The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Sales Pipeline During the Down Times

Starting a business is easy. Keeping that business running is a lot trickier. According to Hubspot, up to 90% of all startups ultimately fail. Among firms that crash and burn, 10% do so within the first two years. As for the remaining companies that manage to break into the big time: what makes them survivors? For many successful businesses, the key is keeping the sales pipeline flowing. When leads flow freely through the sales pipeline, the result is a steady revenue stream.

How to optimize your sales pipeline
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What is a Sales Pipeline?

Even the most successful businesses need a regular inflow of new customers to fuel their growth. By contrast, those who depend on their existing client base are liable to find revenues drying up when the market becomes saturated. Unless a company manages to consistently attract new customers, they face eventual business extinction.

A sales pipeline is an internal system that companies use to track the flow of customers through the entire sales process. Managers use it to see how many leads eventually become paying customers. Meanwhile, sales representatives utilize the pipeline to track their leads’ current stage—and develop strategies to move them to the next.

It’s worth remembering that not all leads become customers. The sales pipeline exists to help sales representatives identify those leads with the greatest potential. Armed with these insights, it’s easier to target this high-potential group. Another benefit of the sales pipeline is how it helps sales departments make better, more accurate forecasts, as well as estimate the sales cycle length.

Sales Pipeline vs. Sales Funnel: There’s an Important Difference!

Some people might understandably confuse the sales pipeline with a sales funnel. After all, both refer to a sales process that starts with leads and ends (hopefully) in a conversion. The major difference between the two is the perspective. The sales pipeline identifies stages in the sales process from the seller’s point of view. Meanwhile, the sales funnel takes its cue from the prospect’s sales journey. It tracks how the prospect travels through the various stages of the sales process—from initial interest through to purchase decision.

The 7 Stages of the Sales Pipeline

The sales pipeline identifies each step of the sales journey, from introduction to conclusion. Knowing where your prospects and customers are within the pipeline will give you a better understanding of what they need to move forward.

The traditional sales pipeline consists of seven stages:

1. Prospecting

Prospecting is the gathering of all possible leads for your business—not forgetting interested parties from your previous sales and marketing activities. It includes ads, social posts, sales events and referrals. In many cases, you can prequalify prospects by making specific adjustments to your messages. This makes it easier to qualify leads from the list of prospects.

2. Lead Qualification

The second stage involves filtering prospects and keeping only those who are interested in your product or service. Offering prospects more information—such as sales materials, research papers or links to instructive videos—can help you confirm their interest.

3. Meeting

Once leads express an interest, sales teams can schedule a meeting to talk about their specific needs. This gives the sales team an opportunity to explain their proposed solution in more detail. Alternatively, scheduling a demonstration is another great way for leads to further evaluate a product.

4. Proposal

The proposal stage formalizes the finer points the prospect needs to make a decision. This is where the sales team clarifies details, such as price, availability, delivery timeline and service and warranty coverage, to the client. Usually, the proposal also explains how the product plans to deliver value that exceeds the quoted price.

5. Negotiation

Negotiation covers the back-and-forth between buyer and seller on the way to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement. As long as both parties remain amenable to suggested changes—for instance, price adjustment, add-on services and contract duration—this becomes the penultimate stage prior to closing.

6. Decision

Reaching the decision stage means that all buyer requirements have been satisfactorily fulfilled by the seller. In other words, the deal is now official and both parties can conclude this specific transaction. Contrary to what most people think, however, the decision stage is not the final stop on the sales pipeline.

7. After-Sales

A closed deal is ideally not the end state of the sales process. Think about it this way—a signed contract only signifies the start of the partnership. That’s why even after closing the deal, the sales pipeline should remain active, keeping track of post-sales servicing, customer support and scheduled maintenance. The after-sales stage also covers the possibility of negotiating for contract renewals or extensions.  

Keep Your Sales Pipeline Flowing!

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Like its real-world counterpart, the sales pipeline needs to be kept free from obstructions that might block the flow of prospective customers. For sales reps, the sales pipeline provides an opportunity to monitor each prospect and guide them through the entire journey. For sales managers, it’s a tool to monitor the performance of their individual sales team members relative to their sales activities.

Managing the sales pipeline involves a few maintenance activities, which sales teams should perform regularly to prevent a blockage. Here, we’ll provide an overview of the most important steps you can take to keep the sales pipeline in optimal shape.

1. Review Your Sales Pipeline

Before laying out the pipeline, your sales team should have a clear roadmap in place. Furthermore, ensure that everybody’s on board with the sales process. For example, are they all in agreement with the target market, engagement channels and content marketing strategy?

Another crucial step is to re-establish your short- and long-term goals. Achieving more immediate targets can put you on track to realize long-term ones. Short-term aims could include setting daily, weekly or monthly objectives, such as lead conversion or actual sales. By regularly checking the viability of these targets, your entire organization will be better placed to focus on hitting the sales forecast squarely.

2. Identify the Bottlenecks

When reviewing the sales process, you might notice some bottlenecks preventing prospects from moving smoothly along the pipeline. Once these obstacles are identified, the sales team can come up with strategies to remove them.

In many cases, your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform can help with this identification process. Here, your database of customer information can provide insights into specific problems that arise at each stage of the pipeline. For example, are you spending an inordinate amount of time on leads that do not actually qualify? Alternatively, are there issues that remain unaddressed during the negotiation stage?

A careful review of your pipeline can reveal the hairline cracks that need addressing immediately. With data analytics, you’re able to compare conversion rates between various stages to detect where the obstacles lie. Closer scrutiny also helps with understanding why the drop-offs happen at a particular stage. By reviewing these activities, it’s possible to determine whether the buyer (or the seller) dropped the ball at this point.

3. Prioritize Sales and Marketing Alignment

Your sales and marketing departments play for the same team. Moreover, they share the same objective: generating bigger revenues for the company. That said, poor communication between the two groups sometimes leads to misaligned efforts or uncoordinated activities. As a result, sales begin ignoring marketing strategies even as the latter ignores the former’s inputs when creating new campaigns.

Reconnecting the two departments by strengthening communication can help avoid these misalignments. To start with, ensure that both parties take sales and marketing alignment meetings more seriously. The sales team needs marketing to produce quality lead-generation activities. At the same time, marketing needs the sales team’s insight—gathered via customer relationships—to develop relevant programs.

Given that today’s buyers prefer engaging a sales rep at the latter stages of their sales journey, businesses need both sales and marketing to work in unison. For companies that can unite these separate silos, the results speak for themselves. According to Super Office, organizations with aligned sales and marketing teams report 24% faster growth rates as well as a 27% faster increase in profits within a single year.

4. Improve Lead Generation Management

A misaligned lead generation strategy invariably alters the course of your sales pipeline. Instead of acting on quality leads, the sales team wastes time and resources chasing after prospects that neither want nor can afford the solutions offered. To avoid this potentially disastrous scenario, you’ll need to revisit your approach to certain sections of your lead strategy.

Use the Right Lead Qualification Process

Instead of focusing on increasing the number of leads, sellers should rather concentrate on the quality of these leads. The right lead qualification process ensures that only the best go into the pipeline. Specific frameworks include the BANT, ANUM and CHAMP varieties.

  • BANT (Budget, Authority, Need and Timeline). The BANT framework prioritizes budget over everything else. This assumes that conversations won’t move forward unless the buyer and seller resolve price issues. BANT’s downside is that it often willingly sacrifices some or all of the customer’s needs to fit the budget.
  • ANUM (Authority, Need, Urgency and Money). This framework presents the seller as an industry or thought leader that can address a buyer’s need for leading solutions.
  • CHAMP (Challenge, Authority, Money and Prioritization). The CHAMP framework assumes that problems or objections will surface during the product evaluation stages. As such, it focuses on covering all anticipated challenges.

Utilize Buyer Intent When Qualifying Leads and Apply Lead Nurturing

Buyer intent relates to a customer’s tendency to buy your product or service. Behaviors that confirm this intent include the level of interest in your available content.

For instance, interested parties are more likely to go beyond a cursory visit to an organization’s website. They will also spend more time scanning pages about the company, its values and history. In addition, they might download freely-available sales and marketing materials or visit the blog site to learn more about products and services. This could include specifics like free trial downloads, attending company webinars, following social accounts and watching tutorials or demos. Sellers that ignore buyer intent during the qualifying stages of the sales pipeline might miss out on potential new clients.

Further, sellers must provide the right sales and marketing materials for potential clients at every stage of the pipeline. The further the prospect is along the sales journey, the more extensive their content requirements will be. Feeding them the wrong kind of content could even act as a roadblock.

5. Track Relevant KPIs

Making goals measurable assists in tracking results and keeps everybody on the same page. However, this depends of the relevance of the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) chosen to monitor progress toward your objectives. Get this wrong, and you could spend unnecessary time drowning in data without knowing what’s relevant to your goal. In addition, an overabundance of metrics may even interfere with forecasts and complicate your strategy.

When utilizing KPIs, review data regularly and check for accuracy. If the numbers show that programs and strategies aren’t working, it might be a good time to explore a new direction.

For the sales pipeline, retain only the most significant metrics that indicate pipeline performance or deal health. The former measures the efficiencies of your lead generation and conversion programs, while the latter evaluates potential revenue and profit for each deal. Some of the more common metrics include the following:

Average Sales Cycle

With each passing day, a salesperson utilizes more resources in the hope of closing a deal. Measuring how long it takes for your team to convert a lead and finalize the purchase can highlight their efficiency. This metric also lets you identify the performers in your group—the ones that close, and close fast.

Average Purchase Size

The average purchase size represents the average order value from all successful conversions, which also determines the price range for the average customer. This data is what helps sales managers make more accurate sales forecasts—and establish a more accurate price point for products based on customers’ willingness to buy.

Conversion Rate

This metric calculates the success rate of leads converted into buyers. Moreover, it assists in determining which specific strategies actually worked in attracting buyers. As a result, managers know which programs to continue adopting for the next sales season.

Average Profit

Businesses exist to make a profit. Therefore, it makes sense to measure potential profit from each deal to ensure the company isn’t operating at a loss simply to unload its inventory. Strategies that don’t turn a substantial profit will most likely be removed before the next cycle.

Generated Leads Per Month

This measure tracks the effectiveness of lead generation programs. It also checks whether the increase in leads eventually translates to a greater number of conversions.

6. Invest in Your Sales Teams

The sales pipeline only works if your team really understands and embraces the process. Knowledge is passed on from leaders—so before checking that sales reps are familiar with the system, make sure that your managers and supervisors are also up-to-speed. After all, they’re the ones who will be training and advising the sales team to better manage the sales conversion process.

Regular onboarding and training are great ways to be sure that the entire organization remains properly informed and up-to-date in respect of the sales pipeline—as well as the tools that come with it. As an example, consider the use of the right presentation software to deliver a clear and comprehensive message. Whether you’re updating the sales team or offering clients a solution, learning how to match your “voice” to your audience will help avoid miscommunication and make a far greater impact.

Investing time and resources in mastering the sales pipeline produces dividends. According to the Harvard Business Review, companies that managed to learn three sales pipeline methods reported a 28% higher revenue growth. In contrast, those with ineffective pipeline management recorded an average growth rate of 4.6%.

What Happens If You Keep Your Sales Pipeline Unchecked?

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A finely tuned sales pipeline boosts sales performance as a result of more accurate forecasts, better lead management and improved closing rates. That said, this assumes that the entire sales team has accepted ownership in managing and maintaining the system.

Like any other sales activity, keeping the sales pipeline flowing requires constant monitoring. The sooner you can identify problems in the pipeline, the faster you can resolve them.

Problem 1: Inaccurate Data

What goes in is what goes out. When salespeople input inaccurate data—or fail to submit reports on time—the result is information that’s either inaccurate or outdated. This inaccuracy will reflect in the sales pipeline’s output too.

To resolve this issue, sales managers need to implement strict policies about updating CRM data. Reports must arrive on time and data should be verified before uploading to the CRM. In addition, implementing regular audits on the veracity of submitted data can help maintain consistency and accuracy. Additional tools, such as automation and analytics, will also assist in improving overall data quality.

Problem 2: Pipeline Too Narrow

In large enterprises, the product catalog and client list are too diverse to cover within a single pipeline. As a result, data management becomes overly complex and unsustainable—meaning individual performances may suffer.

In this case, companies don’t have to settle for just one sales pipeline to manage the entire sales team. They can create multiple pipelines, each catering to a different customer type or target market. By taking this route, sales managers won’t need to compare apples with oranges when it comes to lead generation activities and sales cycle performances.

This scenario assumes that the business deploys different sales teams for different markets or clients. Because different markets tend to require different approaches, having unique sales pipelines can help optimize results. At the same time, sales teams should always balance the need to attract new clients with the necessity of keeping current clients happy.

Problem 3: Leaking Leads

When sales reps begin losing out on opportunities due to mismatched or unqualified leads, it’s time to look for the source of those leaks. Revisiting your lead generation strategy and filtering system should help determine why supposed quality leads get lost while unqualified ones remain. In addition, the entire sales team might need a refresher on keeping their CRM-bound reports complete and accurate.

Here, you could use analytics to identify which pipeline stages report significant drop-offs. This is also an efficient route to align your lead generation and qualification strategies. Once repairs are completed, run the analytics again to check that the sales pipeline has addressed both leaks and blockages. If this is the case, the lead quality should return to more acceptable standards.

Let Ingage Help You Clear Your Sales Pipeline

Aside from assistance with the sales pipeline, today’s sales teams also need help to convert quality leads to paying customers. Content plays a large role in providing prospects with the information they need to consider an offered solution to their current challenges. And while free presentation apps might do the job, you won’t necessarily get the presentation depth and quality that your clients deserve. Moreover, knowing which presentation elements came out right—as well as which areas need more work—will always present a valuable learning opportunity. It’s unlikely that basic software will provide the analytics tools you need.

Ingage is a cloud-based interactive presentation software that provides content for clients through the various stages of the sales pipeline. Its interactive features let clients view the whole story in as much detail as they need. Instead of presenting a linear storyline, Ingage enables prospects to switch between presentation pages and expand sections at their leisure. Whether they’re a lead showing interest in a product or a buyer at the final stages of negotiation, Ingage has the presentation tools to deliver just what they want—and need—to know.

In addition, Ingage has collaboration tools to keep everybody in the loop. Individual sales team members can join remotely during the development of a presentation to make edits or comments. Once that’s done, they can send a link to clients that opens up a convenient online version of the presentation. Ingage’s analytics also monitor the engagement level of your audience, letting you see which bits piqued their interest and which need more work.

Find out more about how Ingage can help you captivate your clients—no matter where they are in the sales pipeline. Sign up for a free demonstration today!  

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