So you've decided to roll out a product-led motion to improve efficiency and offer the self-service experience buyers want. Great!
One thing you may want to know: the way you have been qualifying leads probably won't work anymore. In a hybrid GTM, your sales team is there to find buyers who need help to buy. What's the difference between someone who wants to buy and someone who wants to buy but can't (or is unwilling to) without help?
In this post, we:
Review the basics of lead qualification
Explore how qualification changes when you introduce a PLG motion
Propose a new framework for figuring out which prospects should go to sales and which should self serve
Let's dive in.
Why do we qualify leads?
Before considering lead qualification for PLG, let's think about a vanilla B2B sales and marketing funnel:
Marketing drums up interest among potential buyers in your target audience.
A portion of this audience takes some action and identifies themselves as a "lead"
Using the data available about who the lead is, where they work, and what sort of actions they've taken, marketing automation evaluates the new lead against a pre-defined set of criteria.
If the lead matches that criteria, the lead is now "marketing-qualified."
The newly-minted MQL is then assigned to a sales development representative (SDR) for further qualification.
If MQLs meet this second set of criteria, they become sales-qualified leads (SQLs).
Each time we qualify a lead, we evaluate it against an increasingly rigorous set of criteria. If it passes, it progresses through the funnel. If it doesn't, it gets sent back to a previous stage (or outright removed altogether.)
By repeatedly qualifying leads, we focus our time and resources on the prospects that are most likely to generate revenue. As we learn more information about the prospect or we need to decide whether to invest more to close them, we re-qualify the lead.
Inbound lead qualification at product-led companies
As we discussed in a previous post on the topic, sales development teams at product-led companies are likely dealing with one (or several) of the following types of leads:
Prospects for "traditional" outbound
Target contacts within an engaged account
What are product-qualified leads?
Product qualified leads (PQLs) are prospects passed to revenue-generating teams because their in-product usage or behavior indicates a likelihood to reach an important commercial milestone (for example, becoming a paid customer, upgrading their plan, or increasing their spend).
Since we're talking about lead qualification, let's focus on the two types of inbound leads: PQLs and MQLs.
Just like with marketing-qualified leads, when users become product-qualified, it doesn't guarantee a positive outcome. It simply sends a signal to the team that further attention is needed.
Both MQLs and PQLs are generated based on data available to the system (usually a marketing automation platform or CRM).
This data can be as simple as how the user filled out a certain question or as complex as computer-generated ML models that consider thousands of different attributes.
In either case, though, there are things that can never be inferred from the data alone. This isn't a knock on the data—it's just that so much of the B2B buying process hinges on fuzzy, intangible factors that can only be unearthed through intentional discovery and qualification.
What are those intangible factors? Well, this is where lead qualification frameworks come in. There are countless variations out there, but the most well-known is BANT.
An acronym for "budget, authority, need, and timeline," the BANT ensures an SDR is uncovering the most important bits of information to figure out whether the prospect is likely to buy.
Budget: Does the prospect have resources dedicated to making this purchase?
Authority: Does the prospect have the power to approve this purchase? If not, do they have the ability to influence the decision-maker?
Need: Is there a clear, quantifiable business need (or pain)?
Time frame: Has the prospect established a timeline for addressing the business need?
When applied in its purest form, a prospect should meet the required criteria across all four areas to be considered "qualified."
Qualification framework for product-led sales
In an organization with a product-led motion, can the reps qualifying PQLs continue to use qualification frameworks like BANT?
Not really. Let's discuss why.
Qualification frameworks like BANT are helpful to separate prospects who are willing and able to buy from those who aren't.
In a traditional sales cycle, there are two possible outcomes:
the prospect buys something
the prospect doesn't buy anything
A qualification framework ensures the sales team spends time with people who are most likely to purchase.
In a product-led sales cycle: there are three outcomes:
the prospect buys something (via sales)
the prospect doesn't buy anything
the prospect continues to use the product (even as a paying customer) on a self-service basis*
Generally speaking, sales development teams at product-led companies are optimizing for the first outcome.
*Some teams are experimenting with having the same seller drive both sales-sold and self-service revenue. In this model, sellers are compensated for new sales-sold revenue the same way as they would in a non-PLG company. However, they can also retire quota for self-service revenue that they have influenced. Typically, the rep has to show that they (1) had a meaningful engagement with someone at the account and (2) that engagement led to revenue that would not have been generated without that engagement. As you can imagine, demonstrating the revenue impact of a salesperson on a single customer is difficult (if not impossible). Over the long term, paying sellers for revenue that could have been won without them artificially increases customer acquisition costs, defeating the purpose of a PLG model.
What is the objective of a PQL?
Assuming sales-led revenue is the goal, we need a qualification framework that not only identifies the likelihood to buy but the likelihood to buy through sales.
A lead qualification framework for a company with a PLG motion helps determine who is most likely to benefit from a sales-led engagement.
Beyond BANT. Hello... UCC?
So, what makes someone a better fit for a sales-assisted buying process? That's the million-dollar question.
Your first reaction may be something like, "If they're going to spend more than X, they should go via sales."
There are just two issues with that approach:
You won't know how much someone will spend until you engage with them, meaning you have to run most of the sales process to determine whether running that process was warranted.
Buyers are increasingly comfortable paying for expensive software via credit card. (McKinsey: 77% of buyers are willing to spend $50,000 online, and 35% would spend up to $500,000)
From conversations with hundreds of revenue leaders and our own experience at companies like MongoDB, we have identified three dimensions that determine whether a prospect is a fit for a sales-led motion or if they're better left to self-serve.
Urgency is an indicator of how time-sensitive an initiative is. Will an important company milestone or deadline be missed if this purchase doesn't happen?
It might be helpful to think of "urgency" as an evolution of "need" and "timeline" from the BANT framework.
Urgent initiatives are often a better fit for a sales-led process as sellers can more effectively coordinate resources and fast-track access to support.
Criticality answers the question "how high are the stakes?"
Does this buying decision involve customer-facing systems? Does this purchase mitigate existing risks (or introduce new risks)? Will this decision directly impact a large number of stakeholders?
The criticality of an initiative is a good predictor that a prospect would benefit from sales. If the stakes are high, a buyer will often need things like:
help when building an internal business case
deep technical validation that the solution will work with their existing systems
additional legal provisions and security guarantees
stricter support service level agreements (SLAs)
Complexity describes how many variables and unknowns the initiative covers.
Here are some examples of factors that increase complexity:
Does this purchase have to be approved by multiple stakeholders?
Is the product being bought as a replacement for an existing system that will need to be migrated over?
Do many people need to be trained on how to use the new product
Does the product being bought need significant customization to meet specific requirements?
Lead qualification frameworks like BANT were created to help teams check that the prospects they're spending time with are the ones that are most likely to buy. As the way we engage with prospects and customers evolves with product-led growth, we need to adapt our qualification criteria, too.