When you work in business and sales, one of the most effective tools you can develop is your sales pipeline. This is the sequence of stages that a sales team follows and takes customers through in order to convert them from prospective customer to actual customer and finally—in the most successful cases—to returning customer.
If you want to be successful, you can’t just sit back and wait for people to come to you. An effective sales pipeline is proactive, regularly going out and seeking qualified leads. To do that, you need to know how to talk to people, understand what exactly it is that they are looking for, and then find a way to meet those needs.
Like most successful negotiations, a solid sales pipeline starts with PLEASE. And while manners are indeed important in every negotiation, in this case, PLEASE is an acronym that stands for the six sales pipeline stages:
- Lead Qualification
Each of these stages is a key part of an efficient sales process, so we’re here to walk you through each one.
Before you can start sending leads through your sales funnel, you actually have to find and/or generate those leads. So where do these leads come from? How do they actually become a lead, rather than just a random stranger or company with whom you’ve never had any interaction?
The best way to acquire leads is different in each industry, but there are certain steps that are useful no matter what industry you’re in. Train your team to recognize what makes a good lead in your industry and keep an open mind about coming up with a lead wherever you/they go. Identify your target demographic, then do market research to find out what companies and individuals within that demographic are looking for. Develop your marketing campaigns to target those demographics to bring them in.
2. Lead Qualification
In the context of your sales funnel, not all leads are created equal. There are some leads who are golden—eager to work with you, and almost ready to buy right out the gate. And, there are others who seem like, no matter what you do, they’re really just not interested in what you’re offering. One of the most important sales pipeline stages is determining which category each lead falls into so that you know how best to work with them and how to best manage your time.
In order to determine how to work with a lead, you should reach out to them. But, before making any contact, make sure you doo some outside research on that business to learn who they are and what they want. Then, put yourself in their shoes and think through what their challenges and interests might be. Remember, even the first communication is a “negotiation” so be strategic and treat it like one. Make a good impression, show genuine interest, and don’t just write anyone off immediately. Sometimes, leads that don’t seem promising at first can become some of your most loyal clients.
After you have qualified your lead and progressed them a bit farther down your sales pipeline, you need to actively engage with them. Ask thoughful open ended questions and really listen to the answers. Find out what goal(s) they are trying to achieve. What problems are they trying to fix? What aspect of their business are they trying to improve? It is based on this information that you can position your product to meet those needs. They will almost inevitably have objections. You should be able to anticipate many of those objections and have a solution already prepared. Ultimately it all comes down to, did you create a relationship, and how can you tie your product or service to the solution they are looking for?
At some point in the negotiation, it will be time for your prospect to make a decision. While it seems like a “no” is your worst-case scenario, it’s actually worse if a prospect is stuck in a state of indecision and unwilling to make the call (or take your call). Your job is to get them to say yes, but, at some point, the objective becomes to force a decision, even if the answer is no. Do everything you can to get to a yes, but if a yes doesn’t seem likely, then the next best option isn’t “maybe”—it’s no.
Every year, there are dozens of studies researching which companies provide the best—and worst—customer service. The best organizations realize that customer service starts with the salesperson. Not only does this lead customers to keep coming back, it often spurs them to to spread the word about your business. It’s much easier and more cost effective to sell to and develop already existing clients than it is to find new ones.So, the best salespeople do enough to get the sale but leave themselves with room to over-delive..
Evaluation is possibly one of the most often overlooked sales pipeline stages. In order to become the best sales person or team you can, you should be constantly evaluating your performance. Look for ways you can learn from every sales opportunity negotiation. What did you do right in your successful interactions? How were you able to provide what the customer wanted? And what did you do wrong in the unsuccessful interactions? Sometimes, failures provide the best learning experiences and reveal opportunities for improvement.
Take the information that you gather from each sales/negotiation your team enters and find a way to organize it so that you can correct weaknesses and develop strengths in the future. Use it to improve your entire sales team rather than just a single individual. You can use each success and failure as a way to make everyone on your team better.
Once you’ve set up your sales pipeline, keep an eye on it. You should constantly be looking for ways to improve each stage in the process. Recognize strengths and faults and work to hone it to a fine edge. Ultimately, it all comes down to generating more leads, managing your time, developing strong relationships, and over-delivering – that’s the secret sauce that keeps them coming back and providing referrals.