The sales pipeline review is a crucial activity for sales management. Done correctly, it helps produce accurate forecasts, drives accountability and ensures momentum in sales projects to ensure pipeline health. However, conducting them without having the right tools, process and mindset in place can prove to be counterproductive.
Sales research is clear when it comes to the effects of sales coaching – it is the primary driver for increasing performance in b2b sales. Yet it is rarely done consistently and with high quality. Some of the problems stem from the way we capture information about our prospects, sales projects and contacts. It prevents us from quickly identifying the hurdles to progress and cut through sales people’s “happy ears syndrome” and other human quirks causing problems with sales effectiveness.
Bloated pipelines and wishful thinking
The classic version of a pipeline review goes something like this: a sales manager sits down with a sales person to review their active opportunities. This usually involves looking at a list of customer names, estimated deal values, probabilities based on pipeline phase (often subjectively assigned by the sales person in question) and estimated closing dates (which have commonly been pushed a few times).
A common question by a sales manager can be: ”So, your pipeline seems big enough, but you haven’t closed as many deals as we’d hoped. How come?” The sales person’s reply is usually optimistic and focused primarily on getting the sales manager off their back. You’ll’ start hearing how promising these stalled deals are, and how close the customer is to committing.
Worst case scenario, these sales projects make up a large portion of the sales person’s target, are in the last phase of the pipeline and have been assigned a high probability of closing. With a quarterly quota to reach and deadlines fast approaching, the sales person is in “chasing mode”. All available time is dedicated to getting these deals over the line. Prospecting has taken a back seat, making the situation even worse.
How do you coach without context?
When the sales manager decides to drill down into a specific sales project, he or she is usually presented with a long list of activities and notes, containing the sales person’s interpretation of meetings and conversations. Unfortunately, this list does not tell the whole story, and it is of little help in uncovering the bigger questions that need answering:
Was this opportunity correctly qualified from the get-go? Did the sales person skip, or neglect, important steps and milestones in the sales process? Has the sales person created enough business value and minimized the perceived risk of change? Have we been speaking to the wrong people while failing to identify the customer’s buying process?
In addition, the impact of this particular sales person’s limited beliefs need to be taken into account – for example, having issues speaking about money, relating to C level executives, being overly serving and not asking the tougher questions needed to engage and initiate action.
Lacking the detailed overview and insight of the above make sales efforts hit and miss. The bulk of your sales team will find some customers at the right time, present a decent fit product with a price tag that does not scare customers away (maybe after discounting?) – and win only those deals. That’s the easy part. And to be fair, it might be enough if you’re selling an attractive product with a strong brand and lots of customer pull.
But how can you get your sales people to pro-actively sell to customers that aren’t in the perfect buying zone? Are they talking to the right people? Are they asking the right questions? Can they co-create value in their dialogues with potential customers? Are they acting on buying triggers? Or are they trying to take shortcuts?
How do you know? How can truly determine the quality of the pipeline and each opportunity based on activity logs and biased notes?
Unless you have a very clear definition of what drives sales success for your organization, which qualification criteria you should apply for target customers and when and how to move sales projects through your pipeline, there will be a lot of wishful thinking. Your pipeline will appear big enough on paper, but forecasts will always be off target and coaching your sales people will be increasingly difficult.
Draw the map, write down directions and hold sales people accountable
As a sales manager, your first job is to document and define the criteria for a Sales Qualified Lead. Second, you’ll need to provide your team with the map and directions – the sales process and best practices – for effectively managing opportunities in the pipeline.. If a deal stalls, you need to be able to quickly identify the obstacles and help your sales people navigate around them. You also need to help your sales team minimize time spent on deadbeat projects and ensure a steady flow of new ones by allocating sufficient time for prospecting. With all of this in place, you will be able to move the needle on win-rates, decrease sales cycle lengths and create a solid foundation for coaching your sales team more effectively.