What is a Sales Pipeline?
A Sales Pipeline is a methodology used to group sales opportunities in a way that helps salespeople win more deals by following defined stages of a sales process. The majority of sales pipelines are created in CRM software systems that allow users to record, analyse, forecast and generate reports, however it is also possible to create and manage a pipeline on an excel spreadsheet.
Why is a Sales Pipeline important?
Sales Pipelines are important because they help record, track, measure and report all sales activities which will increase the productivity of salespeople. Companies create and use Sales Pipelines within CRM [Customer Relationship Software] systems which can also record Customer Information and provide important Sales Management information.
1. Sales Funnel Examples
Many companies transfer the stages of their sales process into the deal stages within a sales pipeline.
CRM systems usually allow the deal names to be customised in addition to the number of steps in the overall process.
The goal of the pipeline is to move the prospect, deal or opportunity through the pipeline as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Salespeople manage their pipeline by ensuring they update their CRM system after every interaction with the prospect, and every activity undertaken on the deal which creates an information log that other users can access.
As with any other CRM system, the bottom line results are dependant on the quality of the information entered and maintained by salespeople.
This example shows how a sales funnel is used to feed new opportunities into the top of a CRM or sales pipeline.
In many cases, B2C customers will go straight to a shopping cart process, whereas B2B leads that are generated need some form of human interaction.
This is normally handled by a Sales Development Rep who sits in between sales and marketing and focusses on qualifying and lead generation. However, in the absence of an SDR, leads would normally be passed straight to Sales and enter the sales process.
Understanding and taking action to manage your sales pipeline and how it relates to each member of the team is an essential part of your in-house sales training.
2. Building a Sales Pipeline
There are many ways to fill a pipeline which primarily fall into two different channels – offline and online.
The most popular online methods to create new sales leads are content marketing, social media, email marketing and Rich Media content.
Success in sales is 100% connected to the sales pipeline, both in terms of number of deals in your pipeline, but equally, the quality of deals that are in the sales pipeline.
Quite simply, a healthy sales pipeline equals healthy sales revenues, and healthy commissions if you are a Sales Professional.
Simple as this may sound, managing the sales pipeline is however the number one challenge for many sales professionals and sales managers.
One of the most successful management principals is to keep things simple and we can apply this to filling the sales pipeline by simply asking ourselves two questions every day.
Who can I add to my sales pipeline today?
Often good salespeople can struggle to consistently prospect for new business.
If they are in a role that provides a regular flow of qualified leads from a marketing or lead generation team, then this question is obviously less relevant for a sales professional, but it’s still really important for sales managers and business owners.
Adding at least one new qualified prospect a day might not be enough for your business model if you are B2C, but many B2B companies would die for that.
Who can I move in my Sales Pipeline Today?
It’s great that we have opportunities in our pipeline, but we need to nurture and develop each opportunity, to get the maximum number of these opportunities over the line.
Part of any good pipeline management includes moving opportunities from one stage to another and where necessary out of the sales pipeline.
Circumstances change and there is no shame in qualifying out an opportunity if it’s no longer a good fit for your business.
We must keep moving prospects through the sales pipeline or out the sales pipeline.
Online Lead Generation
- Organic Search – leads from users prospects who have found your business via Search
- Rich Media Content – users who have found your business via video, podcast, graphics, interactive tools
- Social Media – users who have found your business via Social Media such as LinkedIn
- Email Marketing – users who are going through a lead nurturing process
- Website – users who searched for your brand online
Offline Lead Generation
- Account Management – client accounts that have been actively managed
- Loyalty & Referrals – prospects who in Loyalty programmes or who have been referred
- Customer Service – customers who have been up-sold or cross-sold
- Events – conventions, exhibitions, networking, awards
- Sales Campaigns – client accounts targeted by Sales
Sales Strategies and Sales Goals
Your pipeline and sales process are an essential way of measuring the effectiveness of your sales strategy, sales goals and ultimately your revenue growth.
Managing a sales pipeline starts by measuring everything but with a particular focus on conversion rates of moving deals from one stage to the next, win rates and revenue goals.
Once you have a clear picture you should start to record what is best practice in sales
3. Qualifying Sales Leads in the Pipeline
Qualifying Sales Prospects in Sales is important, given the longer sales cycles, the cost of sales and increased competition.
Pursuing unqualified opportunities can be a huge waste of time, money and resources, that companies can ill afford. It’s long been accepted in sales that if you are going to get a No it’s best to get it as quick as possible. It’s, therefore, industry Best Practice to use some form of process that all sales reps can follow to qualify or disqualify prospects.
There are many different qualification processes two examples are:
BANT Sales Process
BANT is a very simple process that can be applied to most transactional sales.
B. Budget. Does the prospect have the money or can they get the money required to make the purchase?
A. Authority. Does the prospect have the authority to make the purchase?
N. Need. Does the prospect have a defined need for our products or services?
T. Timescale. Does the prospect have a defined timescale which they are working to in order to make a purchase?
SCOTSMAN Sales Methodology Checklist
For more complex solution sales the qualification process can be more elaborate and a good example of this is the SCOTSMAN
S. Solution – do we have a solution that fits the customers’ requirements?
C. Competition – do we have a credible chance of winning this business?
O. Originality – what do we offer that is original and differentiates us from the competition?
T. Timescale – has the client set a Timescale, can we meet it and is it realistic?
S. Size – does the project size fit within our target range and is there scope for further sales?
M. Money – does the prospect have an approved budget or are they applying for a budget?
A. Authority – does the prospect have the authority and power within the buying team to build consensus?
N. Need – does the client recognise the need for our products and services?
Some companies now use SDR (Sales Development Reps) that sit between Marketing and Sales and their job is to Qualify the prospects before a lead can be passed to sales. They are typically paid less than Salespeople and free up the time of the Salespeople to focus on qualified opportunities. Sales Leads that do not qualify can either be closed down or recycled back into Marketing for lead nurturing.
4. Sales Pipeline Stages
CRM software comes with predefined sales pipeline stages built-in to help Reps keep track of customers and deals. The majority of these, however, can be modified which most users do to replicate their Sales Process.
If users don’t have a Sales Process it’s normally best to start off using the predefined sales pipeline stages in the crm for 3-6 months before you make any changes. This way, the users will know exactly what they need, which removes the need for multiple changes which can lead to data loss.
After every interaction or activity with a deal, the users simply update the system and can choose whether to move the prospect to the next Deal stage, or allow them to remain at the current stage.
The use of different Deal stages drives productivity as the Sales Reps know they need to keep the Deals moving through the Sales Pipeline.
Nearly every CRM software system can create Sales Dashboards that provide the Sales Reps with a visual overview of their sales pipeline and outstanding and scheduled tasks.
5. Sales Pipeline Management
Managing a pipeline is an essential discipline for every Sales Professional, but they can struggle to do this for a variety of reasons, such as being busy, poor training or simply being disorganised.
The principles of sales pipeline management are very simple – the salespersons’ job is to move the opportunities forwards through each stage of your pipeline, and any opportunities that are not moving forward need to be qualified out and closed off. Most salespeople are usually pretty good at moving Deals forward along the sales pipeline, but the problem comes when an opportunity is either stalled, or worse needs to be qualified out. Without action this results in a long sales cycle which has a negative impact on sales and the wider business. There are three main areas of concern here:
- Salespeople invariably hang on to sales deals too long. By nature they are optimistic, and so deep down they often hold on to an opportunity too long before closing it down, as they keep thinking it will close at some point. Hope can be your worst enemy in sales if it blinds you from reality and fills your Sales Pipeline with deals that in reality are never going to close.
- A full Sales Pipeline is a signal to themselves and to Sales Managers that they are doing their job properly, as they accept quantity over quality. Prospects not only need to be qualified to get into the start of the sales pipe, but they also need to be re-qualified at every stage in order for them to move forward in the sales pipe.
- An empty sales pipeline means the team will need to add more leads/opportunities to the top of the sales funnel. This could mean prospecting, which could mean cold calling for new leads at some stage, and some salespeople are just uncomfortable or lack the skills to prospect effectively, so they don’t.
Circumstances surrounding your prospect and the Opportunity can change with time. If you are not constantly re-qualifying your Opportunities at every stage of your Sales Pipeline they can quickly become unqualified Opportunities.
There is often a misplaced shame when qualifying out an opportunity that is in the sales pipeline. Great Salespeople are Winners by nature and qualifying out an opportunity is often misinterpreted by some as a defeat – a lost sale, and they don’t like losing. There can be many reasons an Opportunity is no longer Qualified to be in the Sales Pipeline that have nothing to do with the ability of the salespeople.
Your pipeline is a visual representation of your key customer data and this should be displayed in custom built dashboards within your crm. Removing rotten or unqualified deals is a great way of keeping your sales pipeline accurate for forecasting.
6. Sales Pipeline Review and Scrub
Effectively managing your pipeline requires a Sales Pipeline review or “Scrub”, as a minimum every single month by a Sales Manager or an objective third party.
The Sales Manager should be prepared to ask difficult questions and make decisions based on sales facts, not sales emotions.
The purpose of the review is to go through every opportunity and individually re-qualify them paying particular attention to Rotten Deals and opportunities stuck in the sales pipe.
Where appropriate Opportunities will be either closed or allocated a new Next Step in agreement with the Sales Reps.
Closing the file and qualifying out an Opportunity does not always mean we have lost the sale, or done a bad job, in fact, sometimes the opposite is true.
It is much better to have a salesperson qualify out an opportunity they weren’t going to win early, so that you can divert resources on to your best opportunities and not waste further time and money on a lost cause.
Qualifying out an Opportunity does not mean you have qualified out the Prospect. In these circumstances, it’s best for the Rep to work on the relationship with the prospect to both position themselves and to gain mindshare for the future.
If circumstances then change, open a new Deal and start afresh.
7. Pipe Speed or Sales Cycle
There are many important sales pipeline metrics that sales managers use to measure success, one of which is the Pipeline speed or Sales Cycle length.
The Pipeline Speed is simply the length of time from what is called “first contact” with new sales leads through to concluding the sale. In Business to Consumer sales the Pipeline speed can be very fast as a prospect searches on the internet, finds your website and arrives on your home page – this is the first contact in B2C. They then navigate through the site collecting information before deciding to purchase a product by adding to a virtual cart, entering payment details and buy.
The Pipeline Speed here is measured in minutes. B2B Sales are very different and instead of minutes they can take days, weeks, months or years depending on the product or industry. As an example, if you are selling complex technology solutions to US Enterprise organisations who are by nature not early adopters, many of their purchasing decisions fall in October which is their Q1, so if you miss this, it could be another 12 months before you get another opportunity.
With that said, the majority of sales are made to SME & Mid Market companies simply because there are more of them around. So most B2B deals will start with some form of enquiry that the Sales Reps have to move through the sales process and this takes days, weeks and in many case months.
The speed of the Sales Pipe is important because the faster the speed the better the cash flow, the less chance there is of the prospect changing their mind and it then frees up the salespeople to work on the next deal.
8. Weighted Sales Pipelines
In addition to tracking how many deals are at each stage of the pipeline weighting is a technique that sales managers use to more accurately forecast sales revenues.
Each deal in the pipeline is allocated a percentage chance of it closing based on its stage in the sales pipeline.
The further down the sales pipeline, the higher the likelihood is that you will win the business so the percentage increases.
The percentage likelihood of the Close ratio increases as the deals move through the different stages until the last stage where the salesperson knows they are about to receive an order, but are still waiting on paperwork.
The percentages and deal stages are shown are examples and this should be customised to every business.
This generates a much more accurate sales forecast.
It’s important that sales leaders allocate resources to train and coach the sales team to use a crm.
What’s equally important is that the sales management define the criteria by which potential customers can move from one stage to another.
Once the sales team understand this you should focus coaching on the soft skills required by sales reps to move deals from one stage to another.
After using a crm for 2-3 months you will be able to track and improve lead qualification, conversion rates, new opportunities, sales targets, sales velocity and many more essentials for managing a sales team.
9. Sales Pipeline Metrics
|TABLE OF COMMON SALES PIPELINE KPI’s|
|Initial Sales Meetings||In Sales most sales start with a meeting, but this could be a Webinar or Cold Call, per Rep|
|Follow Up Sales Meetings||Number of follow up meetings per month, per Rep|
|No of Qualified Proposals||Number of Qualified Proposals Generated per month|
|New Customer Acquisition||The rate of new customers joining the business per month|
|Sales by Channel||The sales revenue figures for each channel per month. This can sometimes be expressed in number of new clients.|
|Number of Contract Renewals||The number of contract renewals per month|
|Churn||Number of lost customers|
|Sales Pipeline Value||The total value of the current months’ Sales Pipeline|
|Weighted Sales Pipeline Value||The weighted (by percentage/stage) value of the current Sales Pipeline. This is an essential part of sales forecasting and also allows you to identify and focus on high value deals that may be at risk|
|Rotten Deals||Number of Deals that have exceeded the average Pipe Speed|
|Closing Ratios||The ratio of deals closed from qualified sales leads/potential customers|
|Sales Cycle/Pipeline Speed||Speed in days the prospect progresses through the pipeline is the length of your sales cycle. This is sometimes called the sales velocity|
|Average deal size||The average deal size is the average value of all the the previous months’ deals|
|Pipeline by Channel||The Deal value for each sales channel|
10. Sales Pipeline Spreadsheet
It is also possible to record a Pipeline by using a simple Excel spreadsheet, which many Startups and Entrepreneurs still do.
If the Spreadsheet is cloud-based it can be accessed and edited by more than one person and for companys’ on a low budget, this can be a good starting point.
There are numerous spreadsheets available for download on the web, some of which will integrate with Gmail.
Just because it’s possible we wouldn’t recommend this and many CRM platforms will provide a 30-day trial for you to check them out before signing up.
A CRM is an essential part of pipeline management that every sales team should have.
Reports and dashboards like the one shown help you manage each individual sales rep, identify high value deals, reduce long sales cycles and ultimately reach your sales targets.
11. Migrating Customer Data
Many companies are fearful of moving to a new CRM because of the time and cost of migrating Data. In many cases, this is because the companies have masses of legacy data, most of which however is obsolete, inaccurate or non-complaint with GDPR legislation.
The current best practice is to only migrate a) the current customer list b) the current list for deals within the pipeline and lastly the current active marketing list. Data that does not fall under those three categories are not deleted but stored for access and/or migration at a later date.
There are numerous ways to import data into a new CRM, but the most popular is by the use of .CSV files created in Excel. Cloud-based CRM solutions are extremely agile and it’s possible to create a new application with bespoke deal stages and import all the data, and then be up and running in 24 hours.
Lead – A potential buyer
Qualified Lead – A Potential buyer with Budget, Authority, Need and a Timescale to meet
Funnel – a way to channel new leads into the top of a sales pipeline
CRM – Customer Relationship Management
SaaS – Software as a Service which is the most common delivery method for CRM systems
KPI’s – Key Performance Indicators
Integrations – External software applications that integrate with a CRM
Cloud-Based – how most software applications are hosted
Deals – qualified sales opportunities inside the sales pipeline
Rotten Deal – a deal that has exceeded the average Pipe Speed
Sales Process – several repeatable stages taking a potential customer through to completing an order
13. Recommended Reading
You can read more about and download all the FREE tools templates and guides mentioned in this article via our Sales Tools page.
You can learn more about how to create the Perfect Prospect Profile and how it will help you fill your sales pipeline via this Sales Prospect Profiling tool.