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Best Practices for B2B Sales - Sales Pipeline

Authored by Ric Ratkowski on April 28, 2020

In my original blog in this series “Best Practices for B-2-B Sales,  I outlined five categories of best practices:

The previous five blogs in this series, reviewed the best practices related to data.  The next three categories, Sales Process, Opportunity Management and Pipeline Analytics all are driven off of the sales pipeline. This blog introduces 6 different best practices related to the sales pipeline.  These best practices cut across all  three areas.

The Sales Pipeline

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 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.  

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 key for sales forecast accuracy.  

In some companies the discipline required to update and manage the b-to-b sales pipeline is often ignored until the occurrence of a problem, such as missing the sales forecast or major shifts in the market or the economy.  Most other companies only have a periodic view of the sales pipeline on a weekly or monthly basis.  

In both cases urgent needs for information triggers 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 the 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.  It is difficult to manage anything as dynamic as the sales pipeline with static weekly or monthly reports.

Sales Pipeline Technology and Process

From a technology perspective users need an intuitive, real-time, highly visual sales pipeline.  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 me to think about my sales business and drill into details or different aspects of the pipeline without going to multiple tools or dashboards and without losing context to the sales pipeline.

The technology is only good if the business processes are in place to support the content in the sales pipeline.  Best practices supporting the processes around the sales pipeline include:

  • The ability to easily update the sales pipeline on a regular basis - the sales pipeline is only as good as the data in the pipeline, much of this has been addressed through the first five blogs in the series, but we will cover the highlights of this best practice in the next blog.
  • Proactive follow up from the sales pipeline - the best sales people make sure they are continuously following up with the buying team of their sales opportunities but the process isn’t easy.  Buying teams can have 3 - 10 people evaluating the product all with different perspectives, needs and neediness.  It is hard to keep it organized without a system to remind them to take action when appropriate.
  • Proactive delivery of the right content - 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.
  • Sales process review and improvement - the best sales teams have a continual process of improving the sales process to ensure maximum efficiency and success.
  • A focus on closing the best leads, nurturing the new leads and “close loss” opportunities as soon as possible - Make sure you and your team are focusing 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, being ruthless when letting go of leads is also very important.  Hanging on to old leads costs in 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.

In Summary

A key indicator of your sales’ teams 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.

In the next couple of blogs I will drill in to the best practices related to the 6 categories identified  above. 

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