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How to Qualify Your Business Leads Like a Top Agency


Have you ever said yes to a referral without qualifying the lead?

I did that many years ago, and what should have been a 2-3 week project dragged on for 6 stressful months.

I didn't know then that I could turn down any client, even a referral. If I had qualified the lead, I would have known it was the client’s first time doing any sort of web project.

He didn’t know that once code is written, it’s harder to change. He wasn’t responsive, which slowed progress to a crawl. He also didn’t understand the agreed-upon benchmarks, so he didn’t want to pay.

Eventually he did pay, and I remember thinking I was so glad to be done with him.

Except that I wasn’t done.

When we began his project, I explained that he needed to find someone to host his site, but he didn’t do it. So I did it for him, volunteering extra time to make sure he was taken care of.

This one lead resulted in six months of headaches, unpaid hours outside of the project scope, and, of course, zero referrals.

So what did I do wrong?

The Problem Is That You're Not Qualifying Leads To Find Good Clients

You don't just want any client. Most companies act like they're desperate, allowing any client to buy from them. For them, "qualifying leads" means making sure that prospects have budgets and are likely to buy.

When you don’t qualify leads, you wind up with bad clients, and servicing bad clients comes at a high cost.

But you want good clients. When you don't qualify leads, you wind up with bad clients, and servicing bad clients comes at a high cost.

Zack Linford says qualifying leads makes a big difference to his bottom line. Zack is the founder of Conversion Voodoo, which offers landing page and conversion rate optimization services.

The problem, says Zack, is that "if a client’s technical environment is a disaster, it can take months instead of weeks to get cracking, and we need to know that upfront to plan resources."

The other problem with getting bad clients? They don’t refer other clients. Good clients give you referrals.

“We love referrals,” says Bryan Zmijewski, founder of ZURB. ZURB is a product design company whose clients include Facebook, eBay, Netflix, Zazzle, and Yahoo. “A good chunk of our business comes from recommendations,” says Bryan. “Good clients refer other good clients.”

The Two Reasons You’re Not Qualifying Leads

There are two reasons most people don't qualify prospects.

First, it can be scary to turn away any lead, especially if you’re hungry for more business. Carl Smith, founder of digital creative firm nGen Works, calls this “feeding the monster”:

In the traditional business model, a web shop is searching for good leads. A lot of times they have cashflow problems, pipeline concerns, and unregulated growth which leads to taking on anything they can. I like to think of this as feeding the monster. The monster isn't picky, it just needs more. So shops on this slippery slope try and take it all. Not only does this make it difficult to have any control over the quality of work or type of client you get, it leads to burnout and frustration.

The other reason people don’t qualify leads is that they can’t tell the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly. Do you know how to tell if a prospect will be a good client for your particular company?

To figure that out, you need to analyze your great clients and find their commonalities.

For example, Conversion Voodoo learned that their good clients have two characteristics. First, they have to be willing to give up some control. “If a client is unwilling to engage in this first collaborative step, it’s a good indicator that we may have a tough time moving at maximum efficiency in the future,” says Zack. Second, their technical environment has to be in good order.

ZURB found that the commonality among its good clients is the mental flexibility to do whatever is best. Their best clients aren’t constrained by self-imposed mental straitjackets.

“We like clients who are constantly looking for better ways to solve problems,” says Bryan. “It allows us to understand if clients are willing to collaborate.” ZURB found that the ability to work well with clients dictates whether a project is going to be successful.

You Need to Qualify Leads to Get Good Clients

Once you’ve identified the common denominator among your good clients, you can develop a qualifying question or a series of qualifying questions to determine if a prospect makes the grade.

Here’s how the pros do it:

  • Ask prospects to complete a task. Conversion Voodoo qualifies leads by asking prospects to add their tracking tool to their site. “The absolutely, positively most important step we take to qualify leads is to ask permission to install our proprietary tracking tool onto their website so we can analyze their funnel,” says Zack.

    This request hits both of their key commonalities among good clients—willing to give up control and a good technical environment.

  • Ask a series of questions to evaluate if a prospect is a good fit. ZURB asks a series of questions to determine if a prospect is flexible. “We highlight areas for improvement in the sales process,” says Bryan. “We try to educate clients [to get] a sense of how flexible they are...” What’s important isn’t a single answer, but the mental flexibility implied by their answers.
  • Make prospects work to win you over. nGen presents prospects to the company, and if enough team members show interest and a team forms organically, they take the client. If not, then it wasn't the right opportunity. “Prospects know they may get rejected, and this is a great thing,” says Carl. “Difficult, control freak prospects won't play this game and go away. The flip side is that team-focused prospects love it and work to win a team.”

Ready to get started?

The Four-Step Process to Qualify Leads

Step 1. Analyze your best current clients to find commonalities.

First, look at the demographics, attitudes, interests and purchase patterns of your last 10 good clients.

Then, contact them and ask what made them decide to purchase and why they like your company. What about them do you like?

Use this information to figure out what your best clients have in common.

Step 2. Think of a qualifying question that strikes at that commonality.

Next, write a question that will quickly tell you if a prospect possesses the commonality.

What is the one question all of your good clients say yes to?

Step 3. Ask all of your new prospects that qualifying question.

Now that you have a qualifying question, you need your prospects to answer it!

If a prospect calls or if you get an email referral, ask the qualifying question to find out if they’re a good fit.

If your website is your main source for leads, you can ask your qualifying question on your email signup page by adding an extra form field.

Remember that every form field you add results in fewer leads. A 4-question form can increase the conversion rate 120% over an 11-question form.

Getting fewer leads is a good thing if you’re asking a qualifying question that will weed out bad clients, but make sure to only ask what is absolutely necessary.

Step 4. Focus on prospects that give the right answer to your qualifying question.

Once the qualified leads are rolling in, it’s time to put on your white coat and diagnose their problems. Ask about their pain points, goals, and expectations to get a clear picture of their needs and the project scope.

Finally, propose a good solution. If it’s a small project, create an estimate. For large projects, write a proposal.

What’s next?

Now that you’ve read this article, follow the four-step plan to start qualifying leads and reeling in more good clients. Remember, don’t “feed the monster”! Be willing to walk away from bad leads.

Now I’d like to hear from you. How do you qualify leads, or if you don’t, what’s been holding you back? Let me know in the comments!

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