The sales pipeline is a collection of individual sales opportunities, each with different buyers, assigned to different sales reps by different products and/or territories, with each of the opportunities at various stages of the buying journey. Even if your sales team is small - perhaps 10 sales reps, with each sales rep having 20 opportunities - the math quickly adds up, the number of things to track becomes large in a hurry, and sales pipeline accuracy becomes a challenge. That problem only becomes more daunting as your sales team scales up.
The challenge is compounded when different sales roles need different things out of the sales pipeline:
- It should tell the sales reps where to prioritize their time, which deals are closest to closing, and which need nurturing. The sales pipeline should also help them guide the buyer through the buying/sales process.
- It can help sales managers personalize coaching for individual sales reps based on where they need support. It should help them manage the gap between team quotas and sold-to-date and provide a roadmap of a primary path to quota as well as “plan-B” opportunities to fill in if plan A falls short.
- It is the core tool for sales operations to diagnose challenges in the sales process, improve efficiency and effectiveness across the sales organization, measure change across the sales organization, and support sales growth objectives.
- Sales leadership uses an aggregated pipeline view to manage the gap between total company sales forecast and “close-won.” They roll up the pipeline and the forecast in different ways to understand what is working and strategize the future. They use visualization to measure past and present pipeline linearity, pipeline build, and process shifts in the sales process.
The sales pipeline is a key tool for managing sales across all four of these roles and it is vital for sales forecast accuracy.
In some companies, the discipline required to update and manage the B2B sales pipeline is often ignored until there’s a problem, such as a missed sales forecast or a major shift in the market or the economy. Other companies only have a periodic view of the sales pipeline, perhaps on a weekly or monthly basis.
In both cases, urgent needs for information trigger a mad scramble across the sales organization to update key opportunities and catch up on any action items. This is followed by Excel downloads and a massaging of information to marry it up with other information and produce a grid-based, disconnected, non-real-time view of all the sales pipeline.
This pipeline view is typically disconnected from CRM, which makes it out of date before it is printed. It is also “flat” because most pipeline reports don’t provide the robust interactions required to manage the dynamic nature of the sales pipeline.
Sales Pipeline Technology and Process
Users need an intuitive, real-time view of their sales pipelines. The view should allow effortless drill-down to all the supporting information. Visualizing the sales pipeline goes beyond a listing of opportunities, opportunity amounts, and targeted close dates. The sales pipeline should allow you to drill into details or different aspects of the pipeline without going to multiple tools or dashboards and without losing context.
The technology is only good if the business processes are in place to support the content in the sales pipeline. How do you ensure that? Here are some best practices:
- Update the sales pipeline on a regular basis - the sales pipeline is only as good as the data in it. Make sure your people know how important this is, and give them the tools to update it frequently and easily.
- Follow up from the sales pipeline - proactively - the best salespeople make sure they are continuously following up with the buying teams of their sales opportunities, but the process isn’t easy. Buying teams can have 3 to 10 people evaluating the product, all with different perspectives, needs, and degrees of urgency. It is hard to keep it organized without a system to remind them to take action when appropriate.
- Deliver the right content - proactively - providing content helps prospects understand better the current state of the art and how your product fits into it. Each sales stage is made up of milestones that help the prospect to the next stage and obstacles that kill the deal. Content helps reinforce your message and move them past the obstacles.
- Review and improve your sales process - the best sales teams make a point of continually improving the sales process to ensure maximum efficiency and success.
- Focus on closing the best leads, nurturing the new leads and “close loss” opportunities as soon as possible - You and your team must focus on the best, closest-to-sale, high-value opportunities in the sales pipeline. Also important is keeping your new leads interested via content and an ongoing dialog as they learn about the solutions and warm up to your product or solution. Lastly, be ruthless when letting go of leads. Hanging on to old leads costs time that can be spent courting your best opportunities and nurturing the opportunities not ready to buy.
- Monitor the pipeline from many different perspectives - You can’t fix what you can’t see! The sales pipeline is a living, breathing animal that is constantly changing. It is easy for things to slip through the cracks or miss opportunities without constantly monitoring what is going on.
A key indicator of your sales’ team's efficiency and effectiveness is its ability to deliver an accurate sales forecast. Forecast accuracy provides the entire organization a direct window into how well the sales organization understands its buyers and customers. It is an indicator of how well sales manages the revenue engine in a structured and repeatable way.
The sales pipeline is the beating heart of that process and your revenue engine.