By Amber Kemmis

Originally written on January 8, 2014. Content was updated April 12, 2018.

As a teenager, I ran track and became very familiar with the art of passing the baton. While my teammates and I didn’t go on to run in the Olympics, I still have the blue ribbons that prove we weren’t entirely terrible athletes. Being fast was essential to winning any sprint event on the track, but with relays, how you execute the hand-off could mean the difference between first place and disqualification.  Perfecting the baton hand-off requires careful timing, trust in your teammate, and effective communication. Beyond that, my high school relay team went from personal best times to surpassing school records when we finally figured out the perfect order in the hand-off sequence. It turns out that one girl on the team was particularly fast at running the curve. Meanwhile, another teammate and I weren’t great at communicating. When you think about handing leads from marketing to sales, it’s quite similar to the baton hand-off in track. And, just as my teammates and I had to prepare and make adjustments to beat records, you too will have to do the same when it comes to finding the right time to hand a lead off from marketing to sales.

Determining a marketing qualified lead (MQL) from a sales qualified lead (SQL) takes a partnership between sales and marketing, and defining an MQL vs. a SQL is the foundation of the lead hand-off process. Before we dig into definitions, let’s review lifecycle stages.

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Understanding Lifecycle Stages

As you think about the difference between an MQL and SQL, you should also be thinking about your entire customer lifecycle, which often looks similar to the graphic below.

customer lifecycle

While the exact definition of an MQL and SQL varies based on your customer lifecycle and defined between marketing and sales, an MQL is primarily a contact that is sales-ready but probably not someone the sales team should immediately work as an opportunity. An SQL, however, is ready for direct sales follow-up and made a priority to engage 1:1.


Create an SLA

While you define each stage of your customer’s lifecycle and the hand-off process marketing and sales, you’ll need a place to document this information, which is where a service-level agreement (SLA) comes into play. An SLA for marketing and sales documents goals, as well as what each team plans to contribute to those goals. It should also document the definitions of MQLs, SQLs, and the procedures for handling these leads. In short, it should contain everything you need to execute an effective hand-off.


Critical Considerations for MQL and SQL Definitions

As you consider your definitions for MQLs and SQls, as well as the best time to hand-off a lead from marketing to sales, here are some key considerations to keep in mind:


Lead Behavior

One of the most critical factors in differentiating a lead from an MQL or SQL is their behavior on your website or how they engage with your company.  The weight that a particular action or piece of demographic information carries within lead scoring or routing rules will depend on your company. For example, Company A may notice that first time visitors are as likely to purchase as a repeat visitor, while Company B’s leads aren’t expected to convert until they’ve visited the site three or more times.  No matter how much weight you place on particular measures of behavior, there are some general characteristics to monitor and consider factoring into your MQL and SQL definitions.

  • First time visitor vs. repeat visitor
  • Conversion count or the number of times they fill out a form
  • Stage in the buying cycle as indicated by the content they consume (e.g., Visiting a pricing page)
  • Channel or source (i.e., Are leads from LinkedIn more likely to become customers?)
  • Don’t forget negative attributes like competitors or job applicants

Lead Demographics

If you have leads that fit an ideal customer profile and easily identifiable in form submissions or third-party data insights, you may want to pass the contact to your sales team for quick follow-up. Demographics such as company size or industry are common B2B examples, but demographics like pain points or a persona can also be great ways to qualify a lead as an MQL or SQL.  


Lead Scoring

Lead scoring is a way to combine various attributes and behaviors to provide perceived value to each lead. It can help organizations to prioritize leads or define them as an MQL or SQL based on a ranked score. For most organizations, however, lead scoring is more maintenance than is worth the value it provides. Before you implement lead scoring as part of your hand-off process, consider whether or not you need it, or if it would be possible to qualify leads through simple routing rules rather than lead scoring. Here are two critical criteria for implementing lead scoring:

  • Sufficient data: Demographic and behavior data is essential to creating lead scoring values. Not just any lead data works, as most companies will need an adequate level of customer data to determine weights and measures for lead scoring.
  • Reps are drowning in leads: If your reps aren’t complaining about too many leads yet, you likely aren’t at a point however where lead scoring makes sense because the rep can manually evaluate leads.

Streamline the Hand-Off

Once you’ve defined MQL and SQL definitions, you’ve established who to hand-off, but you also have to agree on how to pass leads to sales. Automation through your CRM should allow you to quickly share new SQLs via a notification email or task along with relevant information. Discuss with your team what information is required to pass along, as well as what the follow-up will look like based on lead intelligence and behavior to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible.  


Discuss and Adapt

On a weekly or monthly basis, marketing and sales should meet to discuss any leads passed and whether or not the process needs to be adjusted. As your business and buyer change, there will inevitably be a need to shift your hand-off.

While your marketing and sales team may not be working towards a record on the track, you will be working towards revenue growth. Doing so requires a smooth passing of leads from marketing to sales as they move through the funnel. If you do it right, you’ll hit your targets, but if you drop the baton in the hand-off, you might get disqualified.


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Amber Kemmis

About the author

Amber Kemmis is the VP of Client Services at SmartBug Media. Having a psychology background in the marketing world has its perks, especially with inbound marketing. My past studies in human behavior and psychology have led me to strongly believe that traditional ad marketing only turns prospects away, and advertising spend never puts the right message in front of the right person at the right time. Thus, resulting in wasted marketing efforts and investment. I'm determined to help each and every one of our clients attract and retain new customers in a delightful and helpful way that leads to sustainable revenue growth. Read more articles by Amber Kemmis.

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