Succeeding with pipeline management in complex B2B sales

George Brontén

All sales organizations are looking for an edge to outperform the competition. Every year, $20 billion is spent on sales training in the US alone* – however, without proper reinforcement 87% of what was learned is forgotten within a month. Regardless of what you are looking to achieve, implementation and reinforcement will be key for long term success.

Whichever way you are looking to improve your sales team - whether it’s introducing modern sales methodology to better resonate with today’s informed buyers, or looking for better tools and technology - you will need to overcome a number of challenges to ensure your ambitions are not sabotaged.

This blog post is intended to outline the primary issues we have seen with customers who started with great ideas to increase sales performance, but never made it to the finish line.

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1) Start with the end result in mind

Before you get started, think about the scope and timeline for your sales transformation project. What business results will your efforts lead to? What improvements are possible to achieve? Is your primary focus on fixing the numbers for next quarter, or are you looking to build a sales team that will become your competitive advantage over the next decade? What are the consequences of failure? How much is sales ineffectiveness costing your company in lost revenues and hidden costs? How will you know that your efforts are working during the course of the journey?

2) Get management on board

As the sales leader, you need to make sure that you have complete buy-in from management. After all, you are looking to change the status quo. It needs to be obvious to everyone involved that increasing sales effectiveness is not optional and management must become proponents for your cause. If new technology is part of your project, make sure to set the right expectations and address any technology fear at the outset. If management does not support your endeavor 100%, it sets a precedent for others to follow suit - which will quickly rubber-band you back to the status quo.

3) Sales process = best practices

Introducing a sales process can be perceived as additional “administrative work” and you may experience push-back from sales people. Reframe the conversation as a way of introducing best practices and supporting it with a visual, easy to use tool, which will help lower resistance. Also, remind sales people that reaching sales excellence is a team effort that will benefit all.

4) Modeling the best makes sense

When you look at top performers and ask them how they close so much business, they usually can’t provide you with a clear answer. The fact is, they do follow a process and have an inherent set of best practices – however, they may not be aware of it. They may also have skills others in the team do not yet possess. Outlining the key elements of their approach and visualizing how they do things is a great start for more sales people to reach new heights and contribute to the bottom line.

5) Map the journey and write down directions

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Do you know the optimal way to help your buyers buy what you are offering? How are your top sales performers doing it? How are they getting prospects to move away from the status quo and chose you as the solution that will help them get to where they want to go? When exploring these questions with your sales team, make sure it is a collaborative effort. The end result should be a repeatable process with phases, to-do’s and milestones to achieve – for optimal results, visualize the process and map it into your sales pipeline and coaching platform.

6) Watch your language

To achieve best-practice sales pipeline management and sales coaching, you need clear definitions. What is a marketing qualified lead (MQL)? What is a sales qualified lead (SQL) and a sales ready lead (SRL)? Which criteria do we need to address when qualifying a prospect before converting them to opportunities that enter the pipeline? Which stakeholders do we need to identify at different milestones in our sales process? How do we separate and track lagging indicators such as sales activities from leading indicators of progress? Introducing a sales methodology that is used and reinforced is a good idea as it will help everyone speak the same language.

7) Understand time restraints

In complex b2b sales, you will not close a deal with one or two phone calls. Each sales project will require a larger investment of time, money and resources and losing a sales project will (and should) hurt. Hence, it becomes very important to focus the time of your sales people and managers on the business most likely to close, and be as effective as possible when managing these deals.

Research shows that the “sunk cost bias” in sales – an unwillingness to let go of low probability deals where time and money have already been invested – leads to diminished returns. Sales people spend 163% more time on lost sales projects, compared to those they win. In many companies, that number is probably higher.

By proactively tracking the health of the sales projects that make up your pipeline, as well as reviewing trends over time, you will be able to drastically reduce the time spent on poorly qualified opportunities. This time can be redirected to projects more likely to provide positive outcomes – and help introduce better qualification criteria to prevent poor sales projects to be initiated in the first place.

8) Add supporting goals to reach your targets

Most sales people have a budget to reach. Unfortunately, far too often the business result has not been broken down into objectives and activities. This needs to be done to make sure each sales person understands what activities and milestones he/she needs to reach in order to “hit the number”.

A good way to start is by counting backwards. Based on your average win rate and deal size, how many qualified new sales projects must each sales person initiate per week, or month? How large must their weighted pipeline be in order to achieve their quarterly quota? Is the weighted pipeline of sales projects calculated on milestones achieved or is probability based on subjective gut feel? Do all sales people understand, communicate and validate business values appreciated by potential clients for every sales project in our pipeline? How do you know if this is the case? More importantly: how will you be able to coach effectively if you don’t?

9) Review activities and coach on behaviors

"By proactively tracking the health of the sales projects that make up your pipeline, as well as reviewing trends over time, you will be able to drastically reduce the time spent on poorly qualified opportunities."
George Brontén

When you have documented and visualized a best practice sales process that is being used daily by all sales people, you will be able to identify behaviors that increase or decrease the likelihood of winning sales projects. You will also discover where team members struggle and quickly support them in raising the skills needed.  This will create leverage and help your people raise the bar. Knowing who to coach about what and when will have a significant impact on results when done thoroughly and consistently.

10) Get your priorities straight

Focusing on urgent tasks without considering the importance and value of doing them is a road too often travelled. Set up your process to ensure important activities are not missed and reduce the need for micro-management by making certain events and activities mandatory. Help your sales team focus on continuous qualification of their prospects and opportunities and assist in drawing up deal level strategies for opportunities that get stuck.

11) Everyone is accountable - all the time

Having a goal of where you want to be and a plan for how to get there is a good start. When it comes down to successfully executing all activities required to reach your milestones, most everyone needs a system in place to uphold accountability.

When sales managers fail to follow up with their sales people and don’t set aside enough time for coaching, the precious plan falls like a house of cards. Senior management must require sales directors to report accurate sales forecasts based on a milestone-specific pipeline. Managers need to make sure that the process is being used and that it is iterated upon.

12) Use win-loss analytics and act on lessons learned

When looking at the analytics from won and lost sales projects, you can recognize patterns. Maybe you always win against a specific competitor but struggle against another? Perhaps a majority of your sales projects make it all the way to the last phase, but then they are lost – how come? Armed with this information, you can go back to the drawing board and adjust your qualification criteria in your prospecting efforts. You can work on your positioning against the competitor that keeps winning your business.

It’s all about continuously improving and increasing your sales effectiveness in the process. Over time, you will put together a foundation – a sales infrastructure - which will lead to sales excellence in the long run..

Summary

Without a sales process that is documented, visual and used daily, your sales people will not be as effective as they could be. Further, your sales managers will not be able to coach effectively unless they have the insight they need around your opportunities and pipeline.

Also, without a structured approach to qualify prospects, your pipeline is likely to become bloated with stale sales projects and you’ll be wondering why.

* According to the Association for Talent Development (ATD)

Check out this video on how to create an active pipeline:

Click here to see how to build a healthy and active pipeline

 

George Brontén
Published November 26, 2014, written by

George Brontén

George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills and processes.