A sales pipeline breaks down your potential customers’ pathway to becoming a paying customer into logical, trackable steps.
It shows you exactly which deals require your attention. It gives you full awareness of the current state of affairs and lays the groundwork for the actions necessary to prevent revenue opportunities from slipping through the cracks.
If you recognize the significance of building your own sales pipeline and invest a reasonable amount of effort into its maintenance, you’ll have an asset so important that it will help shape your entire marketing strategy, maximize your efficiency, and optimize for sustainable growth.
Best of all, you can automate it with a CRM – Customer Relationship Management system. Scroll to the end to learn more.
Having an automated sales pipeline, you’ll be infinitely more likely to hit your sales quotas. Hell, you’ll be way more likely to even have sales quotas.
But without one, you’re turning a blind eye to the very obvious threat of missing out on or neglecting the great leads, while focusing on ones that slow you down.
Now that would be a backward snowball right there, wouldn’t it?
All bad jokes aside, building a sales pipeline for your business will enable you to predict your revenue and track your leads on each step they make, giving you a headstart to plan accordingly.
Moreover, by maintaining your sales pipeline you’ll be able to draw insights that will help you simplify your sales and define your marketing strategy in a way that lets you capitalize on your existing strengths.
Sales Pipeline vs. Sales Funnel
As they say, it’s a matter of perspective. Two sides to the same coin.
A sales funnel describes the customer journey. It’s from a customer’s point of view—the stages they go through from learning about your business to becoming a customer:
A sales pipeline, on the other hand, is your side of the coin. It describes the steps in a sales process that your team takes while qualifying leads and closing deals.
A good example:
“A sales pipeline is the steps a person goes through. A sales funnel represents the number of people who make it through those steps.”
—Active Campaign, partner
Most Common Sales Pipeline Stages
We’ll go through six:
But these are only the six most common ones. Think of this as a sales pipeline blueprint, but remember that the goal is to make a sales pipeline of your own.
It’s strongly advised never to readjust your sales process to fit a pre-made sales pipeline template.
Now let’s pick these stages apart and see what each of them represents.
To get to real-life people who might be interested, you first need to help them discover you. There are two essential ways to go about that – lead generation and sales prospecting.
While lead generation encompasses a one-to-many approach consisting of all the marketing strategies used to create interest in what you are offering, sales prospecting is an active process of reaching out to potential customers who are more likely to buy.
This will help you differentiate better:
- Email campaigns
- Direct mail
- PPC Ads
- Warm calls
- Cold calls
- Cold emailing
- Networking events
Lead and prospect generation is art of their own, and they both matter because more interested leads in your pipeline mean more sales opportunities.
Any of the strategies above might prove most fruitful for your business, so make sure to research and understand them all.
Once you get the gist of it and run a few tests perhaps, all that’s left to do is listen to your sales pipeline and scale what works.
It’s an acronym, but we’ll get to it.
BANT’s a lead qualification technique designed by IBM. It’s a sales standard and a go-to-method of lead qualification.
Why do you need to qualify your leads?
Lead qualification helps you determine whether the leads you have are worth your time and effort. You don’t want to waste your time. You want to build relationships and grow your revenue.
Therefore, the last thing you need is someone to drag out the sales process and decide not to buy after you’ve already invested into building the relationship and had someone on it.
So before you bring your A-game to the negotiating table, you need to know whether they even know what they want and / or have what it takes to follow through with the deal.
Now let’s demystify BANT:
B – Budget.
Do they have it?
A – Authority.
Does the person have the authority to make buying decisions, or do you need to talk to someone else?
N – Needs.
Do they have a need or a problem that you can take care of?
T – Timeline.
When do they need your product or service?
Once you qualify your leads, you’ll want to score them based on the likeliness to close the sale, based on what you learned from experience.
Most often custom for each business, there are strategy guidelines for lead scoring that you might want to research.
You qualified your leads.
You found a way to prioritize them.
Now you want to set up a meeting.
That’s how you get to know them and understand them, as well as their goals and mission, and find out what they’ve already done in pursuit of those goals.
That’s also how they get to know you, and more importantly, why should they buy from you?
Done right, it’s a chance to stand out. Make them think it was their idea.
You want to be prepared to present your offer in detail and show them how it’s better than others.
You want to be ready to meet and overcome their potential objections to purchasing.
Research. Review. Prepare. Repeat.
“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”
—Wernher von Braun
You don’t know them.
Yet, nobody can undermine the crucial significance of the first impression.
So, turn to research and you’ll be more likely to turn the odds to your advantage.
First, who are you going to meet? Find their LinkedIn. Google them. Visit the company website. Understand their market. Find news articles about them.
Once you’ve researched them, you’ll want to put your pitch together accordingly. Don’t be shy to use your findings from the research. Coming over as thoughtful, proactive, and informed is a good thing.
Then review your pitch. Make sure to use the same language as your customers. It will help them understand the pitch and it will help them trust you.
To prepare for the meeting, show your commitment to the potential customer by putting together a list of questions that will help you understand them.
Additionally, think about what they might want to ask you and be ready to answer.
And lastly, rehearse. But not lastly as in at the last minute—leave yourself some time to change your pitch if you realize there are ways to better demonstrate your product or service as you rehearse it.
When you know they’re ready to buy, you need to ask them to become a customer. Naturally, this comes in the shape of a detailed, formal proposal.
You’ll want to pitch solutions to their problem, not your product or service. Focus on the benefits they’ll get from your service.
Visuals and numbers will make your proposal more persuasive, so perhaps try to emphasize the benefits with some stats and infographics.
List your price points from highest to lowest.
Break the information down so they could take it in more easily.
Keep it short and concise and use their language.
Your proposal should be a very straightforward, natural next step in the relationship you’ve built in the previous stages. No surprises. Remember they can still just go away, even though you got this far.
If the proposal went through as it was supposed to, it’s time to close the sale.
The only leads that fall into the closing stage are the ones who either signed a contract or made a purchase. They are a paying customer.
Time to take a deep breath, though…
Because in a sense, this is only the beginning.
Closed a sale?
Perfect. It’s not over, though.
Brace yourself: 80 percent of your future profit will come from 20% of your existing customers.
That’s why you’ll want to keep them happy, connect with whoever they bring in and keep the pace.
Have tact; Don’t rush out to acquire hordes of new customers until you’re certain you’re taking good care of the ones that purchased from you already.
Because a retention stage in your sales pipeline will not only keep customers engaged, but create feedback opportunities and turn customers into advocates as well.
Moreover, good retention means more repeat customers—the most desirable customers there are. They are more likely to buy upsells and upgrades, as well as future products and premium services, but also to make shiny recommendations.
Fun fact before we proceed to the next part:
The likelihood of closing with a new lead is 5-20%.
The likelihood of closing with an existing customer is 60-70%.
How to Build Your Sales Pipeline
It’s a handful.
But once you break it down to these three simple steps, it’s not that intimidating anymore.
Step 1: Profile Your Ideal Customer
Seriously, you need to know them.
You want to know so much about them that you can practically paint a picture of their face with your eyes closed, write an essay about their childhood traumas, and give recommendations on how to make the most out of their concerning sleeping patterns.
Zuck aside, there are two things you’ll want to know before you dig deeper – what they want, and how they talk about what they want.
That’s because using your customers’ language opens a gateway to their perception of reality itself. It resonates with them, shapes their needs, hears them, knows them.
“Customer language is the secret weapon of top salespeople – when you can explain how you solve problems AND use the same words your customers use, your sales pitch gets way more persuasive.”
Things you’ll want to know:
Who is your ideal customer?
- Their goals and priorities?
- Their values
- Their demographics, including gender, age, location, industry, income, and education
- Terminology and language they use
- Brands they like
- Where they h/o online
- Their preferable form of communication
Their pain points?
- Challenges they face
- Problems you can solve for them
- Which of the benefits you bring to the table matters to them the most
- The biggest pain point your product / service solve
Their potential objections?
- Concerns that could make them refrain from purchasing
- Why buy from you and not somebody else
Historical customer data?
- What type of customers shows the highest conversion rate right now?
- What type of customers can afford to buy products or services with the highest purchase value?
- On average, how long does it take you to close with your existing customers?
Ideal customer forecast?
- How does your product / service improve their life / work?
- What goes down if they don’t use your product / service?
“Leads who don’t fit your ideal customer profile will jam your pipeline and waste your resources. With a well-researched customer profile, the quality of your leads will improve…which means a better-converting pipeline.”
Step 2: Design Your Pipeline Stages
This recipe starts with the secret sauce:
Customer. First. Customer first.
Now that we are 100% on the same page with that, the recipe is to put your customer first—by creating a sales pipeline that matches the journey they go through.
This is extremely important because unless you do, it means you made your sales pipeline just to have steps. So instead of creating a high-speed sales railway to transport your customers along their buyer’s journey with first-class tickets, you would be asking them to follow your own journey on foot.
Now, because you need to figure out custom stages that suit your business and your customers, there isn’t a very specific instruction manual to do it.
But you can start with identifying the major steps of the buyer’s journey that your customers go through.
Awareness: In this initial stage, the lead discovers that they have a pain point or need.
Consideration: The lead has defined their goal or problem and they’re exploring potential solutions.
Decision: They’re comparing solutions and making their decisions to buy.
So, identify and reflect on the stages of their journey and think of pipeline stages to match them.
It’s important to approach this matter from multiple angles, so discuss it with your team members to make sure that nothing is left out and there are no leaks in your sales pipeline.
Step 3: Identify Trigger Actions
It’s important to recognize that your customer is ready to buy—that’s exactly what they might be searching for, a little recognition. When you act on a potential customer’s momentum, it inspires trust. One thing leads to another.
This means you’ll want to advance them to the next stage of the sales pipeline as soon as they signal they’re ready.
The point is to identify actions that signal that the customer is ready for the next stage, and set up automated follow-up triggers to accompany those actions in order to reach the lead while it’s hot.
To get you an idea of what some of these trigger actions might be, think email list sign-ups, sample orders, demo requests, trial period completions.
To encourage trigger actions, send more follow-up emails, make it easier to order samples or trials, provide better customer support, refine your landing pages and offer valuable incentives for completed trials.
The list goes on, and it’s all about customer experience.
Remember: It Requires Management
Keep in mind that the road to success is always under construction.
The sales process is never hands-off.
You need to keep cleaning your pipeline. You need to keep checking it for leaks.
Invest your time and resources to identify and discuss the leads currently moving through your pipeline. Figure out why some likely-to-convert leads wound up disqualified in a later sales stage, how did you lose them? What made the tricky leads buy in the end, after all?
“Companies that spent at least 4 hours managing their sales pipeline saw 14% greater revenue growth than those who spent only 1 hour a month”
Show your team how to use the pipeline and you’ll see an average of 23% greater revenue growth. People are afraid of what they do not understand. You don’t want fear around when it’s time to get your piece of the pie.
Don’t give up easily. Send more follow-ups. 27% of total sales leads are never followed up at all. That’s too much to keep missing out on.
Don’t overcomplicate your sales process, because the longer you make it, the more chances they have to change their mind, up and leave.
Try to leverage some neat recommendations. There’s a stat pointing out that folks are nothing short of a cool 90% more likely to buy from a company with neat word-of-mouth recommendations.
Align your sales and marketing language, and collaborate with marketing.
Remember to clean your pipeline of non-active leads, check whether there are any leads stuck for longer than usual in any given stage, and make sure that all details and notes are up to date.
Metrics for Your Sales Pipeline
To be sure your pipeline is effective, you’ll want to pay attention to the following metrics:
- Number of leads
- Average deal size
- Sales cycle length
- Close ration
- Average deal lifetime
Now, there’s something called pipeline velocity.
It represents the speed at which your leads move through your pipeline.
The formula for pipeline velocity is:
Number of leads in your pipeline x overall win rate percentage x average deal size ($) / days in sales cycle
Okay, you multiplied it, divided it, tossed it in the garbage bin, pulled it out, shredded it. And you got a number. So why does it matter?
Because if you follow it month-to-month and compare it to your revenue for each given month, you’ll be able to make some surprisingly accurate revenue forecasts.
Want Maximum Efficiency?
Automate it with a CRM
A customer relationship management (CRM) platform keeps track of all your leads as well as your current customers in the retention stage.
Combined with a sales pipeline, it creates an automated sales pipeline that grows your business.
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