Building a Successful Lead Handoff Between Sales & Marketing

May 4, 2020

The lead handoff process is one of the biggest bottlenecks for every company trying to grow their sales pipeline. Marketing has invested money and resources to generate qualified leads, but they are not always properly assigned to the Sales team and followed-up with.

The lead handoff process is one of the biggest bottlenecks for every company trying to grow their sales pipeline. Marketing has invested money and resources to generate qualified leads, but they are not always properly assigned to the Sales team and followed-up with. 

On the other hand, account executives (AEs) complain because leads are too cold, not qualified, or they haven't been notified on time. Here we explain the different variables and factors that impact your lead handoff process, and walk you through the steps to implement a streamlined lead handoff and qualification process.

The Lead Handoff

sales lead handoff

What we call “lead handoff” is the process of efficiently transferring qualified leads from the marketing team to the sales reps, in order for them to be qualified, nurtured, and converted into customers. When your company raises money, you can build a decent demand generation budget and start transferring some of the customer acquisition responsibilities to the Marketing team. In theory, when Marketing generates a qualified lead, it is assigned to the account executive, who qualifies it and converts it to a new customer. 

Unfortunately, the reality is often very different. The most common reason for low conversion rate and high acquisition cost is a broken process during the handoff and qualification stage.

Lead Handoff Challenges

These are common scenarios often encountered when working with SaaS startups:

  • Scenario 1: Marketing generated hundreds of leads from paid campaigns, nobody followed-up (ever!)
  • ISSUE: Either the lead quality wasn’t good enough, or there wasn’t a strong system in place that accounted for lead quality and Sales team availability. Also, nobody implemented a report to monitor lead statuses.

  • Scenario 2: The AE has a meeting scheduled with a very junior professional who is “just curious”
  • ISSUE: The MQL definition was too broad, or the scoring process wasn’t implemented correctly.  A salesperson's time is limited, so they don’t have the bandwidth for unqualified meetings. This can also make them stop trusting marketing’s leads.

  • Scenario 3: The Enterprise field rep is having to deal with a large volume of “content leads” to follow-up with on a daily basis
  • ISSUE: Marketing and sales didn’t take into consideration all the variables when they designed the lead handoff process. Enterprise reps are constantly traveling and they have to focus their time on the open opportunities. Content leads require frequent follow-up and nurturing, and it’s not the field reps’ responsibility to do it. Pair them up with a SDR who will filter and nurture leads until they are ready to have a productive conversion with the sales rep.

  • Scenario 4: Leads are still being assigned to Sales after months of silence. None of them is receiving content or updates from marketing.
  • ISSUE: You haven’t implemented a trigger for leads to be reassigned to marketing after X number of days. 

A Story of Misalignment

sales marketing misalignment

Company A was investing $120k/month in paid acquisition programs, and generating about 4,000 inbound leads per month. Their leads were coming from a variety of channels (organic, content syndication, email marketing, webinars, Adwords, LinkedIn), and they had 6 sales development reps (SDRs) divided by territory. They assigned leads based on zip codes, routing all content leads to SDRs and “hot” leads to AEs. 

The result? Over 200 “hot” leads were never followed-up with by anyone (including a few senior prospects from F500 companies), and over 6,000 content leads were stuck in “limbo”, never nurtured after months. The key to an effective sales process is making sure that Marketing and Sales are aligned, and that there is a mutually agreed upon process to handoff and/or nurture these leads.

Map Your Variables

To build your handoff model, start by mapping your variables. Which components do you need to account for to design this process? Always start from the sales team when building your model.

  • Sales team composition - Inside sales? Field reps? Both? 
  • What is the SDR team structure?
  • How are leads assigned? Round robin vs Territory vs ABM? 
  • What is the sales capacity for your leads? 
  • How many leads/demos can your reps follow up with at a time?
  • Sales process? How many months/calls involved?
  • What is your business model? 
  • What is the volume of leads per week? Lead sources? Scoring criteria?

The “Marketing Qualified Lead” (MQL)

A Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) is a lead who has expressed interest and has the right demographic (industry, title, seniority). The threshold for when a lead becomes an MQL is a combination of demographic criteria (first) and intent. Most importantly, this threshold must be built in collaboration with Sales and signed off by both Sales and Marketing. Consider both demographic and behavioral aspects, but make sure to filter out any leads that are unqualified based on demographics. Intent won’t matter if it’s not the right person or account, since you won’t be able to sell to them. As for behavior, you need to track the lead’s actions to come up with a score: have they requested a demo? Attended a webinar? Stopped by your booth at a trade show?

Connect with Sales to identify the minimum level of intent they are interested in following up with, as well as the volume of leads their team can handle. Leads above that score will be passed to Sales, while leads below that threshold will continue to be nurtured by Marketing.

Sales capacity also affects your MQL threshold. If you only have a couple of reps and no SDRs, assigning them a high volume of leads would only create noise and confusion, with the risk of missing the high-value opportunities. But when your team grows, and you have several reps waiting for qualified people to call, you need to readjust your model and lower the intent requirements for lead handoff (not the demographic!).  The lead scoring automation can be used after building this model. 

What to do with Content Leads?

When a lead downloads a whitepaper from LinkedIn or from your website, they are considered a “content lead”, which is usually below the “hot lead” (demo request) threshold. However, if the lead comes from a target account, it is more valuable than your average content lead, even if it didn’t make an explicit request for a demo. Be careful with these leads, because if you pass them to Sales too soon they might not be ready to buy and your reps will spend too many hours sorting through them. It’s better to add them to a lead nurture sequence and warm them up before they get routed to the account executives or SDRs. Find an agreement with your reps about when to send leads to Sales. When reps are hungry for leads (or content leads from certain accounts), they should ask Marketing to be assigned to them, and determine how they will be routed.

Base Agreement & Service Level Agreement (SLA)

You’ve mapped your variables and understand the different kinds of leads that are coming in, now the marketing and sales teams need to generate a Base Agreement to determine the answers to these questions:

  • What kind of leads will be passed to sales? 
  • What are the demographic and intent minimum requirements?
  • How will you pass this information to Sales? (Real-time notifications, CRM, etc)
  • Will they be able to see which campaign/asset this lead came from?
sales alignment

Next, make sure there is a Service Level Agreement (SLA) in place. This SLA is a contract that defines certain key performance metrics as well as the working relationship between Sales and Marketing. In this agreement, you will want to answer these questions so that there is consensus between both teams as to 1) who the leads are assigned to, 2) how they are followed up with, and 3) how everything is tracked in the CRM. Other things to consider:

  • How quickly will sales follow-up with each type of leads?
  • What are the follow-up methods? How many touches? (how many emails? calls?)
  • How will Sales show they have followed up? (e.g. tag lead statuses in CRM)
  • What happens if a lead is unresponsive or closed/lost?
  • How will Marketing nurture their leads?

The “Sales Accepted Lead” (SAL)

The SAL is basically just a quality control process to ensure that Marketing is actually handing off quality leads. It’s based on the rules defined in the Base Agreement. Once the lead is accepted by Sales and becomes a SAL, the lead is formally handed off and becomes the responsibility of the Sales team -- what happens next is based on your SLA (not to be confused with SAL). Make sure your CRM has a Lead Status field to track the lead’s progress, and that all relevant parties are updating this status as the lead moves through the sales funnel. This is particularly important since the Marketing team is often measured and compensated based on the number of SALs and opportunities sourced.

Lead-to-Opportunity Flow

lead opportunity flow sales marketing

This is what the lead-to-opportunity flow should look like. Once Marketing deems a lead qualified enough to be assigned to Sales (MQL), Sales can decide if they want to accept or disqualify the lead. If the SDR or AE accepts the lead, they should create a “Stage 0” opportunity for this account in the CRM. Make sure to track every step of the flow on your CRM at each stage -- tag the correct campaigns so you can always attribute your pipeline to the right sources. If a lead is Closed-Lost or becomes unresponsive, it should go back into nurturing.

Lead Assignment

When assigning leads between your Sales reps, remember to keep it as simple as possible. These are the most common types of lead assignments:

  • Round Robin: Leads are randomly assigned to the next sales rep on the list
  • Account-Based: SDRs and AEs are assigned to a list of target accounts
  • Territory: Reps are divided by region, state, zip code, area code, etc (avoid for as long as you can, useless complexity)
  • Segments: Reps are assigned to a specific company size or vertical (Mid-market, enterprise, , etc)

Closed-Loop Process (Nurture)

sales funnel

You don’t want to let leads go cold over time. Even if they are not ready to buy you still want to share content from Marketing and keep them engaged for when they are ready to engage. Keep a closed-loop process where leads can be added to a nurture workflow (sharing content, updates, etc), if they are not ready to engage with Sales, have become unresponsive for X days, or have become a closed-lost opportunity. You can set up a workflow within your CRM or marketing automation software so that leads are automatically changed to a “nurture” status if they meet any of these criteria, and then are automatically enrolled in the nurture sequence (until they engage and their status changes again). 

5 Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Stay away from vague or simplistic qualification criteria (i.e. “must have a budget”). Be as specific as you can!
  2. Don’t design overly-complex lead assignment rules.
  3. Don’t let your reps ignore the SLA, it’s in place for a reason (ignoring it will cost you money). Build a dashboard and a “wall of shame” for the reps that are slow at responding to new leads.
  4. Don’t spend too much time on the scoring model before you define the handoff requirements.
  5. Make sure to create the MQL definition with input from both Marketing and Sales.


The key to building a successful lead handoff is to make sure there is alignment between Marketing and Sales. Map all relevant variables, and come to an agreement on how leads will be scored, handed off, followed up with, and tracked. With the correct processes in place, you will ensure that all the expensive new leads will be properly followed-up, and you’ll be able to effectively scale and increase your sales pipeline.

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