Building a sales pipeline which your company can manage, understand, and manipulate will likely lead to sustained revenue growth and increased profitability year on year.
In most companies, there are sales pipelines however they’re generally not as efficient or productive as they could be because they’ve developed ad hoc and informally over time.
A typical company will have:
- a marketing person (or team),
- a salesperson (or team), and
- a senior manager (often the owner in a small business).
The senior manager tells the marketing person how many leads they have to generate in a given month and they tell the salesperson how many of these leads they have to convert a month.
The communication between these people or teams is a type of sales pipeline.
This system works – but it could work a lot better with the introduction of a sales pipeline which plans the journey of a prospect and their eventual conversion into a customer.
Following the launch of this type of customer-focused sales pipeline, you can then tweak the steps of the journey a client takes to both increase the number of leads and the percentage of those leads which turn into revenue.
There are two types of sales pipeline – pipelines to attract new customers and pipelines to retain existing customers. We’ll cover pipelines to retain existing customers in a later article.
In this extended article specifically written for companies wanting to win orders from UK businesses and consumers who have never bought from them before, More Than Words covers:
- what a sales pipeline is,
- the three main pipeline stages,
- top of the funnel stage,
- middle of the funnel stage,
- bottom of the funnel stage,
- the closing stage,
- why it’s important to clean your sales pipeline on a regular basis, and
- managing and reviewing your sales pipeline.
What is a sales pipeline? Sales pipeline meaning.
HubSpot’s definition of a sales pipeline says:
“A sales pipeline encompasses every stage of your sales process. An opportunity moves from stage to stage of your pipeline based on concrete actions, which is usually represented visually in your CRM. Because sales processes differ from company to company (and even product to product), your sales pipeline should be unique and reflect the typical buyer’s journey.”
Essentially, a sales pipeline is the series of stages that takes your prospects from new leads to customers.
Your sales pipeline shows you how many deals your sales team is expected to close in any given week as well as how close a sales rep is to meeting their sales quota.
For example, if your sales pipeline has a potential value of £100,000 and your conversion rate is 10% then you can assume at least £10,000 from your current leads.
Accordingly, if your sales target is £20,000 then you will need to double the number of leads in your pipeline or you need to find a way of becoming twice as good at closing.
The biggest benefit to companies in favour of establishing, maintaining, and improving a client-journey-focused sales pipeline is revenues growth.
A study by the Harvard Business Review found that there was an 18% difference in revenue growth between companies with a business development pipeline and companies without.
Sales pipelines are a way of tracking:
- the success of your marketing team in generating the types of sales your business wants and
- the conversion rate – how many of those leads become paying customers
Using a sales pipeline formula also helps you to identify any issues with your sales and marketing strategies and overcome them for more consistent lead generation and eventual sales.
Why have a sales pipeline?
For any B2B marketing strategy, a sales pipeline provides a visual, measurable record of your entire sales process.
This allows you to:
- measure the effectiveness of different sales strategies,
- forecast the results of future campaigns,
- see how far you are from your weekly, monthly, or annual targets,
- manage your team and resources, and
- understand the overall health and future of your business.
What are the main sales pipeline stages?
What does a sales pipeline look like?
B2B sales pipeline stages follow the same basic structure as the buyer’s journey, which are:
- Awareness: the buyer realises that they have a problem,
- Consideration: the buyer researches solutions and compares their options, and
- Decision: the buyer knows what they want and is comparing vendors or service providers.
Following this structure, the three main sales pipeline stages are:
- Awareness (top of the funnel): when customers discover that your business exists, through advertising or other outreach,
- Qualification (middle of the funnel): your marketing team provides content, offers or other types of lead magnet to determine whether a prospect has a serious interest in your products or services. Also in this stage, your sales reps make a case for why the customer should choose your product or service over those of your competitors, and
- Decision and close (bottom of the funnel): this includes negotiation, closing the sale and order fulfilment.
There are sometimes more or less stages depending on the products/services your company supplies and the complexity of your sales process.
Sales pipeline vs sales funnel
Marketers will sometimes refer to the sales pipeline as the ‘sales funnel’ and the two terms can sometimes be used interchangeably as they both refer to the details of prospects moving through the sales process.
However, technically there is a difference.
Where a sales pipeline is focused on the action taken by your sales reps, a sales funnel represents the number and conversion rates of your prospects as they move through the sales process.
A sales funnel is called a ‘funnel’ because this is the shape that it takes – wider at the top as prospects come in and narrower at the bottom as some prospects decide not to make a purchase.
Sales pipeline stages and the stages of the sales funnel run concurrently, so this guide will refer to both.
At the top of the funnel
The “awareness” stage of the buying cycle is your chance to make an introduction. Your potential client has just realised that they have a problem that they need to be solved or that they have a desire that they wish to have satisfied.
The awareness stage is your chance to make a lasting, memorable, and favourable good impression. They may be months or even years away from needing to buy yet. Whilst your sales team might think that your marketing team should not be wasting time on this, they’d be wrong.
How to find prospects at the top of the funnel stage
The awareness stage is all about prospecting – finding the types of people that have a genuine need for your product or service and would benefit from what your company can provide.
You can also use this stage to decide the types of customer you want to work with – the more targeted your audience the easier it will be to make sales.
Create a buyer persona
A buyer persona is a description breaks down the key characteristics of your target customer.
More Than Words note – check out our separate in-depth articles on B2B buyer personas and B2C buyer personas.
For B2B audiences, you may include things like their job title, what their budget is and what size company they will come from.
The best way to create a buyer persona is to examine the demographics and the motivations of your existing client base. Look at who your best and most loyal customers are and what they have in common.
The features that you see again and again are the features you will include in your buyer persona.
Once you have identified your audience, you can begin to get their attention.
Using your buyer persona you can identify where you are most likely to find these customers and then use lead generation strategies to encourage them to enter your sales pipeline.
At the top of the sales funnel, content marketing needs to stay light and engaging.
Some good examples of content perfect for this stage are:
Analysing top of the funnel stage outcomes
While the top of the funnel is still in the prospecting stage before you have actual customers’ full journeys to analyse, you should always be benchmarking your success against the targets you set so that you can improve your strategy as you go.
Set out a list of key performance indicators (KPIs) that you can measure your results against.
At the top of the funnel look at:
Calls and emails per sales rep
Measuring how many people each member of your sales team is talking to is the foundation of your understanding of your sales pipeline.
Not only does measuring the number of calls and emails your reps are making over days, weeks and months show you how active your team is but it also indicates how healthy your sales funnel is.
Sales opportunities created
At this point, making a sale isn’t as important as measuring how interested your target audience is in what you are selling. If your sales team is unable to turn “awareness stage” interactions from your prospects into sales then you may need to go back and look at your strategy again.
Are there common points when you are losing engagement? Does some of the content you’ve created work better than others? Are some of your reps more successful than others? Ask yourself as many questions as possible to determine where the weakest links in your sales pipeline are and experiment until you are happy with the results.
The middle of the funnel
According to SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall, the middle of the funnel is the area where the marketing to sales hand-off (MQL to SAL) occurs.
The middle of the funnel is often neglected because your marketing team is focused on awareness and your sales team on closing the deal.
But the middle of the funnel is the riskiest of the sales opportunity stages – and where the deal is the most likely to fall apart.
Dealing with clients in the middle of the funnel
For a greater chance of qualifying your leads successfully and pushing them through to the final stage of the pipeline you should:
Get to know your leads
By this stage your leads are inside your sales pipeline but you probably still don’t know too much about them.
Collecting more in-depth information about your leads helps you to ascertain what their needs are and how likely they are to buy your product or service at the end of the pipeline.
Qualifying leads also helps you to identify dead leads so that you can drop them out of your sales funnel and devote your time and resources to those most likely to convert.
Research your leads online or over email. This stage is also a good time to start making B2B telemarketing calls as prospects are warmer to your company and more open to a discussion about their requirements.
Help prospects with their decision
The middle of the funnel is not only risky for you but also for your prospects. As much as you don’t want to lose a sale, they don’t want to make a bad decision on the wrong product or service for their needs.
This is the ideal time for demonstrating the value of your company to your prospects via calls, meetings, and educational content such as e-books and service-oriented white papers.
A prospect may stay in the middle of the funnel for a long time especially if they are a B2B customer.
This is fine and you should stay in contact, making sure that every communication you have with them guides them a little closer to making a purchase.
Analysing middle of the funnel stage outcomes
Central to the success of mid-funnel sales pipeline stages is a prospect finding evidence that your business can offer a solution to their problem.
For this stage you will want to analyse engagement metrics such as:
- new vs. returning visitors,
- social media engagement, and
- referral traffic.
You also need to make sure that visitors to your site and social media are actually spending time clicking through to and reading your content.
Track things like:
- open rates,
- click through rates,
- average read percentage, and
- completion rate.
These metrics are easy to track using the content that we suggested above as you can measure the volumes of articles and blogs interacted with email sign ups, eBook downloads, or white paper downloads.
The bottom of the funnel
Once you have a sales-qualified lead your sales team can step in and present your proposal.
A proposal sounds like a very formal agreement and, for B2B, it can be but the proposal stage is present in every sort of sale – from public sector supply contracts to buying goods at a high street store.
As an example, in a B2C transaction – say, buying a pair of shoes – the customer will bring the pair of shoes they want to buy to the counter and the salesperson will scan them and present the total (maybe they will ask if the customer wants to add half-price shoelaces or free cleaning wipes).
This is the store’s proposal to the customer.
The size and formality of your proposal will depend on your industry, what you are selling, and the size of the purchase but the basic structure is the same throughout the sales pipeline stages.
You make an offer and the customer either accepts, negotiates or walks away.
As an incentive to close, just like the shoe store assistant offering half price shoelaces or free cleaning wipes, you may decide to offer more content at this phase to help the prospective client justify the decision to purchase and to purchase from you.
This could be something like a free consultation or free trial, a how-to guide, or a demonstration video.
Closing bottom of the funnel clients – making the sale
Once you and your customer have agreed on a proposal all that is left to do is close the deal.
On the surface this may seem that the deal is done and you can move onto your next client but there is still a lot to think about at the bottom of the sales pipeline.
The bottom of the funnel is also where you’ll find the best of all the sales pipeline stages for learning and improving your service for the future as well as ensuring repeat custom from that client.
Post-purchase, there are plenty of opportunities for following up with your client.
Using email or telemarketing stay in contact to check how the product or service is working for your customer if they need any further help or if they are struggling to use it.
You may also choose to ask your customers for feedback to find out what you did right, what you did wrong, and how you could improve in the future.
This provides valuable customer insight for you but also makes customers feel appreciated – making it more likely that they will return to your business in the future.
Analysing bottom of the funnel stage outcomes
The bottom of the funnel provides essential opportunities for analysis – the data that you have been tracking throughout the sales pipeline stages offers you crucial information for improving your conversion rates.
Product usage analytics
Post-purchase, product usage analytics offer valuable information about how your customers are actually using your product or service as a solution to their challenges.
The most impressive product usage data can be used for content marketing (for example in infographics or case studies) to add value and help potential clients understand and appreciate more how your product or service can deliver the same or similar outcomes for them.
Measuring customer behaviours as they work their way through the sales pipeline stages enables you to identify where a customer may lose interest and how to bring them back into the funnel.
Behaviour analytics can also be used for retargeting. If, for example, your behavioural data indicates that leads are looking at your price list but not making a purchase, you can instruct your sales teams to retarget these prospects with an offer of a discount or free trial.
You can also use this data, combined with information gathered during the qualifying stage, to tailor specific offers to the things that are of most value to that specific lead.
How to grow a sales pipeline
Make the most of your social network
Most sales and marketing teams will already use social media for prospecting but your social media networks can also be used strategically to grow your sales pipeline.
Social media is already appreciated by marketers as a viable way to widen your reach and make more prospects familiar with your brand but you can also use your social media channels to find relevant leads and demonstrate value.
Consider what your social media profiles offer a prospect, based on what you know from your buyer persona.
Social media platforms offer an easy way to answer questions and ease pain points.
In fact, data from a 2019 study found that 71% of decision-makers said social media is influential when researching or considering new products/services.
Decision and closing
Just as with anywhere else in your content marketing strategy, any place where you have direct communication with prospects and customers is the ideal opportunity for a call-to-action that could influence someone on the cusp of making a decision to convert.
Social media marketing is also a key tool for building loyalty and acquiring testimonials and reviews.
Speak to your existing customers
Repeat customers are the ultimate goal of any marketing campaign but it is possible to take this benefit one step further – using your existing customers as a source of new customers.
People trust other people that they know meaning that your network of customers is the strongest tool at your disposal for building your sales pipeline.
Referrals and recommendations are a significant factor in B2B sales.
84% of buyers enter the sales funnel due to a referral and 92% of buyers trust referrals from people they know.
Improve your contact database
At the centre of any healthy sales pipeline is a constantly-updated and accurate contact database.
Quality over quantity is the key to growth so you are looking to improve the data that you already have rather than necessarily expanding it.
More Than Words can help you to expand and refine your list of prospects by appending a bespoke marketing database to it.
Whether you are looking to fill out contacts in a specific sector or want contacts from one particular demographic, we can provide you with a dataset that meets your requirements and helps you to build your sales pipeline.
Sales pipeline example
If you are looking for a standard B2B sales pipeline template, Nutshell has an excellent range of templates for any length sales process as well as templates for complex sales processes and for customer nurturing.
You can take your own sales pipeline from these templates but, at More Than Words, we recommend taking your inspiration from the examples available to you and building a pipeline that best matches the goals and processes of your own business and sales team.
Successful sales pipeline management
Sales pipeline stages best practices
Your sales reps should be following up with leads at each of the sales pipeline stages in an effort to nudge them to the next stage. Where ten years ago it took 3.68 sales calls to close a deal, today the average number is 8.
The range of options and ease of access to them available today means that businesses need to stay present in the mind of the leads in their sales pipeline to avoid them dropping out.
Focus on the best leads
Seeing better results from your sales process means focusing more of your attention and resources on your best leads.
While it may take a similar amount of time to close each deal, you may end up devoting too much time on leads that aren’t worth very much to you if you are closing in the order in which the leads arrived.
Instead, order your leads according to which leads are the most engaged (and are worth the most to your business) and concentrate your efforts on these first.
Know when to drop a lead
No matter how good your sales pipeline is, you will lose a prospect from time to time and it is important to know when to drop a lead.
Sometimes, businesses find it difficult to let go of leads especially if they are high-value and the business has spent a long time nurturing them or if leads have been harder to come by of late.
However, there is no point wasting time on a sales opportunity which isn’t really an opportunity to sell.
A lead is dead when:
you have made multiple attempts to contact them to no avail,
they have stated outright that they are not interested, or
there is no indication that they’re likely to move to the next stage of the pipeline after a number of communications with your sales and marketing teams.
Create a basic sales process
According to a research by the Sales Management Association, 90% of companies that used a formal, standardised sales process were ranked as the highest performing.
While it is true that every customer is different and will require slightly different handling from another, a basic, standardised sales process helps your business to present a unified front to your prospects.
If your sales reps are each using their own techniques when closing sales this puts the success of your sales pipeline largely in the hands of the individual salesperson.
Sales pipeline software
As you improve the quality of your sales pipeline and more people enter it (with less dropping out), your sales and marketing teams may need assistance to ensure that they are still in control and that they don’t forget about the leads they’ve generated.
A CRM software system is an effective way of sales pipeline tracking – one enables you to manage your leads wherever they are in the sales process and automating various processes which marketing and sales reps would otherwise have to manage manually.
A CRM system:
CRM reporting features combine with the sales pipeline metrics mentioned above to give you an accurate forecast of how many deals you are likely to close in the coming weeks.
This makes it easier for you to identify your areas of strength and weakness and to know whether you are on target to hit revenue goals.
Aligns sales and marketing
The merging of sales and marketing departments has been found to generate 32% higher revenue and retain 36% more customers than keeping these areas separate.
A CRM system makes it easier to align sales and marketing efforts by having all of the information available for each department to see. Your marketing teams can run campaigns and your sales teams can use the CRM to see which leads are consuming which content and thus how best to follow up with them.
Lead scoring automates the process of deciding when a lead is sales-ready. You can input demographic information about leads such as job titles, locations etc and then the system will track the behaviour of each lead as they visit your site, download content and so on, updating that lead’s ‘score’ as it goes.
Once a lead reaches a score that can be considered sales-ready they will automatically be passed to the sales team, saving time and ensuring that all leads reach the right sales pipeline stages at the right time.
Sales pipeline tracking
CRM systems produce reports of your sales pipeline to help you to identify problems and get a clear picture of how your sales team is performing.
This helps you to spot potential issues long before they actually become a problem and make adjustments that will help you to hit your sales targets every time.
How to improve the sales pipeline for your company with More Than Words
More Than Words is a full-service marketing agency providing content marketing and direct marketing services with the experience and resources to help you to build a profitable sales pipeline of your own or to improve on your existing sales processes.
We can also provide contact information for more than 3,300,000 budget-holding decision makers in the UK B2B, school and public sectors that you can use to enrich your existing contact lists thereby broadening and strengthening your sales pipeline.
Get in touch with our team by calling us on 0330 010 8300 or click here to email our inbound marketing team.