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Best Practices for B2B Sales-Pipeline Monitoring & Closing Deals

Authored by Ric Ratkowski on June 29, 2020

This blog provides more details into the final two of the six tactical best practices outlined in the blog “Best Practices for B2B Sales - Sales Pipeline”.  It focuses on:

  • Monitor the sales pipeline from different perspectives depending on the users role (sales rep, sales management, sales opperations, sales leadership)
  • Focus on closing the best leads, nurturing the new leads and “close loss” opportunities as soon as possible

Monitor the pipeline from different perspectives 

The sales pipeline is the beating heart of the sales process and the revenue engine. It tells the sales reps where to prioritize their time.  Help sales managers personalize coaching.  It is the core tool for sales operations and it is the key set of information to help executive management satisfy their reporting requirements.  

The sales pipeline is in a unique position of being the focal point for all four sales roles (sales rep, sales manager, sales operations and sales leadership).  Sales reps and sales managers start at the sales pipeline and drill down to all the supporting details and interactions for each sales opportunity to strategize how to close them.  Sales operations starts at the sales pipeline and manages up to different summary levels of the sales pipeline, by sales stage, forecast category, sales rep, sales manager, market segments and ideal customer profile.  Sales leadership may start focused on the sales forecast but ultimately “manages the gap” by understanding the sales opportunities that can be moved quicker to fill the gaps and which are in trouble and need additional support.

To accomplish all of this, the sales pipeline needs to be connected and interactive (as discussed in our first tactical best practice).  It needs to be connected to the CRM system so it is always up to date.  Specifically it needs to be connected to all the supporting detail about an opportunity and all the metrics related to:

  • Opportunity Detail
  • Summary sales forecast by stage and sales category
  • Summary sales forecast by sales rep, sales manager, sales territory
  • Summary pipeline by date
  • Sales rep and Sales team metrics
  • Opportunity Health Score (more on this in our next best practice)

Excel won’t cut it.  The minute you start using Excel, the information is no longer real time and prone to errors.  

The following table breaks down the problem/business need and best practice summaries related to proactive follow up.  

Activity

Monitoring the sales pipeline

Background

The sales pipeline is a collection of individual sales opportunities, each with different buyers, assigned to different sales reps for different products and/or territories and each of the opportunities at various stages of the buying journey.   It is easy to see, with as little as 10 sales reps and each sales rep having 20 opportunities, that  sales pipeline accuracy becomes a challenge.

Problem/Business Need

Sales pipeline reports and visualizations produced by many salesforce automation[SFA] solutions are not very flexible or visual.  Consequently, Excel is the tool of choice for producing a sales pipeline report.  This approach is flawed for a number of reasons:

  • The pipeline is out of date the minute the data is extracted from the SFA application and its accuracy is suspect because changes can easily be made in Excel to tell a different story
  • The pipeline report does not have the flexibility to create visualizations to support all the different questions that are asked related to the sales pipeline
  • It is difficult to analyze the sales process on a static snapshot as of a point in time.
  • It is not linked to the supporting detail to understand:
    • Deal quality
    • If opportunity entry and exit discipline is being applied
    • If all the information is up to date
    • If leads and opportunities are effectively being managed  

Requirements:

The sales pipeline report can not be an Excel report.  It has to be integrated to all aspects of the sales process and interactive so users can pivit the view to answer whatever question they are trying to answer.

The need is to:

To be effective, the sales pipeline needs to:

  • Provide a real-time view into how customers are buying, how much they are willing to spend, where they are at in the buying process, concerns they are vocalizing and a guestimate of when they will buy.
  • Provide a flexible view to reorganize and filter the sales pipeline to understand the characteristics of opportunities within the sales pipeline including things like: net new opportunities; conversion rates; sales cycle lengths and success profiles.
  • Easily traverse the pipeline from high level summary level information all the way down to detail opportunity information including email and meeting detail.
  • Be the hub and provide access to all sales information, including sales rep and sales team cycle times and close metrics,  ideal customer profile sales velocity, opportunity count and win rate, opportunity health score [Spoiler Alert: see “Focus on Closing The Best Leads” in this blog] 

Baseline

Good

Better

Best

The sales pipeline and related supporting reports are produced in Excel on a periodic schedule (weekly, monthly, quarterly).

The sales pipeline report is produced by the CRM/SFA system as a result of the sales process.  It may not be as flexible or as visual as required but it is always up to date.

The CRM/SFA system produces a sales pipeline visualization similar to the Good level, but it is linked to opportunity detail and buying team details.  It has some filter characteristics.  

The CRM/SFA system produces a sales pipeline visualization that is highly interactive, flexible and can provide all the information needed to support any questions without losing context on the sales pipeline.

The Baseline most companies are producing pipeline reports in Excel.  This blog has outline above why that is a very limiting solution.  Excel lacks the “liquidity of information” to dynamically manage the sales pipeline at a level of flexibility that it requires.

At the Good level the pipeline report is produced by the SFA/CRM system.  While this can be done in many CRM/SFA systems, many provide a limiting view and don’t provide the flexibility to drill around the information to detail level opportunity interactions.  In addition they don’t provide a highly visual sales pipeline that can be filtered and reordered by sales rep, sales category, sales stage, time or any other opportunity, account or sales interaction attributes.

The Better level the sales pipeline report is enhanced and provides links and drill down to detail opportunity information and buying team details.  At this level users can reorganize and filter the pipeline by sales rep, time period, sales forecast category, sales stage but it is missing the alerting and insight capability.

At the Best level, the system produces a sales pipeline that very visual, highly interactive, flexible and can provide all the information needed to support any questions without losing context to the sales pipeline. 

The screen below provides an example of a highly visual sales pipeline.

salespipeline blog

Each tile represents one opportunity.  In this example they are organized in columns by sales stage, but the view can be switched and have columns represent:  sales forecast category; close date; sales rep; etc.   There are alerts and visual clues on each tile.  A click on the appropriate tile icons shows next step, alerts, ideal customer profile fit and provides a quick status of the opportunity.  

The following screen provides an example of a highly connected and interactive sales pipeline.

Sales Interactive View Blog

From within each sales tile, the view can be pivoted depending on the question being asked.  

By being connected and interactive you can pivot from one view to another based on the questions you have and what you want to verify.

To help get a better feel for the meaning of a connected and interactive sales pipeline, here is a link to a short video walking through the visualization in a live environment.   

Focus on Closing the Best Leads

The shortest path to achieving your sales quota is to make sure you and your teams are focusing on the best, closest to close, and highest value opportunities in the sales pipeline.  The shortest path to achieving future period sales quotas 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.  Additionally, one key to increasing sales rep productivity is being ruthless and “close loss” leads as soon as it becomes obvious they aren’t ready to buy..  Hanging on to old leads costs in time that can be spent courting your best opportunities and nurturing the opportunities not ready to buy.

While the title of this best practice is focused on closing the best leads, closing quickly poor leads is also very important.

A key to help assess deal quality is an opportunity score.  An opportunity score can help sales reps focus on those opportunities most likely to close/ or the healthiest opportunities.  Key ingredients to the opportunity score include:

  • It needs to include measurement of all sales interactions, or lack of interactions based on a pattern matching of both “closed won” and “closed lost” deals.
  • It needs to include an assessment of sales stage, sales milestones achieved and ideal customer profile.
  • It needs to have time intelligence.  Time can kill all deals.  The longer a prospect remains silent the weaker the opportunity.
  • The scoring process needs to include pluses and minuses (measurement of attributes and interactions that support a quicker sales minus attributes and interactions (or lack of interactions that mean the prospect is not ready to buy). 

The following table breaks down the problem/business need and best practice summaries related to focusing on closing the best deals.

Activity

Focus on closing the best deals

Background

There is much more to “focusing on closing the best deals” than just “focusing on closing the best deals”.  It means you need to understand which are the best deals, and which are further away from closing.  It also means you need to understand which are the slow moving deals, which are the stalled deals, and what are the characteristics that make the “best deals”.

In most companies, focusing on the best deals is a matter of “gut” feel rather than based on data and facts.  You can almost hear the sales rep say, “Of course I’m focused on the best deals, I’m commission based.”  The challenge is opportunities slip through the cracks and change rapidly.

Each opportunity has its own DNA.  Focusing on the best deals, doing a “closed loss” on deals not going to close requires the analysis of all the different components and interactions that make up that DNA.

Problem/Business Need

A key problem with many sales opportunities is a lack of deal quality.  Signs of opportunity quality issues include:

  • Untouched or inactive deals that have neither advanced or have any recent activity 
  • Stalled deals that have remained in a sales stage longer than average with some interactions but nothing substantive
  • Deals that continually have their close dates pushed.

Causes of these could include:

  • Lack of first line manager inspection
  • A focus on the quantity of a pipeline rather than the quality of the sales pipeline.

The key to mitigating these issues is it to have an independent and unbiased sales pipeline health review based on the DNA characteristics of past “closed won” and “closed lost”.  The best way to have an unbiased perspective is use AI driven off of past sales patterns.    

There are two use cases that currently exist in most sales organizations that result in a loss in sales rep productivity if sales reps don’t have an unbiased system for analyzing their top leads.

The first use case is they don’t know which opportunities are the best so they waste a lot of time treating all the opportunities with the intensity that they will close.  This wastes their time and distracts them from focusing on the opportunities most likely to close in the current sales period.

The second use case is they apply their “gut” to prioritize those most likely to close.  If they are wrong, it means they are focusing their intensity on deals that don’t close, while ignoring the deals that could close. 

Requirements:

An unbiased system for analyzing all of the company attributes, opportunity attributes, interaction timeline of the sales opportunity and objectively scoring it.

The need is to:

Provide a metric to the sales reps so they know which leads to:

  • Nurture
  • “Close loss” 
  • Focus on to close with confidence

Baseline

Good

Better

Best

Best deals are identified by sales rep’s “gut” feel.

Best deals are identified based on an internal facing activity-based selling process.  This means companies evaluate sales stage and what is happening within stage but from a what we have provided to the buyers vs how the buyer reacts to it

The system calculates a “Health Score” or provides a “Likelihood to Close” score.  However the score is AI driven and does not expose how it is calculated.  It is a “black box” calculation.

The system calculates a “Health Score” or provides a “Likelihood to Close” score and exposes how it is calculated.  It is a “glass box” calculation.  It is both AI driven, and can also factor in rules.  It is a time base and the calculations include additions and subtractions based on activities or lack of activities depending on sales cycle or milestone.

 

The Baseline is what currently happens in most companies.  In most companies, the selection of best deals/most likely to close are a “gut” evaluation by the sales rep or sales rep and sales manager.  They may take into account the sales stage or a “gut feel” for the sales velocity into their decision.  The results of this method are skewed when you factor in the impact of “Happy Ears” and “Sand Bagger” type sales reps. 

At the Good level, more goes into the decision of what is and is not a good opportunity and what is the most likely to close.  At this level good (and bad) deals are identified based on the sales stage and the activities the sales team has initiated with the buying team. The challenge with this method is it is only internal facing, it is not based on buyer alignment and how the buyer responded to those activities (except as a “gut” impact).  There is also no focus on how fast the opportunity is moving, emphasis is placed on later stage opportunities even though many of those opportunities could have been pushed from prior targeted close dates, or even had multiple pushes giving it a lower overall propensity to close.  At this level, the decision of strong or weak opportunities or high propensity/low propensity to close is still very judgmental. Health reviews may be conducted during weekly 1-on-1's but they are highly judgmental, there is no benchmark by which to measure opportunities against.

At the Better level there is a consistent opportunity health review.  Many times we see these implemented using artificial intelligence to produce a number.  While this may produce a very accurate opportunity score that takes into account both seller and buyer actions, it is a “black box” calculation.  Users aren’t sure how it is calculated and if they can trust it.  More importantly, if it is a “black box” calculation they don’t know how or if they can remedy the situation.  They may feel the deal is very strong and will close in a month, while the opportunity score does not share that enthusiasm.  Without knowing how the health score is calculated, they can’t know where its weaknesses are and how to remedy them.  

At the Best level the system produces an opportunity score for each opportunity and shares the factors supporting its calculation.  This allows the sales rep to understand why it is ranked low--if they rank it high--and understand what is supporting the number.  If the opportunity is low because of a lack of momentum, they can remedy the situation.  If it isn’t a good ideal customer profile fit at the given stage, they can further understand the prospect’s needs and maybe clarify how it does or doesn’t fit.

The diagram below shows an example of an opportunity score and how it exposes what is driving that calculation.  

health score blog

In the above example, the opportunity score is driven by three key characteristics:

  • Momentum - is the opportunity moving forward, do we have activities from the buyer
  • Ideal customer profile - how well is the fit
  • Sales Stage and Milestones - Is it progressing through the sales stages and buyer knowledge inflection points as identified by the milestones.

In Summary

This post and plus last three blog posts have reviewed the six tactical best practices related to the sales pipeline.  The first blog post introduces the six key tactical best practices.  The second, third and fourth blogs each reviewed two of the six tactical best practices in including::

  • The first best practice was keeping the data updated in the sales pipeline through automation.  This is the first step because we can’t manage the sales pipeline without accurate information.  
  • The second best practice was continually reviewing and improving the sales process.  This is the second step because an accurate sales forecast and predictable sales outcomes requires a consistent and continually improving sales process.
  • Once the data is and the process is established, the third and fourth best practices ensure the process is followed and all opportunities go through a consistent follow up process and a consistent sales process.
  • The last two best practices focus on strategically managing the pipeline by monitoring the sales pipeline and closing the best leads, nurturing the new leads and “close loss” week opportunities as soon as possible.

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