Look, I get it: MQLs, PQLs, CQLs … It sounds like a bunch of alphabet soup.
As marketers and salespeople, shouldn’t we just call all of them “leads” and make our lives easier?
So here’s the thing:
At Drift, when we started digging into our own lead sources, it became clear that our leads fall into distinct categories — and leads from some sources tend to be more sales-ready than leads from others.
Here’s an easy way to think about it…
The Car Dealership Analogy
Imagine if someone walked into a car dealership, read about a bunch of different cars, then wrote down their contact info and walked out without talking to anyone. True, the dealership employees might be confused if that actually happened…but they’d probably still follow-up (maybe with a promo for their next big holiday sale).
☝️ On a website, we’d call that a marketing-qualified lead, or MQL.
Now, imagine if someone walked into a car dealership and immediately started climbing into cars and playing around with all the knobs and buttons…but they never actually talked to a salesperson. They just tried things out on their own.
☝️ On a website, we’d call that a product-qualified lead, or PQL.
Finally, imagine if someone walked into a car dealership, marched right up to the first salesperson they saw and said, “Hey, I’ve been researching the cars you sell here and found nearly all the information I needed online. I’m going to buy soon, but I have a few questions about financing I need you to answer first.”
☝️ On a website, we’d call that a…
Actually, there wasn’t a name for that new type of lead we were generating, so we came up with one:
The conversation-qualified lead, or CQL.
And while the car dealership analogy isn’t perfect, it highlights the difference in sales-readiness between the different types of leads who are dropping by your site.
Some of those leads (MQLs) are still in research mode, while others (PQLs) have been playing around with different solutions — including yours.
And then there are the leads (CQLs) who’ve already evaluated the options, and who come to your site with specific questions so they can make a purchase decision. Those are the leads marketing and sales teams need to do a better job of prioritizing — but that’s not to say MQLs and PQLs are no longer valuable.
Keep reading for a full breakdown of the differences between MQLs, PQLs, and CQLs, and how you can turn all three types of lead into customers.
What are MQLs…and SQLs?
Definition: Marketing-Qualified Lead (MQL)
Noun. | A lead who’s taken some action — or set of actions — that signals to Marketing that they have a higher likelihood of becoming a customer compared to the norm.
However, the precise definition of an MQL will always vary from team to team, as different marketing teams have different qualification and lead-scoring criteria.
For some teams, downloading an ebook — or downloading multiple ebooks — might be the “magic” action that makes someone an MQL. For other teams, the qualifying action might be spending a certain amount of time reading content on the blog, or returning to the website a certain number of times.
The MQL was created as a way for Marketing to assure Sales that the leads they were sending over were of a certain quality.
It’s a box that marketing teams can check every month to prove they’re doing a good job.
The only issue: Marketers have become so obsessed with hitting these monthly MQL targets that they’ve lost sight of what’s really important to the business.
As RapidMiner CMO Tom Wentworth once explained:
Ultimately, the hit-the-MQL-goal-at-all-cost mentality drove marketers to prioritize hitting short-term monthly goals over building the type of sustainable brand magnet that creates demand over years and decades. Hitting the MQL goal became a spreadsheet exercise: simply find a low-cost acquisition channel and nurture the heck out of leads until they relent — errr — “qualify”.
In order to make up for shortcomings of the MQL, marketing and sales teams got together and came up with a second layer of qualification. And for many teams, this has turned into a new benchmark for lead excellence.
It’s called the SQL.
Definition: Sales-Qualified Lead (SQL)
Noun. | A lead who’s taken some action — or set of actions — that indicates they’re ready for a conversation with a sales rep.
In many cases, these leads start out as MQLs (marketing-qualified leads), which are then further qualified by sales teams using more rigorous criteria.
For some teams, the qualifying action for an SQL might be viewing your pricing page a certain number of times, while for other teams it could be filling out a “Contact Sales” form.
However, as is the case with MQLs, the precise definition of an SQL varies from team to team.
And while SQLs are definitely an improvement over their MQL predecessors, they’re still not the best leads visiting your website. There are other types of leads out there who have a higher likelihood of converting into customers…
…including the leads who have already taken your product for a test drive.
What are PQLs?
Definition: Product-Qualified Lead (PQL)
Noun. | A lead who’s tried a free version of your product and whose product usage indicates they’d be a good fit to buy.
Instead of focusing on getting a lead to fill out lead form and take specific qualifying actions, with PQLs you’re 100% focused on getting them into the product. It’s a try-before-you-buy approach, which gives potential customers the chance to sell themselves on a product before they get in touch with Sales.
And while you might hear PQL being used as a synonym for “sign-up” or “free user,” most companies tie their definitions of PQL to specific product behaviors and usage patterns.
For example — and I’m completely making these up — MailChimp might not consider a free user a PQL until they’ve sent a dozen emails, while Evernote’s PQL threshold might be when a free user has started using the app regularly across multiple devices (e.g. phone, laptop).
Unlike MQLs and SQLs, PQLs are people who have already used and derived value from your product, which means they tend to close at a higher rate.
At Drift, PQLs are a crucial part of our business. But they don’t account for everyone who’s entering our funnel and converting into customers.
In some cases, a visitor will come to our website, have a conversation (with either a human, or — if no one’s available — a bot), and then end up buying a few hours later.
We needed a way to classify this new type of a lead, someone who hadn’t filled out a lead capture form, who hadn’t signed up for the product, but who was still interested in buying and wanted to talk.
Here’s what we came up with…
What are CQLs?
Definition: Conversation-Qualified Lead (CQL)
Noun. | A lead who has expressed intent to buy during a one-to-one conversation with either A) an employee at your company, or B) an intelligent sales assistant (bot).
Unlike marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) and product-qualified leads (PQLs), CQLs come to your website with specific questions about your product that they want answered in real-time.
For years, marketing and sales teams have been letting these leads slip through the cracks. But with the rise of messaging and intelligent chatbots, teams can now open up a fast lane for CQLs and give them a direct line to their sales reps.
Today, buyers have all the power — so why are companies still forcing them to fill out forms and wait for follow-ups? With CQLs, you’re giving your best leads the opportunity to reach on their terms, when it’s most convenient for them (not your sales reps).
As a result, there are no email back-and-forths, no games of phone tag. Instead, conversations happen naturally and sales meetings get scheduled automatically.
And compared to MQLs and PQLs, the sales cycle for CQLs is much, much shorter.
At Drift, it takes an average of 3 days from first conversation with a CQL to delivered sales demo. But in some cases the buying process can move even faster than that.
Overall, CQLs drive 50% of our business, which makes them a crucial part of our pipeline.
Let’s face it: the balance of power has shifted. Today, buyers have access to more information than ever before. They don’t need salespeople to sell them, they need salespeople to help them and to answer their questions so they can make the best decision possible.
That’s exactly what the CQL metric puts an emphasis on: having actual conversations so you can figure out if (and how) your product can help a potential customer solve a problem and be more successful.
Final Thought: How MQLs, PQLs, and CQLs Can Live in Harmony
Remember: The long-term goal of lead generation isn’t to generate leads — it’s to generate customers and revenue.
With that in mind, the takeaway here isn’t that you need to abandon MQLs and PQLs.
Because as long as we have marketing channels like blogs, podcasts, and email newsletters, we’ll continue to attract MQLs. And as long as we keep offering free versions of our products, we’ll continue to generate PQLs.
But before sending MQLs and PQLs over to your sales team, we recommend putting them through one final filter, or layer of qualification:
Having a conversation.
That way, if it turns out a lead isn’t a good fit, you can find out right away and not have to waste their (or a sales rep’s) time. And if you find out they are a good fit, you can roll out the red carpet for them.