How to Optimize Lead Handoff Between Marketing and Sales

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Dan McDade
Dan McDade



Historically, the biggest source of conflict between Marketing and Sales can be summed up in a single word.


Marketing generates leads. Sales decides most of these leads aren’t qualified. They tell the marketing department they need more leads. The marketers say, “What about all those leads we’ve already given you?!?”

And the cycle continues.

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Establishing Lead Criteria and an SLA

We don’t simply ask athletes to play fairly: We also establish rules and use referees. Along similar lines, companies can’t expect their sales and marketing teams to police themselves without any parameters or objective third parties.

The first step -- which many organizations have already taken -- is establishing a universal definition of a qualified lead.

It’s critical to have your marketing, sales, and C-suite executives agree on the definition of a lead at every stage, whether that’s “lead,” “sales accepted lead,” and “sales qualified lead” or a variation thereof.

Once you’ve formalized these definitions, the second step is creating a service level agreement (SLA). This agreement defines Marketing’s commitment (like X qualified leads per month or quarter) and how the sales team will respond (for example, follow up at least six times with the most qualified leads and three times with less qualified leads).

According to HubSpot’s 2016 State of Inbound Report, just 22% of organizations say they have a tightly aligned SLA. However, marketers who have internal SLAs overwhelmingly say their marketing strategy is effective.

Implementing a Judicial Branch

Once a company has ground rules, it needs an objective third party. Here’s where an authority I call “the judicial branch” comes into play.

The judicial branch is composed of senior-level sales and marketing executives. If possible, the CEO should be a member as well -- however, you could have the COO or vice president in her stead.

This body reviews every lead Sales ignores or proactively rejects (i.e. sends back to the marketing department) to determine whether the rejection was valid. Did the lead fit the agreed-upon definition?

Using this system promotes accountability within both departments. If your salespeople know they’ll need to justify their decision to reject a lead, they’re far less likely to throw in the towel out of laziness or because the prospect wasn’t immediately ready to buy.

And if your marketers know the quality of their leads will be inspected, they’re probably not going to fill the pipeline with low-quality leads simply to meet their quota.

However, it’s important to point out the judicial branch doesn’t exist to assign blame. This branch exists to figure out where the problem is so you can take the appropriate measures.

Common Lead Gen Issues

Let’s say the majority of the time the judicial branch decides Sales was right to reject the lead. That suggests Marketing isn’t doing its job, or your lead criteria are too extensive.

If your sales team uses a formula like BANT, for example, they might be overqualifying. Suppose a salesperson is talking to a decision maker who has an addressable problem -- but no budget or timeframe. The salesperson would technically be justified in rejecting them. However, if she waits for the prospect to become fully qualified, your competitor will get to them first.

Of course, you don’t want your sales team culling through a never-ending stream of bad fits either.

The solution? Define a qualified lead as one with four to eight of the following attributes:

  1. Vertical (SIC or NAICS code)
  2. Firmographics (revenue, number of employees, number of locations, etc.)
  3. Decision makers/influencers and respective roles in the decision making process
  4. Environment (related to each solution, such as "technical environment")
  5. Decision maker level of engagement (engaged, referral but in the loop, etc.)
  6. Business issues/pains uncovered and validated
  7. Decision making process documented
  8. Budget allocated or process for establishing a budget documented
  9. Competitive landscape documented
  10. Sense of urgency or compelling event

This framework will help you hone in on highly qualified opportunities and beat your competitors to the punch.

Common Prospecting Issues

Mike Weinberg, author of "New Sales. Simplified.: The Essential Handbook for Prospecting and New Business Development," says one of the most common reasons leads go to waste is because the sales team didn’t perform proper follow-up.

Weinberg says it’s extremely rare to hear back from prospects after a single touch. Salespeople must earn the right to a callback or email response. The judicial branch should analyze both how persistent the rep was (in other words, how many times she tried to follow up) and the quality of her efforts (did she vary her outreach methods? Provide value at every touch?)


This process requires a significant amount of time and energy from your senior executives -- time and energy which, frankly, they might not have.

If that’s the case, use a modified version. Rather than having the judicial branch review every lead that’s been sent back or passed over, have them look at a random selection of rejected leads every month.

According to SiriusDecisions, 72% of B2B companies have a formal handoff between Marketing and Sales. The average lead acceptance rate is just 42%.

If your organization is truly aligned, SiriusDecisions says your lead acceptance rate should be more than double that. Gauge the effectiveness of your judicial branch by tracking the percentage of leads Sales accepts. If the branch is doing its job, that number will climb and climb.

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