What is a Qualified Lead? The Many Shades of Lead Qualification

The term “lead” can mean many things – and I’m not talking about element number 82, which rhymes with “bed.”

Generally, a business lead or a sales lead refers to an individual with the potential to buy a product or service. The amount of buying potential is what separates one lead from another.

Collecting information about a lead and confirming their interest and purchasing ability is typically referred to as qualification. Depending on the qualification degree, this could involve simple demographic filters or detailed, person-to-person conversations.

In a typical B2B marketing funnel, there are four classes or qualifications of lead: top-of-funnel leads, marketing-qualified leads, sales-accepted leads, and sales-qualified leads. All too often, these categories of leads are merged under the generic umbrella of the term “lead.” Your ability to understand the type of leads you have, what they mean, and how to work with them is directly related to your ability to convert said leads.

Top-of-Funnel Lead (TFL)

What is it? 

Top-of-funnel leads have the “look and feel” of your current customers or buyer personas.  They meet demographic criteria (decided by the marketing team), usually around job role, company, and industry.

In addition to being a demographic fit, top-of-funnel leads have demonstrated early-stage interest in your offering.  In other words, they have consumed high-level information, often about your category of products rather than your individual product.  This information may come in gated assets (white papers about industry trends or generic tips and tricks) or ungated content (blog posts, infographics, etc.).

How is it different?

Sometimes, leads can move through the top-of-funnel stage without being noticed.  Unlike the other categories, TFLs don’t necessarily require any user-provided information. These leads are just beginning the educational portion of their buying journey.

Reaching leads at this stage is delicate but ultimately rewarding.  While leads this early in the process are certainly not ready for a sales call, they allow companies to guide the lead and shape their buying journey.

What’s next?

As mentioned above, now is not the time for pushiness and sales messaging.  Such efforts at this stage will have the opposite of the intended effect.  These leads are working to educate themselves on your offering.  The key is to enable this.  They should be served supplemental content, preferably related to the content they have already consumed.

Marketing-Qualified Lead (MQL)

What is it?

Like top-of-funnel leads, marketing-qualified leads are judged for fit and intent. In terms of fit, MQLs must adhere to the same customer profiles/buyer personas as TFLs; however, the criteria are often more stringent (job titles instead of general roles, minimum company sizes/revenue ranges, etc.).

The more important distinction for MQLs is that they have demonstrated intent by actively requesting product information.  This could be accomplished by asking for a quote/demo/trial, downloading a spec sheet on the website, calling the company phone number, or trading business cards at an event.

How is it different?

The biggest difference between marketing-qualified leads and other leads is the request for product information.  There are two important factors here: First, unlike earlier stages, a lead can’t reach the MQL stage without actively contacting a company.  This opt-in (explicit or implied) sets the stage for future communications. Second, the request for information specific to your offering demonstrates a shift in the buying process.  The lead has moved from educating himself or herself on the value of the category of products to considering the ability of the given offering to deliver that value.

What’s next?

The next step for marketing qualified leads is to be transitioned to Sales.  This can occur in a variety of ways.  In some organizational structures, entire teams handle leads between Marketing and Sales.  In most cases, though, leads make it directly to the sales department through a CRM system.

The important aspect of this transition is pacing.  Leads “cool off” the longer they’re left waiting.  After days and weeks, your solution is no longer top of mind – it might have even been replaced by a competitor.  At the same time, the sales team can only effectively handle a certain volume of leads at any given time.  The goal is to keep sales consistently running as close to optimal as possible.

Sales-Accepted Lead (SAL)

What is it?

Essentially, a sales-accepted lead is an MQL that the Sales team has deemed worth pursuing.  In theory, every marketing-qualified lead should fit the bill; however, Sales and Marketing don’t always see eye to eye on lead qualification, which can create a big drop-off between MQL and SAL.

The problem is that in many organizations, Marketing and Sales have competing objectives. Marketing is expected to deliver a specified quantity of leads, while Sales are expected to close at a specified rate.  Marketers are being pushed to deliver lower-quality leads, and salespeople are being pushed to be stingy to protect their rates.

How is it different?

The transfer of ownership is the important difference between sales accepted leads and earlier leads. To this point, Marketing owns the process; they defined lead criteria, captured the leads, and were on the hook for shortfalls. Once accepted by Sales, leads are now their responsibility.

What separates SALs from later-stage leads is a lack of deeper qualifications. Like leads earlier in the funnel, sales-accepted leads have been judged using only a small amount of user-provided data. Factors like purchase ability and timeframe have not yet been fully explored.

What’s next?

By this point, you’ve gotten as much as you can get from a lead without directly communicating. If the lead has already asked to speak, you’re halfway there. To move forward, you need to start a dialog with your SALs. A phone call or visit is preferable, though one-to-one emails can work in a pinch.

Sales-Qualified Lead (SQL)

What is it?

Sales-qualified leads are the most qualified variety of leads. They have been contacted by the sales team and had their purchase intent, ability, and readiness verified.

BANT qualification is the name of the game when it comes to SQLs. BANT stands for Budget, Authority, Need, and Timeline. A lead needs to be checked for each of these four factors to be BANT-qualified. A lead that meets BANT criteria will have the means to purchase, the authority to make the decision, a likelihood of benefiting from your offering, and be making a purchase decision in the near term.

How is it different?

The major difference between a sales-qualified lead and the other categories is immediacy. The lead will fit a target profile and have the resources, ability, and desire to buy relatively soon.

SQLs have a high likelihood of making a purchase. They understand the solution and the value. Rather than convincing SQLs of the need for change (like leads at earlier stages), the challenge becomes ensuring your offering is chosen over its alternatives.

What’s next?

Differentiating your offering is key when a lead has reached the sales-qualified stage.  These leads are actively purchasing, but that doesn’t mean you’re the only vendor in contact with them. They need to be given a reason to choose your offering over the competition. Social proof, like case studies and testimonials, is particularly effective in this capacity.


Let us know what you think:

  • How do you qualify leads?
  • Do your leads move through these stages of qualification?
  • What roadblocks exist in your lead qualification process?

This post was originally written by Matt Leap on March 11th, 2019.

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