Think about the top sales performers you know. If you spend a day in their life, it’s likely you’ll recognize a common theme: They are constantly tending to the quality and quantity of opportunities in their sales pipeline.
When it comes to pipeline management, two habits are central to success: balanced prospecting and daily pipeline management. Let’s first define pipeline management. It is the uncovering of opportunities in either net-new accounts, or existing accounts where you want to continue to create barriers for your competition.
Gone are the days of dedicated hunters or farmers; every sales professional must be strong at prospecting across the full field of opportunities. That leaves a lot of ground to cover. How can you strategically narrow your targets?
I’m a believer in prospecting on quality first and then quantity. Recent research shows about half your prospects aren’t a good fit for what you sell. This is especially true in high-value, consultative sales opportunities. You’ve got to do a lot of homework on target accounts, building relationships with decision makers and other buyer roles, understanding your organization’s fit with that client, and determining the lifetime value of the account.
When I launched my own company more than a decade ago, I was building a brand from scratch while simultaneously creating demand for my company’s products and services. In other words, I had to get out there to create new relationships and prospect.
Six Essential Habits for Growing a Healthy Sales Pipeline
So, what has worked for me when it comes to prospecting? Consider these six essentials for growing a healthy pipeline.
1. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. In his book Fanatical Prospecting, Jeb Blount calls prospecting an interruption to someone’s day. That hard truth leaves us vulnerable to fear and rejection. I’d be lying if I said it goes away. I’m never over the discomfort that comes with that fear of rejection. But I’m aware of it, and I remember that the discomfort is only temporary. It’s all part of our day’s work, and that’s OK. Learn lessons along the way, move on, and don’t dwell on the negative. Have a positive mindset.
2. Balance your approaches. Outbound and inbound. We all have our preferred methods of uncovering opportunities and relationships, usually based on our strengths. For me, I’m a strong writer, and so I gravitate toward email and social selling. What I’ve learned though, is that a balanced approach is typically best. When we eliminate one entire form of opportunity identification, we aren’t maximizing our results. With that in mind, I’ve made an effort to include more phone prospecting to balance out my strengths. There also needs to be a balance between outbound and inbound. In the early days of Impact Instruction Group, there was no inbound! It was all outbound efforts to build relationships. It sometimes feels like the easier road to allow inbound marketing to work its magic. But then again, opportunity identification isn’t magic – it’s the combination of communication approaches (email, phone, social) and sourcing (outbound, inbound).
3. Create high-value forums. This may be the strategy that has delivered the highest return on investment and relationship success in my experience. I’ve created quarterly forums for thought leaders and decision makers in my space, bringing them together over lunch to discuss challenges, best practices, and trends in the industry. That alone has helped to position me as a thought leader, and over time has generated a strong return with high-value opportunities.
4. Develop routines to future-proof your pipeline. When I have a number of key opportunities I’m working on at a given time, something interesting happens. I spend less time uncovering new opportunities. It’s a common dilemma – work on what’s hot at the moment, or work on what will pay off in the future? I’ve learned the value of balancing both, because when I stop uncovering new opportunities today, it hurts three or six months down the road. Future-proofing my pipeline means I need to have a consistent routine for prospecting. You’ll see all kinds of guidance on how to do this. What works well for me is to set aside three days a week where I prospect for an hour or two. That establishes the routine I need to keep the future top of mind, while still providing time for working through the existing opportunities and maintaining current clients.
5. Create an impactful first meeting or phone call. When all of the work has been done to secure that first meeting or phone call, it’s time to shine with an impressive sales conversation. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many sales professionals struggle with the first meeting, because they simply aren’t prepared and don’t enter the meeting with the right mindset or commitment goals. Don’t make the mistake of flying by the seat of your pants. The research conducted ahead of your first meeting will set the stage for gaining further commitments from the client and moving opportunities forward.
6. Avoid the chase. I’m a competitive, type-A personality, so new opportunities feed my competitive spirit. The shadow side to that is that I can get wrapped up in the chase, continuing to pursue avenues that ultimately don’t serve me or my clients. I’ve slowly learned to back off from the chase, and that has made a noticeable difference. It has lowered my stress levels, created more time to cultivate higher-value opportunities, and actually helped me to close more opportunities at higher margins.
Becoming a Leader of Your Own Pipeline
Pipeline is a funny thing, because it’s easy for the pipeline to look better than it is. It’s sometimes tough to acknowledge the truth that our pipelines aren’t as healthy as they could be. Part of self-leadership is knowing the health and value of your opportunity pipeline is first about your numbers.
- Do you know the number of opportunities you currently have?
- Do you know your average deal size?
- What is your closing ratio?
- What is the overall profitability of your deals?
- How long have they been in the pipeline before closing?
I keep data on every opportunity all year long, and I refer back to that data to help me uncover patterns in my pipeline. For example:
- Where are opportunities getting stuck?
- Which opportunities closed quickly and why? (I’d like to replicate more of those!)
- Which opportunities had the highest profitability?
- What types of services are my clients gravitating toward?
- Have I been able to sell add-on services to extend the engagement?
I’ll share some interesting trends I’ve uncovered in tracking my pipeline:
- It’s often the deals that closed quickly and easily that were the most profitable and the most rewarding.
- The deals where I’ve felt like I’m giving chase or trying to force a fit, are the ones that are often the most difficult to close. And when they do, they are the most challenging (and draining) to deliver on, and they’re often the least profitable.
- When I’ve unclogged my pipeline and been honest about deals that are NEVER going to close, it helped jump start my prospecting activities. Giving myself permission to close the books on those low-odds opportunities opened up space for better opportunities.
Growing a healthy pipeline takes time and thought. But if you follow these steps and regularly track your efforts, you’ll find more, qualified prospects ready and waiting for your business to help them tackle their toughest challenges.
Level Up Your Sales Pipeline Management
Don’t let your competition get an advantage. We can help. If you want to know how to improve your team’s sales pipeline management, or you’d like to bring in an outside perspective, let’s talk. Contact us to schedule time for a discovery conversation with Amy.