Sales Strategies- Pump Up Your Pipeline

Startups and big companies can both learn a great deal from one another about how to improve their sales cycles and pump up their pipeline. Learning how to both assess deals and focus your time on the highest returns in your pipeline should be a primary concern for all sales leaders.  Can you drive more deals through your pipeline?  Yes, you can….

My very first job out of college was in sales. We were a small group selling to a niche market and knew intuitively how to position the company and sell the products. We didn’t have (or need) sales materials, pricing strategies or elaborate service-level agreements. As the company grew (and my sales increased), however, we found that growing this tribal knowledge was difficult.  We were missing the basic tools and new people who joined the company lacked pricing standardization, marketing material, processes, etc.  In truth, our products were highly customizable and we simply made it all up as we went along.  Onboarding was difficult as was easily rolling out changes to pricing or positioning relative to competitors or new sales tools.  We needed standardized tools to arm our sales team with the information they needed to do their jobs effectively.  And we needed to be better at targeting the right opportunities.  We knew our customers, we were responsive and we delivered a great product, but, we had serious growing pains.  We lacked all the rules and processes that make big sales organizations successful.

I shouldn’t have been surprised then to find that when I returned to sales some ten years later not much had changed.  Here are some of the things I’ve learned since:

Get Better At Forecasting:

Many small companies have a culture that promotes rigorous prioritization.  This same approach should be applied to the sales pipeline. I do this now through regular pipeline reviews.

In order for a deal to be forecast in the current quarter, the sales team has to have done four things:

Identified a champion on the customer teamIdentified a budget holder with money to spendPresented the customer with an ROI (return on investment) calculation of the benefit of using our product or serviceDetermined if the customer is in an active review of choosing a supplier for what we offer

By having the salesperson walk me through each deal, I could often tell when he couldn’t defend having the deal be listed as an “A deal” (and thus have a high forecast percentage). When I got busy and only had time to review spreadsheets it was impossible for me to know which deals were “real.” The reason, I learned, is that many salespeople take meetings with customers who are willing to meet them and give all the right messages. But many of these people they’re meeting with are simply don’t have the influence and authority to finalize the sale and thus, aren’t qualified.

The Three Most Important Words in Sales:

Inexperienced sales people spend too much time with potential customers who are nice to them and talk a good game about being interested in their products but don’t have or own the budgets. I learned this the hard way. Either we’d have deals that seemed stuck (for example, they were in the “closing within three months” pipeline for nine months), or we’d have sales reps who constantly kept adding new deals and taking out the old “sure deals” that never closed.

The most experienced sales reps were the ones who knew the three most important things to do with a sales lead were to Qualify, Qualify, Qualify. Lead quality matters, because a sales rep’s most scarce resource is time, and no matter how much you want to sell your products, you can’t push them on a customer who isn’t ready to buy. They might have other initiatives, budget constraints or just need more time to evaluate your space. As the best sales leaders will tell you, “you have to align a company’s sales cycle with a prospect’s buying cycle.”

Target the “A” deals:

After the sales rep walks through the deal, management has to step in and help with relationship building and communication. As the company grows, this task can be shared between a VP of Sales, VP Marketing and the CEO.  Part of this is standardizing the assignment of territories, industries and accounts, but part is focusing efforts on the most likely sales.

“A” deals — those that have a realistic shot of closing in the next three months — should get much of the sales person’s time (say 66-75 percent). “B” deals, forecast to close in 3–12 months, should get the remainder of sales reps’ time. Each sales rep needs to build their pipeline with these, and many bigger deals take time. However, the key to scaling is that “C” deals — deals that are unlikely to close within 12 months — get no time from sales. Marketing should own those.

Let Marketing nurture the C deals:

Marketing has two roles in managing pipelines. First, they need to fill the top end of the funnel with new “qualified” leads (e.g. converted from “suspects” to prospects). Second, they need to manage C deals. Today’s C deals are obviously tomorrows As and Bs.

So the best-run companies have Marketing running activities, such as the following, to nurture their C deals.

Customer events. This is one of my favorite activities. It’s far easier to get potential customers interested in you when they hear actual customers talking about your products or services and how they are using them. Suspects and prospects are often in search of success stories from their peers to hear how they’re improving internal operations. So one of the smartest things we did was to host local and international summits in which we had our existing customers talk about how they were using our products and had our product management teams talking about future innovation and development. Customer events are a great way to market to your C deals to keep them informed and try to raise their interest levels

Newsletters. One of the goals of newsletters is to keep your company and its offerings in the consciousness of your suspects or future buyers. C deals go in the newsletter bucket and should be identified as C-deal newsletter companies. The information you send them should be different from the newsletters you send to existing customers and should be targeted to what they do.  Focusing on innovation, case studies and new research all help legitimize your brand.

PR. Some companies are excellent at PR, and others don’t put much effort into it at all. I think PR is an incredibly important activity for technology companies, but most companies aren’t very good at it.  The reason many companies don’t put enough effort into PR is that PR doesn’t have an immediate translation into sales. It’s mostly a “C deal” activity.

Onsite Training – The constant influx of new technology, new methodologies and better business practices provide a wealth of data your customers want to know more about.  For the price of a few pizzas (Lunch and Learns) you can gain access to a large number of your target audience and hold their attention while you offer insight on your subject matter.  This simple activity builds bridges with many of the doers, while providing the opportunity to walk the halls and meet budget owners.

Social Media- It goes without saying that social media is a corner stone of today’s marketing machine but it’s still often done poorly.  Brand building, customer interaction and emotional connection should all be taking place with each tweet and post.  Both product and service companies can do this with the right approach.  Make this an opportunity for your customers to see early iterations of your product.  Share some of the “design secrets” you’re promoting and look for every opportunity to engage.  Get your whole team involved.  If a restaurant down the street has more customer interaction than you, you’re doing it wrong.

Introducing a small degree of process and rigor to the structure of your sales activities helps ensure that your teams spend their time wisely and stay on target for their most rewarding activities.  It also boosts their sales and assures that your team doesn’t get lost in the weeds.

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