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What Are Sales Qualified Leads and How to Find Them?

Do your sales reps complain about wasting their time with people who are not ready to buy?

Do they often ignore or cherry-pick the leads from marketing? Or end up generating their own?

If so, it delays kicking off sales cadence and it hits your business in the pocket. 

One way to remedy this is to properly define (or redefine) what your sales-qualified lead (SQL) is.

We’ve asked Cognism sales experts Rachel Goldstone, Hugh Campbell, Ole Pugh, and Jonathon Ilett to guide you on how to do so. 

In this article we’re covering:

  • Sales qualified lead definition
  • How to qualify leads in sales
  • Tips for converting them

What is a sales-qualified lead?

A sales-qualified lead (or an SQL) is a prospective customer that has been nurtured by your marketing team and is considered to be ready to speak to the sales reps because they’ve shown an intent to buy. For example, they booked a demo or are interested in your pricing.

Every organization can have different criteria for defining sales qualified leads depending on the length of their sales cycle, the depth of their sales team, or even sales reps' previous experiences. 

Generally speaking, a high level of interest in your product or service and a strong likelihood of completing the sales process are two qualities that make a lead sales qualified. Identifying them is all about asking the right sales qualification questions to evaluate their suitability for your product or service. 

And it’s a big deal—

Without proper qualification, your sales team wastes time with people who aren’t ready to speak to the sales, let alone make a purchase. 

Generate sales qualified leads

So how does a lead become a qualified lead in sales?

Qualifying sales leads is a process that involves moving interested customers through the sales funnel–from marketing-qualified leads (MQLs), through sales-accepted leads (SAL), to the sales team who works on converting them into customers.

What are MQLs and SALs in relation to SQLs in marketing?

Let’s consider the following example—

You’ve got someone who’s come through your lead generation page or Facebook ad. Your marketing team, including content marketers, campaign marketers, and performance marketers, engages with them to see if they are likely to become a customer. 

To decide if a prospect is an MQL, they review things like: 

  • The web pages they visit
  • The forms they fill out 
  • The white papers they download

Once satisfied, the marketing team passes the lead over to sales. And depending on the strength of your sales qualification process, they could later become SQLs.

The hand-off process is critical here–-

You want to avoid marketing hitting 200% of their pipeline quotas and the sales being 50% away from the target. 

To ensure alignment between sales and marketing, some companies implement a lead acceptance process before accepting leads as sales-ready to avoid poor closing rates. It means that SALs are market-qualified leads that pass on sales checks, such as:

  • Job function
  • Company size
  • Industry

When everyone is happy the SALs show concrete intent to buy your product or service, like magic, they become SQLs. 

💡 You can disqualify leads if they don’t fit the established criteria.

To qualify SQLs, reps contact leads directly to establish some important details and prioritize hot leads. For example, at Cognism, we employ sales development representatives to qualify new leads. Not all companies follow the same model, though. Other companies may decide on a model with ‘full-stack’ sales reps who manage the full sales process from start to closure. That’s ok, too. 

💡 Learn more about making discovery calls and the best cold-calling tips.

How exactly do you qualify leads in sales?

Now for the good stuff—

We’ve asked Cognism sales experts Rachel Goldstone, Hugh Campbell, Ole Pugh, and Jonathon Ilett to give you the lowdown on identifying SQLs. 

To make sure our SQLs are always on point, we use the BANT methodology at Cognism. Feel free to use it to find your perfect match. Here's how it works.

Budget

To a certain extent, successfully determining who your SQLs are is a money question. 

After all, a prospect could be your company’s biggest fan. But they could have the world’s smallest budget. 

To avoid any awkwardness, Jonathon Ilett advises you to get this part of the conversation out of the way quickly.

Always ask your prospect if they’re comfortable with your price point. Then you can start thinking about building an implementation plan and setting timescales.

💡 If you want shorter sales cycles and higher conversions, you need a solid grasp of your prospects' finances.

Authority

Great, you’ve got a high-intent prospect. 

Not so great, if it’s someone who’s currently being onboarded at the company. In the most junior position, they have.

To properly define an SQL, you either need to speak to a decision-maker or an internal champion who could influence a decision-maker.

In Rachel Goldstone’s experience: 

Deciding SQLs isn’t single-threaded. You need to find a way to engage the multiple stakeholders who are involved in the decision-making process and understand the business impact of a purchase.

💡 Your ideal customer profile (ICP) should guide you when qualifying SQLs. A solid one will mean you target people with the right seniority most of the time. 

Need

No one wants bad-fit customers. Literally, not a soul.

That’s because your life and theirs will be made far more difficult than it needs to be. All because you didn’t properly qualify a sales lead. 

To make sure that doesn’t happen, you’ve got to find out whether your prospects need what you can deliver.

Hugh Campbell adds: 

SQLs need to state clearly that your product or service is a top priority for them and their business.

💡 The more good-fit customers you have, the more you'll retain. That'll allow you to scale your sales quickly.

Time

Super-long deal cycles suck. HARD. 

That’s why when qualifying sales leads it’s best practice to: 

  • Find out the purchasing timescale prospects are running on
  • Try to close the deal within a six-month period

Ole Pugh speaks from experience when he says: 

You should focus your attention on prospects looking to buy within the next quarter. If there’s no urgency, it’s likely there’s no immediate need for your product or service.

💡 Clogging up your pipeline will frustrate your team. But by using the BANT criteria, you can determine if your leads are sales-ready. 

How to improve a sales lead qualification process?

You can build a predictable engine for fro moving leads from marketing to sales with a solid lead scoring process. It’s about assigning points to a lead based on their behavior or firmographic data.

You can consider factors like:

  • Responding to your cold email with questions about your product
  • Contacting you directly via email or your website’s contact form 
  • Registering for a bottom of the funnel (BOFU) webinar or upcoming event 
  • Revisiting certain pages of your website multiple times, such as your product page or pricing page
  • Arriving at your site from a referral that has shown to produce SQLs in the past 

Taken collectively, these actions make it clear whether your prospect will be receptive to a call from your sales team and build a solid list of sales-qualified leads. By giving each lead a grade, you can also prioritize leads who are more interested in your offer and accelerate the sales cycle. 

Marketing automation tools, like Salesforce, offer customizable solutions for scoring and grading leads. Look for one that integrates into your CRM platform.

How to find and convert sales-qualified leads?

You could easily drop your quality and have a higher number of leads coming in.

But that’s not going to impress the boss. 

Do you know what will? Shortening the sales cycle and producing quality leads that convert! 

Just follow these tried and tested techniques.

1. Make a qualified sales lead list

But make sure it’s high-quality. You don’t want:

❌ Data that’s not useful

❌ To violate compliance rules

❌ To waste money 

Your B2B sales list should contain contacts you actually want to speak to and who are likely to convert to customers. 

You can use Cognism’s Prospector to build your ideal audience in no time. It has built-in filters to segment and populate all the major data points, including job title, email address, and direct-dial phone number.

Then simply run a search to discover a universe of new sales-qualified leads, drawn from our unique, globally-compliant database!

Get intent data to discover SQLs

2. Build relationships

If someone asks about a feature of your product and you send them a link to your product webpage, you’re doing it wrong. 

Jump on a video call and walk them through it. 

In  B2B sales, you need to have real conversations. Follow Cognism’s guide to a perfect sales product demo if you’re struggling.

3. List your company online

Listing your company on online sales directories helps drive sales-qualified leads to your website.

Popular directories in the B2B sector include G2, SaaS Genius, and Capterra, among many more.

Make sure your brand is as visible online as possible, and you’ll soon see that targeted leads simply come to you.

4. Warm up your cold calls

Cold calling is still the number 1 driver of lead gen in B2B. It’s an age-old tactic, but you can fire it up easily. 

Focus on your SQLs pain points, work hard to build rapport, and always, always let them do most of the talking!

5. Personalize your outbound emails

Second only to cold calling is the outbound email. Personalize your emails as much as possible. That’s a great way for boosting engagement with sales-qualified leads.

Some personalization tips are:

  • Create merge fields for the receiver’s name and their company’s name
  • Show empathy towards their daily frustrations
  • Hit their pain points

6. Get chatty

Not over the phone, on your website!

Live chats are a great way to engage with SQLs immediately and to collect all the relevant information to pass n to the sales team. 

Look for a tool that integrates with your CRM to automate sales.

7. Use email signature marketing

On every email, there’s a ton of empty space that’s just waiting to be filled. Why not transform your company email signatures into a channel generating sales-qualified leads? 

Just think of all the thousands of emails your employees send, every day.

And for this, Mailtastic’s your new best friend.

8. Get social

B2B sales leads and LinkedIn are a match made in heaven. Join relevant groups, post your own content, and respond to questions on existing posts. 

Check out our LinkedIn prospecting guide for more info or follow us on LinkedIn.

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9. Get even more social

Two words, two syllables— 

Paid ads. 

Make them simple so it’s not a game of charades for your prospective SQLs. Use LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook for this.

Don’t make leads guess what to do. Send them to specific landing pages on your website, direct them to newsletter signups, or simply get them to follow you.

Discover more about this on our LinkedIn advertising blog.

10. Automate your marketing

Want higher conversions? Segment your customers into groups and target them with specific messaging.

You should also use email automation for your outbound marketing. It’s to send personalized emails at scale and nurture those SQLs until they’re ready to become customers.

11. Get more online reviews

If a B2B decision-maker can’t find reviews of your company anywhere online, they’re probably not going to purchase your product. 

Incentivize your clients to post product reviews on reputable industry sites. If they have a high NPS score, they’ll likely give you a great review. 

12. More paid ads? 

Yes!  

Use Google Ads but choose your keywords carefully. Think outside the box, and make sure you’re staying within budget. 

Target new potential SQLs and remarket to people who’ve already visited your site. 

Looking for more guidance? Take a look at our beginner's guide to PPC.

13. Use SEO to increase website traffic

You can use search engine optimization to get your website to the top of Google’s search results page and engage more sales-qualified leads.

Choose long-tail keywords that usually suggest higher intent to buy and don’t forget to set up lead capturing on your pages. 

Learn more on that from our beginner’s guide to SEO.

14. Leverage the power of content

Generate more qualified sales leads with newsletters, blogs, e-books, white papers, and webinars. Content marketing can help you add value for your leads.

Make sure that what you say is informative, solves a problem, and makes your brand accessible.

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15. Find unsatisfied customers from competitors

Search for what people are saying about your competitors. Social media is a great place to look.

If you see a client of a competitor and they’ve shared some negative feedback, you might have just found your new sales-qualified lead. Offer them a free demo or trial with your company.

Final thoughts

Defining your process and criteria for sales lead qualification helps sales improve close rates, prioritize valuable contacts, and deliver a personalized experience for customers. 

MQLs vs. SALs vs. SQLs in sales and marketing are all sales terms that describe leads with specific characteristics. They are meant to improve your workflows and sift through low-quality leads. 

BANT framework is often used to qualify SQLs.

If you need more help, we’ve got you covered. Download our outbound prospecting playbook below.

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