevant customer information including demographics, firmographics, buying signals such as demo requests and white paper downloads, contact information, and transactional information (once a lead becomes a customer).

  • Accuracy: Accuracy of CRM data equals high quality data, and this is a sticking point when it comes to using existing customer information as the foundation for generating MQLs. CRM data tends to be inconsistent due to a variety of reasons including missing information, errors in data entry, and misaligned data-sets from third-party sources, etc. The first step in using your CRM data to help identify and generate MQLs, is to normalize the data so that it can be used to generate actionable insights.

  • Reliability: Your sales team is always selling and thus your CRM data is always changing. Ensuring that the customer and lead information you already track is maintained in an ongoing way and accessible in real-time, is critical for ensuring your MQLs are, in fact, qualified.

For a growth approach to be effective, marketers must revise how they define a lead and identify the extent to which the lead can or cannot contribute to their company’s growth. Again, the only way to do this effectively is to ensure that marketing and sales are on the same page.

Account-qualified leads (versus marketing-qualified leads) are leads from a pre-identified company that include multiple contacts from a buying team of 6 to 10 people.

When you frame lead generation through the lens of account-based marketing, your entire marketing approach suddenly shifts to one of continuous collaboration between marketing and sales, with everyone focused on getting the right companies into the sales pipeline.

Step 3: Obsess over the benchmarks that work

Marketers obsess over benchmarks, metrics, and numbers. This makes sense if we measure marketing’s effectiveness based solely on quantity: total leads, followers, likes, conversion rates, open rates, and the like.

Growth metrics look quite different than vanity metrics. Growth metrics consider things like revenue, deal size, retention, and sales.

To focus on revenue (and growth), marketers must move away from the traditional mindset that more volume equals more success.

This can be a difficult concept to embrace by marketers who aren’t at the forefront of the selling process the way sales reps are. With the growth approach, MQLs, while still important, play a less prominent role in a company’s overall marketing strategy.

When viewed through the lens of account-based marketing, MQLs rely on two key ingredients: high quality CRM data and customer satisfaction.

Ocean.io’s technology helps with the former by normalizing CRM data then merging it with our own proprietary data-sets that contain account-based company information. This enables better MQL qualification through filtering (technographic, different size parameters, CRM analysis) and enrichment of your existing CRM data using our AI-based algorithms that apply data normalization, then automate the process of identifying the most viable accounts to market to.

We do this via the simple integration of our platform with your CRM tool (currently Salesforce, HubSpot, and Pipedrive are supported platforms). The second part of the equation — customer satisfaction — also plays a role in getting MQLs into your pipeline.

Step 4: Getting MQLs to book sales calls & demos

Once you’ve generated a list of highly-targeted MQLs, the next step is getting them into your sales pipeline. This is where the flywheel comes into play (remember, we’re moving away from the funnel mindset).

Getting prospects to book sales calls and demos involves a combination of inbound and outbound techniques. An account-based marketing plan starts with a list of high-yield companies or market sectors that you may target with ads on social platforms, search engines, and via programmatic buys that enable you to reach specific companies/industries/people.

Inbound leads rely on word of mouth combined with high-quality content. This might consist of peer reviews on websites like G2 and Capterra, discussions on social media, and case studies.

Content is part of this process because, among other things, it provides an incentive for buyers to give up their contact details in exchange for something they deem valuable — namely, information. B2B SaaS solutions tend to be complex, high-ticket purchases. These deals can take months to close and buyers rely on high quality content like white papers and case studies to gain confidence in their buying decisions.

Step 5: Use the right metrics to measure success

The final step brings us back to the MQL.

Generating MQLs has always been one of the key success metrics for the marketing team. But when considering sales and service, MQL volume is only part of what must be measured within a collaborative growth approach between sales, marketing, and service teams.

In fact, the growth mindset assumes that by the time a prospect becomes an MQL, they will have already been identified and vetted as a highly interested prospect.

The MQL in the flywheel scenario is uniquely qualified because it has been identified based on the characteristics of your existing customers — things like activation rate, monthly recurring revenue, cost of acquisition, and customer lifetime value.

Identifying and measuring growth metrics ensures that marketing plans are created with the sales team’s needs in mind. It may reduce the volume of leads, but the potential to maintain and grow the sales pipeline is huge because a growth approach ensures that you’re focusing on the most interested and qualified prospects and reducing the amount of time spent chasing and qualifying leads that will never amount to revenue for your business.

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