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MQL vs. SQL: What's the Difference When Handing Leads Off to Sales

b2b inbound marketing agency
21 Minute Read

Playbook for defining MQL vs. SQL and Handing Leads Off to Sales

Knowing when to hand leads off from marketing to sales is important.

This article is the ultimate guide explaining the difference between an MQL vs SQL and insights to further refine your company's MQL to SQL process for handing off leads to your sales team. The illustration below demonstrates a playbook for a frictionless sales process to ensure a smooth handoff from to marketing handoff. What are SQL and Mql in sales? explained well in this article

310 - Sales to Marketing Handoff-1

This guide will give you actionable insights into reducing friction in your sales funnel in support of increasing pipeline velocity and refining pipeline forecasting accuracy.


Most B2B buyers are already over 75% of the way through the buying process before the first meeting with a representative. (Accenture)

Not having your sales and marketing team aligned on what internally is defined as MQL vs. SQL is a disaster waiting to happen that can have negative consequences on revenue growth in 2022.


Different Type Of Leads

What is the difference between SQL and MQL? You might be annoyed with all the acronyms and sales jargon. You might be wondering what comes first MQL or SQL?

Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL) refers to a lead that is more likely to become a customer compared to other leads based on lead intelligence and is usually conveyed by closed-loop reporting. These are customers who have visited your website but have not yet made a purchase.


Sales Qualified Leads (SQL) means that the sales team has qualified this lead as a potential customer. Conversely, effective SQL marketing requires a deeper level of sales and marketing alignment, given that the core objective is pipeline velocity from the middle through the bottom of the funnel.

how does an MQL become an SQL? The diagram we created below will visually explain what criteria can move a lead from an MQL into an SQL.


The SQL is in the buying cycle, while the MQL is not ready for that buying stage just yet. In other words, marketing qualified leads(MQL) are more than just regular, non-qualified ones, but aren't ready for the sales process yet. SQLs are targeted as potential customers, much closer to the finishing offers.

If your marketing and sales teams aren't working together, they are working against each other. Knowing when to hand leads off from marketing to sales is vital to sustainable SQL leads being generated each month. Sales and marketing alignment is the holy grail when it comes to measurable and scalable growth.


What is a marketing qualified lead exactly?

The criteria for what constitutes an MQL differs from company to company. MQLs match your particular buyer personas and industries. You don't want to target everyone. That will be a complete waste of resources, resulting in poor and random conversions.

If you have mapped content to each stage of your B2B sales funnel, then you can leverage MQL vs. SQL HubSpot sales reporting features to get clear insights into which persona has the higher MQL to SQL conversion rate. The screenshot below illustrates where different sales operations are needed, ranging from opportunity review, sales rep leaderboard

mql vs sql hubspot


If you haven't created your buyer personas yet, you need to get that done right away. Your entire marketing and sales process depends on having great information from specific buyer personas.

Creating content or trying to make sales to people that you don't know anything about is more difficult than making sales to people when you understand their motivations.

However, once you spend time creating your ideal buyer persona, the whole marketing/sales experience will become much more smooth. You'll be able to judge each step of the process by applying it to your buyer persona, making sure every step of the way is leading towards a positive experience and closer to a sale.


Focus On Properly Converting

Clearly defining a protocol for internally MQL to SQL handoff will significantly increase highly qualified leads to be passed onto your sales teams, which will help improve your lead to conversion rates.

57% of B2B marketers reported their biggest challenge is getting targeted prospects to engage.

Leads that fail to convert into SQL leads (SQL's) are an indicator that your persona-driven content at the top of your funnel is not speaking to the readers' pain points. This is the writing on the wall telling your marketing team that top-of-the-funnel content needs to be refined in order by clause to draw MQL's down into the middle of your sales funnel.


It Takes Two To Tango

This is where sales and marketing alignment comes into play. High-quality leads that get handed off to your sales teams are great, but ultimately the way your sales team operates leverages inbound selling methodologies and best practices will affect how many SQL leads turn into actual paying customers.

 mql to sql conversion rate

Continue reading to learn five impactful rules for handing leads off to sales. Learn when your leads progress from marketing qualified lead window functions to high-quality sales qualified leads. Having an internally agreed-upon sales playbook in place for when to hand off leads to sales will decrease uncertainty in your marketing team and allow them to do their job effectively.


What is a lead scoring model?s

If you work in sales, marketing, RevOps or customer services then you are probably somewhat familiar with lead scoring models and tools that help with basic functions. Lead scoring has become immensely popular recently.

Sales, marketing, and email software have started to offer rudimentary contact scoring features in an effort to become more competitive. Many of the tools provided as software additions fall short of expectations and do not provide the necessary complexity or customization needed to provide an accurate contact score.

Developing effective lead scoring models has become a necessity for organizations. There is no one-size-fits all system in place for lead scoring. Every organization has its own particular goals and targets.

Despite the given discrepancies for any form of predictive lead scoring, businesses should build their own marketing strategy to best calculate their lead score and strengthen their lead nurturing strategy. You can rely on popular lead scoring models or embrace tools to further fine-tune the process for your organization's particular needs.

How do you make a lead scoring model?

The process of most lead scoring models is somewhat straightforward. You assign a numerical value for every lead you receive so that you can better assess it and determine how you want to treat it.

Calculating the lead score is not always black and white because not all leads are the same. Think about it this way, the content that you use to reach out to someone at the top of a conversion funnel is going to differ from the content you use at the bottom of the funnel to grab attention.


With lead scoring, there are a lot of factors at play that you’ll need to weigh.

Common lead scoring best practices include:

  • Determine how many times a lead has interacted with your organization.
  • Pinpoint how many times the lead has visited your business’s website.
  • Evaluate if the lead is prepared to receive sales materials to further the process.

The lead score helps reveal the buying intention of the lead. According to the lead score methodology, if a lead has a high score, then they are more likely to buy then one with a low score.

A variety of factors influence the lead scoring model such as:

  • Company size
  • Industry
  • Email engagement
  • Job title
  • Number of website visits

For each attribution, a point is given to the lead. If the lead should take the time to visit the pricing page of a website, then they will score higher points because the desire to peruse pricing indicates that they have high buying intention.
With lead scoring you do not always add points, but sometimes you subtract. If a lead unsubscribes from your email list, then they lose points.

When the lead’s score meets a threshold of say - 50 - then a sales representative contacts the lead to try to close the deal. Usually, sales automation will automatically highlight any qualified leads.

Lead scoring helps take the guesswork out of things so your sales representatives spend less time on leads they cannot convert and more time on promising leads. The process helps expand your organization's profitability by minimizing and maximizing how your team uses their time.


Factors Impacting Lead Scoring

Several factors play a crucial role in lead scoring models. What impacts one business might not have an effect on another because of the varying business models, products, services, customers, and marketing strategies used. You’ll need to sit down with your team to define your own business lead score model that fits your particular needs.


Let’s examine some factors you should consider that impact lead scoring:

Lead Score Threshold

Philosophers say that everything in life is about timing. Certainly, in sales everything hinges on acting at the proper time to cinch the deal or make the sale. The ‘lead score threshold’ refers to the point where the lead is deemed sales ready. The lead’s score has reached or exceeded a set value and they have become an MQL. At this point, they pass from marketing to sales.

When developing your organization’s lead scoring model, you’ll want to get your threshold exactly right. If the bar is set too low, then the sales team will waste valuable time trying to convert leads that are simply not ready for conversion.

Setting the lead score too high causes your sales team to lose valuable time and gives your competition the opportunity to lure them away.

You’ll need to determine your organization’s threshold by examining historical data that reveals the attributes which qualify a lead. You can then set a threshold. Consider setting the threshold using our CRM so that it automatically notifies you any time a lead reaches the threshold set forth in your lead scoring model.

mql vs sql

To determine your threshold, examine historical data to determine which attributes stand out as making a lead.


Implicit Lead Score

Base the implicit score on how the lead interacts or behaves with your business. Use CRM software to track the various interactions that the lead has with your business, website, and more.

Interactions can include:

  • Webpage visits
  • Social media interactions
  • Newsletter subscriptions
  • Email opens
  • Downloads
  • Content usage
  • Subscriptions to product demos, free trials, and more
  • Online seminar attendees


Explicit Lead Score

Lead scoring models assign the explicit score based on the attributes of the lead using the following criteria:

  • Experience
  • Job title
  • Seniority
  • Industry
  • Demographics
  • Size
  • Revenue

Often a lead will provide information that helps you determine explicit scoring such as filling out a poll, downloading content, or sharing information such as the lead’s LinkedIn page or their company website. You can use such additional information to better determine an explicit score. The following video expands on how LinkedIn can help refine components of your selling strategy.


Implicit scoring is more valuable than explicit scoring, but the lead’s explicit score is given based on things such as work title. An implicit score actually increases every time the lead visits your site, downloads content, opens an email, or interacts. With implicit scoring, the lead is scored each time which gives you greater insight into the lead's intentions.


Negative Score

Not all interactions that a lead has with your organization is considered a step toward conversion. Your lead scoring model will perceive which ones are and which ones are not.

Providing a negative score is the process of deducting points from a lead score. As mentioned before, a lead score subtraction occurs as a result of an action the lead takes those points towards diminished interest in your services or products.

Actions that trigger a negative score include:

  • Unsubscribe from a sales email sequence
  • Seeking employment opportunities on your website
  • Shows only academic interest in your site’s content
  • A rival company researching competition
  • Lack of interaction - stagnant lead


Regular Updates

You’ll need to keep your lead scoring models accurate by regularly updating everything with current customer data. Everyone on your sales and marketing teams should know about any implemented changes or updates. Using regular correspondence, your marketing team can rapidly identify promising leads and then send them on to your sales professionals.


How do you make a lead scoring model?

When it comes to lead scoring models, every company does things a little differently. No one has the same customer base, product line or business model. You’ll need to develop your own effective lead scoring model by studying scoring programs to get ideas.


Website Visitor Scoring

The website visitor lead scoring mode is one of the most common methods. You’ll identify sales leads from individuals who visit your website. You can pinpoint which sections of the site they interact with and study their behavior.

Look for signs they are interested in your services or products. Signs of interest can include browsing pricing, providing email to obtain a discount, and adding things to the shopping cart. They might also take the time to read a blog post or look over the company’s ‘about’ page.

This scoring method works well for eCommerce or online-based businesses that obtain their leads via search engine optimization or online marketing strategies.


Suitability and Activity

Some online marketing and digital advertising firms rely on a visual system to measure the level of interaction on the various websites against the demographics profile.

Leads should have a profile that indicates if they are a good fit for a company or if they have interacted extensively on the site so determine if they are a possible good fit for a conversion. Basically, a lead is deemed unsuitable if they do not interact extensively with the company.

Within the range of an excellent lead down to a poor lead are other candidates that might prove suitable even if they are not the ‘perfect’ fit according to the profile. However, if they show an interest in the site and interact then they might be good secondary targets.


B2B Scoring

With B2B sales, your connection within a company matters. The business might be an ideal fit for your product but if you reach out to the wrong person then the deal could completely fall through before it ever starts. With B2B scoring, some companies devise a score based on the lead’s job title, role, and department. This is critical when looking to implement and scale a targeted account selling program, otherwise referred to as account-based marketing.


Using B2B scoring, a vice president commands more points than an HR manager because they will have greater authority when it comes to purchasing decisions. In some cases, you might also place high value on individuals working in the IT department compared to someone working in marketing if you are trying to sell cybersecurity products.

With the B2B scoring system, you can also add additional points for companies with extensive employees or to a company to whom you regularly sell products. The B2B model works well if you are focusing on targeting job titles, business types, or departments. It does not work if you want to sell to consumers.


Email Engagement

Emails let you see exactly who responds to your campaign. Use email marketing software to determine the open rate, click through numbers, and who has not responded to the emails (which shows disinterest).


An email scoring system helps you rapidly identify conversion rates so you can tailor future campaigns and increase leads even further.

B2B companies that use persona-driven email marketing campaigns benefit from increase email engagement lead scoring models. Even if you do not extensively use email marketing, the scalable lead scoring model can help your team obtain more conversions and spur you to expand your email campaign marketing efforts.


Implementing a Lead Scoring Model

If you have decided on a lead scoring model, then you’ll need to coordinate our sales and marketing teams so everyone is on the same page. Everyone should work closely to develop an ideal customer profile for easy conversion so you can more easily score leads.

You’ll want to work out a scoring system with your sales team and marketers and then try launching a pilot program to flesh things out and see if your conversion rate improves before completely implementing the system





Rules for an Effective Lead Hand-off Process


1. Don't Always Hand Leads Off to Sales Immediately

If you have a trigger happy marketing team, often times your MQL scoring is fluffed up to give marketing teams ability to convert more MQL's into SQL's t padding their performance. This becomes more evident when your company is funneling too many MQL's over to sales reps too soon. Ideally highly qualified SQL leads are more than half way through tier buyer's journey prior to being passed to sales reps One of the sure signs you shouldn't hand your leads off to sales right away is if there is a substantial cash or time investment.

If people know they have to commit a large amount of time or money for their purchase, they often take more time to make a decision.

Before sending leads to sales reps, they should be appropriately vetted based on effective lead scoring criteria.

sql lead scoring

You need to figure out why they filled out the form, what state of mind they are in, what outcomes they are seeking, and what stage in the buying process they are.

There are several MQL lead scoring qualifications to consider including demographics, online behavior data, company information, market cap, funding, content engagement, among other criteria. These are some more general criteria that apply to most businesses, but don't be afraid to niche it down for your particular sales needs. Zeroing in on quality leads will significantly improve conversions.


Most top-tier marketing software will help you leverage lead function scoring best practices to help you with many parts of the customer journey, and lead scoring is one of them.

That doesn't mean every lead marked as "ready" is going to be a closed sale, but the numbers will give you a reasonable estimate that you should pay attention to that person, and let your sales team members decide if they should send the lead to sales.

If you don't know this pertinent information, you are wasting your sales team's precious time trying to sell leads that just aren't there yet.

On the other hand, if they spend too much time in the marketing funnel, they might lose interest, which will lead to lost sales. That will mean your marketing department will waste money, and your campaign will be less effective.

mql vs sql

The sweet spot is to send them to sales when their interest is about to peak. They will be anxious to hear the value proposition, which will make the process smooth, and your conversion rates very high.

Of course, some leads are immediately ready to hear the offer. If you hear from a lead that is the personification of your ideal customer, go for it, and send it directly to your sales team. There is no need to waste their time and your resources with marketing automation, as it can only make you look sleazy and unprofessional.


2. Prune Low Quality MQL's

If leads submit a demo request or free assessment on your sales-ready website and you never hear from them again, you shouldn't waste time enrolling them into some content drip workflow. If you are only marketing to them to check a box in hopes that they will someday become interested in the future, you are wasting your resources and efforts are not aligning with MQL to SQL handoff procedures.


There are always going to be those leads that have no intention in turning into customers, only wanting to get the "freebie." They often use fake contact information and temporary/spam email addresses. Trying to convert them will only be a waste of your efforts. These leads are often referred to as "suspects" as they are on your site for many different reasons, and buying is certainly not one of them.

Conversely, "prospects," on the other hand, have a genuine interest and are looking to get information about you, your company, products, and services. If you convince them, they will talk to you, as they have the right intent.

Given that buyers these days get more than halfway through the buyer's journey before they ever speak to a sales rep. As a result, they were researching your company and your competitors and your content. However, your content was not compelling enough to make their shortlist of companies being vetted to partner with.

mql vs sql hubspot

Sometimes people are simply not qualified to be in your lead nurturing campaign, and that is a good thing. Think about it, you do not want your sales team wasting time on dead leads that are not a good fit. But, all this requires careful consideration and constant tracking, which is why the whole MQL vs SQL topic is so exciting.


3. What are lead tracking processes?

Not all leads meet your companies ideal customer profile and get passed onto your sales team.

Once you've figured out which leads are MQLs, it isn't time to send them over to sales just yet. When you know leads are MQLs; it is time for your marketing team to go to work. The marketing team needs to put these leads through your company's lead nurturing system.

Types of marketing qualified lead actions:

  • Downloading trial software or gated content offer
  • Using software or assessment demos
  • Filling out online lead generation forms
  • Submitting an email address for a newsletter or mailing list
  • Favoriting, sharing, or adding items to a wishlist
  • Adding products to the shopping cart
  • Repeating site visits or spending a lot of time on your site
  • Clicking paid ads to reach your site or landing page
  • Contacting you to request more information

Make sure your lead nurturing system is following best practices to get the best result set and turn more leads into SQL leads. Sending your MQLs and SQLs high-quality content like white papers, webinars, and relevant blog posts will build trust and educate them on the benefits of your company. When you are sending this content, keep the buyer's journey in mind as well as the particular person you are marketing to.

It's important questions to realize that although the end goal is to make a sale, your leads should not be reminded about your services all the time. Make genuinely helpful content that will solve their problems. Make it in-depth, showing the processes step by step, giving them valuable and actionable information to help them make an informed decision

There's no need to mention in every second sentence how your company is the best there is when it comes to solving that type of problem. The point is to show that you care about your potential customers, but also to show that you know what you're talking about, which will position you as the expert. Later, when they realize they could use professional help, you will be the first that comes to their mind.


4. Not All SQLs Will Turn Into Sales

When it comes time to make a sales call to an SQL, use this call to qualify or disqualify the lead. It would help if you had precise lead scoring criteria about what SQLs are. If you let unqualified leads make it into the sales process, you are doing your sales team and your company a disservice.

Most sales teams know about the BANT qualifying system – checking to see if leads have the budget, authority, needs, and timeline to go into the sales process. While BANT has served sales teams well, there is more your company needs to look at before giving these leads the green light.

Using BANT from IBM and GPCT from HubSpot together will help you get the results sets you want. GPCT stands for Goals, Plans, Challenges, Timeline. Don't put leads into your CRM if they aren't going to turn into opportunities.

Still, no matter how good the tactics and the sales strategy are, some leads that got all the way through are still going to be "suspects." Others will still need more social media marketing, and you will need to send them demos/freebies, and return them back into the funnel.

However, that doesn't mean your whole B2B marketing strategy is a failure. Its entire purpose is to optimize conversions, making sure the least amount of "suspects" get to your sales personnel.


5. Retention Is Harder Than Conversion

Congratulations on your new customer but now it is time to send them back to marketing. When there is a healthy marketing relationship building between marketing and sales, you will get the best results. Marketing needs feedback from sales after closing the customer.

Measuring conversion rates and seeing what SQLs turned into customers allows you to improve your buyer personas. You may notice marketing trends in the information that will allow you to change the persona to be even more effective and helpful to the marketing and sales processes.

Your customers still need to be nurtured, which is why you send them back to marketing. You should have a plan to continue providing value to your customers. It would help if you created special offers for your customers, so they feel like your client engagement playbook makes them feel delighted and improves the likelihood that they will refer other customers to you over time.

Whether it is customer events, discounts, in-depth information, or some other special offer, they will appreciate that you appreciate them.

What makes sending customers back to marketing incredibly fruitful is that you have already gained their trust. After all, they already bought from you, and if you have quality products/services, they will be more than likely to hear what else you have to offer. Sending them discount codes for special events will only tighten this bond even further, turning them into lifelong fans of your brand, and not just random customers.


Optimizing Your Marketing and Sales Teams

The more information you have on your current marketing and sales systems, the easier it will be to optimize them. Gathering data and analyzing it should be an essential part of your schedule. Scheduling when you will analyze your data will make sure that it takes place correctly. If traditional approaches to your sales operations are not hitting your growth goals, it makes sense to work with an inbound sales agency.

mql vs sql

Don't assume that every MQL will turn into an SQL. Even if they are indicating interest, you can't assume a lead will always proceed down the sales funnel to customer status. If a lead is clearly not ready to make a purchase and you approach them as if they are, you will likely scare the lead away entirely.

How can you know for sure if you are sending leads to sales too early, or too late? You can't know, this is all done based on experience. But, it is a good idea to opt for a less aggressive approach at first, until you feel things out. Then, if you notice that your marketing/sales tactics are ineffective, you can turn up the dial a bit and sharpen those sales swords. But it is better to be more cautious at first, as you don't want to scare people away, as most are tired of sleazy salesman calls.


Make It Official

It is important to create a real document that will contain all of the rules that your marketing and sales teams should follow. SLA or service -level agreement is this document that clearly defines the criteria. In this case, it will describe the stages in which your marketing strategy should push the lead to your sales team through a frictionless MQL to SQL handoff process.

However, making it official doesn't mean it should be set in stone. You should hold meetings with your marketing and sales teams, separately and together, discussing how you can improve the SLA. Worlds of marketing and sales frequently change, especially in the digital marketing era, with new inbound sales strategies and technologies launching every year. With all that, customers are becoming educated, and it is imperative not to get stale.

Of course, don't change things for the sake of changing things, but always be on a lookout, critically rethinking and looking to improve the whole MQL to SQL conversion experience. Having the meetings once per month is probably the best approach, as it will give you enough time to see if the change of tactics worked.

mql vs sql

And trust your employees. Yes, playing by the book is generally speaking the right approach. But if you have an experienced marketing and sales teams, sometimes they will make better decisions acting upon instinct, which will lead to closed sales and forming bonds with customers. They should respect the rules, as they give a solid foundation, but thinking outside the box is beneficial, and make sure your teams are aware of that.

Every Company Has Its Own Playbook

Running a marketing campaign and converting leads requires careful planning and unique strategies. Sure, you are probably not going to reinvent the wheel and come up with whole new ideas from scratch. But, be extra careful not to go completely the other way, and blindly applying the marketing strategy of some other company, no matter how successful. Here, cookie-cutter solutions won't work, at least if you want to see measurable increases in your lead to conversion rates and increased velocity through your sales funnel



Take Aways

As you can see, recognizing the importance and the right time to handoff leads from marketing to sales teams is vital. Can you make sales without all of this? Sure, but your results will be random, and you will leave a considerable amount of profits on the table. Doing it right will tremendously influence the effectiveness of your MQL to SQL conversion and handoff process, and will make a significant difference in your earnings.

But, setting up the whole process without professional help might be challenging. Until you get it right, you are losing potential customers, or you are wasting money on ineffective B2B marketing. If that is the case, and you can't figure things out within your team, you will need to hire experts.


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Chris Leach

Digital marketing professional with 19-years of tested experience balanced in strategic planning and scaling ROI for lead generation, customer acquisition and client engagement programs. Since starting 310 Creative in 2003, I have had grown it into a Diamond Tier HubSpot® Partner ranked in the top 1% of all HubSpot® partners worldwide and serving as an extension of marketing teams of large brands such as Live Nation and Universal Music Group to help scale marketing and lead generation partnership campaigns for Verizon, Best Buy, AT&T and EMI.

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