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The no BS guide to identifying sales-qualified leads (SQLs)

November 18, 2020

Identifying sales-qualified leads (SQLs) is all about evaluating a prospect’s suitability to your product or service. 

And it’s a big deal. 

Because without proper qualification, your SaaS sales team will end up wasting their time with people who aren’t ready to buy. 

That makes them annoyed. And it hits your business in the pocket. 

So how do you go about doing it properly?

In this blog, we’ve asked Cognism sales experts Rachel Goldstone, Hugh Campbell, Ole Pugh and Jonathon Ilett to give you the lowdown. 

(That’s on the back of bringing in 84 SQLs in October 2020).

Buckle in and let’s get started. 👇🏼

What is a marketing-qualified lead (MQL)?

Before we get into SQLs, we need to talk about what comes before them. That, of course, is marketing-qualified leads (MQLs).

An MQL is someone who’s come through your lead generation strategy and has been deemed likely to become a customer. The qualification is based on engagements the person makes with your content. 

The marketing team, including content marketers, campaign marketers and performance marketers, make this call. 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.

What is a sales-qualified lead (SQL)?

To see if the MQLs can move further through the marketing funnel, the sales team - including Sales Development Representatives (SDRs) and Business Development Managers (BDMs) - initiates direct contact with them. Usually, this takes the form of a sales phone call

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

How do you identify SQLs?

Now for the good stuff.

To make sure your SQLs are always on point, you need to use a formula. 

At Cognism, we use BANT (Budget, Authority, Need, Time).


To a certain extent, successfully identifying SQLs 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, Jon 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.”

Key takeaway

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


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

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

To properly identify an SQL…

You either need to speak to a decision-maker or an internal champion who could influence a decision-maker.

Rachel says: 

“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.”

Key takeaway

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


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 lead. 

To make sure that doesn’t happen...

You’ve got to find out whether your prospects need what you can deliver.

Hugh adds: 

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

Key takeaway

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


Super-long deal cycles suck. HARD. 

That’s why it’s best practice to: 

  1. Find out the purchasing timescale prospects are running on.
  2. Try to close the deal within a six month period.

Ole 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.”

Key takeaway

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

What to do after qualifying a lead

Researching your leads thoroughly, focusing on their pain points and outlining how your product solves them is the bread and butter of B2B sales

But where do you go from there? And how can you build a predictable engine for lead qualification?

Well, at Cognism, we’ve developed a lead scoring model

By giving each lead a grade, we can prioritise warmer leads and accelerate our sales cycle. To do this, we consider lead scoring 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. 

The final point here will depend on your business and network. 

But you might find that leads from a targeted ad are more (or less) interested in buying than those who search for your business directly.

Taken collectively, these actions make it clear your prospect will be receptive to a call from your sales team. 

And as a result, you’ll be able to build a solid list of sales-qualified leads.

Final thoughts

Defining your process and criteria for lead qualification will make sure your sales team spends their time pursuing quality prospects. 

But if you need more help, we’ve got you covered. 

Outbound Prospecting Playbook

Download our Outbound Prospecting Playbook and level up your sales today. ☝🏼