The Complete Guide to Sales Pipeline Management For Building a Robust Sales Pipeline in 2021
Pipeline management is one of the most daunting aspects of the job of a sales leader.
In the past, communication only took place through phone, snail-mail, and in-person meetings. Cold-calling was the strongest tool in your sales arsenal.
In the last decade, sales reps could get through to prospects on the phone in about 1-4 attempts. Today, the same process takes at least eight tries to reach out and get through to a prospective buyer on the phone.
While the role of a sales leader is crucial, they usually don’t get to from prospective buyers until when they are almost ready or about to buy. It takes tremendous fortitude and tenacity on the part of the sales leader to track potential leads. Not to mention that the jargon in the industry has metamorphosed to become much more complex. For the sake of this post, we’ll take a look at the concepts that form the crux of the article to understand how to manage your sales pipeline more effectively.
- Sales pipeline: Conventionally, a sales pipeline was known as the stages that a prospect had to pass through in their buyer journey from prospect to customer. The sales reps were the ones responsible for facilitating this process. Sales personnel also referred to the term sales pipeline as simply pipeline and defined it as the monetary value current leads would yield after they moved through the different stages of a pipeline. While it’s a fine term to use to describe the dollar value of prospects, sales forecasting is a more appropriate way to refer to the potential revenue in your sales pipeline.
- Sales funnel: A sales funnel is a series of stages that a prospective buyer passes across in their journey from prospect to customer. The sales funnel is often confused for a sales pipeline. However, they are very different concepts, and the stages in a sales funnel are markedly distinct from the pipeline, with the prospect being the one in control of how they choose to move across those stages.
- Sales process: A sales process is the procedure of helping prospects move through the sales pipeline. The sales process is not to be confused for having stages as it doesn’t contain any. It is a process of specific actions undertaken by the sales reps at various touchpoints to convert a prospect to a customer.
The greater control you can wrest with your sales pipeline, the better visibility you will have, and the more revenue you will be able to bring in. In fact, the number of opportunities in a sales pipeline was directly linked to revenue health. The greater the number of opportunities that a business has in its pipeline, the more probability it has to achieve or surpass its revenue goals.
Your sales pipeline is the difference between a regular deal flow and a challenging quarter. According to statistics from a Hubspot study, only 22% of businesses are happy with their conversion rates. Why is this number crucial, and how does it relate to sales pipeline management?
Sales pipeline management is the fulcrum that balances your sales team and helps you determine their performance over a period. Apart from that, it also aids you in forecasting the amount of revenue that you could bring in a specific quarter. Companies that implement sales pipeline management, especially in the initial stages, should move from the start to the end so that they can build meaningful relationships with customers and to grow their sales substantially.
Sales pipeline management is such an effective process that almost 72% of sales leaders or managers have claimed to host sales pipeline review meetings sporadically every 30 days.
The conclusion derived from this is thus: effective sales 0ppipeline management is essential for any business as it helps them increase revenue. In fact, a Harvard Business Review report found out that companies with strong pipeline management practices rated their YoY increase in revenue as 5.3 (on a scale of 1 to 7), registering a 15% increase over companies who didn’t have effective pipeline management practices. What’s more interesting is that organizations who kept an even pulse on the following pipeline practices saw 28% increased revenue. These practices are:
- Defining a clear sales process
- Spending time reviewing the process and modifying it
- Coaching sales leaders and managers on pipeline strategies
Effective sales pipeline management is about continually rehashing the entire process itself, and improving the skills of your sales reps. Your whole aim should be to facilitate the expeditious movement of the pipeline from one stage to the next, and, of course, to convert deals and close sales.
A well-managed sales pipeline allows your sales team to locate sales opportunities that are still open that are at the risk of withering away while also concentrating on their existing opportunities. It aids them in singling out their challenges and have a resolution strategy ready for them at each stage of the sales funnel, helping them generate revenue in a more expected manner over the course of a quarter.
It is also a great method of organizing your sales process and mobilizing your sales team, making them more efficient as a result. There are a host of ways to formulating a healthy sales pipeline to capitalize on potential leads, all the while monitoring leads that have to be warmed up in order to be converted. You have to perform a bona fide analysis of how healthy your current pipeline is before you can take measures to make it better. Here, we’ll look at how you can build and manage your sales pipeline from scratch while ensuring a perpetual flow of high-quality opportunities.
Sales Pipeline vs. Sales Funnel vs. Sales Forecast: What’s the Difference?
Consider a scenario with a client where they ask if the difference between a sales pipeline, sales funnel and a sales forecast matters at all or not. The obvious answer is that, while salespersons may use these terms words interchangeably, the distinction between them matters because they have to do with varying perspectives. To help you understand these terms better and what they entail, here is a brief rundown on them, their stages, and their differing contrasts.
1. Sales Funnel
A sales funnel is nothing but a graphic representation of the number of open opportunities and the average conversion rates of qualified leads. It helps you visualize prospects as they make their way through the sales process.
A sales funnel is aptly named because of the shape of the process – as it resembles a funnel. Just like a funnel, the process narrows further and further as prospects move through the steps of qualification, and some of them are converted from leads to customers.
Sales funnels are usually represented by a conventional five-stage (sometimes six) sales model that harbors many similarities with the sales pipeline framework but is presented from the perspective of the customers as they are the ones in charge. The stages include:
- Awareness: The first stage is all about attracting the attention of the customer to your products and services, even before they have realized the need for it. You can accomplish this with the help of tactics designed to help build awareness, such as videos, free subscriptions, etc. Centering your marketing around building awareness specifically with mediums like blogs, paid ads, and more also go a long way in garnering customer interest.
- Interest: Once you have attracted qualified leads, you have to rear these prospective buyers by enlightening them about your service or product. You can use various tactics like case studies, testimonials, and email drip sequences to build the trust of leads in your product and enable brand appreciation in their minds.
- Evaluation: Once you have a foot in the front door — it means that the lead is prepared to hold a conversation with you over a sales call. This stage thus involves cashing in on the opportunity to show your leads that you understand and can solve their pain points. Undertake research on your potential customer and look in your CRM for possible data and prove to them how your product/service can help them.
- Engagement: Don’t stop paying attention to the lead once you are convinced that they are going to buy from you. You should do anything but that and continue to engage them and provide support wherever and whenever they might need it. Help leads as much as you can to enable to them to the last yard of the sales funnel aligning their priorities, securing their commitment, and keeping the relationship alive.
- Purchase: This is the part where most sales reps make or break their next deal. Did you know that attracting a new customer costs five times more than retaining a customer? If you continue to maintain a relationship with the customer even after the sale, you massively boost your chances of retaining them.
Not only that, but it can also help you increase your profits from 25-95%. Conduct periodic check-in(s) with existing customers with the help of email follow-ups(s) and surveys. This not only gives you an idea about what customers love about your brand, but it also builds a positive brand image in your customers’ minds.
2. Sales Pipeline
While the pipeline also depicts the movement of a customer from prospecting to winning them over and converting them to a customer, it is envisioned from the perspective of the sales rep. Unlike the sales funnel, the sales pipeline focuses more on the gradual progression of prospects from one end of it to the other.
This is the reason why a sales pipeline is explained as a series of premeditated steps seen from the eyes of the sales rep that involves converting a prospective buyer from a lead to a customer. After the completion of every step or stage, the leads progress to the next stage in the pipeline until when they successfully make a purchase and become a customer.
While every business has a unique sales pipeline, the common stages of it include:
- Qualification: After contacting prospective buyers, sales reps first have to qualify candidates to be able to determine if they need your product or not and have the required budget for it to successfully make a purchase. After the sales team has learned about the goals of the lead in more detail, they can then decide if they want to move forward with the sales process or not. Since qualified leads often represent their company and are usually decision-makers like presidents, managers, and CEOs, it takes bearing that the first step should be carried out scrupulously. You don’t want to send an unqualified lead through your pipeline that will not only waste your efforts but will also end up wasting away valuable time of your sales team.
- Sales meeting: The step that comes next after qualification in the sales pipeline is the interpersonal meeting or the sales phone call. This phone call serves as the medium to discuss the value that your company and its product/service can provide to the prospect. If this call goes well and the prospect is willing to move further along the pipeline, the sales rep can move them along and on to the next stage in the process.
- Sending the proposal: This is the part where the prospect is really intrigued by your offerings and requests a proposal that the sales rep can put together after comprehensive proposal detailing that includes the product/service capabilities, fees, and other relevant information.
- Closing the deal: When the qualified lead has agreed to the proposal and has signed the deal, their journey through the pipeline has come to an end with them effectively being converted to customers.
3. Sales Forecast
A sales forecast is a completely different entity than the other two mentioned above. It is described as the most appropriate estimate of which sales opportunities will be converted at a certain point in time. Usually, companies produce monthly, bi-monthly, and quarterly forecasts.
The most defining difference between the sales forecast and the sales pipeline is that the prospective buyer must meet a set of pre-established criteria to be eligible for the sales forecast. The prospects or leads in the sales forecast are nearing the end of the sales cycle. Another important difference is that the sales forecast helps determine a company’s revenue and cash flow in the near future. In other terms, it helps a company understand if and when they can generate revenue.
What Are the Stages of a Sales Pipeline?
Since sales processes differ from company to company, their sales pipeline stages differ too as a result of them undertaking different activities to enable and help leads move from the initial point of contact through to the sale.
For example, a software company will offer free trials of their product so that prospective buyers can test the lite version of the product before they are ready to spend. Since they signed up to try out the lite version or the trial version, they made it clear that they are interested in the product and are a qualified lead.
Comparing it to a different line of business, say real estate, for example, would require the real estate agent to get on a phone call with the prospect during the qualification stage because building a personal relationship with the prospect is a crucial part of the sale.
That said, the sales pipeline can be broken down into the following top-level stages.
Before you can pitch your product to someone, you need to get through to them and ensure that they are interested in what you have to sell to them.
The sales pipeline journey commences whenever a prospective buyer learns about you and your product/service. You can enable and expedite that discovery in two ways:
Lead generation: Lead generation is the process of utilizing marketing strategies to attract buyers and generate interest around your service or product.
Sales prospecting: The sales prospecting is an active approach to searching out customers that are most likely to pay for your service or product.
Given below are a few ways that can help you generate prospects and leads for your business.
- Cold calls: Cold outreach through cold email marketing and cold calls are a very effective way of reaching out to customers. With a targeted outreach approach, you can find prospective buyers quickly and introduce relevant value to them to make your outreach program successful.
- Advertising: Advertising is the lifeblood of your business as products either live or die based on how successful their advertising campaigns are. When done right, you don’t even have to find potential customers, and you will see them come to you.
- Networking: As many salespersons will tell you, there is nothing quite as powerful as networking. Building relationships whenever you have the opportunity as it gives you an ideal starting position in getting through to decision-makers quickly since you already know them.
- Social media: Social media is one of the most powerful tools for marketing. A platform that is more prevalent than any other, it can help you find your customers easily. You can also use social media channels for conducting marketing research and connect with leads.
- Events: Industry events and trade shows are a pot of gold for possible leads because it essentially gathers all your target market in one place for you. Not only that, but they are also there to learn about products. That makes the job a lot easier.
Without a healthy lead qualification process, you are going to be spending the same amount of time on everyone — even if they are not a prospect and are not interested in buying from you.
This can have disastrous consequences and result in a profusion of lost opportunities. If you don’t know your high-quality opportunities, you can’t make extra time for them. In fact, research shows that almost 67% of lost sales opportunities arise from sales reps not being able to qualify their prospects efficiently before moving them through the sales pipeline.
Lead qualification is very important because it helps you save time. Instead of investing your energies into someone who is not going to buy from you and drag the sales process, it helps you single out those prospects that are most likely to buy so that you can allot more time to them.
But, how do you carry out a lead qualification process to churn out leads that are worth your time?
Here are a few qualification tactics that can aid you in identifying a lead that has the most potential to convert to a customer.
The initial encounter of a prospect with your company doesn’t leave you with much, it does give you valuable information about them, especially if they have filled out a form for you on your website. Even with a name and email address, you can undertake quite a hefty bit of research, thanks to the internet providing a digital trail for anyone who comes across it.
You can use the information you gain from the internet to understand your prospect’s pain points and capitalize on them so that you don’t have to spend too much time convincing them.
You can also use social media channels like LinkedIn to research the professional background of a lead and use that knowledge to find similar new leads. You can visit other social platforms to understand what they talk about, which kinds of products do they like, which products do they recommend, etc.
To take it a step further, you can score your leads for your sales team to create a priority order, i.e., which prospects to pay the most attention to. Adopting a lead-scoring approach can help you tremendously and also increase your conversion rate by as much as 20%.
II. Use the BANT approach
A very straightforward way for qualifying leads further is through the popular framework BANT. BANT is an acronym for a sales lead qualification strategy that is used to recognize prospects that are worth pursuing.
What does BANT stand for?
- Budget: Does the prospect meet the budgetary requirements of the product or service?
- Authority: Is the prospect in an authoritative position to make purchase decisions, or are there other people that you should talk to?
- Needs: Can your product fulfill the need of the prospect or the lead?
- Timeline: How soon does the prospect plan on making the purchase?
III. Talk to them
Even with everything mentioned above, there is only one way to truly qualify a lead, and that is by holding regular conversations with them. While you may have already hosted conversations with them while actively approaching them in the past during prospecting, you need to go above and beyond and hold that one meaningful and in-depth conversation that helps the prospect get all the information they need to be convinced to go ahead and make the sale.
Before planning to meet in person, schedule the right venue, select the right conference room, test your equipment, and know the attendees either side. You do not want to be scrambling around for something while providing a demo presentation.
Once you have qualified your leads, it is time to arrange for a meeting – whether it is on phone, face-to-face, or on live chat. This meeting helps you:
- Know your potential customer better.
- Understand the goals that they are trying to achieve.
- Learn more about what they’ve already tried to achieve those goals.
This stage is also where your customers know more about you and your product. To ensure that they are impressed by your offerings, prepare for the sales meeting by:
Research: More than anything, conduct thorough research on your potential customer. Do a background check on the representative from the client’s company that you are supposed to meet, study the client’s market, and turn to Google for more news about them.
Review: Review your pitch and try to be concise. Ensure that it addresses all the pain points of the customer and that the solution is readily evident to them.
Rehearse: Rehearse your pitch after you are done creating it before going for the real thing. Practice the product demonstration in advance as it will help you calm a lot of the pre-meeting jitters beforehand.
This stage of the sales pipeline is when you send a proposal to the prospect and ask them to become a paying customer.
If the prospective buyer indicates that they are ready to purchase, they are provided with a detailed proposal. While the details of it vary depending upon your offering, a few common best practices for making one include:
- Keeping the proposal short
- Keeping the language simple and jargon-free
- Personalizing the proposal template for every lead
- Pitching a solution to the problem they are facing
- Proposing options at varying price levels
- Listing price points from the highest to the lowest
Once your proposal is out, you have done the hard bit of the job and reached the final stages of the pipeline.
This stage has only two possible outcomes: either the prospect is impressed by the proposal and agrees to turn to a customer, or they make the decision not to continue with the purchase.
Irrespective of the outcome, you should ask your sales reps to do a few things to close the curtains.
If your proposal clicks and the prospect makes a sale, follow up by:
- A thank-you note as soon as the purchase is made. You can also go for a handwritten note depending upon the kind of engagement you want.
- If required, you can carry out a regular training or onboarding process for your customer to get them up and running quickly.
- A check-in email at the end of the month to check how things are going.
Never underestimate the importance of ongoing customer service and support as they are the beacons that light up the path to future opportunities.
Now that you have made a sale, it’s time for a well-deserved break, right?
Not quite. Today, making a sale isn’t the end of the pipeline. But what are you missing?
A lot. Did you know that 80% of your future profits depend upon and are derived from 20% of your existing customers? This only goes to highlight the importance of the last stage in the sales pipeline, i.e., retention. You should make retention a part of your sales pipeline to:
- Engage your customers
- Generate opportunities for providing feedback
- Turn buyers into advocates
A retention stage also massively helps your business bottom line as it enables a positive brand image in the mind of buyers to turn them to loyal customers. And as it so happens, loyal customers buy more and are more likely to recommend your products to others that they know.
How to Build a Sales Pipeline for Your Business
Irrespective of your organization’s industry or size, each one of them needs a robust sales pipeline to have a healthy close rate. However, most leads don’t close right away. This requires constructing and maintaining a pipeline full of healthy deals because there is nothing worse than closing a number of deals only to later realize that you have overlooked the top of the funnel, and you have nothing more left in the pipeline.
The following tips will help you build a strong sales pipeline and be more effective while you work away towards the close.
1. Identify your ideal customer
Before building your sales pipeline, you should know what your ideal customer looks like.
And in order to know what your ideal customer looks like, you have to ask yourself loads of questions depending upon your product and the interest it has garnered up until this point. Ultimately, there are a couple of crucial questions that lead everything else:
- What does the customer require?
- How do they talk about what they want?
After you have resolved the pain points of your customers, you can move to ask other questions like:
What is your ideal customer like?
- What are their values?
- What are their priorities and goals?
- Which demographic do they belong to?
- Which channels do they visit online?
- What kind of jargon are they familiar with?
- What kind of language do they use?
- What form of correspondence do they like?
- Which brands do they favor?
What are the pain points of your ideal customer?
- What kind of challenges do they face?
- What kind of problems does your product or service solve for them?
- What is the most important benefit of your product to them?
- Which specific pain points does your product or service solve for them?
What are your ideal customer’s objections?
- Which concerns should you avoid from popping up that could potentially keep the customer from doing business with you?
- Why should they purchase from you and not from others?
Historical customer data
- Which kind of customers has the best conversion rate?
- Which bracket of customers purchases services or products with the highest purchase value?
- How long does it take for current customers to close?
Ideal customer forecast
- How will your service or product improve the quality of your ideal customer’s work?
- What will happen if they don’t use your service or product?
2. Select your pipeline stages
The thing that makes or breaks your product is how the customer feels about it. If you build a sales pipeline without giving it proper thought, it won’t match the customer journey that your leads have to go through. That’s why it is essential to first identify the principal steps of the customer journey that your buyers will go through. Here’s how to determine what the stages of your sales pipeline should be:
Awareness: In the awareness stage, the prospect realizes that they have a need or a pain point that requires resolving.
Consideration: In the consideration stage, the prospect has identified their challenge and looks for possible solutions.
Decision: In this stage, the prospect weighs solutions against each other and makes a decision.
Discuss each of these stages with your sales team. If you are the lone sales representative of your company, then ask a friend or your peers in the community. A second opinion will help you locate weak spots at the earliest in your sales pipeline.
3. Identify triggers
Once you have decided how to construct a sales pipeline, timing is of the most important consequence. If you don’t move a potential buyer who has indicated that they are ready for the next stage of the pipeline, you might lose contact with them, and your potential buyer will move on to another solution that recognizes that they are ready to purchase.
While finalizing your pipeline stages, identify actions that indicate that the prospect is ready to move on to the next stage in the process.
After that, you can trigger your follow-up practices on the basis of actions that the lead takes, such as signing up for your mailing list, ordering samples, asking for quotes, requesting demos, or completing a trial period.
4. Calculate the ideal size of the sales pipeline
How large does the size of your sales pipeline have to be for me to accurately meet my targets is one question all sales leaders should ask themselves. If you set lofty goals for yourself, they might become impossible to hit. If you keep them just right, you will have leads with one foot through the front door already.
Calculating the ideal size of your sales pipeline doesn’t require averaging the stats of your previous sales goals to define a new number. You can easily use a formula to determine your sales targets closed monthly and the number of leads required to achieve those targets. From there, you can easily distribute those leads among the salespersons working your pipeline.
Ideal Pipeline Size
- Monthly sales targets closed = Monthly revenue target/Average monthly closed sales revenue
- Leads needed every month = Monthly closed sales target number/Monthly percentage of sales closed
First, you have to determine the number of how many closed deals you need each month to reach your sales target.
Use the first formula to find the monthly sales targets closed. The number you arrive at is the number of closed sales you need to make every month to achieve your monthly target revenue.
The question that naturally follows this is how many many leads do you require to achieve your closed sales target?
Divide the monthly closed sales target number by the monthly percentage of sales closed. This will give you the number of leads needed per month to achieve your closed sales target.
What Are the Most Important Sales Pipeline Metrics?
How fast do leads move in your sales pipeline? Every sales leader will agree that the longer a prospect stays in the pipeline, the less likely they are to convert. Apart from knowing the total value of the sales pipeline, you should also know how fast do these opportunities go through every stage of the buying process. By reviewing the following pipeline metrics, you will be able to keep a pulse on your pipeline velocity and ensure that it is always at desirable levels.
1. Number of deals in the pipeline
The first metric that you should check is the number of deals you have in your pipeline. You can even break this down into the number of deals in every stage of the sales pipeline.
2. Average Deal Size
The average deal size is calculated as the sum of all previously mentioned deals divided by the total number of deals. While calculating deal size, it is important to keep track of the amount of money that is entering your pipeline every quarter.
3. Win Rate
The win rate is calculated as the total number of sales qualified leads divided by the total number of customers. It shows you the percentage of leads that convert to customers.
4. Total Pipeline Value
The total pipeline value is the cumulative sum of all the deals in your pipeline.
5. Average Length of Sales Cycle
The average length of the sales cycle is the average length of time it takes for a deal to convert from the moment your sales rep contacts the prospect to the moment the prospect signs the proposal. Find the length of time it took for every deal in your pipeline to close, add them up, and divide the result by the total number of deals.
6. Probability to Close
This is the likelihood of an opportunity to close at any particular stage in the sales pipeline. The further they move towards the end of the pipeline, the more likely prospects are to close. This metric is, in essence, the time it takes for sales personnel to connect with an inbound lead.
How to Run a Sales Pipeline Review Meeting?
Sales pipeline review meetings are used by high-performing teams to keep their pipeline in sync with their sales goals. Its purpose is to hold brainstorming sessions on how to help prospects move through the sales pipeline as effectively as possible.
Sales Pipeline Review Agenda
Based on the size of your sales team, the average length of the sales process, and how soon do new opportunities enter your sales pipeline, you can choose a weekly, monthly, or bi-monthly cadence.
Review meeting should not last more than 60 minutes. Every review meeting should focus on the deals that are the most important or the survey of all opportunities in the starting stages of the process.
- Use your CRM before every pipeline review meeting to evaluate the performance of your sales reps. Don’t walk in unprepared and end up wasting valuable time forming the agenda of the meeting on the spot.
- Ask your sales reps to summarize every deal and provide them with positive feedback before delving into their assessment with the help of the questions mentioned below.
- Come up with an action plan for the deal and verify the next steps. Add these steps to the CRM to keep your sales reps accountable and help them sidestep lapses in memory.
Sales Pipeline Review Questions
Here are a few sales pipeline review meeting questions that you can ask as sales managers to your reps to make the most out of them:
- How much genuine progress have we made since the last review?
- How many new leads have entered the pipeline since the last review?
- How can we facilitate the lead’s decision-making process for a deal?
- Which current opportunities in the pipeline are most likely to close?
- What kind of risks are we facing, and how can we alleviate them?
- Who are our competitors, and how can we stand apart from them?
- How many objections have surfaced thus far, and how can we include them in our closing strategy?
Sales Pipeline Excel Template for Tracking Pipeline Growth
Sales pipeline is a commonly used visualization of the stage where prospects are in the sales funnel. Sales pipeline can help sales teams show the deals which are expected to close in the coming time period.
A proper sales pipeline analysis can help sales teams:
- Predict expected business/revenue
- Test and analyze various sales and marketing strategies
- Be on track for your sales targets & crush sales quotas
Click Here to Download the Sales Pipeline Excel Template for Tracking Your Pipeline Growth.
Sales pipeline management is ultimately an active process, and your sales pipeline will only be as effective as you make it. Take the above guide to the heart and use it to build a system and a result-oriented sales process that helps you drive conversions and generate revenue.