The difference between MQL & SQL explained

Lead qualification is a continuous process in which you’re trying to connect people with sales if and when they are a good fit and sales-ready. A way to put this process into practice is by using lifecycle staging.

Two of those lifecycle stages, Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL) and Sales Qualified Leads (SQL), are often confused because they appear to be so similar. Here’s how to distinguish between them.

The customer journey and its phases

Based on decades of research and business practice, we’ve discovered that most people go through some phases before making a buying decision. Because we go through these phases one after another, they are often collectively referred to as a journey – the customer journey.

There are several models to map the customer journey. One of the most famous is the Awareness – Consideration – Decision model.

In the Awareness phase, someone is experiencing a problem but doesn’t know what’s causing it. Typically people will research the problem in an attempt to get clarity on what’s going on and get closer to a solution. Since the problem hasn’t been identified yet, solutions aren’t really considered yet either – it’s too early for that.

Once the problem has been identified, people enter the Consideration phase. During this time they’ll research different methods to tackle the issue at hand. Often they’ll make a list of potential avenues towards solving the problem.

Once someone has found the option that’s most likely to resolve the issue, they enter the Decision phase. They’ve identified the problem and the solution – they’re ready for action. Now is the time to compare different vendors that offer the said solution. Obviously, you’ll want your business to be top of mind here.

So, how do you recognize when a potential customer is in the Decision phase? That’s where the timing component of a well-run lead qualification process comes into play. Once you’ve set up lead qualification, you’ll have a process in place where marketing forwards qualified leads (hence the term, Marketing Qualified Leads or MQLs) to your sales team when those leads are ready to buy.

But are they really qualified?

This question lies at the root of distinguishing between marketing qualified and sales qualified leads.

MQLs and SQLs aren’t always the same

You can have the most advanced lead scoring system in the world, the best triple-checked data model, and the fanciest CRM out there. None of that should cloud the fact that marketing qualified leads are nothing more than informed guesses.

After all, they’ve been picked up based on exclusively implicit indicators of interest, fit, and timing. They didn’t explicitly reach out to sales to make their intentions known.

What this means is that the prime responsibility for sales when it comes to marketing qualified leads is not to sell. It’s to qualify whether the MQL was actually a good-fit sales-ready lead, by getting in touch and trying to engage the lead for a sales conversation. Do they respond, and the sales rep has deemed the lead to be sales-ready and a good-fit for potentially closing a deal? Great, in that case, they’ve qualified them for sales and the MQL is also a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL).

But what if the sales rep tried to connect for 6 weeks and the MQL hasn’t responded to any of it? Or they did join a conversation, only to turn out a not sales-ready or a bad fit? Then the MQL should be disqualified by sales, either temporarily by changing the lifecycle back to Lead to be nurtured further, or permanently if deemed necessary. In the case of the latter, you can still get some value out of it by modeling a negative persona after the disqualified lead.

The handoff between marketing and sales

By having regular meetings between sales and marketing to discuss good but also bad MQLs and keeping an eye on the MQL-to-SQL conversion rate, you have a higher chance of getting your lead qualification more and more accurate. Analyze what works and what doesn’t work, experiment with new ways to qualify leads, and give it some time (I recommend 1 to 2 months per iteration to allow sellers to run a sales cycle and give MQLs some time to respond and prove themselves) to evaluate. Rinse and repeat.

Marketing and sales are all too often separated islands within an organization. Try to avoid this. By having these teams work together towards the same goal – generating as many SQLs as possible – beautiful things can happen.

MQLs and SQLs are not the same, but they want to be. Work towards a cooperative process in which qualified leads are verified, and you’ll be on your way towards a well oiled inbound machine geared towards growing your business.

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