Lead Qualification: The Ultimate Guide

Learn how to qualify leads the right way with verified lead scoring models, telephone calls, and lead qualification frameworks.

Lead qualification helps businesses focus their resources on leads who are likely to make a purchase and discard those who aren’t. Through analysis and direct questioning, sellers vet leads based on need, authority, budget, and other qualifying factors. In this article, we’ll tell you all you need to know about qualifying leads the right way. We’ll go into the three stages of qualification, how to score leads, and how to use frameworks for discovery calls.

What Is Lead Qualification?

Lead qualification is the act of coming up with a set of criteria that a lead must pass in order to verify purchase intent and worthiness of nurturing from the sales team. Typically, this is done in three lead qualification stages. The marketing and sales team will work together to learn more about the lead and move them through each stage, each of which has different requirements and increasing levels of scrutiny, until ultimately, a sales opportunity is opened.

The three lead qualification stages are: 

  • Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL): Leads that have been qualified by the marketing team as interested in the offer and a good fit, based on their online behavior and demographics. This is often done through lead scoring.
  • Sales Accepted Lead (SAL): Leads that have been passed to and accepted by the sales team. Sales reps now scrutinize them further by doing online research or corresponding with the lead directly to ask about their needs, often via email. 
  • Sales Qualified Lead (SQL): Leads that have passed the MQL and SAL stages but still require further assessment before a sales opportunity is opened. This assessment is done by a sales rep on a longer (often 30-minute) discovery call.

The main reason businesses put leads through such scrutiny is because they understand the benefits of disqualifying leads that will waste their time. Businesses have more efficient sales teams when their sales pipelines are full of prospects who have verified buying intent and fit their ideal customer profile (a description of their happiest customers).

For more information on the three lead stages, check out our article on lead vs prospect. Now, let's look at the other benefits of instituting proper lead qualification at your business.

Benefits of Lead Qualification

Imagine spending a day demoing or presenting to five unqualified leads who, no matter your skill level, would never buy what you’re selling. Because of poor lead qualification, this scenario happens too often. Systematic and consistent lead qualification helps you avoid it and also provides many other benefits: 

  • Acquire Better Customers: Qualified leads are those who will receive a high level of value from your solution. So, after you close them, they should be happy customers. And happy customers mean referrals, low churn, and opportunities for upsells or cross-sells. 
  • Shorten Sales Cycles: It’s easier and faster to sell to a highly qualified lead. The lead likely already has verified need you solve and the power to sign the paperwork. 
  • Focus on High-Value Leads: You will naturally have fewer prospects in your sales pipeline, meaning you can focus more time and energy on each prospect. This allows you to spend time building strong relationships with the highest potential prospects. 
  • Reduce Sales and Marketing Costs: Giving thirty-minute demos or sending marketing emails to unqualified leads can cost you big over time. Reduce these costs by limiting the number of leads to which you sell. 
  • Save Your Time: Spend less time trying to sell to individuals and businesses who will never buy your solution. Spend that extra time learning, selling, or simply doing what you love!

Instituting lead qualification will improve not only your lead generation efforts and overall sales, but also your bottom line but also  Let’s go into more detail on the three lead qualification stages we mentioned above, as well as the actions marketers and sellers take to move them through each stage.

3 Lead Qualification Stages

There are three stages a lead passes through on their way to becoming a prospect in an open sales opportunity. These stages are marketing qualified, sales accepted, and sales qualified, each of which has increasingly harder-to-meet standards. With each breach to the new stage, the lead is considered more qualified. Below, we will cover the three stages while also giving you the actions necessary for moving leads through them.

Lead Qualification Stages
Lead qualification stages

To illustrate the journey, here’s an example of a lead on their way to becoming sales-ready for a digital marketing agency. 

  • MQL: A lead downloads a free SEO checklist for their website. Because marketing sees the lead fits their ideal customer profile and has shown interest in SEO, one of their services, the lead is passed to sales. 
  • SAL: The seller sends an email to the lead asking about their needs. The lead says they are looking to start ramping up their content marketing. Because this is an expression of intent to buy, the lead is moved into the final qualification stage. 
  • SQL: The salesperson holds a discovery call and asks the lead questions about their needs, authority to buy, budget, and more. After the call, it’s apparent that the lead is interested in buying content marketing services. The lead is now worthy of nurturing and a sales opportunity is opened.

Now let’s discuss each stage a bit more in depth:

Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)

Marketing qualified leads (MQLs) are inbound leads that have been qualified by the marketing team. These leads usually enter marketing’s awareness by interacting online with their business in a way that suggests interest in the brand; for example, the lead might have downloaded an ebook. Marketing then qualifies them to MQL status only when they meet their qualification standards, which varies across companies.

In general, though, marketing teams usually take two factors into account: 

  • Demographics: These are the details about the lead like age range, company size, age, job title, and other data points that help marketing figure out if the lead matches their ideal customer profile. 
  • Behavior: This consists of the online interactions between the lead and your company, including content downloads, clicking a lead magnet, website visits, ad clicks, and other actions that help the marketing team figure out if the lead has buying intent.

To measure these factors, marketers will usually employ a lead scoring method in which they assign points to leads for behavior that signals buying intent and demographics that signal closeness to their ideal customer profile. Marketing will then qualify leads who meet the minimum number of points needed to be considered an MQL and can be passed to the sales accepted stage for more qualification. This minimum number is known as a scoring threshold.

Businesses have other ways to measure an inbound lead’s qualification status. Mainly, they create and offer lead magnets (gated resources that require contact information to access) that only people who match their ICP and have buying intent would download. All inbound leads that download the magnet are therefore considered MQLs and passed to the sales team. To learn more about lead magnets, read our article on how to create lead magnets that convert.

Example lead magnet
Example lead magnet

Sales Accepted Lead (SAL)

A sales accepted lead (SAL) is a lead that has achieved MQL status and has been passed to a salesperson, who will now conduct further testing to assess the lead’s likelihood to buy. The test is mostly qualitative and qualification is up to the seller’s discretion. To test the lead, the salesperson engages in two activities: 

  • Online Research: The salesperson looks up the lead by name online, reading their company website or social media profiles to see if they are actually a close match to the ideal customer profile. 
  • Direct Questioning: Over a quick call or email, the salesperson asks the lead one or two questions about their needs to see if they are serious about a purchase. These could be “What prompted you to reach out?” or “Tell me a bit about your needs.”

Depending on what the salesperson has found online and the lead’s answers to the questions, the lead will either be: 

  • Discarded: If there’s no hope in selling to this person or business, drop them from all of your campaigns. 
  • Remarketed To: If there’s a slight chance of a sale down the line, put them back into the domain of marketing until they have a higher buying intent. 
  • Qualified to the Next Stage: If the lead passes the tests, they can now enter the sales qualified stage.

The leads who pass this stage move into the sales qualified lead stage, where they must pass more scrupulous testing.

Sales Qualified Lead (SQL)

At this point, we’ve identified that the lead is a good fit with our ideal customer profile and has an intent to buy our product or service. Now, in the sales qualified stage, it’s time to learn more about the lead to see if they are actually capable of making the purchase. To do this, salespeople host a discovery call with the lead (often 20-30 minutes long), during which they ask the lead a set of questions to assess fit.

These discovery questions are designed to tease out the following information: 

  • Budget: See if the lead has the money set aside to afford the solution. 
  • Timeline: Ask when the lead plans to buy the solution. 
  • Authority: See whether the lead can make the buying decision themselves or can influence the person who does. 
  • Business Fit: See how well the lead’s attributes line up with those of your ideal customer. 
  • Goals: Assess if you can help them achieve their goals. 
  • Challenges: See if they have challenges that you can help them overcome.
  • Needs: Ensure that the lead has needs that your product or service can satisfy.

Instead of looking at all of these categories, sellers prioritize specific ones by using lead qualification frameworks. These are lists of criteria that the salesperson will ask about on the discovery call. One framework might focus on questions about timeline, budget, and needs, in descending order of importance, while another focuses on goals, authority, and budget. We’ll recommend and cover some of the best qualification frameworks in the next section.

After a lead passes the tests of the discovery call, they are marked as an opportunity and begin being nurtured through the sales pipeline. And, sellers can nurture them without a worry in the back of their heads that a prospect is wasting their time.

Pro Tip:

Ensure that there are no mismatched expectations. Sometimes leads with fitting authority, budget, need, and timing will call businesses with a false idea of what the product or service does. Then, they're confused during the demo. To avoid this time-sink, briefly restate to them early in the call what the product they’re interested in does, then ask, “To be certain, is that what you were looking for?”

How to Qualify Leads the Right Way

Qualifying a lead means learning as much as you can about them to see if they are a good fit and intend on buying. There are two main methods for gathering this information. The first is lead scoring, which typically takes place in the MQL stage. With it, marketing gives leads points for certain actions and demographics until leads hit a certain score and are then passed to sales, where the second qualification method, a discovery call, is employed by the sales team.

Qualify Marketing Leads With a Lead Scoring Model

Before marketing passes a lead to the sales team, they qualify leads using a lead scoring model. In a lead scoring system, marketers give points to leads when they take specific actions that indicate buying intent or have specific demographic data that indicate a fit with their ICP. Actions and traits associated with high-value leads receive more points. Once a lead hits a certain score threshold (often 80/100) they are passed to sales for further qualification.

For example, a lead scoring model might score on demographic data like the following: 

  • Company Type = Software: +20 points
  • Location = Miami: +20 points
  • Lead Title = C-Suite Executive: +10 points

And it might score on behavioral data points like these: 

  • Visiting the Pricing Page: +20 points
  • Reading a Product White Paper: +15 points
  • Watching a Product Video: +10 points
  • Downloading an Ebook: +5 points
  • Opening 10 Marketing Emails: +2 points
  • Visiting the Careers Webpage: -15 points (negative scoring)

As leads continue to interact online with content, visit the website, or engage with marketing materials and campaigns, their scores will continue to rise until they hit the threshold (80/100). For larger companies with more complex or highly-priced products, these leads will be passed to sales for more qualification. However, for smaller ticket items that require no direct contact with a salesperson, the lead might just start receiving more product-focused marketing content.

Now, are they doing this by pen and paper or a spreadsheet? Well, unless you run a small business with fewer than five new leads a week, it can be a pain to manually add and subtract points for each lead whenever they take an action or reveal a new piece of their demographic makeup. That’s why a lot of companies automate the process with lead scoring software like Freshsales, which assigns points for lead actions and traits you’ve listed in their system.

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Additional Reading:

For more on creating and managing your lead scoring model, read our guide on lead scoring. In it, we cover the six-step process for creating an automated lead scoring system and other lead scoring best practices.

Qualify Sales Leads With a Discovery Call

Most high-ticket B2C and B2B products and services require direct contact between the lead and salesperson before the lead can be fully vetted. So, after the marketing team has qualified the lead, they pass the lead to sales for further qualification on a discovery call, in which a salesperson asks a list of predetermined questions to evaluate the lead’s likelihood to buy.

Throughout the call, the salesperson is checking off different evaluation criteria like: 

  • Do they have the power to influence or make a purchase?
  • Can our solution solve their problem?
  • Do they have the budget to buy this? 
  • Do they hold incorrect preconceptions about what our product actually does?

Those who meet a certain threshold are marked as a prospect or sales qualified lead (SQL). Use a lead qualification framework like BANT, CHAMP, or GPCTBA/C&I to give you the criteria to look for on the call. These frameworks dictate which questions to ask to assess fit. Now let’s go over these three frameworks — we’ll also help you select which is right for your business.

BANT Framework

The BANT framework is a lead qualification framework that judges leads on the criteria of budget, authority, need, and timeline. When using it, sellers are first supposed to ensure the buyer has the money to afford it. If they don’t, the lead is immediately disqualified. Because of this focus on money, it has fallen out of fashion with customer-centric sales teams.

Ask your leads questions to discover their: 

  • Budget: Do you have a budget allocated to this investment? 
  • Authority: Will you be the one spearheading this initiative? Will you make the final purchasing decision, or are there others involved? 
  • Need: What prompted you to reach out regarding our product? What challenges and pain points is your team facing? 
  • Timeline: When were you hoping to implement this solution? When do you plan to get started with this initiative?

Some sellers still find this framework useful. If you sell a high-ticket product or service that is considered expensive and luxurious in your market, consider using BANT. If price is usually the holdup of a sale, this way you deal with it early in the process. An enterprise software company with a product costing $10,000 per month might use this approach.

CHAMP Framework

The CHAMP framework is a lead qualification framework that judges a lead based on their challenges, authority, money, and prioritization (how much the lead values this initiative). It contains three of the same criteria as BANT, but prioritizes qualifying based on a lead’s challenges over their ability to pay. The logic goes that if the lead seriously needs this solution to solve their challenges, they will find a way to pay for it.

Ask your leads questions regarding: 

  • Challenges: What are the main challenges your team is facing, and how do you think we can help? 
  • Authority: Are you in charge of this evaluation and purchasing process? 
  • Money: Are you comfortable with this pricing? 
  • Prioritization: Compared to your other initiatives, where does this one rank on the priority list? By when do you want this problem you mentioned solved?

Use this framework if you want to put the customer’s needs first. This is especially useful in B2B sales. Instead of dismissing a lower-tier employee for their lack of authority or budget, you’d view a relationship with them as an opportunity to learn more about their company and get an introduction to the decision maker.

GPCTBA/C&I Framework

The GPCTBA/C&I framework is a lead qualification framework that judges a lead based on their goals, plans, challenges, timeline, budget, authority, and consequences and implications. It was designed to make sellers come across as problem solvers since the first three types of questions are all about the customer’s business needs, rather than their title or budget. 

Ask your leads questions about: 

  • Goals: What are your team’s current goals? What prompted you to reach out to us? 
  • Plans: Tell me about your plan for reaching these goals. Do you have resources in place? 
  • Challenges: What challenges are you encountering while working towards these goals? How are you handling them?
  • Timeline: What’s the timeline for rolling out this tool? 
  • Budget: Has your team allocated funds for this initiative? 
  • Authority: How many decision makers are involved in this process? 
  • Consequences and Implications: How will a failure to solve these problems impact your business’s success?

Sellers who are dealing with well-informed buyers should use this framework. It’s also great for businesses where relationship building is key. Think of a financial advisor or marketing agency. Lastly, if your solution is extremely complex, this exhaustive checklist will ensure the lead is properly qualified.

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Additional Reading:

For more information on the best way to hold an effective discovery call, check out our ultimate guide on discovery calls. There, you'll learn about the key steps and questions to ask, along with a free script template to use as your foundation.

Top 6 Lead Qualification Tips

Qualifying a lead can be trickier in practice than it sounds in writing. Sometimes a lead is cryptic about their needs and circumstances. Sometimes an unqualified lead seems qualified, or vice versa. To help you master the process, here are five lead qualification tips.

Review the Lead’s Website or Profile

Before hopping on a call with a lead, look over their company’s website or social media profile. Sometimes you can find information that partially qualifies them. For instance, someone selling cybersecurity software might receive a lead’s name, company name, and email address from marketing. The seller types in the lead’s name and finds they are the head of IT at the company.  Intel like this helps you prepare research-backed questions for your discovery call.

Encourage Leads to Elaborate

Some leads have a tendency to resist revealing information as if they feel it might be used against them. But this inhibits your ability to understand them and their needs. To get them talking, try using the mirroring technique, popularized by FBI negotiator Chris Voss, where you repeat the last few words they said in a questioning tone. This prompts them to elaborate.

Here’s an example of a sales engagement software salesperson using mirroring:

Lead: “We are struggling to do enough outreach.”
Seller: “Enough outreach?”
Lead: “Yeah, our reps aren’t able to send out enough personalized emails each day.” 
Seller: “What’s enough?”
Lead: “About 60. We have a large market to tap into with our new product.”
Seller: “New product?”

This could go on for a while. The benefit of this tactic is that it tells them you are interested in what they are saying. This will encourage them to speak throughout your relationship.

Watch for Red Flags

Red flags that signal a low chance of qualification include the following:

  • They Sound Bored: If on a discovery call, the lead is giving you lazy one-word answers to pressing questions, the lead might just be uninterested in your product or service. A truly interested lead would want a deep discussion about the solution to their problem. 
  • They Sound Clueless: If your lead is consistently contradicting themselves when answering questions about their business or needs, it’s quite possible that they lack the authority or knowledge to evaluate your solution properly. 
  • They Give Incorrect Information in Forms: If they give you 111-111-1111 as their phone number or provide the name of a celebrity instead of their own, they probably lack a serious desire to talk with you about the product or service.

Also think about whether you truly want to spend twenty hours over the next few weeks talking and working with this person. If they are rude, curt, or impossible to work with, consider dropping them. Even if they do buy, they’ll make terrible customers.

Track the Lead’s Origin

Take note of where your best leads are coming from. After you’ve spent some time qualifying leads, you will start to notice trends. Perhaps certain marketing channels produce more qualified leads than other ones. Maybe your Facebook group leads are usually disqualified, while your LinkedIn leads are usually qualified through. Then, invest more money into those channels that are providing your sales team with better leads.

Automate Part of the Qualification Process

Using lead scoring software to automate part of the process is a great way to save time. This software will track and update a lead’s score in real time whenever they download content, visit a webpage, respond to an email, or take another promising action. And when a lead hits your desired score, the system will alert your sales staff. Your CRM might have this functionality; check out our article on the best CRMs with built-in lead scoring.

Consider a Lead Distribution Strategy

As you're scoring leads, consider using the information and scores you gather to distribute those leads to the salesperson most likely to convert the prospect. For example, maybe your highest scoring leads go to your top-performing salespeople due to their importance. Conversely, perhaps leads scoring the highest go to novice sellers because they're easier to convert. For more information, check out our article on lead distribution.

Bottom Line: Lead Qualification

Lead qualification is the sales process stage that spans lead generation and nurturing, ensuring that a prospect is capable and willing to buy before marking them as a sales opportunity. Marketing and sales work together using methods like lead scoring and discovery calls to figure out if a lead is qualified. When you start seriously evaluating leads before letting them into your pipeline, you safeguard your time and peace of mind. Go guard the gates, with a smile.

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