Lead Management Service Level Agreement Best Practices


  • Lead Management Service Level Agreements ensure that sales leads are fully vetted, followed-up and systemically worked through closure.
  • When correctly designed and managed, these sales and marketing Service Level Agreements increase lead conversions, accelerate sales velocity and lower lead leakage.
  • The top 2 factors that increase lead leakage are transferring unqualified sales leads to the salesforce and poor lead recycling. SLAs can fix both.
Johnny Grow Revenue Growth Consulting

Sales and marketing alignment is the much needed solution to prevent frustrations that accumulate and fester and ultimately degrade sales lead conversions and exacerbate lead leakage.

Without clear expectations, the salesforce inevitably believes that marketing delivers weak leads that many times are not worth pursuing. And on the other side of that relationship, marketing believes that salespeople fail to follow-up on the leads they worked so hard to acquire.

As said by the Captain in Cool Hand Luke and echoed by Guns N' Roses in their classic Civil War tune, "What we've got here is failure to communicate."

Lead management Service Level Agreements can remedy this tension and convert more leads.

Lead Management Service Level Agreement Defined

A lead management service level agreement (SLA) defines mutual expectations for the nurturing, vetting, transfer and follow-through of sales leads.

Those expectations are memorialized with defined responsibilities, actions, timeframes and escalations. The SLA document ensures each team is accountable for their portion of a mutual goal.

For example, this mutually agreed commitment ensures all sales leads are properly qualified by marketing before distributing to sales. It also ensures that all leads transferred to sales are properly followed-up and followed-through. A good SLA also anticipates areas of risk and mitigates those problems before they happen.

Lead Management Service Level Agreement Best Practices

There is no one way to effectively manage sale leads. But there are lead management service level agreement best practices that share valuable lessons on what works, what doesn't and how to maximize your results. Here are some of those lessons.


Start with a Holistic Process

Don't be tempted to implement lead management processes or the supporting SLA in a piecemeal approach as that will inevitably lead to multiple points of breakdown.

While you do not need to deploy everything at once, designing an end-to-end process will facilitate technology automation, closed loop information reporting, real-time variance detection and process extensibility as you learn things and adjust.

Consider the below diagram as a starting point.

Service Level Agreement Process

Collaboration is Required

It's critical that the lead management service level agreement be jointly created by both sales and marketing leaders. Marketers should not be tempted to create the SLA without the direct participation of sales management.

And rather than begin the dialogue with procedural rules, a better approach is to start with a mutual goal. And the most important goal is usually the company's revenue target.

The revenue goal can then be used to determine the needed volume of lead acquisitions. Start with the revenue figure and divide it by the average sale opportunity amount to know how many new customer acquisitions are needed. You can then divide that by the Lead to Revenue funnel conversion and calculate exactly how many leads are required. And make sure you apply sales cycle velocity to account for timing.

While the above process will define SLA lead quantity, SLA lead quality will be defined with a sales-ready lead score. That's the numeric threshold value that triggers the lead to be distributed to the salesforce. There are a lot of activities that go into the lead score, but the best sales-ready lead scores are built on a measured combination of prospect fit and buyer interest.


Adopt the Right Revenue Funnel

To make the SLA measurable you need to make the sales cycle and lead progression quantifiable. That means you need a structured lead funnel that shows how lead status changes as leads advance through the funnel.

But here's the challenge.

Marketers normally manage top of the funnel leads which begin with newly sourced prospects and conclude with the lead transfer to sales. Sales normally manages the middle of the funnel with a pipeline that begins with sale opportunities and ends with sales wins or losses.

That's a disjointed approach that doesn't reflect how buyers buy and doesn't contribute to closed-loop reporting. What's needed is a unified revenue funnel with real-time lead visibility and performance predictability.

Below are three of the most common integrated revenue funnels. They are actually evolutions of SiriusDecisions demand waterfall.

Sales Funnels

While you might think that later versions are better, that's not necessarily true. In fact, the first version is still the most used. Consider how each of the above revenue funnels aligns with your sales process and use or modify the one that best fits.


Perform Live Lead Qualification

Marketing automation platforms, sometimes called marketing clouds, can automate each step, including lead tracking, lead acquisition, lead scoring, nurture marketing and lead transfer to sales.

And while technology automation is great, sometimes the human touch is needed to improve lead conversions.

As opposed to automatically distributing leads to the salesforce pursuant to only a sales-ready lead score, you will significantly improve your Sales Acceptance Lead (SAL) rate by inserting a live lead qualification step before the transfer.

Live Lead Qualification Process

This step is typically done by an inside salesperson, business development rep or Sales Development Representative (SDR) using a qualification checklist. In addition to verifying lead fit and interest, this person verifies the lead's contact information and willingness to engage a salesperson.

Recognize that inserting an additional step into the vetting process will result in fewer but higher quality leads passed to the salesforce. However, that additional step will aid sales focus and productivity and increase both lead-to-revenue conversions and revenue generation.


Mitigate Lead Transfer Risk

The lead management process is most likely to break down whenever there is a transfer of ownership.

To mitigate this risk, adopt a systemic lead routing strategy, deliver multiple notifications of the transfer and ensure everyone knows who owns and is responsible for the lead.

It's that last step that most often results in a misstep.

The marketing to sales lead transfer shifts ownership. Some marketing consultants suggest lead ownership is a shared responsibility and leads are owned by both marketing and sales. I disagree. When there is more than one owner there is no owner. Where there is more than one owner there is an escape from accountability.

The SLA should define lead ownership at every stage of the journey. It must also recognize that lead transfer and ownership may shift multiple times as buyers don't adhere to a linear purchase process.

They don't stop their online research and self-education once they begin speaking with a salesperson. So, marketing will continue to interact with them and must update the CRM lead record with those interactions.

Similarly, buyer purchase cycles may get interrupted or postponed so leads will revert from sales back to marketing for inclusion into nurture campaigns until they again demonstrate buy signals.

The SLA process must accommodate non-linear purchase cycles, promote collaboration and ensure there is an assigned owner for every lead at every stage.


Continuous Process Improvements

Creating an SLA is not a one-and-done event. It's a tool that is initially imperfect but improved with every iteration.

There are two lead management service level agreement best practices to improve performance in short order.

First, appoint an SLA Program Manager. It's not a full-time role but it is essential to monitor sales and marketing responsibilities, measure progress, surface non-conformance and advise remediation actions for variances. This role is constantly on the lookout for operational disconnects and improvement opportunities.

According to an Aberdeen Group survey and report titled, Crossing the Chasm with Automated Lead Management, the top performing companies were 50 percent more likely than lower performing counterparts to have a named lead administrator between sales and marketing. The report goes on to say that companies without this assigned staff "are paying for it with dramatically lower results from their marketing programs."

Second, schedule periodic meetings with departmental leaders to review what's working, what's not and what improvements should be made.

Each side must bring information to the meeting.

Marketers must communicate lead generation efforts and results. They should distil large volumes of campaign and demand generation data into insights that show what's working and what's being changed.

Salespeople should be the eyes and ears for lead behavioral responses and funnel this information back to marketing.

A related SLA best practice is for sales reps to invite marketers to listen in on prospect discussions and experience firsthand the trials and tribulations of winning business.

In an Aberdeen research report titled Sales and Marketing Alignment, the firm found that two-thirds of top performing sales organizations have a formal process to bring marketers into active prospect selling situations. This participation is influential in helping marketing understand what customers want and what salespeople need.

To improve sales and marketing alignment, "two-thirds of top performing sales organizations have a formal process to bring marketers into active prospect selling situations."

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Leverage Technology

Lead management automation is needed to bring process automation and information reporting to service level agreements.

However, multiple systems are needed and that's what exacerbates this challenge.

SLA data is distributed between marketing automation platforms such as Adobe or the Salesforce Marketing Cloud and the CRM system.

In fact, an InsideView research report, titled The State of Sales and Marketing Alignment, found that a "lack of accurate and shared data on target accounts and prospects" was the single greatest challenge in achieving sales and marketing alignment.

These data siloes must be bridged so that SLA data can be monitored, measured and revised.

Once the data is integrated it can be consolidated into a single, simple view such as the below SLA dashboard.

Sales Lead Dashboard

The Point is This

Lead management and the systemic advancement of leads through the funnel is a shared responsibility that crosses departmental boundaries. SLAs provide a powerful tool to bind those shared responsibilities and bring accountability to mutual goals.

And the proof is in the payback.

Marketo has performed repeated research and is a long-time thought leader on this topic. And their research finds that "aligned organizations had 67 percent higher conversion rates and their leads generated over 209% more revenue."

That kind of revenue uplift should not go unheeded by business leaders seeking revenue growth.