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Marketing Qualified Leads vs Sales Qualified Leads

Written by Marina Orlova on 5, June 2019


I think we can agree that most business leaders understand in theory what a Marketing Qualified Lead (“MQL”) and a Sales Qualified Lead (“SQL”) means. However, many companies have not clearly defined these terms within the organization and built specific processes to maximize the potential conversion between these lifecycle stages.

You can test this notion in your own organization. Take the time to ask someone on your marketing team and then someone on your sales team what the definition of an MQL and a SQL is. You might be surprised by the answers you receive.

In this blog, we will discuss the key differences between the two stages, how to best define each with your teams, and how to bridge the gap in the marketing to sales handoff.


Defining Each Lifecycle Stage

Defining each lifecycle stage is important for setting clear expectations between marketing and sales, reducing frustration and wasted time, and improving the experience for the potential buyer.

First, let’s clearly define each lifecycle stage:

How do we define an MQL? For example:

The prospect has shown some level of interest or engagement that indicates they may be a genuine lead AND has met the base level criteria to be contacted by sales.

How do we define a SQL? For example:

Leads that have been further vetted and qualified by sales; the SQL shows interest and meets all criteria to be a good fit for the product or service.

NOTE: Other companies might define an extra step in their sales cycle called Sales-Accepted Leads (SALs) - in which Sales accepts the lead and agrees to take action.

This means that the MQL looks like they could be a good fit based on their answers or actions they may have taken, enough to pick up the phone and call to ask further qualifying questions.


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Defining a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)

To determine the top qualifying questions, we like to ask Sales, “what are the top 2-4 most important questions that you need to know to discern if this contact should be routed to your team or simply disqualified?”

We encourage you to ask both qualifying & disqualifying types of questions to discern a lead from an MQL:

  • What criteria MUST a prospect have in order to qualify?
  • What is an automatic disqualifying trait that, even if they meet other criteria, will make them a poor fit for your product/service?

Here is a quick checklist for getting on the same page with the Sales Team:

  • Have Sales define what a good lead looks like
  • Have Sales define what a bad lead looks like
  • Discuss what actions a lead has to take to become an MQL (maybe they viewed the pricing page, or downloaded a bottom of the funnel offer, etc.)
  • Document the process after an MQL is passed over to Sales to help identify gaps in the sales follow-up process (who and how will MQLs be routed to & when will they follow up?)
  • Review the decision makers on your closed won opportunities to be sure they align with your marketing personas
  • Update your buyer personas regularly to reflect any changes in the industry you’re selling into
  • Re-group with Sales to make sure your personas reflect the buyers they are selling to

Example: Let’s say you sell heavy equipment that is most appropriate for companies that do large commercial projects.

You may have someone request to speak to a sales rep that only does small residential work, for which you know this equipment is not the best fit.

In this instance, you should first see if there are prospects that DO fit your criteria for commercial work, before politely responding to those that don’t.

A true MQL will take actions that show interest in your product/service AND will meet the qualifying criteria to be a good fit for your product.

That is not to say you shouldn’t follow up with people that raised their hand to be contacted if they don’t meet certain criteria, but it does mean you should prioritize contacting those that show interest AND meet your criteria FIRST.

In other words, strike while the iron is hot, and follow up on the hottest MQLs first and do so as quickly as possible.

In the Lead Response Management Study, it was determined that:

  • The odds of contacting a lead if called in 5 minutes versus 30 minutes drop 100 times.
  • And the odds of qualifying a lead if called in 5 minutes versus 30 minutes drop 21 times.

The importance of follow-up timing is illustrated below:

defining a marketing qualified lead (MQL)


The goal is to find out who is really interested and most likely to buy from you.

What other types of information do you absolutely need before the sales handoff? This can include any of name, email, address, company name, website URL, number of employees, phone number, etc.

Be careful not to ask too many questions or you will scare prospects off due to too much friction in the process.

You should only really ask the “must have” questions and leave the “nice to have” questions for sales to ask.

Yes, in the ideal world, sales reps would have all the information they want before calling up a prospect. But the reality is that at the MQL level, we should only really ask questions that we absolutely need.

There is no magic number and it can vary from business to business and industry to industry. Therefore you should always test to see what works.

The goal is to get the most important information with the least amount of questions.


Defining a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL)

A sales qualified lead (SQL) has been vetted and qualified by a sales rep to be a viable prospect. This could include prospect problems that fit the solution offered by your company, and/or has the budget to purchase that solution.

Here is a simple chart created by Leadfuze showing the process by which an MQL becomes an SQL:

defining a sales qualified lead (SQL)

Questions that address the following points will help determine if a lead is truly a SQL:

  1. Industry specific questions that couldn’t be collected in the MQL stage
  2. Buyer ready questions such as:
    1. Their Needs: What are their major challenges & how much will they be able to use your products to improve their current situation?
    2. Current Solution: Who, what, and why are they using to currently fulfill the needs that you can. Also, find out why they are looking (if they are) for a replacement.
    3. Decision Maker: Is this person the honcho who will pay you, or someone that has an influence on the decision-making process?
    4. Ready to Move: Find out if the company is ready to switch solutions and that the budget is there for you to push them into the next steps.

Once the MQL is ‘deemed ready’ by the sales team, it is officially marked as a SQL that can now move into an opportunity.


The Critical Bridge Between Marketing & Sales

How to identify the key moment when an MQL should transition to sales readiness.

One, of course, is if they raise their hand to be contacted or download a ‘bottom of the funnel’ type of offer such as a buying guide.

The other is via lead scoring. If you have a good CRM, you should be able to score user behaviors that add up to a ‘tipping threshold’ which indicates they may be ready for a conversation with the sales team.

Keep in mind, however, that just because a user takes high-value actions such as opening and engaging with multiple emails, or viewing the pricing and service pages, doesn’t mean you’re doing the traditional sales call to pitch them on your product.

This stage is more to learn if they’re a good fit for your solutions.

Your initial outreach should have the following objectives in mind:

  1. Are they a good fit? Do they struggle with the challenges your product can solve?
  2. Are they open for a demo/sales call? If so, schedule one.
  3. Are they interested but not yet ready? Put them in a drip campaign for further nurturing.
  4. Are they a ‘suspect?’ possibly a competitor or someone just researching but having no intention of buying. If so, label them as such in your CRM, to not waste time in the future.

For more information on how to score leads, check out these resources below:


Avoid Wasting More Marketing Dollars

Clearly identifying MQLs and SQLs and defining the handoff between them helps maximize your team’s time, improve conversion rates and ultimately grows company revenue.

The value in having MQL’s and SQL’s in your sales pipeline is so you can locate where most of your budget is leaking out.

By clearly defining the handoff and closing the gap, you can maximize your team’s time, improve conversion rates and ultimately help grow company revenue through lead generation.

If you would like assistance in facilitating the alignment of your marketing and sales teams, defining each lifecycle stage and increasing sales velocity, our team at digitalJ2 can help get you there.

Schedule a diagnostic call with one of our strategists to conduct a free audit of your existing sales funnel.

align your marketing and sales teams with our help

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Topics: Inbound Marketing, Marketing & Sales Alignment, SALES

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