So we can use marketing automation to manage big, complex content marketing campaigns and deliver personalized content that moves prospective customers closer to a buying decision. But an essential question remains; when is it the right time to pass a prospective customer into the sales process?

Wait too long and the investment you made in lead nurturing could pay off for somebody else. Jump the gun, and you may push the prospect away, or at best, waste a sales rep’s time. Remember, today’s business decision makers want to pilot their own buying journey and they generally don’t want to engage sales until they’re ready.

The trick is to anticipate the point when a prospect is ready to become a buyer. The trickier part might be getting marketing and sales to agree on an objective way to identify that point. Luckily, we can use marketing automation to help locate the boundary between lead nurturing and sales readiness.

The Three Stages of a Buying Decision

Prospects that become buyers go through at least three stages in a content marketing campaign—lead generation, nurturing and qualification, and hand-off to sales. As with many things, the middle part is longest and hardest, the last part the most delicate. With marketing automation, we can know where a prospective customer is located in that broad nurturing stage, based on their engagement with online content. By rating lead qualification objectively, marketing and sales teams can clarify accountability and reach consensus on success.

First, marketing and sales need to agree on which mix of attributes and activities indicate sales worthiness, and then define how to score them. Attributes might include title, role, geography, industry, or other profile information that maps to buyer personas. And not all of this information needs to come directly from prospects – industry best practices suggest that pairing minimal registration information with data from public paid (or third party) sources is the best way to develop actionable profiles.

Activities can span a wide range of online indicators that can be weighted for relevance. For instance, if a prospect reads a blog post, they would earn some points, but commenting on the post or clicking a link might earn more. They could be assigned an even higher score when they download a white paper or register for an event.

By combining the activity score with a comprehensive lead profile, marketing and sales professionals can identify the point when a prospective customer graduates from a marketing qualified lead (MQL) to a legitimate sales qualified lead (SQL). Then the sales team can select which buyers to focus on first for further research and follow up, based on an objective and up-to-date lead quality score.

Line Up on the Same Side

With a process for qualifying and scoring leads, marketing professionals can avoid sending prospects to the sales team prematurely—and getting complaints about low-quality leads. Instead, sales reps can minimize irrelevant conversations with unqualified prospects, which helps lower costs. They have detailed intelligence on the buyer’s persona and recent activity, which helps them improve contact and close rates, shorten sales cycles, and increase profitability.

Most importantly, marketing and sales teams can use marketing automation to line up toward the same goal: more conversions at less cost. Instead of arguing about who is responsible for which lead, they can celebrate more closed deals.

As we said at the beginning of this series, marketing automation gives marketers, sales teams, and buyers plenty to celebrate. Let us know what you think, or if you want to learn more, download our brief “Bridging the Gap Between Marketing and Sales” to learn more about how you can help your sales and marketing teams work more effectively together.

Image credit: tableatny