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Too many salespeople think that pipeline management is a bureaucratic burden placed upon them just to keep their bosses happy. So they update their pipelines 3 minutes before it is due or they don't do it at all. Let me put it to you this way: if the winners I've coached weren't told to spend time and effort managing their pipelines, they would do it anyway, because they know that's the secret to maintaining a steady flow of business.Taking control of your pipeline will enable you to smooth out the monthly or quarterly peaks and valleys leading to much more consistent and predictable revenue production.
Get a solid understanding of how your customers evaluate and procure products and services.Whether you are selling commercial real estate, enterprise software, industrial equipment, legal, financial, professional, or outsourced services, or just about anything else that requires your offering to be evaluated by a business buyer, you need to understand how your buyer buys.
Start by listing the key milestones from their perspective combined with what you know you have to do to secure the business. For example, companies looking for enterprise software may first uncover a need, then define requirements, create an RFP (request for proposal), send it to a long list of vendors, cull the list, require presentations, a demonstration, pilot or proof of concept, a proposal, a final meeting, negotiate, and then go forward with the selected vendor.
You'll need to timeline those milestones into groups based upon the experience you (or others in your company) have had selling your offerings into that market. That will provide you with the stages you will manage. Creating a model like the one below will provide you with a new level of visibility into where you stand on each opportunity, what is left to be done, and whether the opportunity is moving along at the expected pace.
From the model below you'll see an example of how the milestones and qualification criteria slot into stages. I've only listed some of the milestones and criteria, and be aware, please, that this model will likely not apply to your situation. It is intended to be generic and the attrition percentages (see below) and months until close are for example only. Also, I've used stage descriptions from your ( the vendor's) perspective. You might want to use the customer's stage descriptions, once you really understand how they buy.
Sample Pipeline Management Model
You'll notice the attrition percentage between each stage. That's where the term "sales funnel" originates. The attrition is based on history (for you and your company). It represents what percentage of opportunities from the previous stage will historically not make it to the next stage. If you track this, you'll get more and more data as the quarters go on and your calibration will become increasingly accurate.
You'll want to adapt this model to your selling situation. If at all possible, you'll want customize your SFA or CRM tool with these stages and milestones. Then each and every sales opportunity in your pipeline with be categorized by stage. Again, you'll know what stage it belongs in by what milestones have been completed and what qualification criteria are being met. Your sales plan for each opportunity will contain specifics on how you will advance the deal to the next stage.
It should be apparent that you will need to have appropriate levels of opportunities in each stage of the cycle, front-loaded in the earlier stages to accommodate that attrition. I look for not only the number of opportunities, but the rolled up potential revenue associated with each stage as well. For example, if your average deal size is $50k, one sole, $500k deal in the engagement stage is a risk--a big one.
Using a model like this will make you money.
Your sales process will be aligned with the pipeline model (which is driven from customer buying cycles combined with your selling cycle). You'll know every tactic required to advance each opportunity and you'll be able to determine with a reasonable degree of certainty what business you will be closing and when.
There are a number of additional points to be made in reference to the model above:
In the model below, you can see that the aggregate value of a rep's pipeline in stages D and C have decreased by $100k and $200k respectively. This could be caused by a recalibration of the process--getting closer to "the truth." Or it could be the result of a competitor who is gaining ground. In any case, you can see that this is a powerful diagnostic tool. If the rep is calibrating accurately, they have made good progress in adding potential opportunities to the earlier stages of their pipeline.
My Pipeline Analysis
Many sales executives and VPs of marketing I know keep track of the contents of all stages of their aggregate pipeline so they have visibility into where it may be anemic, warning them of a potential dip in sales at some point in the future. They take action accordingly. For example, a savvy, proactive VP of sales will redirect resources to qualified deals in that anemic stage to assure that the quarter in which those deals are expected to close isn't a bust.
You can see that in order for this to work, the pipeline must be calibrated twice. First, the individual sales rep must calibrate where each opportunity is, based upon what has been completed and what remains, as well as through his or her ongoing qualification process. In this way, the veracity of each deal can be assessed relative to the others as well as in absolute terms.
Second, all reps must be able to calibrate their deals relative to each other. That way, the value of the entire team's pipeline as well as the forecast are built upon objective criteria and the completion of critical milestones, not the more typical subjective guesses of a bunch of reps which are further factored by their manager.
When you manage your pipeline this way, you can see that accurate forecasting is a natural extension of the process. The forecast stages of your pipeline (the final one, two, or perhaps three stages, i. e. closing, proposal, and engagement in my example) are fact and activity-based, not based on guesswork. Qualification criteria used in advanced stages of opportunities are employed to gauge likelihood of close.
Many VPs of sales keep the pipeline to themselves, only sharing the aggregate value of each stage. They don't want the CEO chasing down reps asking about their pet deal. And it follows that reps like to keep the details of their individual deals to themselves for the same reason. My experience is that this need abates when the reps are able to better manage their pipeline. In fact, they tend to share details about nascent opportunities because they are seeking the truth and leverage their corporate capital to do so.
The Bottom Line
Improved pipeline management is a huge opportunity for many salespeople and their managers. It provides a number of benefits:
Dave Stein, after 25 years in sales leadership positions and delivering his own sales training and consulting worldwide, founded ES Research Inc. ESR offers independent, authoritative advice on Sales Training and Consulting and the Companies that provide it through weekly briefs, in-depth reports, online seminars and advisory services. For more information go to www.ESResearch.com or call 508.313.9585
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