Great sales team? Check.
Yet, do you still have a hunch that your numbers aren’t quite what they could be?
A good first place to investigate is your sales pipeline management. While most businesses know that they should have a sales pipeline, not all know how to ensure that it’s optimized and pushing through as many dollars as possible.
This article exists to make sure that you do.
What is a sales pipeline?
A sales pipeline is a framework for tracking deals all the way from first contact to close. It provides focus and strategy by helping salespeople and managers systematically prioritize and tackle each opportunity according to their recipe for success.
To make tracking clearer and easier to define, the sales pipeline is divided into stages. Depending on the school of thought you belong to, the number of stages can vary. That being said, they generally include (at least) the following 4 critical stages.
4 stages of a sales pipeline
Identify your target market and develop an ideal customer profile (for more help on this, check out this buyer persona question checklist).
Once you are in contact with prospects, have questions to ask yourself to determine whether or not they would be a good fit for your product or service. Do they have the necessary budget/human resources/market for your product or service? Are their expectations aligned with what you’re offering? Are they in a position to experience success with your product? How much of your time and resources will they require to be successful? What is the long-term outlook for a partnership with this venture? Are there foreseeable external influences that could be detrimental to their success or your partnership? Are they a worthwhile investment of your resources? While many of these questions will sound negative, this is to counter the predisposition to enthusiastically jump on whatever leads come your way. The fact is that pursuing every lead will not help your business, sometimes even if they do want to sign with you. Be sure to put a lot of thought into who you want to work with, and set up rhythms for reviewing successful and churning customers. This way you can increasingly get a better idea of who you can best deliver success to.
On the surface, this one is fairly straightforward. Of course, it will inevitably look a bit different in every unique market and sales situation, but it will likely involve emails, cold-calling, networking, etc.
Ah, the stage we all love the most! Getting to this point is rarely easy, and once you make it here, it can be tempting to sit back and relax. However, some of your strongest sales tactics can occur only after the deal is made. But that’s another article altogether (this article, as a matter of fact).
How do you know if your pipeline isn’t being managed well?
According to Taylor Hahn, Partner Growth Manager at Vendasta, sales managers need to watch for indicators “such as having a lot of opportunities sitting in one stage of the pipeline, an overall lack of opportunities in the pipeline, or a generally unstructured day (ex. Does the salesperson have a plan for the day, or are they reaching out to prospects willy nilly?).”
When I asked Dom Ierullo, one of Vendasta’s Product Managers, about what red flags he would watch for, he responded, “Overdue tasks, missed deadlines, stale opportunities (not moving between stages or not being touched for extended periods of time).”
Interestingly, Dom also included this somewhat surprising indicator: “Another sneaky one to watch out for is too many opportunities in the final stages of closing all at once. Most users would call this something like a proposal or negotiation stage. At first glance, this may look like a good thing, but it's dangerous because these deals shouldn't be sitting in proposal for very long, and you shouldn't be trying to close 50 deals at once.”
Arnima Dhar, Technical Success Project Manager at Vendasta, advocates looking to past trends, other departments, partner offices, and industry standards to make sure you’re meeting expected quotas and growth markers. Watch the video to hear her sales wisdom in greater depth.
Finally, Onboarding Specialist & Success Coach Nik Levnaich felt there was one foremost indicator that should always spring sales managers into action: wasting time on unqualified leads. If you find you and your salespeople are repeatedly investing hours and hours into prospects that don’t end up becoming clients, it’s time to reevaluate how you’re qualifying leads and be a bit more ruthless about cutting off those that don’t seem to be responding to your outreach.
What are signs of an effectively-managed sales pipeline?
The aforementioned Vendastian expert Taylor Hahn told me that, in effective sales pipeline management, “there are plenty of opportunities in various stages of the pipeline with dollar values attached. The salesperson can also structure their day based on these stages. For instance, if they are more of a morning person, maybe they can start their day reaching out to the prospects who need nurturing or are close to signing. This way, they are at their sharpest and can help facilitate the sale to their best advantage.”
Dom told me that an optimized pipeline will boast, “updated sales records, lots of touch-points (phone-calls, meetings, emails, etc), opportunities being moved between stages, [and] tons of opportunities loaded at the front of the pipeline (so a rep can start contacting these leads once they're all caught up with their active ones).”
Arnima took a slightly different angle: “We all talk about pipelines now, but why a pipeline is important to a salesperson (or even more so a sales manager or person heading that department) is to gauge whether more efforts need to go into lead generation. Should he or she be pushing more efforts to create more leads and increase the pipeline, or should the efforts be on conversion, looking at what the current pipeline is right now? Should I be pushing towards making more closes, or should I be trying to make cold calls and fill up my funnel?”
In other words, effective pipeline management should leave sales managers confident that they are well-equipped to make strategic decisions for the future growth of their team. Exactly what is happening at each stage, along with the reason why it’s happening, needs to be clear to them. Furthemore, this information needs to be presented in a readable format so that teams feel capable of engaging with the information and making use of it.
Tips for strong sales pipeline management
There are two main mistakes made in pipeline management, each lying at an opposite end of the sales spectrum. The first is letting leads slip through the cracks and missing opportunities to make a sale. The second is holding onto leads that are simply never going to buy, letting them clog up your pipeline, wasting resources, and potentially getting distracted from leads that would be far better (and more enthusiastic) partners.
The good news is that both problems can easily be solved by setting the right procedures in place.
First, make sure you have a way of collecting prospects and their contact information. These will need to be organized in some sort of dated database that allows you to document all your touchpoints and make any notes applicable to your potential partnership. You also need to develop a set of criteria to determine whether or not they are qualified leads, and then assign them to a sales person. The potential of selling to a prospect drastically decreases the longer you wait to contact them after they’ve reached out to you; therefore it’s very important that routine pipeline maintenance happens frequently and consistently so that your process remains as efficient as possible.
To make sure you don’t fall into the second pitfall—holding onto leads that are never going to buy—you’ll actually need to set up a few processes. The first one is to outline a reasonable sales pitch framework, including how many contact attempts and touchpoints you’ll go through before you call it a day, what rhythms you’ll set up for yourself so that you make sure every lead is being followed diligently, how you’ll take notes on your interactions, and the timeframe you’re expecting this to require. This will fluctuate depending on your product or service, the investment required, and the amount of education needed to fill your prospect in on what you’re offering. Sure, it’s rare that you’ll make a sale on the first point of contact, but you also need to know when enough is enough. If possible, look at past sales to determine what a reasonable range is, as well as industry averages if that data is available to you.
Next, as mentioned above, you need to establish a regular rhythm of unclogging dead leads from your pipeline. Your time and energy are valuable, you can’t be wasting them on repeatedly digging through a disorganized catalogue of leads. Make a scheduled habit of regularly clearing your out-of-play cards off the table, and focus on what you have got laid out to win.
If tossing out a prospect breaks your heart a little, send a “last chance” email before you officially cut the cord. Then, after you’re sure that the prospect has undoubtedly exceeded your acceptable range of time for an average sales cycle, it’s time to say goodbye.
In brief, Nik summed it up best when he said, “Stay on top of your good leads, keep your efforts scalable, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Be able to manage a pipeline that you can effectively stay on top of. Never let a good lead go to waste, never be so busy that you can’t follow up on qualified leads.”
Tools for managing your pipeline
Especially as your sales team starts growing and the amount of prospects coming in increases, you’ll want to automate as many of your pipeline management processes as possible. Not only will it save you time and money as it cuts down on the personnel and number of administrative hours required, it will also increase the amount of money coming in as you incorporate the power of data into your sales strategies.
In discussing how Vendasta’s Sales and Success Center empowers partners, Nik Levnaich explained, “You can run your entire business from [Vendasta’s] Partner Center, but as a salesperson you can manage your entire book of business - your entire existence as a salesperson - [it can all] be catalogued and can be acted upon within our Sales CRM. You can send email campaigns to engage your prospect list, you can maintain sales records, stay on top of your revenue opportunities...your whole existence as a salesperson can exist in our sales platform.”
Nik continued, “It saves [partners] from, say, having to use multiple books, Excel spreadsheets, a piece of paper, a notebook, other forms of software, which can become quite cumbersome if you’re a salesperson. Why not just have one tool where you can have all your training resources, say for the products that you’re selling, have somewhere that you can manage your entire book of business, somewhere where you can catalogue every interaction that you have with your client or prospect. You can do that within our Sales CRM, or the Sales Center.”
Taylor Hahn highlighted that Vendasta’s Sales and Success Center “allows [salespeople and managers] to be involved in every stage of the customer journey from awareness to sale. You can monitor prospect engagement and keep track of their journey (using the pipeline) all the way to sale. Once they convert to a client of yours, you can add value to this customer journey by providing them with proof of performance, all under one roof.”
Dom went on to include, “SSC [Sales and Success Center] offers a visual drag and drop pipeline that allows a sales rep to visualize what opportunities they have that are currently active, and what activity has taken place to help these deals close. A sales rep can see in a clear way what the most important opportunities are, which saves them time and makes them more money.”
Arnima is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the power of having a Sales Center that collects and clarifies your data. Hear her comments in full in the video.
When you’re looking for a Sales CRM for your business, be sure you look for one that has all the features listed in the comments of the experts above. Alternatively, you can check out Vendasta’s offering in further detail here.
Sales is not an easy game, and the stakes are high. Whatever industry you’re in, you’re bound to have more than one group competing with a vengeance for the same dollars you’re after. If you want to be at the head of the pack - or even keep up with those around you - there’s no question that you have to ensure your sales pipeline is optimized and consistently managed to maintain that optimization.
Using the tips and tools above, you’re on good footing to make that goal a reality.