Pipeline management is a major part of maximizing sales revenue – and the longer your average sales cycle is, the more important it is to have full visibility throughout your pipeline.
All too many B2B deals fall through because well-qualified leads stall out in the middle of the pipeline. Their needs are never fully met, and they move on to a more responsive vendor as a result. The longer the sales cycle drags on, the more likely this becomes.
That doesn’t have to be the fate of your business.
What Is a Sales Pipeline?
Your sales pipeline is the representation of your sales process divided into different stages. Sales teams benefit the most from effective pipelines that are able to manage complex processes meant to close deals.
Improving the efficiency of your pipeline and sales processes directly influences your revenue growth. That’s why proper pipeline management is mandatory for any business that’s aiming to grow.
What Is Pipeline Management?
Pipeline management is the process of organizing and tracking an organization’s prospects, goals, and quota. It gives sales reps an opportunity to look closely at certain deals and recognize if they need any sort of special attention.
When pipeline management is a priority, it gives you insight to monitor, manage, and improve your entire sales function. That makes it easier for sales pros to produce, meet quota, and aspire to those stretch goals.
You can even do more with less headcount. It’s reasonable to ask the question: What’s really important in pipeline management?
Common Sales Pipeline Stages
Every team has different titles for their defined stages, but they are all structured around the customer’s decision making process.
Originally defined by “approach, proposition, demonstration, and close”, the pipeline stages have been expanded on and fleshed out in several different ways. Thankfully, there is some common ground, even if nomenclature varies.
At this stage in the game, salespeople are focused on lead generation and prospecting. Reaching out to sales qualified leads and starting new relationships is top priority at this level as sales teams look for new business.
Once a prospect has raised their hand and fully engaged with a sales rep, they enter this stage. It’s all about identifying specific pain points and educating the prospect on what the organization can do to help. Goal setting is typically established here.
Demo / Strategy
Kind of a self-explanatory name, a demo of the solution is explored or an actual strategy and proposal is crafted at this stage of the sales pipeline.
Here’s where sales teams are looking for prospects in the pipeline to make a commitment and indicate that they’re ready to make a sale. Any hesitations or last minute concerns are addressed at this stage, paving the way to a purchase.
Closed Won / Lost
At this point, either the prospect became a customer or they didn’t. Not every deal winds up closing, unfortunately, but that’s the way of business. For the ones that did pan out though, that new customer enters a new phase of business.
10 Tips to Better Manage Your Sales Pipeline
Since your sales pipeline is broken down into lots of discrete, interconnected elements, there are many angles of attack. A tweak in how you handle one area can reverberate through the system, creating much better results.
Here are the sales pipeline management tips we’ve found most effective:
1. Align Your Sales Pipeline With the Buyer Journey.
If you’re pursuing the inbound philosophy, your marketing is already focused on the buyer journey. Content should exist for every stage, with a clear progression of conversions leading from awareness to consideration to decision. Sales can take this approach, too.
Sales departments in larger enterprises are often tempted to see things only from the company’s perspective, but the customer should remain the star. This not only allows you to anticipate needs and potential objections but makes it much easier to “close the loop” with marketing.
2. Monitor the Right Sales Pipeline Metrics for Strategic Deal Review.
Inbound sales and inbound marketing are driven by data. Leveraging data means establishing the right criteria to interpret and organize it. Sales teams have an advantage – their work is close to the bottom line, so it’s easy to avoid getting caught up in vanity metrics.
Certain sales pipeline KPIs will help you prioritize current deals at a glance. These are:
Opportunity Dollar Size vs. Average Won Deal Size
Opportunities much larger than your company’s average win are less likely to convert than those closer to average size. Enterprises pursuing account-based marketing might go “all in” on these big fish, but others should proceed mindfully to optimize their efforts.
Opportunity Age vs. Win Cycle
Opportunities that languish in your sales pipeline a long time are less likely to come back to life and give you a payoff. By noting cases where this metric is above average, you can collaborate with marketing to shore up soft points in your buyer journey.
Win rate is one of the most basic sales pipeline metrics, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Simply divide your number of closed deals by the number of opportunities in a given period to generate a win rate. It’s a bellwether for how likely it is any one opportunity will become a sale.
These metrics lay the foundation so you can evaluate opportunities as they arise. They can even help you establish lead scoring criteria.
This goes beyond the “case-by-case” approach to help you recognize hot leads by comparing them to past customers’ behaviors.
3. Optimize Your Sales Pipeline One Step at a Time.
Once you have the baselines above, a different set of metrics can fine-tune each portion of your pipeline. It’s essential to take a page from the inbound playbook – the sales pipeline is so closely intertwined with marketing’s buyer journeys, both sides must collaborate.
You might hear this referred to as “smarketing.” To make a long story short, smarketing is the idea that sales and marketing teams are on the same side and should work together as needed.
We don’t always use that term around here – we just call it common sense!
Problems with the sales pipeline are often solved at the marketing level. Clear sales metrics guide and structure this partnership. Here’s how to do it.
Flag Long “Age in Stage”.
If a sales opportunity stays in the same stage for a long time, it’s less likely to convert.
That means it’s time to review the current stage and look for some obvious shortfalls:
- Is there enough web content at the current stage to move the opportunity forward?
- Does the existing content have strong, clear calls-to-action into the next sales stage?
- On the sales side, are team members following up? In what form? Is there rapport?
- Are there tools in place to reignite stalled leads, like automated email or retargeting?
Look Out for Stage Leaps.
The buyer journey can take countless different forms, but in general, there should be some clear forward momentum over time. It doesn’t look like an arrow – more like a scatter chart with lots of dots trending in the same general direction.
What happens when this pattern breaks? If leads skip stages or go back and forth, it may mean your existing content isn’t responsive to their needs. There might be a specific use case for your product or service that’s under-represented in your content.
When stage leaps happen, it’s a bad sign. It’s not always possible to recapture leads who’ve been jumping around, but you should check up to see if you can learn more about their thought process.
Attack Time and Value Slippage.
After you have clear interest from a lead and have conducted the initial discovery session, it might look like smooth sailing. Alas, storms can appear out of nowhere when you least expect it!
Slippage refers to negative changes in the way a deal is expected to proceed after the lead has made a preliminary commitment. It can happen in terms of time – implementation date keeps getting pushed back – or deal size.
Clients have a lot of excuses for this, with budget constraints and authority conflicts among the most common. To keep your pipeline from getting clogged, be sure to institute a strong sales qualification framework to use on every deal.
4. Use CRM and Automate, Automate, Automate.
At its heart, a sale pipeline is everything leads experience that moves them toward a deal. Managing all those interactions, for dozens or hundreds of people across months or years at a time, is a stretch no matter the size of your team.
Luckily, sales technology is advancing fast to keep up with the volume and velocity of data your leads generate. A good customer relationship management suite will put you well ahead of the game in maintaining the rhythm of your follow up, lead scoring, and much more.
Your pipeline gets a lot more streamlined once you adopt a CRM, so make it a priority.
5. Prioritize the Leads in Your Sales Pipeline.
There’s nothing wrong with focusing on your most qualified leads.
Of course, every prospect should be nurtured and guided down the pipeline, but managing your pipeline means managing your time as well. Prioritizing time and attention on leads that are sales ready and high value will mean a healthy pipeline full of profitable leads.
Sort your leads from high to low to see which are the most valuable to your business. You can monitor your interactions with each one and identify who is the most engaged, warranting more attention.
6. Keep Your Sales Cycle Short.
If your sales cycle is long, then that means there’s more time for your prospect to change their mind and fall out of your pipeline.
Keeping your cycle as short as possible ensures that you’re making valuable, impactful sales that build momentum for your business’ growth.
If you find that a long cycle is your greatest obstacle in managing your pipeline, then it may be time to look into your processes. Again, automation tools can help tremendously in shortening the process, along with more relationship focused, consultative selling.
7. Develop a Standardized Sales Process for Your Team.
When your whole team is on the same page, then it makes working together efficiently and effectively a lot easier.
Creating a common sales process or template is a great way to push prospects down the sales pipeline. The team will be working in unison and at the same pace. When sales reps build their own routines, they can fall out of alignment and slow the cycle down.
It also makes onboarding new team members easier, as they can adapt and implement a structured process a lot faster than trying to develop their own habits.
8. Offer an Overwhelming Amount of Content.
Scheduled meetings and lead nurturing emails are great and all, but providing your prospects with comprehensive, valuable content is a surefire way to build trust and educate them.
Work in alignment with your marketing team to brainstorm content marketing strategies that will attract leads and give your sales reps content that they can offer to inquiring prospects. Well written blog posts, case studies, and ebooks will help reinforce your messaging and provide credibility.
Make the content readily available. You can send it via emails, offer downloadable pieces, and even host events with the goal of educating attendees.
9. Cut Dead Leads Out of Your Sales Pipeline.
This can be a difficult practice to implement, but it will save your team a lot of time and resources if you can develop an effective system for it.
A lead is a lead, so you don’t want to just dismiss every low one that enters your pipeline. That’s not a habit we’re looking to encourage.
Instead, define what a sales qualified lead looks like for your business and what criteria should be met in order to justify nurturing them. For any leads that don’t fit the bill or that have been sitting unengaged for far too long, cut them loose.
10. Never Forget the Follow Up.
Following up can be difficult for sales reps. Whether it’s due to the volume of opportunities, an inefficient use of time, or because of burn out, follow ups are a major obstacle for sales teams.
In order to land a sale though, it takes consistency.
Following up doesn’t only nurture sales relationships and keep prospects engaged. It can also help weed out dead leads from your pipeline as well.
Nowadays, automation has made keeping in contact easy without losing any of the personalization that prospects are looking for. Email templates can be scheduled out to different segmented lists, taking half of the work out of it.
5 Sales Pipeline Tools You Should Try
There’s quite an impressive list of software and platforms available for sales teams to use for pipeline management today. Some dashboards are more comprehensive than others. Some have additional marketing features.
It all depends on what your team’s needs are. We’ve sorted through some of the best and selected our top five pipeline tools that you should consider.
HubSpot offers sales and marketing tools along with a customizable CRM. It’s a great resource for both monitoring and managing your sales process and pipeline.
You can identify new leads and their sources through their powerful analytics. With email integration, automation, and a hefty supply of templates and personalization features, your sales team will have an easy time measuring every stage of your pipeline.
Price: HubSpot has a free plan and a paid plan starting at $50/mo., with the opportunity to purchase add ons.
Salesforce has an incredibly renowned CRM that pairs with their sales suite nicely.
The Sales Cloud’s tools operate under four categories: getting leads, closing deals, boosting productivity, and gathering analytics.
Users are able to grow their accounts from anywhere on the cloud database, so long as they are connected to wi-fi.
Price: Salesforce plans start at $25/mo for each user.
Mailchimp is a great tool for teams that aren’t looking for a full deck of cards. For this email management system, users are able to craft campaigns and customized emails to send out to their lists.
Even though it doesn’t have its own CRM, for those who only need a means of outreach, it’s perfect for those who don’t have a ton of coding or design experience.
Price: Mailchimp has a free plan and a paid plan starting at $10/mo.
Returning to larger software, Pipedrive is designed to help manage sales processes easily and successfully.
A self declared “sales tool for small teams with big ambitions,” it’s best suited for those who are in the process of growing their business.
Their tools aim to provide a clear view of your team’s pipeline, from emails to forecasting. The interface is clean and simple, providing a bird’s eye view of your sales process.
Price: Pipedrive’s plans start at $12/mo. for each user.
5. Zoho CRM
Zoho CRM has features in place to help users remain engaged with customers across platforms. With integrations in place for email, social media, and call centers, users can nurture leads and keep in touch with prospects down the entire pipeline.
A software that highlights outreach above all else, Zoho still has a pretty nice catalog of marketing and deal management tools.
Price: Zoho CRM’s plans start at $12/mo.
Companies using ad hoc pipeline management are like a garage band. They sound good sometimes, but they’re rarely on key together for long. Rigorous, documented pipeline management practices turn your sales team into the world class orchestra it deserves to be.