Salesforce Leads vs. Contacts: Everything You Need to Know
Being a Salesforce Admin writer, I see a lot of discussions in Salesforce forums about all sorts of topics. For some reason, one of the most controversial always seems to be Leads vs. Contacts.
I personally find this very fascinating – it’s sort of this interesting overlap between how Salesforce as a CRM works, how the real world works, how businesses manage prospects, and how admins want to manage a database. I think a lot of the debate depends on how individual admins learned to use these two objects initially, what your given company’s philosophy is, and whether they’re using account-based marketing or not.
It’s one of my favorite things to train people on – it can seem very simple on the surface but can quickly turn into a rabbit hole of database management, business philosophies, and qualification criteria. I’ve never had a conversation about Salesforce Leads vs. Contacts without spiraling into “When exactly does a Lead become a Contact?”.
So, if you dare, join me as we go down this rabbit hole to uncover the difference, why there is so much debate, and why all this matters.
To begin with, we’re going to cover the academic Salesforce Object definitions. According to Trailhead, “A Lead is an individual or organization that has expressed interest in your product or service.” That seems straightforward enough.
Contacts are defined as: “…every contact (person) has an individual listing that contains the details about the contact and the associated relationships. Contacts can be associated with accounts (businesses), opportunities (deals in progress), cases, and more.” That’s less straightforward, and neither definition explains why they are compared to each other.
Let’s clarify using a standard Salesforce data model.
What Are Leads?
Have you ever been to a coffee shop and seen a bowl full of business cards with a sign that says, “Drop your business card here to enter a raffle for free coffee”?
I like to think of Leads as a virtual fishbowl of business cards. A Lead is almost always a record of a person.* If you have forms on your website, like a “Request a Demo” or “Free Trial” form, the people who fill those out typically become Leads. And because it’s an online form, they could potentially be anybody from anywhere.
We’d like it if they were all potential prospects, but they’re not. Sometimes your competitors might fill out a form. Sometimes students doing research might fill them out, or even press inquiries. Sometimes even job applicants.
Another potential source of Leads is list imports. If you have a sales or marketing team that is exporting people from a source like ZoomInfo or Lusha, you might see those people in Salesforce as Leads.
However, the most important thing to remember about Leads is that, by default, they are not related to anything else in Salesforce (except Campaigns, but we’ll come back to this later). So, even when you get multiple people from the same company as Leads, they aren’t going to be grouped together in any way in Salesforce.
Out of the box, Leads are an island unto themselves and not related to anything else in Salesforce.
*Sometimes people fill out a form using a group alias. In that case, the Lead would represent that group, not an individual.
What Are Contacts?
If Leads are an island of individual random people, what are Contacts? Contact records are also representations of individual people, however, they are organized under Account records (a record of a given company or organization) and have relationships with other records in Salesforce.
One Account record typically has multiple Contact records, as well as Opportunities, Cases, and any number of other related records. You also have the ability to relate a single Contact to multiple Account records. For example, a reseller might be related to the company they work for, but also the customer they are reselling to.
Getting From Leads to Contacts
In order to get from Lead to Contact, you’d follow your company’s sales process to convert. Here’s an example of a common process:
The Difference Between Leads and Contacts
In short, Leads and Contacts do have a lot in common – especially since they’re both essentially Salesforce records of the same thing, a person. Naturally, they have a ton of fields in common, but at the end of the day, they’re not the same thing.
Leads are unorganized, unqualified people. Contacts are people organized under an Account record. Contact records may be created via Lead Conversion or directly as a Contact record (with a lot of variation for individual company practices).
|Leads||Leads & Contacts||Contacts|
|Are not associates with other records in Salesforce (i.e. Opportunities, Accounts, or other Leads or Contacts).||Has name and contact information.||Are associated with (at least) one Account. Could be associated with multiple Accounts or Opportunities, along with other Contacts under the same Account or Opportunities.|
|Generally represent, raw, cold, or no/low contact prospects. Have not been qualified by Sales/BDR/SDR team.||Can be a member of a Campaign.||Generally become Contacts through your qualification process.|
|Come from website form fills, or tradeshow/purchased lists.||Generally, a record is a representation of one person.||Could come from Lead conversion, or get created directly as Contacts.|
If you’re a Salesforce user and just wanted to understand the difference between Leads vs. Contacts (or you’re simply tired of my ramblings), you can stop here!
Salesforce Leads vs. Contacts: What’s the Big Deal?
Visually, this does seem pretty straightforward! So why all the disagreement? Well, this is where real life, business philosophies, and everything else come to clash.
Here’s some of the discourse:
- Under what conditions should a Lead be made into a Contact? Do we have to have a meeting with them first? Two meetings? Is a meeting with an SDR sufficient, or does the account executive also have to qualify the Lead?
- Are there any conditions when a Lead should immediately become a Contact? Like a “Demo Request” that seems like a high-value event – should we convert those earlier?
- How does marketing work with all this? Is there a score threshold in our marketing tool? Do we have a MQL score or conditions?
- What if we disagree? I think the prospect is good, but a teammate does not.
- Does marketing work Leads, and sales work Contacts? What happens if sales just creates Contacts and skips marketing altogether – can we still market to those Contacts?
- So, if someone is a Lead and never gets converted to a Contact, they’re just a Lead… forever? Won’t my Salesforce eventually fill up with decades of Leads?
- What about companies using account-based marketing? We go after specific prospects at specific companies without using a qualification process. What kind of records do we use in that case?
- Shouldn’t there be some kind of minimum data quality criteria to be met before making something a Contact?
- Oh, and what do we do with all the Leads that come in that we know are junk – like employees, competitors, press inquiries, students, or job applicants?
- And another thing! Sometimes our current customers fill out a form and become Leads – what do we do with those?
- Somebody told me that Leads are awful, and their company doesn’t even use Leads – why is that? Is there any benefit to that?
That’s just some of the discourse! All are valid questions and all things that complicate the difference between Leads and Contacts.
It gets even more complicated when you start looking at orgs that have changed their process around when to convert Leads to Contacts and what conditions must be met – or orgs that have gone through multiple admins, sales, marketing leadership, etc.
On top of that, there are always the scenarios where you’re selling B2C and B2B, using Private Contacts, Person Accounts, or having lookup fields on your Lead that build relationships with other objects.
Understand Your Own Org
Every org manages Leads, Contacts, and criteria a little differently. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how your org is set up – but here are a few tips that hopefully help you gain a better understanding of how these two objects relate in your org:
- Determine whether your org is using Leads or not (some companies doing ABM don’t use Leads at all).
- Determine the criteria for when a Lead becomes a Contact.
- Review Lead Ownership and Lead Assignment Rules.
- Determine if any Leads should immediately become Contacts (like current customers or employees).
- Determine if any Leads should be immediately disqualified or even deleted from your database (like competitors, employees, job applicants, press inquiries, etc).
- Determine your Lead Lifecycle. What does the marketing program look like for Leads? How long do you continue to nurture old Leads?
- Determine if your org has set up any custom relationships with Leads and other objects with lookup fields.
- Has your Lead database become a bottomless garbage pit of bad data? Hopefully not, but Leads are Leads, and this happens to many people. Check out your existing database of Leads – look for age, data quality, etc.
Note: Contacts can never go back to being Leads. You cannot ‘undo’ a convert. So, whatever conditions you decide to convert a Lead to a Contact, make sure your team is in agreement. You can always change your process going forward but can’t undo converting Leads.
As of writing this article, I’ve been a Salesforce Admin for about ten years and have worked in dozens of orgs. In all that time, I’ve yet to find two companies that manage Leads and Contacts in exactly the same way. I think that’s part of why there is so much discourse about how to use them.
Accounts and Opportunities are straightforward – there’s a lot less variation in how and when to use those objects. But Leads and Contacts are on the opposite end of the spectrum – every sales process is unique, and so the way you sell to individual people is also going to be unique.
As a Salesforce Admin, it’s your role to find the happy medium between the right process and the proper system settings within your Salesforce org that work best for your team. I hope this article helps you better understand the difference between Salesforce Leads vs. Contacts and how to use these objects in your org!