Is your sales pipeline clean enough? Every good salesperson knows that maintaining a robust pipeline full of well-qualified deals is the first step to successful selling. After all, few deals close without going through the pipeline first – and a better qualified pipeline results in higher close rates.
Good salespeople also know this is one of the most difficult parts of the job. Many pipelines either don’t have enough opportunities – or the opportunities that are there are poorly qualified. At Criteria for Success, we’ve found that one of the biggest sources of suffering for sales managers (and ultimately for salespeople) is dealing with garbage in the pipeline.
A messy pipeline wastes a salesperson’s time and energy. It also saps her confidence: hours spent calling uninterested prospects and facing rejection after rejection can lead to faster burnout and simply unhappier employees. Time is a salesperson’s most precious commodity, and they must spend it wisely.
Now you might be wondering – how do top salespeople maintain a clean sales pipeline?
This might seem counterintuitive, but the best practice for growing your pipeline is actually to shrink it first. Pruned roses produce nearly twice as many flowers as those that go unpruned – you should tend your pipeline in the same way. In order to grow it, you need to cut it!
1. Qualify and DISqualify
The first line of defense for a clean pipeline is establishing rigorous qualification criteria. Take a look at your best customers and see what characteristics they have in common. These could be demographic criteria about the company, such as revenue, number of employees, location, or industry; or about the lead itself, such as title, seniority, or LinkedIn connections. You could also take into consideration certain key behaviors, such as visiting your website recently or downloading an ebook.
Defining criteria like these helps anyone qualifying sales leads do their job more effectively, whether in the sales or marketing departments. This might mean your pipeline has fewer opportunities in it – that’s okay! Size of pipeline doesn’t always correlate with number of deals closed. Once you have your qualification criteria nailed down, it will be easier to forecast effectively and know what the ideal pipeline size should be – just know that bigger isn’t always better.
On the other side of the coin, salespeople should also be in the business of disqualifying opportunities. Ask your buyer tough questions that help you identify a lack of culture fit, unreasonable budget expectations, or any other criteria that would make your solution less than successful for them.
It can be easy for a salesperson to see an excited buyer who’s ready to sign the paperwork tomorrow as a perfect fit – a bird in the hand, a gift horse, etc. Don’t let your desire for a closed deal saddle you with a bad-fit customer.
2. Going for No
A very common time-suck for salespeople is the tendency to keep a disinterested buyer in the sales cycle for too long. Whether they keep saying “I’ll get back to you next week,” or simply don’t respond to emails or voicemails, salespeople spend a lot of time spinning their wheels over inactive prospects.
If a buyer has gone “radio silent,” I recommend sending a straightforward go-or-no-go message to elicit a response. When you’re maintaining a clean pipeline, even a negative response is helpful – it lets you focus your energy elsewhere.
The tone of the message will vary depending on your relationship with the prospect. Here’s an example for a prospect with whom you have strong rapport:
I’m in salesperson hell – aka “Radio Silence.”
I have officially stalked you via email and phone, and now I am resorting to one final email.
How would you like me to proceed?
- Keep calling you.
- Email you every two days.
- Take this opportunity out of my active pipeline.
Receiving your response by close of business Friday would do me a huge courtesy and I would be very grateful!
Alas, if I don’t hear back from you by then, I will assume that you would like me to go with option 3.
I am here if you would ever like to reconnect again!
It can be hard to let go of a deal you’ve been working for a long time. Just remember that re-focusing and clearing out stagnant opportunities will give you more time to focus on selling – and you never know when an old prospect will resurface, ready for action.
3. Veto Power
From time to time, salespeople get emotionally attached to a deal and let it hang in the pipeline longer than it should. It’s the sales manager’s job to intervene and help a salesperson realize when the deal is dead. The sales manager holds the veto power – if a salesperson has been spinning her wheels, the sales manager should make the tough call and get her to move on to the next opportunity.
There you have it – three ways to keep your pipeline clean and healthy to ensure a steady flow of great opportunities through the sales cycle. The last step to maintaining a clean sales pipeline is documenting these best practices in a Sales PlayBook – a single place to keep everything related to selling, from Go-For-No email templates and deal qualification criteria to CRM data entry expectations and marketing collateral.
I hope you find these useful in focusing your prospecting and selling activities. If you have other ideas about how to keep your pipeline healthy, please share them in the comments!