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How To Build a Sales Pipeline That Makes Sense

The goal of a sales pipeline is to move you through a sales process that makes sense, adapts to your sales flow, and reports actionable and insightful information about your sales process.

The sales pipeline. The tried and true funnel. The deal forecast. The good ole’ hot sheet. It’s true we have many names for a sales pipeline, but one thing remains constant between them: the goal to make sales.

Most CRMs come with a built-in sales flow, preprogrammed with standard stages in a sales process. While it should be used as a launchpad to determine your own sales flow, more often than not, companies adopt it word for word, stage for stage, and try to adapt their sales process to their CRM sales flow—big mistake.

While we’re all trying to make sales at the end of the day, we all do it differently. Long-form sales, like a long-term contract for a lease agreement, need a Proposal stage, but a short-term sale, like a gourmet lollipop company, likely doesn’t send a proposal to the purchaser before the purchase. For every standard stage in a sales pipeline, we can devise a reason not to use it. That sounds a little backward, we know. We are a Digital Marketing and Sales Agency, after all. We should be falling in line with all the other CRM zombies, vowing to stick to the script, but we like to look at how you do CRM with a fresh set of eyes. 

The goal of a sales pipeline is to move you through a sales process that makes sense, adapts to your sales flow, and reports actionable and insightful information about your sales process. So, where do you even start? Well, that’s Step 1.    

Step 1: Define When Your Sales Process Starts

Defining when your sales process starts sounds easy, but it can pose some challenges, especially when you have disagreements with department heads on when it starts.

Some say every lead in your database is a sales opportunity, so if they are in the system, they are in the sales process. But hold on, what about that cold list from a sweepstakes your company ran ten years ago? You know, the list of people who never opened your marketing emails? Are they in the sales pipeline? We hope not; that’d make for one large pipeline, with the bulk of people sitting at the top with no chance of funneling down.

So, does the sales process start when the customer takes their credit card out of their wallet? Safe to say, a sale will happen, but what about all the other steps leading up to that? You want all that relevant data to glean pertinent findings to your sales process.

Generally speaking, the sales process as a whole should be led by the consumer. If you're a sales-minded person reading this, that may seem unnatural. After all, you’re the shepherd that leads them down the grassy passage to purchase. But what I mean by this is the interest from your consumers is the indicator that your sales process has started. So ask yourself - what does interest look like? It could be submitting a Contact Us form on your website. It could be the number of marketing emails they’ve opened or the amount of time they’ve spent on your website. It could be all those things and more. Just remember, the keyword here is interest.

When you define your customers' interest, you just created your first stage.

Step 2: Map Out a Sales Process - Literally

Are your sales based on volume? Are they a subscription service? Is it a tangible product? Every company's sales process is different, and if you have a team of sales reps, it’s safe to say they all sell your product differently. 

This seems like a given, but I’ll say it anyway - map out your sales process before creating it in your CRM. I’m a fan of pencil and paper for this, but whatever mechanism moves you to map it out, do it. Now, have your sales team map their sales process and do a compare and contrast. You’ll probably find it’s more of a contrast than a comparison, but it’ll also help you draw insights on an ‘ideal sales process.’ 

Standard sales flows have stages like Appointment Scheduled, Qualified to Buy, Presentation Scheduled, and so on. But after reviewing how your team sells, you’ll find potential gaps in these stages and even the chance to consolidate stages. For example, what if you only schedule an appointment if it’s determined that the customer is qualified to buy? Should Qualified to Buy come before Appointment Scheduled? Should they be combined into one? It depends on what goes into each of these activities. 

A good indicator you’re on the right track to defining your sales process is when it flows - meaning, a stage must be completed before it can move onto the next stage. You know you can’t move past the stage Qualified to Buy if they, well, aren’t qualified. You may sell a product where anyone can buy it, so this stage is irrelevant. If a stage provides no actionable value to your sales process, rework the process. 

Step 3: Determine What Triggers Movement

We’ve seen sales processes that were two stages long and some that were 15 stages long. Both kept us up at night for different reasons. While we appreciate the simplicity of a two-stage sales process, we tossed and turned over the data being lost in this big-picture approach. And even though the 15-stage process was capturing the details of a sale, it wasn’t sheep we were counting to fall asleep, but rather the irrelevant data points and tasks bogging down their reporting.

Once you have determined the main stages of your sales pipeline, determine what triggers need to be met to move on to the next stage. Internal tasks shouldn’t move a sale through the pipeline; customer interest should. 

Let’s say your sales process includes completing a product demo to the customer. Once the demo is complete, you need to submit a request to your manager for approval on discounted pricing and then send a proposal to the customer. There are a couple of things triggering movement here - both the interest from the customer to move to a proposal and your manager's approval on discounted pricing. But what’s more important? In the eyes of the sales process, the customer’s desire to move forward is the trigger, not the manager’s approval. The manager’s approval is a step within a stage, not a stage itself or an indicator to move to the next stage. When you isolate internal tasks as the reason to move or not move down the sales pipeline, you create a ‘waiting room’ effect on your reporting. It can diminish accountability for sales teams to close the sale if it’s off their plate and sitting with their manager. Make sure stages are based on the customer, and keep accountability with the salesperson.  

Step 4: Envision a Lost Sale 

We hate to say it, but it happens - a lost sale. Often neglected, the process of a lost sale can be just as insightful as a sale itself. In Step 2, you were tasked to map out the sales process. Did you include the process for a lost sale? If not, go back and add it in.

A standard sales pipeline tracks when a sale is won and when a sale is lost, but that’s it. Suppose you don’t envision what you want to happen with a lost sale. In that case, you’re leaving money on the table because a consumer who initially showed interest and made it down your pipeline in some capacity is just sitting there with no action assigned to them. 

When envisioning a lost sale, imagine what you want to know about it and why it was lost. You may want to know how the consumer heard about you, how long it took them to go through the sales process, and at what stage they decided to remove themselves. These data points and more provide helpful information to tweak your sales process. For example, if you look at all lost sale data and see that if they haven’t decided after 14 days, their likelihood of purchasing drops from 70% to 40%, you may want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to close the sale within the first two weeks.  

Step 5: Automate

You created a sales pipeline in your CRM that aligns with how your salespeople sell, provides insightful information to your managerial staff, and tracks a sale long after it is won or lost. Now, you face the task of training your sales team to use it as intended. 

Adopting a sales pipeline is the hardest part of this process because you’re at the mercy of your sales team, so automate when you can to help move the sale through the process. For example, let’s say part of your sales process includes sending a contract for e-signature. Once signed, the sale should move from ‘Contract Sent’ to ‘Won Sale,’ but you’re finding that your sales team often leaves the sale in the ‘Contract Sent’ stage and has moved on to the next sale in their pipeline. Instead of nagging them with a task to move the stage, which, to them, seems like busy work, automate so that once the e-signature is signed and returned, the sale will automatically move to ‘Won Sale.’ 

The potential to automate your sales process is infinite and can considerably cut down on ‘busy work’ when automated correctly. 

Step 6: Plan For the Next Step in the Consumer Journey

Does a sale end once it is won? No way! The sales process is always ongoing; it just changes over time. Your product may have an expiration date or may be something that can be purchased multiple times, so you should have a process for returning consumers. Maybe a segment of your lost sales is due to bad timing, so you should be reaching out to them at a better time to close the sale. What if there is an option for an upsell, like a subscription service? Do you have a journey for that?

If we’ve established anything in this article, it’s that the sales process is different for everyone. However, a sales process is also layered, and every layer needs to be flushed out to reach its fullest potential. 

At B2 Collaborative, we help sales teams map out their sales process from start to, well, it’s never finished, but you get the drift. We’re passionate about creating a well-oiled machine that saves you time and money, so let’s collaborate on unlocking your sales potential today.

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