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Best Practices For B2B Sales-Sales Pipeline Data & Process Improvement

Authored by Ric Ratkowski on May 15, 2020

This blog reviews best practices related to two of the six tactical best practices outlined in the previous blog “Best Practices for B2B Sales - Sales Pipeline”.  It focuses on:


  • The ability to easily update the sales pipeline on a regular basis
  • Sales process review and improvement

An accurate sales forecast requires an accurate, timely and always up-to-data sales pipeline.  This data includes up-to-date: sales activity and buyer/seller interactions; buying team members and roles; opportunity descriptors and attributes; and company descriptors and attributes, in the CRM.  It also includes integrated reporting from the CRM to produce the sales pipeline, porting CRM information to Excel is not an option.

An accurate sales forecast also requires a consistent sales process that includes methods  for handling different sales process bottlenecks. 

My blogs from February 11, 2020 to March 23rd analyzed in detail the best practices for each type of the data collected to solve the first problem, accurate sales information.  I’m not going to repeat content from those blogs, but rather focus on data collection objectives at a higher level.

An Always Up-to-Date sales Pipeline

Real-time is an overused term.  Real-time is also different for different situations.  I like to describe the need as “always up-to-date”.  Always up-to-date means any time you are looking at pipeline information it is up to date with everything we know.

To have always up-to-date information requires the updating process to be automated as much as possible.  For those things that can’t be automated it means making it is as simple as possible for the sales rep to update it.

Ability to Easily Update the Sales Pipeline

The following table breaks down the problem/business need and best practice summaries related to collecting Account/Company Attribute information.

Activity

Updating the Sales Pipeline

Background

Updating the sales pipeline means:

  • Updating all the opportunities in the sales pipeline
  • Automating the production of the sales pipeline report so it is pulling directly from the CRM system and does not have to be extracted to Excel.  Creating a virtual view of the sales pipeline is also recommended.

Problem/Business Need

Sales requires an up-to-date sales pipeline.  The typical problems with having this are:

  • In most situations, sales reps must manually update the opportunity for sales interactions, stage changes and milestones updates.  They do this at the expense of working with the prospect and for that reason it doesn’t get done and information falls through the cracks.  This ensures the sales pipeline is always out-of-date.
  • Many sales pipelines are generated in Excel.  This means the pipeline is outdated before the sales pipeline is finalized.  The minute the data leaves the CRM system it is not up-to-date.  In addition when it is extracted to Excel it can’t contain all the information necessary about an opportunity to satisfy questions. 

Requirements:

Before the pipeline can be “always up-to-date”, the information in the CRM system needs to be “always up-to-date”.  There shouldn’t be any interim manual steps to create an accurate sales pipeline; it should be available all the time.

The need is to automate:

  • First, automate data collection of inbound and outbound email activity, booking of meetings and capturing the transcript from those meetings.  If automation is not possible for milestone updates and check ins, make it as simple as possible for the sales rep by working where they work and providing additional functionality in the email and calendar clients as well as a mobile interface.  
  • Second streamline and automate the sales pipeline reporting and create an interactive view so the user can drill down from high level pipeline report into the detail opportunities and the buyer/seller interactions.

Baseline

Good

Better

Best

Sales reps update their SFA application for changes and interactions to a sales opportunity.  Pipeline reporting is done from Excel.

Pipeline reporting is done external to the CRM but the data is automatically captured through email, calendar and mobile.  In addition, the application works where the sales rep works and has streamlined the data collection process of non-automated data with toggles, drop downs and pick lists to make it as simple as possible

Pipeline reporting is done from within the CRM application and always up-to-date with the latest information from the CRM application.

The sales pipeline information is automatically updated, pipeline reporting is action oriented and embedded as users can work from the high level sales pipeline down to detail sales interactions.  They can take action on the opportunity from within the sales pipeline report.

The Baseline is what currently happens in most companies.  That is:

  • Sales reps are required to go into the CRM application and update the sales pipeline for all opportunities and sales interactions.
  • The pipeline report is Excel based and disconnected from the CRM.  At best the pipeline report is updated once a week.  Throughout the week different groups work with different versions of the Excel spreadsheet and everyone is on a different page as it relates to the status of the sales pipeline.  The manual process isn’t the root of the problem at this point, the root of the problem is the data isn’t updated so even if the pipeline is generated in the CRM, it still isn’t up-to-date.

At the Good level, data is automatically updated where possible through email, calendar and a mobile application.  The methods of manually updating the CRM are streamlined as much as possible with toggles, dropdowns and picklists and available through the email and calendar interface as well as on the mobile and desktop applications.  The sales rep can also take action on opportunities through those interfaces and move them up or back in the sales stages, mark them as a commit or upside for this sales period forecast and do check ins or update dates.  This is the first step, the pipeline report is still an Excel report but once the data is being updated on a regular basis we can move to the better level and automate the sales pipeline report generation.

At the Better level, the sales pipeline is automatically generated with the push of a button whenever it is needed, it is always up-to-date with the latest information in the CRM.  The pipeline report can be trusted.  

At the Best level, the sales pipeline goes beyond a report and becomes an interactive view of the  sales pipeline.  It is not just for viewing, it is for interrogating all the opportunities that make it up.  It is interactive and flexible, it can be viewed from:

  • Any level within your sales hierarchy 
  • From any sales process or group of sales processes
  • With any focus on specific characteristics of opportunities, i.e. this quarter deals, deals above or below a certain dollar level, etc.

The report can be pivoted and drilled into all the way down to specific email content or meeting or check in notes.  

Sales Process Review and Improvement

The sales process is an ever evolving process.  What works today may not work tomorrow.  What works for one market segment may not work for other market segments.  

The best sales organizations have a process of continually  reviewing their sales pipeline, their sales process and techniques to make sure things are evolving with the market.  That means the review isn’t lumpy characterized by major overhauls every so often, but bit by bit changes one at a time to evolve the sales process.  The review process happens with every sales pipeline review.

Framework for the Sales Process

When you think about the sales process, it may feel like a noisy, analog process that flows indiscriminately from lead to close-won or close-lost with some loosely defined sales stages in between.   However, by applying a framework to the process it becomes less noisy, easier to review and it can be seen as a digital process.  

The framework starts with your existing sales stages, and further defines each sales stages in terms of key milestones.  Milestones contain interactions and activities with the buyer.  The sales opportunity is also further defined in terms of customer fit described by the ideal customer profile [ICP].  When you apply artificial intelligence to this framework milestones, interactions, activities and ICP they become attributes, signals and triggers.  

The data described in the blog posts from February 11, 2020 to March 23rd as sales interactions, buyer personas, opportunities and company attributes map to these milestones, activities, buyer personas,  and ideal customer profile.  This all hinges on accurate and timely collection of data.  This data should be collected with the first sales pitch, and include subsequent follow-ups, the offer and acceptance/rejection.

The Best Way to Analyze the Sales Process

The best way to analyze the sales process is to look for bottlenecks and consider ways they can be cleared.  From there you can experiment with different sales content, or approaches or seller initiated activities to test alternative methods to overcome the bottlenecks.  This will serve to continuously improve each part of the sales process.  

The following table breaks down the problem/business need and best practice summaries related to sales process review and improvement. 

Activity

Sales Process Review and Improvement

Background

Most companies struggle to maintain a consistent sales process. It is generally an informal process, described on a PowerPoint slide by sales stage.  The problem is compounded because the buyers have more say and control in the sales process than the sellers.   It is up to the first line managers to work with sales reps and guide them as best as possible to follow the sales process on individual sales opportunities..  Sales becomes more predictable when the sales process is consistent.

Business Problem

When the sales process is loose it becomes difficult to predict sales.  It also becomes difficult to keep everyone on the same page for each deal and uncover problems in a sales cycle and apply solutions.  Ultimately, a loose sales process results in more lost deals and longer cycle times.  The sales team relies on “superstars” to bring it home for the sales period.  It does not provide a basis for optimizing the sales process and dealing with changes to how buyers buy.

Sales becomes more predictable when the sales process is consistent.  Sales coaching can also become more consistent and drive consistent results when the sales process is well defined.  It also becomes easier to strategize on specific sales opportunities when the sales process is well known and followed. 

In the absence of a well defined sales process it becomes difficult to uncover problems in opportunities and apply solutions [Hint: in the lifetime of an opportunities a problem or two always come up]

Requirements:

It is important to keep everyone on the same page with regard to opportunity status and next steps with each opportunity.  From that basis sales managers can guide the right behaviors and reinforce the sales process and sales methodology.  This also provides a benchmark to coach sales reps. 

The need is to:

  • First, provide a framework to understand your actual sales process
  • Second provide the reports and tools to understand where bottlenecks exist in the sales process
  • Third, on a continual basis, provide reporting to incrementally “test and roll” changes to the sales process, via content and activities to mitigate the bottlenecks and optimize the sales process going forward.
  • Automat the monitoring and alerting of situations that deviate from the stated sales process so corrective action can be taken

Baseline

Good

Better

Best

Sales process is reviewed based on a crisis.  It is loosely defined on a PowerPoint slide identifying sales stages.

Sales Stages are further defined into key sales milestones and verifiable outcomes.  An understanding is created around the achievement of the milestones resulting in moving the opportunity to the next sales stage.

All sales interactions are reported in the context of the sales opportunity, sales milestones, sales stages and sales timeline.

The sales process is continuously reviewed by analyzing anomalies in the visual sales funnel by stage and average cycle times within stages.  

The system generates alerts and flags when opportunities drift away from the optimal sales process so corrective action can be taken

The Baseline is what currently happens in most companies.  Most companies struggle to have a consistent sales process which makes it difficult to improve the sales process.   It is difficult with an informal process to truly understand what is real in your sales pipeline and what is required to close the opportunity.

At the Good level, the sales process is a bit more defined.  Sales milestones are defined in verifiable terms and assigned to sales stages.  Sales milestones are typically 2 - 4 verifiable outcomes from the sales process that when accomplished signify the opportunity should move to the next sales stage.  Examples of verifiable outcomes include:  requirements confirmed with the buyer; buyer’s technical resources sign off;  proposal sent; and redlined proposal received.

At the Better level, once you have captured all the sales interactions [previous best practice] and can place them in a timeline along with the accomplishment of sales milestones you have the information necessary to assess what is real in your sales pipeline.  You also have a basis of information for the first level managers to actively coach the sales rep without starting the one-on-ones with a grand inquisition as to the status of every opportunity.  

At the Best level you now have the information necessary to monitor and improve your sales processes.  The opportunity information is up-to-date, you can produce a sales pipeline whenever you need it and now we can use that same information in different forms to analyze sales pipeline bottlenecks.  The following are two examples of how to detect sales pipeline bottlenecks in the process and bottlenecks in specific opportunities.

This first example is of an interactive sales funnel driven from the sales pipeline.  It shows how deals have moved through the funnel.

Sales Funnel to detect sales pipeline bottlenecks

The above diagram shows two sales funnels.    Each bar represents the number of opportunities in each stage of the sales pipeline.  The sales stages come from the CRM and are to the right of the graph.  Clicking on one of the bars will show you the individual opportunities within each sales stage.  Sales Pipeline A has a nice gradual shape.  Sales Pipeline B has a dropoff in opportunities when deals move from Qualification to Needs Analysis and from Value Proposition to Decision Maker.  If you were looking for bottlenecks these two areas on Sales Pipeline B is where I would start.

The second example is looking at an individual sales opportunity.  

sales health score average time in stage

The graph is showing how the opportunity’s health score moved over the life of the opportunity [more about health score in a later blog].  The first bar underneath the graph shows how this opportunity has moved by stage over time.  The red means it has taken longer to move from this stage than the average.  The green bar means it has moved in less time through this stage as the average.  The lower gray bar shows the average time for each stage.  Mousing over each bar tells you the average vs actual.  Focusing on the red bar identifies where there were bottlenecks with this opportunity.  

Next Blog

In my next blog I will drill in on the next two best practices that relate to managing the sales process, that is:

  • Proactive follow up from the sales pipeline
  • Proactive delivery of the right content

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