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Revenue Operations
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Designing Lead Stages for B2B

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Lead lifecycle management is a job that always continues in revenue operations. Sales and marketing are rarely aligned on the definition of a marketing-qualified lead (or what an ideal custom profile looks like), and any time a new sales or marketing manager walks in, they'll inevitably want to implement some new methodology.

Whether your team wants to use funnel stages, a bowtie, or a flywheel, we'll talk through systems best practices that have withstood the test of time and how to avoid common pitfalls in automation.

Don't Start With Systems or Stages. Start With People & Process.

One of the easiest mistakes to make in RevOps is to design with system limitations (real or perceived) in mind. Whatever setup you have in your mind, forget about it.

Start with interviewing stakeholders to understand their expectations. Listen to how your marketing team thinks of the funnel (or flywheel or whatever) and how they want to define each stage. Then talk to your sales managers.

Inevitably, they will be on entirely different pages.

Marketing will want to know whether sales is executing on the leads and whether they become pipeline or bookings. Sales will only want to see leads that fit their definition of qualified. Their priorities will be completely different, and you will be responsible for talking to frontline salespeople and marketers and negotiating with upper management so everyone can land on the same definitions.

Start with a practical workflow design of what people want to happen before you label it or try to shoehorn it into the system. Ask questions about what is possible at each stage, specifically:

  • Is there a way to disqualify the person or account? When should this happen? Are there times when people will be tempted to call someone disqualified when they could be sold to in the future?
  • Is there a way to skip ahead in the process?
  • What if the person or account isn't ready yet?
  • What if the person or account disengages or goes dark?
  • What should it look like for a person or account to enter that stage? Do they need to meet a particular profile, do specific activities, or commit to a certain action? 
  • Does the salesperson or marketer need to signal when someone is ready to enter the stage, or is it something the prospect does?
  • Should the salesperson be notified again if the person's hand raises while they are at a certain point in the process? What should that look like?

Once the process is spelled out, it shouldn't look like a funnel, flywheel, or bowtie – and that's a good thing! It's your job to think of what triggers the next major step.

Lead process from the company's perspective

Map the Customer Journey

Before you design your stages and update your CRM, map out what you would like to have happen as a prospect. As a technical buyer who evaluates products for your go-to-market team, you have experience you can tap into.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the steps I take before reaching out for a demo?
  • When do I want to be contacted?
  • How do I want the first meeting to go?
  • What are the steps I expect to take?
  • What irritates me when I'm evaluating a product about the sales outreach or interactions?
  • How long do I expect things to take at each step?

Think through all the ways someone could engage with your company and map them out:

lead process from the prospect's perspective

Define Your Go-To-Market Methodologies

This seems like many steps, but remember that you're gathering this information concurrently. Chances are super high that when you talk to the inside sales manager, for example, they'll volunteer which qualification method they want their team to use.

They'll also want to use very different language to describe similar points in a buyer journey.

Frequently, lifecycle stages and the stages sellers or marketers or pre-sellers want to use live in different places. For example, lifecycle processing may be tracked at the person and account level. Seller stages are opportunity stages, and they have fields to help them track progress in the methodology (like MEDDIC or NICE) they use. Pre-sellers will use status updates and object creation when a meeting is set. The person's status updates may coincide with lifecycle stages or be more aligned with intuitive descriptors to the team, and lifecycle stages are triggered and stamped by status updates. Marketers may track much of their information and use language in their marketing automation system that differs from what is accepted/updated in the CRM.

You have options! Remember that when your company hires new sales or marketing management, they may want to change their team's methodologies or stages. This is one of the many benefits of separating where you track and how you define lifecycle stages from what your teams interact with.

You'll also need to consider how detailed your historical data should be. Ask questions like:

  •  Do you need to know the date when certain things are filled out? 
  • Do you want to overwrite historical information? 
  • Do you need to keep snapshots in a custom object, or is field history tracking sufficient? 
  • What kind of historical data will you need to report on regularly, and what kind of object or tracking makes the most sense?

If your sellers are using MEDDIC, does that change the stages of your opportunity, or are you collecting information from your sales team at different stages? Changing a stage often isn't descriptive enough. Managers want to force the team to put some thought into their customer write-ups. But with Salesforce's conditional page layouts, you can present certain fields when a prompt is completed (like a stage or field update).

lead lifecycle with selling methods layered

Define Your Lifecycle Stages

Once you gather all of your requirements, you can propose lifecycle stages. We recommend using terminology broadly accepted across B2B and noted in documentation from Forrester (formerly SeriusDecisions) and Winning by Design.

If you have a long sales cycle and inbound leads typically go from marketing to pre-sales to sellers, you'll want to adopt something like the following:

  1. New/Unverified - When a lead record is used because the system can't find a matching account, we use this stage.
  2. Verified - This is the stage people are put into when they are known in the system or linked to a valid account.
  3. Marketing Qualified - The person has performed a hand raise and expects to hear from sales.
  4. Sales Accepted/Working - The sales team has reviewed the record, determined an ICP match, and is working to secure a meeting.
  5. Meeting Set - A meeting has been scheduled.
  6. Sales Qualified - A meeting was held with the seller, and the seller marked the opportunity "Qualified."
  7. Late Stage Opportunity - The opportunity has progressed beyond "Pipeline" and "Best Case" stages and is committed by the seller.
  8. Customer - Contracts have been signed, and there are active product line items.
  9. Churned - All product line items have been deactivated/canceled.

      2. Nurture/Recycle - This is the stage people go back to if pre-sales finds they aren't ready 

            for a meeting or sales marks the opportunity Lost.

      X. Disqualified - This person and account are not a fit and will never be a fit.

      X. No Longer At Company/Inactive - The person no longer works with the company (but the account is still active).

     X. Not a Target - The account or person are not ICP.

lead lifecycle stages

Important Note: The flexibility needed for upgrades and renewals is missing in the lifecycle stages above. These stages are myopically focused on account acquisition. Consider how a salesperson or account manager wants to let others know that an account is actively engaged in a renewal or upgrade. Consider whether there needs to be an obvious flag that the company is at risk. Do you keep these flags at the account level? If so, what flows down (if anything) to the person level?

Remember that the definitions used at each stage should be unique to your business. BUT. Making them too specific will create confusion for the end users, more technical debt when you need to make changes, and can overcomplicate system updates (making them more prone to error). 

A great example of this is using lead scoring to gate marketing qualification. It's easy to fall into the trap of designing a multi-layered approach that assigns a prospect to sales once a certain intent threshold has been met. Remember that the process needs to make sense to your sellers, and they should sign off on the model before it's deployed. They should also be consulted 30, 60, and 90 days out for feedback.

Once your stages are defined at the person level, it's mission-critical to think through how these stages should be captured on the account level. The following questions should help:

  • Do you have different journeys captured on the account level that show stage progress across all objects?
  • What happens when the person who triggered the stage is either put in Nurture or Disqualified? Do you need to assess whether other people are active (maybe the salesperson is working with someone else upon referral)?
  • What happens when someone raises their hand while the account is already engaged?
  • Can your stages move backward without closing the journey? If so, should advanced stages be cleared as if they never happened? Or do you still want to capture the first time they advanced to a stage?
  • What do journeys need to look like if a customer wants an upgrade? What about renewals?
  • When does it make sense to push an account status down to the contact level, if ever?

lead and account lifecycle process

Once you've mapped out your stage definitions and process updates, you can start configuring your systems. Check out our change management article for best practices around communication and testing. Good luck, and stay flexible!

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