It’s Time to Kill the Lead Object in Salesforce (1 of 3)

Do you believe in unicorns? A discussion of the philosophical roots of sales/marketing misalignment, the alchemy of account based revenue, and why it’s time to get rid of the Lead object.

Part 1: The Problem with the Lead Object

What the Heck is a Lead?

I mean seriously, I’d really like to sit down with the architects of the Salesforce data model and ask them that question. Don’t get me wrong, this is not intended as a criticism of Salesforce. I’m a huge fan of Salesforce, it’s a fantastic CRM and an essential tool for implementing a successful revenue process.

From an account based perspective, I think there is a problem with the out-of-the-box Salesforce data model. Specifically, the Lead object is an orphaned, hybrid object of questionable ontological status that really shouldn’t exist. Fortunately Salesforce is so powerful and flexible that this problem can be solved effectively in multiple ways, including by getting rid of the Lead object altogether, if you can first solve the business problem that gave rise to its existence in the first place.

The Philosophy of Data Strategy

It is a general principle of data science that database objects should uniquely represent real entities. That is, each object in the data model should correspond to one actual thing that really exists in the real world.

So what really exists? Well, that’s a hard one. There is an entire branch of philosophy, called Ontology, dedicated to this question, and another branch, called Epistemology, that deals with the question of how we can find out information about what really exists. There are a lot of ideas and theories about the subject, but the question has never been definitively resolved. It’s one of those eternal philosophical conundrums that are generally considered to be fundamentally ineffable. But if we’re going to build real databases to do real work in the real world, we need to grapple with this question and see if we can manage to eff it after all. (That’s a paraphrase of Douglas Adams.)

The architects of the Salesforce data model effed it big time. (OK, to be fair, everything was lead-based back then, and it really is a clever solution in many ways, but still…) They represented the revenue process using four primary objects: Accounts, Contacts, Opportunities, and Leads. Accounts and Contacts are pretty straightforward, Opportunities we’ll get to in a minute – but what the heck is a Lead?

A Lead, in my opinion, is a poor data structure design choice driven by fundamental organizational misalignment, and it’s time to get rid of it.

The Ambiguity of the Lead Object

The problem with the Lead object is that it represents at least three, maybe even four, separate real world entities, all of which are already represented by another object in the data model. Two of these entities we definitely believe exist, and the third we are in a perpetual argument about, and therein lies the underlying business problem that gave rise to the invention of the Lead.

First, a Lead represents a person. Do people exist? Well, I sure hope so. “I think therefore I am,” right, that’s Descartes. I’m pretty dang sure I exist, and I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. So yeah, people exist, I think we can all agree on that. So that’s great – but wait, there’s already an object in the data model to represent a person, it’s called a Contact, it has all of the attributes you would want in a person like a name and an email address and a job title and so forth. So what do we need Leads for?

Well, a Lead also represents a company. There is a Company Name field on the Lead object, and a Website field. Those are attributes of a company, not of a person. Do companies exist? Well, contrary to what Mitt Romney said, corporations are not people, my friend, but they probably do exist. I mean, they’re legally defined entities, they can own and buy and sell property, and people work for them. It would be a little awkward to be employed by something we don’t believe exists. So yeah, companies exist, I think we can all agree on that. But they’re not the same thing as people, so why are we representing them with the same database object? There’s already an object in the data model that represents a company, it’s called an Account, it has attributes like a company name and a website domain and an address. It can even have a parent-child relationship with other Accounts. Contacts are its children, representing the fact that these people work for this company. So again, what do we need Leads for?

Well, Leads also represent something else, and this is where you have to hang on to your ontological hats because this one is much more controversial. Leads represent an abstract concept: the idea that there is a possibility that this person, who works for this company, may be interested in buying our product. As with the others, there is already an object in the database to represent this entity, it’s called an Opportunity, it is related to Accounts and Contacts and it has a probability of closing and a projected close date and a price. So once again, why do we need Leads?

The reason we need Leads is that Sales and Marketing disagree about whether or not an Opportunity really exists yet. If we can resolve this disagreement, we don’t need Leads any more.

Do you believe in unicorns?

So does it really exist? Is there really a chance that they might buy?

Well, I don’t know man, that’s a hard one. That’s the billion dollar question, right? If you can answer that question, then you win the game and we all get rich. It’s hard to determine objectively because it depends on future conditionals. It might happen, or it might not. Who knows? Unlike in quantum physics, there is no definitive formula for calculating the probability, though there are various methods and algorithms that try. This idea is not a physical thing like a person, nor is it a legally defined entity like a company. It’s just a possibility, a dream. It’s like a unicorn. You can’t see it or touch it. It’s a leap of faith. You can’t prove it really exists. You just have to believe.

Philosophical Differences Between Sales and Marketing

I realize that I’m generalizing a lot here, and what follows does not necessarily apply to every single salesperson or marketer, but I think that in general the cultures of the disciplines of sales and marketing have some fundamental philosophical differences that can lead to misalignment within the organization as a whole.

Salespeople don’t Believe in Unicorns

By nature, salespeople tend to be hard-nosed empiricists. They believe it when they see it, and not a moment sooner. They are skeptics, and well they should be. It’s their job to deal directly with reality. They have to go out every day into the real marketplace and compete for real deals against real tough competitors with their very livelihood at stake. Their survival depends on skepticism. It comes with the territory. It’s a tough job, and you have to be tough-minded to do it.

Salespeople also tend to take a particular position on the philosophical question of agency. They believe in individual agency and the primacy of the will – that things happen because of individual choices. They think that deals close because of their own hard work, grit and determination. By sheer force of willpower, they create deals that didn’t exist before.

So the salesperson says, “until I can see and touch and smell that unicorn for myself, I refuse to believe it really exists. Until I put in the work to make it happen, it’s not real. I’m not going to put that thing into my database as an Opportunity until I determine that it’s really qualified.”

This is a totally understandable position. After all, salespeople are usually held accountable for their close rate, that is, the percentage of Opportunities that they turn into closed won deals.

Salespeople don’t want to be held accountable for something they can’t control, or that they don’t believe really exists.

I get that. I don’t want to be held accountable for things I don’t believe in either.

Marketers do Believe in Unicorns

Marketers by nature tend to be idealists, and well they should be. It is their job to turn dreams into reality. The marketer’s dream is that these people, who work for this company, really will want to buy our product, and we’ll make lots of money and satisfy the customer and everybody will live happily ever after. The marketer has to find a way, by some alchemical combination of magic and science, to transform this abstract idea into a thing that exists in the real world. That’s also a tough job. But hey man, don’t blame me, that’s the gig you signed up for. In order to make unicorns come to you, in order to turn dreams into reality, you have to really believe in your heart that the dream is real.

Marketers also have their own model of agency. They tend to be on the structure side of the structure vs. agency debate. They believe in collective agency. Because they deal with entire populations and groups of people, they see things as happening because of abstract social forces such as “demand” and “brand image.” They work their magic by manipulating these forces to influence deals.

This is why Marketers want to enter data into the database early in the revenue process, and would prefer to put the entire population of their target audience into the database all at once. But they need a place to put that data, because sales doesn’t want it entered as Accounts/Contacts/Opportunities.

The Irony of Misalignment

Sales shares the marketer’s dream, of course. The tragic irony of sales/marketing misalignment is that they share the same goals, they always have. Sales just doesn’t have faith in the dream the way marketing does, because of their natural skepticism born of hard experience. 

So even though they are working toward a shared vision and probably even agree on at least the general outline of the ICP (Ideal Client Profile), sales and marketing remain misaligned on both the data model and the go-to-market strategy because they subscribe to different schools of epistemology and different models of agency. That’s more ironic than rain on your wedding day, Alanis Morissette.

From this basic conflict of faith, the Lead was born.

The Birth of the Lead

Unable to resolve the fundamental business problem of sales/marketing misalignment, the Salesforce data model architects fell victim to one of the classic blunders, only slightly less well known than getting involved in a land war in Asia (that’s from “The Princess Bride,” of course). They tried to solve a business problem with a technical solution. They invented this bastardized, half-assed, hybrid object called the Lead. 

It’s really quite a clever solution, when you think about it. It allows marketing to enter their unicorns into the database without cluttering up the tables that sales cares most about, namely the Accounts, Contacts and Opportunities, with a bunch of data that sales basically regards as speculative BS. It allows tracking of the early stages of the revenue process – and then, once sales sees it for themselves and decides the unicorn is real, the Lead magically transforms into an Account, Contact and Opportunity through the process of Conversion. In a way, it’s a brilliant solution.

But, like many brilliant solutions, it also causes a lot of new problems. Now we have two tables where people are stored, so if we want a list of all people who satisfy certain conditions, we have to run two separate reports. More importantly, Leads are not attached to Accounts, so we are unable to take advantage of the rich firmographic and historical data on the Account object, because the Lead isn’t associated with it yet. Also, what happens when a marketing inquiry comes in from someone who is already an existing Contact? Or what if an existing Contact is part of the target list for our account based campaign? Do we create a new Lead for it, thus cluttering our database with duplicates? Or do we allow the SDR/BDR team to work Contacts, thus bifurcating and confusing the flow of our marketing/sales handoff process?

The best way to resolve these problems is to get rid of the Lead object entirely.

Towards a Solution

In our next installment, we will talk about the particular requirements of the account based revenue process and why it’s time to get rid of the Lead object in an account based context. In the meantime, if you need help with your problems with Leads, account based revenue, and data strategy, give us a call. We can help you figure out what’s real, resolve your philosophical differences, sort out how to build your database, and turn the dream into reality.

Eli is an old-school geek who fell in love with marketing technology. In addition to writing code and setting up advanced configurations in marketing cloud applications, Eli helps ID clients navigate the ever-shifting martech landscape. At some point, Eli will probably ask you for admin-level access to all of your systems (if he’s working on a project with you, or even if you just meet him randomly at a conference). It’s OK though, he knows better than to touch anything without permission, and with permission, he’ll make them hum like a Tesla roadster.

3 Comments

  • Thought provoking article to be sure and I look forward to the other two parts.

    That said, I’d share a couple of thoughts:

    1) that in between time when we need to qualify whether a lead should be an opportunity is a distinct bit of work that needs to be done. In my mind, that work, which involves the three objects, is what the lead is designed to do.

    2) given that lead conversion rates decrease by over 90% when the age of the lead exceeds 10 minutes, it is critical that the life of a lead is fleeting. It is a short moment where the unicorn may or may not exist. The faster we get to the bottom of it, the better.

    3) leads speed up the process of creating contacts, accounts, and opportunities. Yes, there are duplicates, but there are also newly discovered people who are net new to the organization. Reach out to them, learn more about why they reached out, qualify, and convert them.

    Leads are not for everyone though and they don’t have value when the lead object becomes a graveyard.

    Leads are valuable when a person expresses interest in what your organization offers and you quickly reach out to learn more.

    Unicorns exist, but they can be fleeting.

    Reply
    • Benjamin, you raise an excellent point! Indeed, this brings up a 4th thing that the Lead object represents, which I didn’t get to in this first installment but will cover next time. A Lead represents the fact that, if there is a chance that this person at this company might be interested in buying your products, then somebody in your organization ought to do something about that, like give them a call or something. This 4th entity definitely needs to be represented in the database, because it’s a real and very important thing. My recommendation is to represent this using a Task object. Tasks are highly versatile and can be attached to Accounts, Opportunities, Contacts, and Leads alike, and are designed to represent an action item, with fields like a due date, a subject, and a type. I’ll write more about this subject in the next installment.

      Reply

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