MQL vs. SQL: What’s the Difference?

By Daniel Threlfall

MQL vs. SQL: What’s the Difference?

What is an MQL? An MQL is a marketing qualified lead.

What is an SQL? An SQL is a sales qualified lead.

Okay, nothing new there.

However, SQLs and MQLs require a fundamentally different approach to closing them.

By reading this article, you’ll gain the following:

  • A thorough understanding of what an MQL is
  • A thorough understanding of what an SQL is
  • The difference between MQLs and SQLs
  • An evidence-backed method for increasing conversions from MQLs and SQLs

By understanding how an MQL and SQL fit into the sales funnel and how to properly route them to correct team members, you’ll know how exactly to increase your close rate. 

Even if you know what SQLs and MQLs are, read on. You’ll gain some powerful tactics and intel in this article. 

What is an MQL (Marketing Qualified Lead)?

MQL stands for marketing qualified lead. 

An MQL is a prospect that your marketing team deems more likely to eventually turn into a sale than other leads, but isn’t quite ready to buy yet. 

Stephanie Mialki of Instapage

For instance, an MQL may have downloaded a piece of gated content, filled out an online form or provided you with their phone number. 

An MQL will have a basic level of engagement and show interest, but they aren’t quite ready to buy yet. 

They’re at a point where they are receptive to additional marketing but not a sales call. 

The goal is for you to nurture the MQL to become an SQL. 

So, what’s an SQL?

What is an SQL (Sales Qualified Lead)?

SQL stands for sales qualified lead.

As the name implies, an SQL is further along in the sales funnel and has been qualified as a potential customer. 

These leads have displayed intent to buy, and have met lead qualification criteria determining that they’re the right fit for the product or service.

Stephanie Mialki of Instapage. 

For example, an SQL may have visited the pricing page multiple times, signed up for a sales demo, or requested a call from an SDR or a BDR. 

The SQL is a prospect who has moved past the initial engagement stage, and after analysis, have been deemed ready to be contacted by your sales team.

These are the hottest leads you can get and require your full attention and a great deal of care. 

SQLs are ready to buy. 

MQL vs. SQL

MQLs and SQLs are both qualified leads. 

So what are the key differences between these MQLs and SQLs? 

It really just boils down to where they’re at in the sales funnel. 

An SQL is closer to the bottom of the sales funnel. The MQL is a little further up. 

MQL vs SQL - where they fit in the sales funnel

Amber Kemmis of SmartBug Media provides a nice illustration to help visualize it. 

MQL vs SQL - detailed description of funnel positioning

Typically, MQLs may not be ready to be contacted directly by a sales rep, and you’re better off providing them with additional marketing assistance instead. 

On the other hand, an SQL is ready to be contacted by a sales rep right away. The faster you do so, the more likely you are to close them, a concept known as speed to lead. 

Also note that this type of lead intelligence typically comes from closed-loop analytics, says Sam Kusinitz of HubSpot.

This combines web analytics with CRM data to gain an overarching view of what’s happening throughout the customer journey. 

Exact Definitions of SQLs an MQLs Can Vary

In her Inbound Marketing Video Tutorial, MQLs vs SQLs, Victoria Chemko of Umami Marketing mentions that the lead qualification process can vary from business to business.

For instance, one company may be more stringent about whom they consider to be an SQL, while another company may be more flexible. 

Definitions vary, but what’s important is that the way you define an SQL should reflect a combination of actions and behaviors that a lead is a solid fit for your business and that they’re at a point where they’re ready to speak with sales. 

At the end of the day, it’s about setting specific filters that ensure any leads your sales team pursues are worthy of their immediate attention, says Kierra Abamonte of Leadfeeder

This brings us to our next point. 

The Role of Lead Scoring in the MQL and SQL Process

We’ve now established how MQL criteria differs from SQL criteria. 

But how can you quantify them so that you’re certain when you’re dealing with an MQL or an SQL?

One of the most effective techniques is lead scoring.

“Lead scoring lets you assign a value to each lead based on the information they have provided you and how they have engaged on your website,” writes Stacy Willis of IMPACT: Inbound Marketing Strategy, Advice, and Agency

“This score helps determine which leads to target by highest priority.”

For example, a lead may receive one point for visiting your website, two points for opening an email, six points for filling out a form, and so on. 

MQL vs SQL - lead scoring protocol

The score each lead receives determines how far along they are in the sales funnel so you can identify who is an MQL and who is an SQL.

In turn, you can assign each lead a numerical value — an SQL will have a higher score than an MQL — and prioritize them accordingly.

Dan McGraw of analytics company Effin Amazing provides a chart that illustrates how this works. 

MQL vs SQL - example of scoring methodology

In this case, a prospect and average lead receive lower scores of 10 and 50, while an MQL receives a score 75 and an SQL receives a score of 100. 

So rather than merely looking at basic lead behavior and going on a hunch, you can use a systematic formula to determine exactly who qualifies as an MQL and who qualifies as an SQL. 

And there are some incredibly robust lead scoring platforms available. 

With Chili Piper and its integrations for example, you can use advanced lead qualification and distribution where you set up rules to qualify leads and route them to the appropriate rep in real-time based on different factors like:

  • Advanced round robin rules
  • Territory assignments
  • Account-based ownership
MQL vs SQL - lead routing in chili piper

Using lead scoring like this offers many benefits, including the following:

  • It gives you a clear-cut numerical value for each lead so your sales team knows exactly where they’re at in the sales funnel
  • You know precisely who is an MQL and who is an SQL
  • You know which leads need more nurturing from your marketing team
  • You know who is ready to buy so you can initiate outreach
  • Your sales team won’t bother leads who aren’t ready to buy

Using a lead scoring tool can be a tremendous asset. 

How to Optimize the MQL to SQL Process

In many cases, leads start out as an MQL but eventually heat up and become an SQL. That’s kind of the whole idea. 

This chart demonstrates how this process rolls out.

MQL vs SQL - process flowchart

In this scenario, you need to have a fully optimized MQL to SQL process in place that allows you to make a smooth handoff

This begins by first having documented definitions of these two terms based on your company’s specific criteria and ensuring that every member of your marketing and sales teams are on the same page. 

It’s also ideal to have a service-level agreement (SLA), which will contain procedures for how to handle leads, which may look something like this.

“Service level agreements are the holy grail for sales-marketing collaboration,” explains ALANIZ Marketing. “The prizes are predictable lead generation and sales conversion that runs like a Swiss watch.”

They ensure that leads aren’t sent to sales prematurely, so they’re not wasting their time and potentially creating friction with leads who aren’t yet ready for direct contact. 

And Amber Kemmis notes that an SLA shouldn’t be treated as a one-off type of deal.

Rather, it’s something that should be reviewed monthly and continually modified as you accumulate more and more data on leads. 

To learn the ins and outs of creating and updating an SLA, check out this guide by Amber Kemmis

You can use the data you gain from lead scoring to generate quantitative information on each lead so your marketing team knows precisely when to pass them on to sales. 

It’s also vital to maintain strong collaboration between both departments every step of the way.

After all, any major lapses in communication can potentially result in squandered leads. 

So you’ll want to explain what specific information needs to be passed from marketing to sales to ensure sales reps are properly equipped to move forward.

For example, your marketing team may want to share what materials a lead has looked at, which version of your product they viewed, and so on.  

Streamline the MQL to SQL Process With Lead Distribution Software 

Most CRM platforms allow you to automate this to some extent through instant notifications. 

But you can take it one step further by using lead distribution software to conveniently route each lead to the right representative based on your criteria.

Some common criteria companies use are things like location, availability, and expertise.

In the case of location, you may have multiple sales teams, with some located in your own country and some abroad.  

With lead distribution software, you can assign leads to the appropriate locale like this. 

MQL vs SQL - lead distribution software

Or in the case of expertise, let’s say you have a huge lead that could be a game-changer if your company lands them.

You probably wouldn’t want to send them to a brand new rep who’s still learning the ropes. 

Instead, you would want to route them to one of your veterans who knows your product inside and out and has a proven track record. 

Here you could use lead distribution software to send this lead to a senior sales rep to increase your odds of converting

MQL vs SQL - assigning leads

This is a win-win for everyone involved. 

For customers, this translates into shorter wait times and a better overall experience. 

For your company, this means you can close leads and drive revenue faster

How to Capitalize on SQLs

Say that you have a bona fide SQL on your hands. 

It’s crucial that you capitalize on this hot lead and put your sales team in a position to convert.

To accomplish this, it’s important to have an efficient framework in place that facilitates streamlined conversation.

One of the key features of Chili Piper is Concierge, which qualifies a lead in real-time and helps an SQL book a meeting or start a phone call when reps are available. 

By filling out a form on your site, a lead can get in touch with a sales rep right away.

Or if that’s not a good time for them, they can schedule a call for later on when it’s more convenient. 

MQL vs SQL - talk now

Then, you can use Chili Piper to suggest times and let leads use 1-click booking. 

MQL vs SQL - schedule time for a lead to talk

Not only is this convenient for SQLs, it allows your sales team to arrange calls in a very systematic manner, keeping things organized and chaos at bay. 

And to minimize no-shows, Chili Piper will send an automated email and SMS to remind leads before meetings. 

Hot Handoffs — Turning MQLs into SQLs Instantly

As linear and sequential as the MQL to SQL path may seem, you know it’s not always that clear-cut. 

In the melee of a workday with calls, emails, leads, and confusion, you need a system in place that prevents leads from slipping through the cracks.

In Chili Piper, we’ve created a feature called Hot Handoffs. 

Hot Handoffs let your team’s SDRs handoff to an account executive in real time. 

Next to every prospect’s name is a fire emoji. 🔥

Clicking the fire emoji loads up the instant booker, allowing the prospect to be seamlessly handed off to a rep who can close the deal. 

MQL vs SQL - hot handoff

If you want the total breakdown of how to use Hot Handoffs, check it out here. 

It’s a slick move.

Often a sales team has clumsy or cobbled-together systems for lead routing. 

In the worst cases, the system is a series of spreadsheets that need to be manually updated. In best cases, it’s an expensive lead routing software that doesn’t have features like Hot Handoffs.

MQLs can transition easily into SQL status without ever putting down the phone. 

Conclusion: Mastering MQL and SQL

In a business world that’s drowning in acronyms, it might not always be obvious what the exact difference is between an MQL and an SQL.

While both are considered qualified leads, an MQL merely requires additional marketing assistance, while an SQL is ready for a sales call. 

That’s the long and short of it. 

Understanding this fundamental difference and knowing how to correctly respond to both types of leads is critical for getting the most from them and creating a harmonious sales and marketing ecosystem. 

It takes some trial and error, but doing so can have a significant impact, increasing both your efficiency and revenue. 

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