It’s Time to Kill the Lead Object in Salesforce (2 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.

Salesforce leads

Part 2: How to Solve the Problems with the Lead Object in an Account Based Revenue Process

In the previous installment, I talked about some of the philosophical and practical problems with the Lead object. I argued that the Lead is a hybrid object, representing a person, a company, and an opportunity all at the same time. This ambiguity causes many problems. The need for the Lead object arises from a fundamental misalignment between Marketing and Sales as to whether a business opportunity really exists during the early stages of the business process.

In this installment I will briefly discuss the relevance of these issues in an account based context, and then talk about how to solve the problem of Leads in various ways – by first resolving the business problem that gives rise to the need for Leads, and then choosing a technical approach to the problem that fits the needs of your business.

Account Based Alchemy

Philosophical misalignment between sales and marketing has always been a problem for demand generation, but it becomes particularly acute in an account based revenue process, which requires especially tight coordination between sales and marketing efforts.

The account based revenue process is a popular and effective formula for transforming the shared sales/marketing dream into reality. To work this alchemy, we start by conjuring into existence this thing we call the TAM, the Total Addressable Market, which is the universe of all possible people/companies that might buy our product. From within this TAM, we select, using the wizardry of executive mandate, human-powered workshops, data science and brilliant insight, the Ideal Client Profile (ICP). The ICP is a description of the subset of companies from within our TAM whom we believe are a particularly good fit for us. That is, they offer a higher propensity to engage, convert, renew and buy additional services from us than other companies within our TAM. 

Then, we use that ICP to develop the TAL, the Target Account List, that is, the list of companies that a) fit our ICP definition and b) deserve extra, near-term focus and investment from our marketing, sales and/or customer success teams. The accounts and contacts on this TAL might be a perfect fit for our products, track record, case studies and sales skills. Even better if they are indicating surging interest and intent for key words that relate to our offerings, solution type and category.  So we set about chasing after the dream that they will respond to our account based efforts and buy from us.

Do we believe the TAL really exists? You bet we do! It’s a real list of actual companies who we are going to actually pursue with special focus and resource allocation. One of the things that will make the way we pursue this TAL different and better is that we will pursue them in a way that recognizes how B2B companies buy things: in teams, or committees. We will pursue that entire buying team simultaneously, rather than single leads in an isolated, disconnected way.

But can we guarantee that they will buy from us? Of course not. Their buying from us is still abstract, it’s a kind of “informed aspiration” or dream, it’s not a real thing yet. In order to work the magic of actual conversion, we have to believe the TAL offers special opportunity for us, and convince others to believe that too. (Note: that’s why the ICP is so important. And it’s so important that it be developed in a cross-functional way.) This belief in the power of the TAL is often captured under the much-abused phrase “stakeholder alignment.” And that belief is crucial to the success of an account based campaign.

So the account based marketer says, “I do believe in unicorns, I believe in the promise of the TAL, I think it really exists, and if I’m going to make this dream real, I need to put it into the database somehow so I can track it and measure it and be held accountable for it. And I don’t want to enter it into Salesforce as isolated Leads, because I want the people to be associated with Accounts and organized into buying groups, because buying is a collective process, and we’re pursuing this TAL with a more coordinated, personalized and integrated approach called Account Based.” But sales won’t let them put it into the database as Accounts and Contacts with Opportunities, because they won’t believe it until they see it. This basic misalignment is a business problem, not a technical problem, and it can’t really be resolved by technical means. To truly resolve it, we need to prove to Sales that the TAL is real, to show them that it’s genuinely a useful tool that they can use to win real deals in the real marketplace. However, that’s a long and difficult process, especially in large, well-established enterprises where the sales and marketing teams are entrenched in their existing processes and philosophies.

Solving the Business Problem of Misalignment

There are technical approaches to solving the technical problems with the Lead object, but I suggest we take a step back and grapple with the real business problem first. Do we, as an organization, believe in the TAL or not? If not, why not? Is there something wrong with the process that produced it? Then that process should be fixed. If sales has unique insight into who should and should not be on the TAL, which they probably do, then that insight should be taken into account in the process. If possible, the sales team should be brought on board and fully aligned with the TAL so that they agree that it really is real, these are the right targets to go after. The unicorn is real, and we’re going to damn well go out there and ride it into the sunset!

If we can all agree on that, if we can achieve organizational alignment on what our target companies and people are and that there really is a chance to sell our product to them, then we don’t need Leads any more. We can enter the entire TAL into Salesforce as Accounts, Contacts, and Opportunities. We can associate Contacts with the Opportunities to represent our buying groups or “demand units” via Opportunity Contact Roles, and we can work those Opportunities through Stages to represent the steps of the marketing/sales process or “funnel.”  Instead of effing up our data model with hybrid objects of disputed ontological status, we can uniquely represent the real entities that we all really believe exist. Lights flash, bells ring, the gates of account based Nirvana open, and everybody gets to live the dream.

The key to achieving this is to remember that the core of the objection of the sales team is that they don’t want to be held accountable for something they cannot control and don’t believe in. 

To solve the issue of control, the sales team should be involved heavily in both the development of the ICP and the TAL selection process, and there should be a formal mechanism for them to make adjustments to the TAL and to contribute their insights to the evolution of the ICP. To solve the issue of belief, you should start with a cross-functionally developed ICP. The next important thing to do to solve the issue of belief is to pilot an account based approach and rigorously measure the results. If the pilot is successful, you should be able to prove this with hard data that shows that the account based methodology produces real revenue in the real marketplace. That’s what the sales team needs to see in order to believe the unicorn is real.

(Note: it can really help to have an expert partner help with all of this. We do this with and for our clients all the time. Call us.)

Technical Solutions You Can Implement Right Now

If you can jointly develop your ICP, align on the definition of the TAL and convince all stakeholders to agree to entering it as Contacts/Accounts/Opportunities, you will still need a technical solution to deal with new inbound prospects that are not part of your pre-defined TAL. You will need to match those prospects to existing Accounts or automatically create new Accounts if there is not already a matching Account in the database.

Dirty Secret: In many cases, it is unrealistic to expect the organization to achieve the lofty goal of total stakeholder alignment and agreement on the existence of the TAL, at least not quickly. Organizational change takes time and work, especially in large, complex organizations.

Fortunately, there are several solution architectures that can help to eliminate Leads. Some of these can also accommodate the use case where we are not completely aligned on the TAL and we will not be getting rid of Leads any time soon, even though we’re working toward that goal.

Important integration considerations before you kill your lead object

Changing the way you manage Leads or eliminating Leads may impact the integration between SFDC and other systems, so when implementing any of the solutions below, you need to be aware of the impact on integration. For example, many marketing automation systems cannot create a new Contact in the CRM database, so the only choice to handle inbound prospects is to create them as a Lead. In this case you may decide to continue using Leads, or you could use the techniques below to match the Lead to an Account and convert it to a Contact.

Another consideration is integration with other data systems such as ERP, data warehouse, accounting systems etc. You may not want all of the Accounts in your TAL to sync into your accounting system. In that case you could create a different record type or a field to indicate Accounts that should not sync to the other system.

Solution #1: Create a Data Model to Represent Membership in the TAL

Approach #1: Zero-Stage, Zero Probability Opportunities

This solution assumes we have at least some degree of alignment on the TAL, and the only real problem is that the sales team doesn’t want to be held accountable for it via their pipeline reports, close rates, quotas and forecasts. 

In that case, you might consider creating Opportunities for the entire TAL and using Opportunity Contact Roles to represent the demand unit, (a demand unit is Sirius’ term for a group of individuals within an organization who are trying to solve or should be solving a problem that’s a fit for one of your products or solutions – see our blog article on the Demand Unit Waterfall) but make these Opportunities with a separate Record Type and/or put them in a so-called “Zero Stage,” an Opportunity Stage at the very top of the funnel that has zero probability and therefore does not impact the sales forecast numbers and is exempted from the computation of close rates. Agree, and make sure the sales leadership agrees in writing, that the sales team will only be held accountable for Opportunities once they advance beyond the zero stage and are considered truly qualified by the sales team.

Approach #2: Custom Demand Unit Objects

If you can’t get enough alignment on the TAL to convince the sales team to let you enter the TAL as zero-stage Opportunities, and/or if you already have a highly customized Salesforce data model or you want more sophistication and flexibility in the modeling of your revenue process than that offered by the Opportunity object, you can create a Custom Object. A Custom Object can represent the demand unit and create junction objects to connect that object to Contacts and Accounts, and/or whatever custom structure you’re using to store data on people and companies. 

This is an extremely flexible solution in that you can pretty much make it do whatever you want, especially if you have access to APEX development resources. You can customize your data model with whatever entities you believe exist in your revenue process, and work them through whatever process you want to implement. It does, however, require a bit more work and thought on the data architecture side to figure out the best way to do it, as the possibilities are pretty much limitless, and more work on the development side to actually build it, as you will probably have to write custom code to implement your business logic.

The Double Funnel

Most organizations that implement an account based revenue process also continue to practice traditional demand generation along side their account based campaigns. In order to track the success of both types of marketing simultaneously, it is often useful to introduce the concept of a double funnel. In this approach, you continue to track the progress of individual prospects through the stages of the traditional Serius Decisions Demand Waterfall, but at the same time you track accounts or buying groups through the stages of the newer Demand Unit Waterfall.

The technical details of this are extensive and beyond the scope of this article. I just wanted to mention that it is possible to implement a double funnel approach by using a Lead-based process for your traditional demand generation, and a Contact-based process for ABM. Alternatively, you can eliminate Leads and only use Contacts, but still continue to track funnel stages of individual prospects through a Contact Status field, or by using Tasks as described below, or through other techniques such as the use of the Campaign Member object (Full Circle Insights uses this method). So there are ways to implement a double funnel, whether you intend to continue using Leads or not.

Solution #2: Task-based Routing

By the way, the above solution also assumes that there is a process by which the BDR/SDR team can work existing Contacts, because the people in the TAL will be entered into Salesforce as Contacts, not as Leads, and the BDR/SDR needs to be able to work them in order to move them through the funnel, and needs to get proper credit for doing so. Even if you’re going to still use Leads, it’s probably good to have a process by which the BDR/SDR can work existing Contacts, because Contacts might go cold for a time and then have a renewed interest in buying your products and need to start over from the beginning of the process. You might also be interested in upselling/cross-selling your existing customers. So having a process to work Contacts through the entire funnel is a good idea.

(This brings up a fourth entity that the Lead object is often, but not always, used to represent: if there is a chance that this person at this company might buy our product, somebody within our organization should do something about that. This entity definitely exists, or at least it should. If there is a chance to sell them our product, somebody really ought to do something about it, like maybe call them or email them or something.)

Unsurprisingly, there is already an object in the standard Salesforce data model to represent the fact that somebody should do something. It’s called a Task, it has an owner and a due date and is highly flexible in that it can be attached to various objects including Leads, Contacts, Opportunities and Accounts. It’s great for keeping track of how many things ought to be done and by whom, how quickly they’re being done, and whether they had a successful outcome. If you’re using Leads to build your team’s to-do list, putting them in queues for the BDR/SDR team to work out of or assigning them to the BDR/SDR team as lists of calls they should make, I would recommend switching to using Tasks, which are much better suited to this purpose. This gives the BDR/SDR team the flexibility to work Leads, Contacts, Accounts, and Opportunities as needed, and you can run a single set of reports on the Task object to measure their performance.

Solution #3: Lead to Account Matching

If for some reason you still want or need to use the Lead object after listening to me rant against it incessantly, there is a technical solution for that too. It’s called Lead to Account Matching. Using a tool such as Lean Data, you can automatically associate your Leads to Accounts. If there is no matching Account, a new one can be automatically created.

Maybe you can’t convince your sales team to believe in the TAL enough to enter it in as Accounts/Contacts/Opportunities. Maybe your Marketing Automation system can only put new data into the CRM by entering it as new Leads (this is a common situation). Maybe you just really like Leads, and your Lead-based sales process is working really well for you.

You can use Lead to Account Matching to determine which Account the Lead really belongs to, and then you have a choice: you can get rid of the Lead by automatically converting it to a Contact, or you can leave it as a Lead and write some of the data from the Account object down to the Lead to make it accessible for segmentation. Either way, this resolves most of the technical problems with the Lead object, and though it still poses philosophical difficulties, we can leave those to the philosophers and just, in the immortal words of The Beatles, let it be.

Need an Account Based Alchemist? Call us!

If you’re still struggling to define the unicorn you’re chasing, and need some help turning it into reality, give us a call. We’ve been turning dreams into reality for real companies like yours for years, and we know the right combination of magic and science to make the dream real for you too. We’d love to go on this journey with you, and help you live happily ever after… but not really ever after, because there’s always a sequel! To be continued…

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.

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