The Important Difference Between MQLs and SQLs

Shoes standing in front of 3 arrows

When business owners talk about leads, marketing qualified leads, or sales qualified leads, you need to stop them immediately and ask for a definition. Everyone will define these terms differently. 

My husband and I have an inside joke from when we were first married. I used to call the pockets on the outside of a duffle suitcase “side pockets.” He would call them “end pockets.” We were forever getting into little arguments over how to find something in a suitcase when we were traveling because I would say “look in the side pocket,” and he would retort “I found it in the end pocket.” 

Whenever I hear a business owner talking about leads  I’m always reminded of end pockets and side pockets. If you don’t define them, you’re probably talking about completely different things

Understanding leads is critical for you to be successful with your lead generation strategy. You need to know what type of lead you have so that you can qualify it and define your next step. Taking a broader, strategic view and having a clear definition of your leads allows you to measure where you’re being successful and where you need to adjust both your lead generation strategy and your sales process. 

So, let’s clear up all the miscommunication about lead types. 

Here’s how to define leads, marketing qualified leads, and sales qualified leads


This is perhaps the most misused of the 3. People who have a list of cold contacts will call it a lead list. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, a contact with a fully qualified opportunity whom you’ve presented a proposal to will also be called a lead. 

Let’s clear up this confusion. 


A list of cold contacts you have had no communication with is not a lead list. It is your suspect list. These are contacts who are not yet qualified. You suspect they are the right contact. They are the right size company within your target market. You believe they could be qualified, but you don’t KNOW because you haven’t had any conversation or communication to confirm your suspicions. At this stage they are merely suspects you want to investigate and qualify


Leads is a broad term for prospects that you have qualified in some manner. You may have had a conversation to qualify them. Or, you may have seen them take some action on marketing campaigns. They are both marketing qualified leads and sales qualified leads  It’s simply that big bucket of all the prospects that you want to engage with and qualify further. 

When we train sales reps how to prospect, we hear a lot of confusion around the term “leads.” This confusion makes it more difficult for them to prospect because they believe any list is a lead. This is simply not the case. 

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Marketing Qualified Leads 

Marketing qualified leads are those contacts who have engaged with your marketing enough that you have determined they are ready for a salesperson to contact them. 

How MQLs Engage 

How these MQLs engage with you can vary based on the type of lead generation campaigns you are running. They may have: 

  1. Opened and clicked on email campaigns 
  2. Downloaded an asset from your website 
  3. Completed a webform or Contact Us form 
  4. Attended a webinar you hosted 
  5. Called from a pay-per-click ad 
  6. Contacted you from your My Business page on Google 
  7. Attended a tradeshow 

The purpose of your lead generation campaigns is to give your list of suspects as many ways to engage with you as possible. 

How Frequently Does an MQL Engage? 

To reach MQL status, it’s typically not enough that a contact takes one action. The only time a single action is enough to constitute a marketing qualified lead is when they speak with you directly and that conversation allows you to qualify that, yes, they are interested in talking with a salesperson right now. 

Because the very name “marketing qualified lead” has the word marketing in it, it means you don’t have a salesperson directly speaking with the prospect. Instead, we are using a group of activities to identify if this is a person that Sales should talk to

When we build campaigns, we use actions that both demonstrate engagement and capture information about contacts to help your salesperson start a conversation more easily. Until your sales rep speaks with the contact, they are still a marketing qualified lead. 

How Do You Know a Lead Is an MQL? 

You use a formula to identify marketing qualified leads. This is known as lead scoring. Once a lead reaches the minimum score for an MQL, it’s passed to Sales. Here are 5 ways to convert marketing leads to sales opportunities. 

If your sales pipeline is weak, you may score your leads very loosely and pass to Sales MQLs who haven’t taken as many actions. If your pipeline is full, you have the luxury of scoring your leads tightly. Tightly scored MQLs are more qualified. They have taken more actions, and it’s easier for your salesperson to connect with them. 

We tailor our lead scoring to our clients’ pipeline and sales team needs. No single lead-scoring formula is going to fit every company. 

Sales Qualified Leads

Sales qualified leads are those prospects whom your salesperson has spoken with and qualified as a sales opportunity. Early in the sales process you have a minimum set of qualifications for a prospect to become a sales opportunity you want your salesperson to pursue. Prospects who meet the minimum are your sales qualified leads. 

You enter sales qualified leads into your sales pipeline. You designate them as opportunities being tracked in your sales forecast. These are defined as forecasted sales opportunities. 

As your salesperson works sales qualified leads, they will continually evaluate them and determine if the SQLs remain qualified to continue progressing through the sales process. Even if it’s determined a forecasted opportunity is no longer qualified, it started out as a sales qualified lead. 

These procedures should be a core part of your sales process. When we are defining the sales process for clients, we find they often have not considered the subtle difference between a sales qualified lead and a forecasted sales opportunity. 

Sales Funnel

Measuring MQLs and SQLs 

SQLs are measured at the beginning of the sales process. Whatever happens to that opportunity later in the sales process does not change that it was originally a sales qualified lead. This is important. 

When you are measuring the effectiveness of both your marketing campaigns and your sales team, you want to be able to distinguish between marketing qualified leads and sales qualified leads. 

  • Marketing qualified leads measure the effectiveness of your marketing strategy. 
  • Sales qualified leads measure the effectiveness of your sales team in converting marketing qualified leads into the sales pipeline. 

These two numbers help you identify where you need to adjust so that you can improve your overall sales results. Perhaps you need to refine your marketing strategy, which could be anything from your target market to the activities to your implementation. Perhaps your sales team needs training, you need to hire, or you need to define your sales process more clearly. 

Measuring your marketing qualified leads and sales qualified leads gives you the insights you need to make your revenue generating system the highly productive machine it needs to be so that your company can achieve the goals you’ve set for it. 

In our client Results Review Meetings, we examine both MQLs and SQLs to determine the ROI and necessary strategy improvements for marketing and sales. You should be doing the same. 

You work hard to generate leads. Don’t let confusion about what is a lead  suspect, prospect, marketing qualified lead, or sales qualified lead keep your sales team from following up appropriately. Valuable leads will be lost, and that doesn’t have to happen.

If all the end pockets, side pockets, and lead types leave you feeling you need guidance defining them for your marketing and sales process, call me. We can help you put a system in place that works for your company. You don’t want to lose anymore leads! 

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