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Make Your Sales More Efficient with Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs)

Illustration of sales qualified leads with check marks on a blue background
Sales qualified leads have expressed interest in your offerings and are ready to talk with your team. [Studio Science]

Learn how to find leads most likely to purchase so you can reduce time to close.

new list of leads pops up on your computer. With the end of the quarter fast approaching, you’re tempted to dive right in and call them all. But your to-do list is long and your calendar is full. You don’t have a ton of time to devote to cold calls before quarter’s end.

Then you open the list and see that many names have already been qualified by your marketing team. Whew. The list is instantly more manageable. Now, it’s your turn to determine which of these marketing qualified leads (MQLs) are sales qualified leads (SQLs) so you can follow up.

We’ll break down the sales qualified lead process — including what they are and how they differ from MQLs — so you can maximize your time, target your approach, and increase your win rate when it matters most.

What you will learn:

Engage and close prospects from everywhere

Pull up CRM data for prospects even when you’re engaging with them outside your CRM — whether on social or online. 

What is a sales-qualified lead (SQL)?

A sales qualified lead is a lead flagged by a sales team member as likely to convert and ready to progress in the sales process. This is typically done through a lead-scoring process.

Typically, sales leads are qualified using these criteria:

  • Fit your buyer persona, meaning the lead has similar characteristics to customers who’ve purchased from you before.
  • Have a pain point your company can help solve, such as improving efficiencies or filling technology gaps.
  • Do not have potential purchase barriers, such as budget, authority, need, or timing (B.A.N.T. framework). For example, a sales qualified lead will have the budget for your solution, the authority to make the purchase decision, and a need for your product or service right now.

Here’s a quick example:

Your company sells financial consulting services to healthcare organizations. The staff from a midsize hospital system attended a webinar last month and have downloaded several of your white papers.

After a quick call, you learn they have allocated a budget for financial consultant services, and in Q2, they want to start preparing for an end-of-the-year audit. They are currently shopping around at several providers to determine the best solution for their needs, but because they are ready to buy, they are what you should consider an SQL.

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What is a marketing qualified lead (MQL)?

An MQL is a prospect who has taken action via marketing campaigns to demonstrate interest, such as signing up for an email list or downloading an e-book from your website.

At this point, the prospect is “window shopping.” They’re looking for information and trying to learn about your company or solution. They aren’t sure if your offering is fit for their needs, but they’re intrigued. Many MQLs are also still determining their pain points and their goals.

For example, the CFO at a small community hospital downloaded an e-book on audit preparation. You send them an email and learn that they’re still determining if they can afford a consultant. They’re also unclear on the benefits of using your services. Because they’re not quite ready to buy but have shown interest, they are considered an MQL — not an SQL.

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What are the biggest differences between SQLs and MQLs?

The differences between SQLs and MQLs typically boil down to the B.A.N.T. — budget, authority, need, and timing — Framework mentioned above. Regardless of your sales ability or the benefits of your offering, it’s unlikely that you’ll close a deal if a prospect doesn’t meet these purchase requirements.

A sales qualified lead is a prospect who’s at the end of their buyer’s journey and is prepared to make a decision. Common characteristics include:

  • Convinced your offering will solve their problem.
  • Qualified via personal contact, usually through a call or video meeting.
  • No B.A.N.T. barriers.
  • Ready to sign a contract.

A marketing qualified lead is someone in the middle of their consideration journey. Common characteristics include:

  • Not yet ready to buy, or your company hasn’t determined their readiness.
  • Still researching companies and don’t have a short list yet.
  • B.A.N.T. barriers still exist.
  • Have only interacted with your company digitally and/or via marketing collateral — such as on social media, website, or reviews.

Think about it like this: You meet someone on a dating app. You talk about your love of travel and discuss all the places on your bucket lists. You hit it off and eventually exchange phone numbers. If you call to invite them on a European backpacking trip right away, you may never hear from them again. Why? Because you moved too fast.

But, if you start slow, taking the time to learn more about their interests, personality, and preferences, you may end up meeting for coffee. And after you develop a level of trust over time, you may grow closer and eventually choose to plan that trip together — a way down the road. While the sales cycle works faster than developing a real-life relationship, it’s the same concept.

Knowing which leads are SQLs and which are MQLs helps you prioritize your time. If a customer shows interest in your offering, you don’t want to start the conversation with pricing, for example, because this is likely an MQL.

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7 steps to lead qualification

Tracking your interactions with leads through a CRM lets you access the information you need to qualify leads. If you don’t log lead details (like contact information), you’ll lose sight of the important information you’ve gathered during prospecting. And if you don’t track leads, you won’t know where they are in the qualification process — and may not even be able to contact them.

Once you have a process for tracking interactions, follow these steps to qualify leads:

  1. Determine if a lead meets your ideal customer profile (ICP, aka buyer persona): Start by looking on LinkedIn to see if their role matches up with one that typically has purchasing authority and benefits from your product. Focus on the B.A.N.T. framework. Does the customer meet your target profile: industry, size, and customer type? If so, do they have budget approval, authority to buy, needs, and the right timeline to purchase?
  2. Look at prospect behavior: Pay attention to how potential customers interact with your company — visiting your website, commenting or liking on social media, subscribing to your newsletter, or downloading a white paper. If a lead visits your website’s career page, they’re probably looking for a job, not to buy your product. Knowing a lead’s role can also help you eliminate unlikely buyers, such as journalists or students doing research.
  3. Reach out via email: To quickly learn more about leads who seem like a good match for your products or services, get in touch. Typically, this step is best done by email, because the prospect has just started considering your product. Use this opportunity to ask questions and determine if your company can address their challenges.
  4. Pick up the phone: While AI tools are a key part of sales lead qualifying, human interaction should still play a role in the lead qualifying process. If you’ve already qualified a prospect by email, a call won’t feel too forward. Ask questions to understand their pain points and gauge their interest in detail. By listening to their answers, you can gain valuable information that is not attainable in other ways.
  5. Assign points to each lead: Automated sales tools can make it easier and more accurate to incorporate lead qualification into your sales process. Using an AI-powered CRM, you can assign points to specific traits that you associate with a prospect’s readiness to buy. Besides observable behavior, common lead scoring criteria include demographics like geography, role, company size, and industry. You should also include negative scoring to disqualify a lead — like leads without adequate budget.
  6. Sort leads based on this number: This makes it easy for you to know which leads are most likely to convert, based on the criteria set above.
  7. Determine if a lead is an MQL or SQL: Since companies use different scoring systems, the number of points will vary. But the higher the score, the more likely it is that you have an SQL. In any case, your scoring system should focus on indicators that the customer is ready to buy right now, which will differentiate them from an MQL who’s still in the shopping phase.

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From MQL to SQL: Best practices for keeping a lead hot

Moving leads through the sales funnel can be challenging, but once you understand the difference between leads, you can more easily turn MQLs into SQLs and close the sale. Here are a few best practices to follow:

Use automation: Digital tools can help you score leads without picking up a pencil or calculator. These tools can help save you time and identify patterns you may miss when manually scoring. AI tools can also help with organization, like logging and tracking your progress and analyzing conversation insights to help you improve your customer interactions.

Focus on understanding the lead: Proper lead qualification requires you to listen to your customer and look for cues that indicate their readiness to buy. When a lead feels like your solution will genuinely help them, they’re more likely to find the resources to purchase.

So, take the time to understand their needs, pain points, and goals. By asking specific questions about their current challenges — including products or services that aren’t working — you can gain valuable information to help you frame your offer as a better solution and convert the lead to a customer.

Monitor behavior and follow up: Look at a lead’s behavior to see how they’re interacting with your brand. Look for signs that indicate interest, like following your social media or registering for a webinar. Use behavior that indicates that the lead is not interested, such as unsubscribing from your email list, to disqualify the lead.

Also, don’t be shy about following up to collect more information after initial outreach or contact. For example, if a lead downloads a white paper, email them to ask if they got what they needed from your content or if you can provide anything else. This gives you a natural opportunity to start a conversation and a chance to gather more information.

Take the next step: When an MQL shows signs of being an SQL, set up a meeting to move the lead into the next phase of discovery. You should prepare data to share with your prospect that shows how your company has solved their type of problem before. Also, find out if there is someone else who needs to join the conversation for the deal to move forward and invite them to the meeting.

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Use SQLs to increase sales

You don’t have to spend unnecessary time on unqualified leads. Instead, you can use that time to identify your SQLs, learn more about them, and build trust. Most importantly, you can focus on converting these leads into customers. And just like that, you’re one step closer to meeting your quota before the end of the month.

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Paul Bookstaber Writer, Salesblazer

Paul Bookstaber is a writer at Salesforce. He has a decade of experience in content marketing in B2B tech. Before that, he published a magazine and ran a tabloid blog. Today, he splits his time between Florida and the Mountain West, and loves to hike, ski, and watch Bravo. He is in a polyamorous relationship with Luke and Roger, who are cats.

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