A service level agreement, or SLA, is a document (or contract, really) that holds Sales and Marketing teams responsible for executing specific activities and, together, for achieving specific business goals (revenue and other). An SLA typically articulates what the company’s best prospects look like, what makes a prospect a marketing-qualified and sales-qualified lead (MQL and SQL), when and how each gets nurtured, and the point at which an SQL is ready for direct outreach by Sales.
If you don’t have an SLA in place yet, read this first:
Once developed and agreed to by both parties, the SLA is a document that should evolve; it’s not a “set it and forget it” tool but rather one that should:
Change when your revenue and other business goals change.
Modifying the SLA to align with new revenue goals is fairly simple: if you require $1 million more in revenue, for example, your SLA will likely boost the number of MQLs and SQLs needed, and the effort by each team to attract, nurture and close more prospects will increase.
Be reviewed and improved yearly, based on performance.
This step is a little trickier. To optimize the value of your SLA, you have to understand what part of it isn’t working and why. But how do you know it’s not working — and how do you know what to change to get it on track?
If your overall inbound marketing program isn’t delivering the numbers you value most, and/or if you’re not converting website visitors into leads and leads into customers, change is in order. Here’s an overview of the process we go through to evaluate and modify our own SLA on at least an annual basis:
Review your lead definitions.
Look at how your SLA defines MQLs and SQLs. Are they too narrow? Too broad? Too faceted (are there too many criteria that need to be met to be considered an MQL or SQL)? Let’s say you define an SQL as someone who’s downloaded 3 pieces of content, but your industry’s buying cycle is relatively short. In that case, having to download 3 pieces of content in order to be considered an SQL will eliminate far too many prospects and your criteria should be eased up.
Similarly, maybe you need to change how you filter prospects. You might need to add geography (“Is your business in the Pacific Northwest?”) or company revenue (“Is company revenue in excess of $100 million?”) to your landing page conversion forms so that you’re not nurturing the wrong prospects (those outside your distribution area or with too small a budget, using the example above). If your conversion forms only ask for the lead’s name and industry, you’re not getting enough information to tell you whether leads are good or not.
If the problem is that you’re short on MQLs, there are a number of possible causes — you’re not creating/sharing the right content for your audience, your topics are “off,” you’re not blogging often enough, you’re targeting the wrong personas within organizations, etc.— but one place to look relative to your SLA is your social channels. Make sure every member of your Marketing and Sales teams, and even customer-facing staff, are spreading the company’s content to their networks. Most of our clients have had great success sharing content on LinkedIn because it gets spread to their employees’ networks’ networks (got that?), and is seen by people who are expressly on LinkedIn to find solutions. In other words, your employees are crucial to the amplification and reach of your company’s content because their networks are filled with your prospects.
Adjust lead scoring.
How accurate is your scoring of leads? If you place too much emphasis on factors that, in hindsight, don’t help identify your best prospects (or too little on factors that do), change them. If, for example, you’re giving weight to anyone who downloads a specific piece of content but the data shows that people actually downloading it aren’t good SQLs, eliminate or change the value of that score component.
Adjust lead nurturing opportunities.
Part of Marketing’s role is to properly nurture MQLs, and they should always be looking for additional opportunities to do so. Part of that effort is to review the top-performing content offers during the year and pinpoint the ones your SQLs have downloaded — then use these pieces to nurture your MQLs. You may also need to adjust your nurturing workflows: are you sending follow-up email offers too soon (is the buyer’s journey long and your outreach too aggressive?) or not soon enough (do they forget about you long before they receive another content offer in their email?).
If You’re Not Converting SQLs to Opportunities...
One of the most common challenges Marketing and Sales teams have is that they’re not turning enough of their SQLs into opportunities. Here are some possible causes (and solutions):
- Look at your connect attempt sequences (the agreed-upon 1:1 outreach cadence that helps Sales know when and how to connect with prospects who have demonstrated that they’re sales-ready) to make sure the message and timing are right. If the timing is right and the messages are good, consider adding video into the email outreach. Our own tests have shown a vast improvement in email open rates when the email includes a personalized video. These can be done very simply using your computer screen and can be very casual (“Hi, Bob – I wanted to reach out to see if you had any questions about the last content piece you downloaded…”)
- Do you have the right bottom-of-the-funnel (BoFu) content? If SQLs aren’t turning into proposals or becoming customers, it could be that they haven’t been presented with a compelling enough offer to say yes to connecting with Sales. Make sure you dangle something valuable in front of them as they’re nearing the end of their buyer journey, like a free evaluation, demo video, free CAD design review, DfM services, a testimonial from a respected industry leader, or another powerful carrot.
- Are lead handoffs working for Sales? Ask Sales if they’re getting the information they need from prospects’ interactions with your site. Information the contact has provided on landing page forms and their web analytics history (pages they’ve viewed, number of visits, etc.) can be used to learn the urgency of their need (how soon they’re going to buy), their budget, their role in the purchase decision, the driver of their need, and more. You don’t want to overwhelm visitors with too many questions, but get the information that allows Sales to follow up in a way that makes it clear to the prospect that they understand where they are in the buyer journey and why they’re looking for a solution. Relevancy and context are two keys to successfully closing inbound leads.
Sometimes SLAs get back-burner status because, compared to the overall inbound marketing program, it seems to be a sort of static agreement that, once “signed,” doesn’t have much bearing on the program’s success. That’s the wrong way to look at it. Like the overall program, the SLA has to be continually optimized in order for it to do the work it’s intended to do. For it to have impact and help turn leads into customers, it has to be tweaked based on the success both Marketing and Sales teams are seeing (and not seeing). At least yearly, dig into the program’s metrics and find opportunities to modify your SLA to get the business results you’re looking for.