The Stages from Lead to Client: definition of MQL & SQL

What is an MQL? What is an SQL? What is the difference? These are not just fancy acronyms, they represent different stages leads go through before becoming clients. Understanding their meaning will enable you to master the art of transforming Leads into Clients.

Morvan Carrier

Acquisition Strategist & Co-Founder


Is your sales team complaining about the leads they are getting from Marketing?

Does your marketing team not understand why all the leads they are generating are not becoming clients?

The bigger your company grows, the more likely your marketing & sales won’t see eye to eye, yet their end goal is the same: generating new revenue for the company.

You need to properly define what happens to your leads from the moment you get their information to the closing of the deal. This is where the proper definition of Marketing Qualified Leads & Sales Qualified Leads come into play.

Lead vs Prospect

Sometimes they are used interchangeably, but each has its own distinct meaning that directly refers to the sales process.

So what do these terms exactly mean and how should you use them?

What is a Lead and what is a Prospect?

Even though both terms are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings.

Lead Definition

A Lead is an unqualified contact at the top of your Sales Funnel. Leads typically come from your marketing efforts, they expressed some level of interest in the product or service you offer. They, for instance, visited your website and downloaded one of your Lead Magnet, but have not been qualified yet.

Prospect Definition

A Prospect is a contact that has been qualified by your Sales Team. His profile fits with one of your ideal buyer persona. A Prospect is a contact that will seriously consider purchasing your product or service.

Differences between Lead and Prospect

The difference is simple, you know a lot more about a prospect than about a lead.

You know very little about a lead because a lead has not been qualified. You only know what your form requested about the lead.

A Prospect can only be a Prospect if he’s been qualified, so you know:

  • Who he is
  • Who he works for
  • What his role is

Most importantly, if you have a good qualifying process you know:

  • His Context
  • His Challenges & Pain Points
  • His Needs & Motivations

If you have implemented a marketing automation tool on your website you can keep track of your visitors and their actions on your website. Once they become a Lead (meaning when they submit their contact information) you can see all of their life activity on your website.

That’s when you can implement lead scoring and add the Marketing Qualified Lead stage in your sales process.

Sales and marketing teams should not compete against each other, but rather play as a team.

Why Marketing & Sales use Lead & Prospect differently

The main reason why both terms seem interchangeable is because of the separation between sales and marketing departments in larger corporations. The departments often have their own vocabulary and processes and do not see the big picture.

So, why is there a difference in the terminology?

For instance, if your company is marketing oriented, you will mostly hear about leads, alongside MQL and SQL. We found that it is within these companies that the term prospect can disappear or be used to designate a lead.

On the other hand, if your company is sales oriented, you will probably not hear about MQL and SQL. Leads are the starting point (what’s given to the sales reps), then you’ll hear about the terms “suspect”, “prospect” and “opportunity”.

Is it weird that both departments don’t use the same terminology?


Does it demonstrate the insufficient collaboration between the commercial and marketing departments?


The truth is all of these terms are relevant and complement each other.

Consistency between Marketing and Sales is key to an organization success. The more both departments collaborate the more likely you are to convert your leads in clients; no matter how you call the stages in between.

Whether your organisation is marketing or sales oriented you have to align your sales & marketing strategy.

Sales Cycle: Lead, MQL, SQL, Prospect, Client

The sales cycle is the process that encompasses lead generation to converting those leads into customers. The marketing and sales teams each have their role to play in this process.

We recommend that you model your customers’ journeys to increase your sales efficiency, but that’s another subject.

The Conversion Cycle from the Marketing point of view

From Visitor to Lead

The foundation of your inbound marketing funnel are your website visitors. Without traffic on your website, there is no one to convert.

When you have significant traffic, you know that a lot of people are viewing your content.

You don’t know who they are though, until one of them fills out a form and shares his contact information.

That’s when the visitor becomes a lead; he/she is no longer anonymous.

From Lead to MQL: MQL Definition

A lead becomes an MQL when he/she has engaged with your content. For example, after reading a few of your articles, the lead downloads a white paper or signs up to your newsletter.

Depending on the form they are using, and where it resides within your website, it’ll inform what stage of the buyer’s journey they are at.

That’s why your content and each form needs to be tailored based on that specific stage in the conversation cycle.

Companies that use MQL usually have a scoring system, meaning that not every lead becomes an MQL.

The goal of that scoring system is that when you have a lot of leads (good and bad), you want to maximize the time of your sales team by only spending time on the ones that engage your content the most.

For instance, you can set rules for your scoring system, such as: a MQL has to have visited your website at least twice, or read at least three of your articles.

You can even be more specific, if you master your content strategy and your website analytics, you will know your Awareness, Evaluation & Decision contents.

Monitor the conversion rates behind each article to identify best performers and clarify user intent. From there you can have a smart system that automatically “upgrades” the leads most likely to be qualified to MQL.

A lead can become an MQL because his behavior on your website clearly identified his pain point which directly affects his probability of becoming a client.

For example, a visitor that prior to filling out your form, regularly consulted your article on setting up an account-based marketing strategy, and from there visited your pricing page for your ABM offering: that’s solid intel for your qualification process!

From MQL to SQL; SQL Definition

MQLs becomes SQLs when they have been qualified by more than just their behavior on your website.

It is here where it can get complicated depending on the size of your organization and the complexity of the sales process.

Organizations that have both business developers AND sales representatives usually have more stages.

The stage from MQL to SQL is the qualification by the business development team. In that scenario there is also a stage from SQL to prospect, the “additional” qualification which is qualified this time by the sales representative.

Having more stages only makes sense for complex, large consultative deals, where the expertise of the sales rep can only definitively qualify said prospect. It’s especially common in technical sales when a sales engineer is the only one that can assess whether a client project is doable.

The truth is, for most organizations an MQL becomes an SQL when you gather enough relevant information about him:

  • Who he is
  • Who he works for
  • What his role is
  • His Context
  • His Challenges & Pain Points
  • His Needs & Motivations

WAIT! Does that sound familiar?

YES, technically an SQL is a prospect.

It relates to what we mentioned earlier: miscommunications and discrepancies between sales and marketing creating confusion and inefficiency. It does not make sense to multiply the stages and complexify your sales cycle.

That being said the marketing team is not passively waiting for visitors to become SQLs. Its role is to set up an effective lead scoring and lead nurturing strategy.

By defining the rules that affect the progression of the leads throughout the buying cycle they actively convert them from one stage to another (scoring) and send them relevant content to engage them (nurturing).


The Sales Cycle from the Sales point of view

The role of the sales team is simple. Convert as many leads as possible into customers.

From their point of view they are getting leads (every sales rep will tell you they get bad leads), using their amazing selling skills they transform these leads, from prospects to opportunities and eventually clients.

Depending on the company size, industry or country, companies have developed different terminologies, but we are describing the most common (and accurate) stages potential clients go through.

What is an opportunity in sales?


Step 1: sales team getting leads

Step 2: the leads are qualified

Step 3: the qualified ones become prospects

Step 4: prospects become opportunities

This is one of the reasons why prospects are often overlooked. Most sales organizations barely even mention stage 3, because as soon as a lead is qualified it becomes an opportunity.

Think about it, a prospect fits with your ideal buyer persona, so he should seriously consider purchasing your product or service: he should be a “hot” opportunity.

A prospect stays a prospect only if he is not a “hot” opportunity, his context may be too complex or the timing is not right. The issue might have been with the persona, not being ideal or precise enough.

Beware of Suspects

A suspect is a lead who will stick around in your pipeline and waste your time and energy  without having the means or intention to buy the products and services you are selling.

From Lead to Client Diagram

The complexity and diversity in the way these terms are used is due to the lack of communication and collaboration between marketing and sales departments.

In the United States, 84% of customers ready to buy report that their buying journey took longer than expected.

The cycle your potential clients go through, from “visitor” to “customer” must involve joint marketing and sales efforts for optimal results.


Frequently Asked Questions about MQL and SQL

How to calculate your MQL to SQL conversion rate?

The ratio is simple: Number of SQL / Number of MQL = Conversion Rate Depending on the length of your sales cycle that rate may not be relevant so you need this alternative way of calculating the ratio: Number of SQL in your average sales cycle (ex. 6 months) / Number of MQL 1 month = Conversion rate

Is a high MQL to SQL conversion rate good?

Yes and no. A high MQL to SQL conversion rate means your MQL are good quality and you are not wasting your Sales Reps time. But having a MQL to SQL conversion rate too high can also mean that your MQL criterias are too high. Meaning you could be missing quality opportunities in the process.

What are Marketing Lead Qualification best practices?

First off align your sales & marketing strategy to ensure that MQLs are relevant to your Sales Reps. Then create a variety of relevant content to pinpoint what matters to your leads and create an efficient lead scoring system. Finally, continue to adjust your strategy as your leads and your market change.