The difference between MQLs and SQLs

by Joseph Freeman | Updated Dec 14, 2023

As a marketing or sales leader, you should already know what lifecycle stages are.

If you don't, you should first go check out this HubSpot knowledgebase article, Use lifecycle stages, and then come back here for some added insights on how to define them properly.

And if you don't use HubSpot...keep reading! This concept can be applied to any CRM and even offline tracking practices.

Properly defining the differences between marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and sales qualified leads (SQLs) will help us eliminate finger-pointing and ambiguity between the marketing and sales departments once and for all!

Why is it important to define criteria for lifecycle stages?

One of the biggest challenges we come across in almost every B2B organization is a loosey-goosey definition of what a Marketing Qualified Lead is compared to a Sales Qualified Lead. In almost every case, businesses lump these together with only minor differences.

The worst part?

These lifecycle stage definitions are documented only in the minds of the marketing and sales teams. If you have your lifecycle stages defined, written down, and you know exactly where to find them, I salute you. If you don't, then at least take comfort in the fact that you're not any different than 99% of your peers. 

But you're better than that. You're going to change that today.

There are three reasons you should be properly documenting and defining lifecycle stages:

  1. It creates immediate clarity and alignment for everybody in your organization
  2. It allows you to properly track your prospects' and buyers' movements through your content
  3. It empowers you to quickly see bottlenecks in the way of revenue (RevOps leaders everywhere are cheering right now)

Here are the quick and dirty definitions of each lifecycle stage:

Anyone who fills out a form to receive more information from you

Anyone who meets your basic demographic criteria 

Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)
A Lead (that part is important) that has also shown buying intent by implicitly or explicitly "raising their hand to talk." We're gonna go way deeper on this so keep reading.

Sales Qualified Lead
An MQL that a salesperson has actually corresponded with (phone, email, chat, text, whatever). This is where ALMOST EVERYONE trips up. Again, keep reading and we'll unpack this.

This is an SQL who has requested a quote. Please stop opening up "Deals" and "Opportunities" in your CRM prematurely. Wait till there's an actual conversation about money happening. Otherwise, you wreak havoc on lifecycle reporting and make your conversion rates abysmal. It's embarrassing.

Someone who's bought from you.

This is one of the most powerful yet underutilized lifecycle stages. It's a customer who has proven they are a brand advocate by giving you a testimonial, a review, a backlink, or simply continuing to buy repeatedly. These people are your quickest channel for unlocking new revenue through referrals.


The difference is pretty simple at the surface...

  • An MQL has taken action indicating they'd like to talk to sales, but nobody has talked to them yet to confirm buying ability.
  • An SQL is someone sales has talked to and did NOT DISQUALIFY.


An SQL may not be ready to buy right now (if they were, they'd quickly move to "Opportunity"), but if the salesperson has confirmed buying potential, it should be marked as a sales-qualified lead.

IMPORTANT! There should be no exceptions and no fighting about where it should land in your CRM. Without being legalistic about these definitions there is no way to trust your data. And if you can't trust your data, don't even bother building attribution reports.

Passive MQLs vs. Active MQLs

Okay. But what about people who fill out a contact form? Surely they're "sales qualified," right?


You get vendors, students, and competitors filling out your high-intent forms all the time. If you immediately marked them as an SQL (which I know some of you are doing), your conversion rate from SQL to opportunity would tank. You wouldn't have an accurate understanding of the sales team's performance. 

  • Active MQL — this is someone who first meets the basic lead criteria AND fills out a high-intent form — they're actively asking to talk to you.

  • Passive MQL — this is someone who first meets the basic lead criteria, does NOT fill out a high-intent form, but has interacted with enough of your content for you to understand that they are probably in the buying. You need to start reaching out to them

To identify a passive MQL, it's important to have a good lead-scoring strategy in place. One that is both comprehensive and scalable so it doesn't age out as you continue to publish new content.


Topics:Revenue Operations