One of the most important parts of digital marketing and sales is knowing how to guide your prospects towards a sale. Not only does this increase the chances of higher customer lifetime values, but also makes sure that the leads filter through your process to become a customer.

To successfully complete the journey from lead to customer, your leads need to be clearly defined as marketing qualified leads or sales qualified leads, also known as MQLs and SQLs. These definitions help create clear distinctions to help your marketing and sales teams more effectively manage the customer pipeline. In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between these two terms and why they are important to perfecting lead handoff.

How Do You Define Qualified Leads?

A qualified lead is someone who is likely to become a customer of your brand, and these leads are often divided into marketing and sales camps. However, there are a few different types of leads that you should know. Let’s dive into a few of those terms.

  • Lead: A lead is a potential customer discovered through lead generation who is not a customer yet, but who shows interest in a brand’s products or services.
  • Marketing-Qualified Lead (MQL): A marketing qualified lead is a lead who has met certain criteria that identifies them as being a fit for your buyer personas or ideal customer profile, and as a likely customer candidate. However, an MQL is not ready to buy yet.
  • Sales-Qualified Lead (SQL): Like an MQL, a sales qualified lead is a lead that has passed certain criteria. However, an SQL is someone who is identified as being ready to buy and should be handled by the sales team to close on a deal.
  • Sales Accepted Opportunity (SAO): A sales accepted opportunity, also known as an SAO, is an SQL that has been accepted by the sales team and is now being managed directly as part of the sales team’s initiatives.

It’s important to note that not every business that uses a lead conversion model will have standardized definitions for each of these terms. However, the less consistent your definition for lead types is, the more confusion it can create between your marketing and sales teams. It’s important to establish lead criteria across a wide range of factors before being deployed in an MQL to SQL model. Examples of potential factors include:

After understanding these different factors and planning scenarios into your lead conversion model, you can start to set up the basic steps of a lead qualification process in your organization. The qualification process can be described as such:

  • Step 1: Lead enters the organization
  • Step 2: Lead is reviewed for certain criteria to determine whether it is “qualified” as an MQL
  • Step 3: MQL is monitored and engaged with. After a certain number of actions are completed or set qualifications are met, the MQL is converted to an SQL
  • Step 4: Sales team takes point by driving conversations with the SQL through sales enablement. Once again, after actions are taken or qualifications are met, the SQL can be converted to an SAO.

Beware of Unclear Lead Definitions

When your brand doesn’t have clear lead definitions, it can lead to some serious consequences, including:

  • An inability to categorize leads properly creates issues in the CRM
  • An inability to designate who should be contacting a lead
  • Conflict between marketing and sales when it comes to lead attribution
  • Low-quality reporting data

While many brands can come to an understanding for what a lead is and when someone becomes a sales accepted opportunity, the difference between an MQL and an SQL is often where breakdowns in the lead conversion model occur. This blog will focus on that issue to help you properly define your MQL to SQL process.

MQL vs. SQL: Breaking Down the Difference

The specifics that define an MQL versus an SQL will differ based on the brand, the industry, and the types of products and services offered. However, the key difference between the two types of leads comes down to intent. An MQL has a low to moderate intent to purchase, while an SQL has a high intent to purchase.

It’s important that these two types of leads are clearly defined so that sales and marketing teams can do their jobs better. It doesn’t matter how much sales training that your team has — if they’re going after cold leads, they won’t be able to produce the numbers they need to meet goals and bring in revenue for the business. Likewise, if marketing departments spend too much time sending awareness-level offers to customers who are ready to buy, marketing efforts won’t pay off.

When your teams have clear definitions for what an MQL and an SQL are, you can perfect the handoff between teams and make it much easier to foster cooperation between sales and marketing. Let’s take a look at some of the common criteria that are included in an MQL or SQL.

Common MQL Criteria:

Some common qualifying criteria of an MQL include:

  • Filling out a contact form
  • Visiting a landing page
  • Downloading a content offer like a whitepaper or webinar
  • Following your brand on social media
  • Viewing product or solution pages

Common SQL Criteria:

Some common qualifying criteria of an SQL include:

  • Booking a meeting with a sales team member
  • Filling out a demo form
  • Returning to a website a certain number of times
  • Responding to an email
  • Viewing a pricing page

Real-World Examples of MQL vs. SQL

Let’s take a look at some of those criteria in action and examine a few real-world examples of MQL vs. SQL.

  • First-Time Site Visitor vs. Returning Visitor: The first time a prospective customer visits your website is a good example of an initial criteria to qualify them as an MQL. Once that lead becomes a return visitor, they might be ready to convert to an SQL as they’ve shown a repeated interest in your brand.
  • Top-of-Funnel vs. Bottom-of-Funnel Content Offers: An MQL is much more interested in your top-of-funnel content offers than an SQL, who is more likely to be interested in your bottom-of-funnel offers. An MQL who is still exploring options wants to consider top-of-funnel content like introductory blogs and downloads, while an SQL who is ready to buy is more interested in detailed blogs and product guides.
  • Contact Form Submission vs. Demo Form Submission: Requesting a demo is a strong indicator that a lead is an SQL and wants to move forward with testing a product, while a contact form submission indicates an MQL. However, the information you collect on a basic contact form can help you determine what type of lead is filling out the request.

Why Is It Important to Understand the Distinction Between an MQL & an SQL?

All leads follow the same basic journey to become a customer, and they need to be nurtured along that journey with the correct strategies. When you aren’t sure if a lead is an MQL or an SQL, you won’t be able to properly facilitate their journey to get the desired results.

Increasing your lead velocity rate is essential to your business’s continued growth and success. When your sales team doesn’t have the right leads on hand for tactics like cold sales calls and email follow-up, they won’t get the conversion rate they need to successfully close a sale. You want to be able to understand who your buyers are and their propensity to buy so that you can adjust your sales strategy accordingly.

How to Convert from MQL to SQL

It’s important to note that the goal of a marketing team is to convert their MQLs into SQLs for the sales team. Even when a lead enters the buyer’s journey partway through the funnel, they need to be given the right materials and marketing to get them into the desired part of the sales process.

Having automated nurture campaigns is a great way to make sure that all MQLs are being processed through your lead conversion strategies. Marketing teams need to figure out the best messages to send to MQLs to encourage them to take the types of actions that further their journey along the sales funnel.

The MQL is monitored through lead scoring to see when they achieve the criteria needed to become an SQL — like clicking on CTA buttons or responding to messages. Once they reach the criteria needed, the lead and their information are handed off to the salespeople so they can work on closing the deal.

Lead Handoff Tips

Here are some tips for improving the lead handoff process:

  • Improve communication and collaboration between marketing, BDR / SDRs, and sales reps.
  • Implement an automated MQL strategy using your CRM — for example, using point scoring in Salesforce.
  • Understand where MQLs and SQLs are worked. Is it in the pipeline team? BDRs? Revenue team? Depending on the business, these functions can differ.
  • Utilize a heat map or other clear model to show how leads are funneled from first touch to the completion of a sale.
  • Ensure your team understands the unique qualifiers for your business. A software sale is vastly different from a direct-to-consumer automobile sale in terms of intent, need, and future prospects for the relationship.
  • Codify sales intent.
  • Prioritize accounts based on the likelihood of converting from MQL to SQL.
  • Don’t rely entirely on third-party data. Combine third- and first-party lead intelligence data to understand if a lead is qualified.
  • Determine what stage the lead is entering into the pipeline.
  • Understand what differentiates your business and model your lead nurture journey accordingly.

Capture and Nurture More Leads with Sales Assembly

The lead conversion handoff process is a key component of successful marketing and sales. When leads come into a business, it’s important that there are clear definitions of MQLs and SQLs in place so that all teams are aware of who is responsible for nurturing that lead and when a handoff is necessary.

Before your business can scale, you need to iron out all the details on your lead conversion model. Thankfully, Sales Assembly is here to help. As a scale-to-service platform, we are ready to help you scale better, faster, and smarter. Contact Sales Assembly today to learn more about what we can do for your business.