Sales lead qualification: 8 steps for qualifying inbound leads

Today’s buyers are “extremely online.”

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Today’s buyers are “extremely online.”

94% of B2B buyers conduct online research before making a business purchase, 75% use social media to support purchasing decisions and 65% say a vendor’s content had an impact on their decision to buy.

77% of B2B decision-makers say they won’t speak to a sales rep until they’ve done their own research, while 92% say they’re more likely to engage with a salesperson if they’re considered an “industry thought leader”.

Inbound marketing serves valuable content like blogs, e-books and social media posts to reach buyers as they search Google for solutions or scroll through their feeds.

While inbound methods can bring hundreds, even thousands of potential leads into the sales funnel, many organizations struggle to turn their lead gen efforts into high-intent opportunities.

What is sales lead qualification and why does it matter?

Lead qualification is a process for determining whether a prospect matches your ideal customer profile. It allows reps to quickly size up incoming leads so that they can prioritize which opportunities are most likely to result in a win.

Done right, sales lead qualification should answer the following questions:

  • Do they need what you’re selling? You’ll want to make sure your solution can help this person. Someone might enter the sales funnel with a broad idea of what you do but is ultimately after a similar product with a different set of features.
  • Have they indicated interest in your product/service? Has the prospect downloaded any white papers?
  • Do they have the authority to make a purchasing decision? You’ll want to make sure you’re pitching the right person. If this person doesn’t have purchasing power, you’ll want to look for someone higher up on the food chain.
  • Do they have the budget for implementing your solution? If the answer is no, you’ll want to disqualify leads who can’t afford your solution.

By giving sellers a system for identifying the best leads, sellers can focus time and resources where it counts, allowing them to close more deals in less time.

In these next few sections, I’ll go over some steps you can take to bring the right prospects into your pipeline.

1. Define your ideal buyer profile

An ideal customer profile (ICP) represents a description of the account (not an individual buyer) that’s “just right” for your solution.

Your ICP should include relevant characteristics of your target accounts based on your current best customers, such as:

  • Industry
  • Job title/role
  • Number of employees
  • Budget
  • Location
  • Biggest challenges
  • Needs
  • How does this group define success

2. Dig into real buyer data

HubSpot research revealed that only 5% of salespeople consider the leads they receive from marketing to be “very high quality.”

Once you’ve determined the characteristics of your ICP, you’ll want to collect the information you can use to create messaging that resonates with your target audience.

Start by considering the following questions:

  • Do you work with B2B companies or B2Cs?
  • How long is your sales cycle?
  • What information is your ideal buyer looking for at each stage in the buyer’s journey?
  • How does this group search for information?
  • What channels do they use?

You’ll then want to dig into your data to find out how real people interact with your content and communication strategies.

  • Email exchanges
  • Call recordings
  • Conversations sales reps are having with prospects
  • Chat logs
  • Form submissions
  • Comments and questions from social media posts & profiles
  • Keyword data–i.e., what are people searching for to find solutions similar to yours
  • Support desk tickets

What types of questions do people ask your sales reps or customer service team?

If specific questions keep coming up, there’s likely a group of Google users looking for the same information. Building content around the questions people are asking helps attract qualified inbound leads in a few key ways.

  • Reach those “research-driven buyers.” Say someone Googles “best sales enablement software” and you have a comparison guide that helps buyers evaluate their options. If that post ranks on the front page of the search results, chances are, you’ll attract B2B buyers doing research.
  • Uncover new buyer segments. Creating content that answers specific questions means you’ll have an easier time attracting high-intent inbound leads that might not match your ICP but may be looking for the solution you provide.
  • Fast-track the decision-making process. Content that can provide clear, direct answers to the questions buyers care most about can help them arrive at a buying decision faster.

While interaction data can reveal a lot about your audience, you’ll also want to hear what real people have to say.

Interview your best customers, talk to prospects that didn’t convert and collect feedback at each stage in the sales funnel.

Use social listening tools to find out what potential leads are saying about your brand and your competitors as well as what they reveal about their pain points, challenges and goals.

3. Identify the characteristics & actions of your best leads

With inbound marketing, there’s the risk of ending up with a funnel full of “leads” who are only in it for the content.

While you might take it as a sign that your writing is good enough to attract “fans,” you’ll need a system for separating the qualified leads from those who don’t intend to buy.

To learn more about what actions are associated with purchase intent, dig into your CRM to analyze the leads that became customers and opportunities lost.

For example:

  • What characteristics did your most successful leads have in common?
  • What path did your most successful leads follow from the time they entered the funnel to the close?
  • Which resources did they view or download?
  • Which channels brought in the highest number of leads that became customers?
  • What feedback did buyers provide during the sales process? What did you hear from leads that didn’t become customers?
  • Did any particular ads or CTAs convert a high percentage of leads?

4. Develop a lead scoring system

For the uninitiated, lead scoring is a process that makes it easy for sales and marketing teams to spot high-priority prospects–fast.

Though scoring models vary by organization, most systems are based on a 0-100 point scale that indicates a prospect’s propensity to buy.

The higher the score, the more likely a lead is to become a customer.

While a lead score might include thousands of data points, insights typically fall into three main buckets:

  • Explicit criteria. Explicit criteria include demographic or firmographic insights such as location, industry, job title or purchasing power. This data should give you an idea of whether or not an inbound lead meets your ICP.
  • Implicit criteria. Implicit criteria describe behavioral data that signals purchasing intent. Examples include email responses, downloads, live chat interactions or social media engagement.
  • Negative criteria. Finally, negative criteria can help you identify poor-fit leads. Examples include unsubscribes, low open rates or demographic insights that indicate a poor-fit–wrong industry, lack of budget, etc.

Sales and marketing teams must work together to assign a point value to each data point, placing more weight on the most valuable intent signals, such as booking a demo, signing up for a free trial or checking out the pricing page.

If your target buyer is a decision-maker who works for a large tech company, scoring might look like this:

  • VP of Sales (+15 points)
  • Company has less than 25 employees (-5 points)
  • Downloaded a price sheet (+15 pts)
  • Read a top-of-the-funnel blog post (+5 points)

Keep in mind; you’ll also need to determine thresholds for what makes a lead “hot” or disqualifies them altogether.

5. Confirm lead quality manually

Lead qualification methodologies provide sellers with a framework for quickly identifying the leads most likely to make a purchase (I cover sales methodologies in more detail here if you’re looking for a deeper dive).

While you might be tempted to skip this step in favor of an automated solution, 1:1 conversations will help you keep your lead gen strategy on the right track.

Here are a few examples you can use to evaluate leads:


One of the older sales lead qualification methods, BANT, was developed by IBM in the 1960s to help companies determine who (or isn’t) a qualified lead.

  • Budget. Can the buyer afford this solution?
  • Authority. Do they have decision-making power?
  • Need. Is there an urgent need to address the problem?
  • Timeline. What’s the deadline for making a decision?


P-MAP takes a slightly different approach by getting straight to the pain point, then moving on to other qualifying criteria. With this strategy, you’ll frame your qualifying questions as follows:

  • Pain. Is the need/pain point important enough for the lead to take action?
  • Mobilizer. Is this lead someone who can help move this deal forward? In other words, are they likely to be an internal champion” for your solution?
  • Authority. Does this lead have the power to make a purchasing decision?
  • Project. Does the buyer have a project that centers around this need/problem?


CHAMP is a lead qualification framework better suited for modern selling. Unlike BANT, CHAMP places the buyer at the center of the qualification process.

Here, identifying a problem or need comes before determining whether a lead has purchasing authority. When you’re working a deal with multiple decision-makers, you’ll need to “sell” to all of them–even those without the power to sign a contract.

  • Challenge. What challenges are your leads facing? Does your product/service offer a solution?
  • Authority. Does this person have purchasing power? If not, can they influence the decision-making process?
  • Money. Can this lead afford your solution? Are they willing to pay?
  • Prioritization. How important is it for this lead to solve this problem?

Now, it’s worth noting that you don’t need to qualify every inbound lead manually. However, you’ll want to “check your work” from time to time to make sure you’re bringing in the right leads.

6. Include lead capture opportunities at critical points in the buyer’s journey

Lead scoring typically happens the moment an inbound lead enters the funnel.

The challenge is, today’s B2B sales cycle is long, complex and full of twists, turns and detours, which means a prospect can enter the funnel from hundreds of touchpoints.

To ensure no lead slips through the cracks, you’ll want to map out the entire customer journey and determine which lead gen methods and CTAs align with key touchpoints.

  • Email opt-in. Best for: top-of-the-funnel blog posts, homepage visits and awareness campaigns. Avoid asking for too much information. Instead, focus on nurturing campaigns that highlight useful content. Down the road, look at engagement with marketing materials and behavioral signals to determine lead score.
  • Premium content offers. By gating like webinars, white papers, e-books and industry reports that contain valuable information you incentivize visitors to share personal information like name, email, industry and other qualifying criteria so that you can use those insights to market to them later. Remember, attracting “quality” inbound leads hinges on addressing the pain points and questions your audience cares about most.
  • Lead flows. Lead flows capture leads via pop-ups, chatbot messages or forms that appear to visitors as they browse your website. This approach provides multiple conversion opportunities by offering contextually relevant content. Factors like page views, search terms or whether they’re a new or returning visitor determine which offers are presented.

Additionally, you might build in a second layer of qualification to prevent sellers from wasting their time.

That might mean sending a qualifying email before setting up a discovery call to ensure that you’re only calling leads that have actively expressed an intention to buy.

Or, you might include a box on gated content forms where the visitor can indicate whether it’s okay for a rep to give them a call.

7. Select the right tools to automate sales lead qualification

There’s no shortage of sales tech tools available today offering predictive lead scoring capabilities. Many modern CRMs now come with data enrichment tools, while many marketing automation platforms include a lead scoring function.

While AI is better at predicting which inbound leads will turn into customers, it’s important to note that you’ll need to make sure you’re feeding the algorithms accurate information (see, this is why manual sales lead qualification still matters).

Ultimately, if you don’t understand who your ideal buyer is or which factors indicate someone is ready to buy, the smartest tech in the game can’t keep bad leads from clogging up your funnel.

8. Monitor, refine & repeat

Finally, it’s essential to understand that your lead qualification process should always be evolving. You’ll want to track the “usual” KPIs to see if changes to your lead management process contributed to any big-picture gains.

  • Average deal size
  • Cost per acquisition
  • Time to close
  • Customer lifetime value
  • Churn rate

Things to consider:

  • Look at your team’s top wins, biggest losses and the factors that influenced those outcomes.
  • Was there a high number of “hot leads” that fell out of the funnel?
  • Did something happen during the sales process to cause those losses?
  • Consider what made you tag those leads as “hot.”
  • Did buyers end up in the wrong segment?
  • Was something off about your scoring model?
  • Alternatively, were “cool” leads converting without much friction? If so, that could mean there’s a target market you should be pursuing.

Because the lessons learned are relevant to the entire team, you’ll want to work the lead qualification discussion into your weekly sales meetings.

Final thoughts

Building an effective, repeatable process for qualifying inbound leads won’t happen overnight.
The process relies on a deep understanding of your ideal customer, accurate data and continuous refinement.

Stick with it for the long-haul, and you’ll see notable improvements in the quality of leads entering your funnel.

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