How to Define a Sales Lead

September 09, 2017 / By Bruce McDuffee

Leads, both sales and marketing want them. Salespeople always want more leads. The CEO wants leads. The Sales Director wants leads. Heck, who doesn't want more leads?

Marketing complains that salespeople don't follow up. Salespeople say the leads they get from marketing are crappy. According to Aberdeen Group, organizations that have strong alignment between their marketing and sales teams achieve an average revenue growth of 20% compared to a 4% decline for their poorly-aligned competitors.

One thing you can do today to alleviate all this want and angst is to create and gain agreement on the definition of this four letter word, 'lead.'
define a sales lead

I remember a global sales meeting I attended a few years ago where I, as the global marketing director, waspresenting a session about lead generation and lead management. I started out with the usual banal discussion that was putting the sales people to sleep. After about 15 minutes of this, I decided to switch to a new topic. I asked the room of sales people to tell me their definition of a lead. The room erupted in chatter. People started shouting out answers, arguing with each other, and pounding on the tables.

I got my answer. There was no precise definition of the term, lead. If I had asked each of the sales people in that room to stand up and define the term 'lead,' I would have heard 25 different answers.

Marketing has a perception, sales people have a perception, and leadership has a perception. None of them match without a written, agreed upon definition.

Framework for Defining a Lead

A lead is defined by two components; format and characteristics. The format is the way the information is delivered to the company. A standard web form is the most common format for lead delivery. Other formats might include a hand written list, a stack of business cards, a spreadsheet of webinar attendees, etc.

The characteristics are sometimes referred to as demographics and psychographics. Characteristics might include information about geography, industry, company size, product, service, title, pain point, problem, etc.

Many successfully aligned companies combine action taken by a person in addition to the format and the characteristics. For example, a lead may be defined by particular characteristics and number of visits to the website.

To be successful at defining a lead, you must have a clear definition of your target audience and associated buyer personas. Believe it or not, some companies will not have defined a target audience. If that is your situation, it's time to step back and write a complete marketing plan. takes some time to learn which actions correlate with the lead definition and you'll need some special technology to gather and measure that information. 

Here's an example of a lead definition for a fictional measurement instrument company that specializes in measuring temperature and humidity:

Format - price request form submitted, webinar attendee, high-value white paper form submission, or trusted source referral

Characteristics - life science industry, minimum revenue of $300 million, United States or Canada headquarters, vice president or higher seniority

Actions - visited at least five product pages in one day or downloaded at least two high-value assets

If any combination of these things occurs, then a lead is deemed to have been created. Again, it is imperative to make sure all stakeholders agree on the definition. Defining a lead is an iterative process, at least in the beginning. As leads are created based on the definition, it is essential to gather feedback from the sales and marketing team about the accuracy and efficacy of the definition and redefine as necessary until the model is delivering leads ready, willing, and able to make a purchase.

Here are a few good references to consider as you create or revise your definition:
Oracle Marketing Cloud Best Practices
Technology Advice Blog Post
Marketing Insider Group Blog Post
HubSpot Marketing Blog Post

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