MQL vs SQL; how to identify and convert prime prospects into sales leads

All articles | Sales
Published Jun 30, 2020 | Written by Osian Barnes

Have we met before?  Can I call you? Are you ready to buy from me?  


Am I moving too fast? 

Nurturing and converting B2B sales prospects is a delicate business.  So, when should an unqualified sales lead become a MQL (Marketing Qualified Lead) and when should they become a SQL (Sales Qualified Lead)? How do you manage that process with maximum impact and efficiency?

What makes a sales lead?

A single action on a website doesn’t mean someone wants to buy. If this is the first or second time you’ve arrived on our site, for example, it’s a fair bet you’re not ready to sign on the dotted line just yet.

There are obviously different stages of interest and intent involved in a purchase - particularly a considered, high-value purchase with lots of dependencies and a long lead time involved.

Phoning a contact to offer them a face to face meeting the moment you know who they are can be pretty off-putting. Not to mention a waste of time and resource. But never taking the leap to make more assertive sales offers - risks losing new business opportunities altogether.

Even so, as these research figures make clear, the majority of B2B marketers are not currently realising the value of a good lead nurturing process:

  • 68% of B2B organisations have not defined their sales funnel
  • 61% of B2B marketers send all leads directly to sales - but only 27% of those leads will be qualified.
  • Just 56% of B2B organisations verify valid business leads before they are passed to their sales’ team

What does the ideal digital nurturing strategy look like?

UQL vs MQL vs SQL: moving through the sales cycle

Various stages of qualification should define the way you talk to and engage with people as they shift from unqualified lead status to potential customers:

Unqualified Lead

An unqualified lead is typically someone who has been added to your database by filling out a form, subscribing to a blog or newsletter - but has not yet revealed more about their identity and specific pain points.

Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)

A Marketing Qualified Lead, is an individual who you have decided is worth investing marketing time and effort to develop as a potential prospect. They will have qualified themselves by providing more information about their identity and business - and are engaging more deeply with your brand. At this stage, though, the business thinks they are not yet ready to buy - and require further nurturing to qualify for entry into the sales cycle.

 Sales Qualified Lead SQL

The lead has met all the criteria to be ‘handed over’ to sales, they may have responded to a sales led CTA, positively requested a demo, or signalled themselves ‘ready’ in other important ways. They are entering a new phase of targeted marketing activity designed to help the business define the specific opportunity they represent and close the deal.

Sales Opportunity

You have the required data about the lead to consider them a ‘good fit’. There is a real and achievable sales opportunity defined and timetabled in the pipeline.

(Happy) Customer

The opportunity has been closed and turned into a sale by your sales team - backed up with plenty of customer intelligence collected from all the stages that have gone before.  The more seamless and aligned your sales process has been the happier and more confident your customer will be in your powers to deliver.  And the more you continue to impress them and speak to their experiences with relevant content, the more likely they will be to buy more from you - and recommend you to others.

Sales and marketing alignment is key to effective lead scoring

Sales and marketing alignment is critical to defining the moments where customers can progress their journey towards purchase. To make sure the customer experience is as seamless as possible, both teams need to agree the qualification criteria for the various shifts between lead, MQL and SQL.

This is typically done by digital lead scoring - a points value you assign to each lead based on the information they have provided to you and their level of engagement with your brand.

Lead scoring helps you organise and prioritise different kinds of sales and marketing efforts for different groups of people in your database.

The kind of data, gathered by your CRM system and used for lead scoring against your ideal buyer persona can include:

  • Demographic information -details such as a lead’s age, gender, job role, estimated salary etc. All these help build a picture of the lead and their role within a business. They help you assess their likelihood of buying from you and convince you they are the right person to be dealing with.
  • Firmographics - the size and type of the company the leads work for, exactly what they do, what their needs and current supplier status might be. These are all critical elements that define a good organisational fit
  • Online behaviour - what is the lead looking at on your website? What kind of content have they downloaded, what ebooks, video and audio content have they consumed? Where does their interest lie - and what questions are they seeking answers to?
  • Email engagement and subscription status - track specific clickthrough activity in newsletters, responses to webinar invitations, blog and podcast subscriptions
  • Social engagement - social activity can be a key indicator of areas of interest, engagement levels, and receptivity to brand content and messaging

Once you’ve agreed all of the criteria you want to collect, you will need to assign a point value to each. You then need to configure them within your CRM to score each lead accordingly.

Choose the right digital tools to automate lead scoring

How easily you can set up scoring within your CRM differs according to the software you are using. 

The right CRM software will help you rapidly and precisely score and segment lead data.  It will automatically update a prospect's status and trigger new workflows as customers become 'qualified' for new sales and marketing phases. 

For more sophisticated operations your software should also be capable of supporting different scoring systems for different products and segments.

But tech like HubSpot’s Predictive Lead Scoring app can also lever more sophisticated AI tech to help you better predict which customers are ripe for conversion and when.  Based on past sales information and customer tracking it can suggest new scoring criteria that may help identify great leads more quickly - making your operations more efficient and effective.

Defining lead scoring criteria is still a manual process

Although the right digital tools will make your life easier, you’re still going to need to manually review and update the scoring criteria you use.

You’ll need to regularly check that the leads that are being passed through to the sales team are of the right quality. Are too many or too few leads making it through to them? Are the leads suitably qualified and primed to have the conversations you were planning for? Does your qualification criteria need to be tweaked?

Sales and marketing alignment meetings should take place at least quarterly, and ideally monthly or weekly. As new market conditions arise, there will inevitably be a need to shift your selection and hand-off criteria - and flag up any improvements that could be made.

Better sales and marketing alignment improves customer experience

Better alignment will also help you generate and improve the content you need to keep your leads in a virtuous cycle of education and engagement.

This is the crux of an integrated marketing and sales process. Lead scoring helps you establish and agree what data is valuable for your business, it defines what you need to know about your customers to assess their ability to convert.

But your teams also need to devise the content that will be able to extract that all-important data and intelligence from your leads in the first place

The deep understanding that the sales teams have about their target market and the information they are gathering in their sales roles, should all be fed back to the marketing department to help them design better content.

After all, they are the people who need to commission the remarkable content that will galvanise your leads into taking the actions you want.

New ideas for more targeted content - new insights about buyers pain points, habits and preoccupations - can all emanate from sales and should be grist to your creative mill.

How does it work in practice?

Well, take the interaction we’re having right now.

If you’re a first time visitor we want to share insights and convince you of our expertise. That’s one function of this content. It’s lovingly crafted for discovery through its use of a specific long-tail keyword. We hope it’ll convince you to subscribe to our blog to continue getting more of this kind of insight.

If, on the other hand, you’re a loyal subscriber to our marketing blog, we may already know quite a bit about you. You may have downloaded more complex and targeted pieces of content we’ve written before. And we may have sent this to you as part of a newsletter because we know it will pique your interest. If we’ve been doing our job right, we’ve been tracking your visits and interactions on our site and building a profile for you, so that we can always send you better and more relevant content. Just like this.

The CTAs within this piece may even be personalised for you, intended specifically to serve your particular interests or designed to encourage you to fill the gaps in our knowledge about you. This is all part of the ways leads are nurtured and transformed into sales over time. It’s one example of the way a sophisticated CRM can help build business intelligence and create happier customers through every interaction.

Isn’t that a bit creepy?

We like to think of it as ‘highly targeted’, but you’ll be pleased to hear, it is definitely within the limits of good GDPR practice. And, done right it should feel like a natural and organic progression of your user experience - which would put us in the category of ‘helper’ rather than ‘stalker’

Synchronicity drives the sales cycle

The process of lead qualification - shifting them from MQLs to SQLs is a complex one. You need great tech to define and automate the process to make it efficient and repeatable. But you also need a shared vision within your sales and marketing teams to better identify and nurture the best fit leads with the right content.  Achieving this syncnronicity powers the cycle of education and engagement that speaks more successfully to prospects and turns them into happy customers more readily.


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Published by Osian Barnes June 30, 2020
Osian Barnes