The basic idea of a sales pipeline is to estimate the upcoming sales you’re aiming to close. Over time, this information becomes your sales forecast. Year after year, companies prepare spreadsheet after spreadsheet to forecast sales for every month, quarter and year – even as far as ten years into their company’s future. This type of forecasting can provide critical planning information – especially for resource allocation. Some companies compile forecasts based on gut instinct, assumptions and the best guesses of their sales personnel (some of whom won’t be around to meet their ten year forecast). Sometimes they do get lucky and hit upon accurate readings. But more often, this system of assumptions and guesses just leaves them with results that can be detrimental to their business. Not being able to predict customer metrics could leave a company overstaffed during a lull or understaffed during a boom. The business may have an overabundance of raw materials or components (and therefore a reduced cash flow), or the business could have an inadequate inventory and find themselves in short supply (and only available at a premium price). An inaccurate sales pipeline will often eventually lead to the self-destruction of a business.
To combat this, a smart business will create and track clients and prospects in their sales pipeline. And the smartest way to do this is with a CRM application, like Base, that can track your information by month, quarter and/or year – eliminating the need for those endless, repetitive spreadsheets. With a CRM, you can measure the sales dollars and closure rates of potential sales identified by your team and then analyze these results to help you manage and – most importantly – enhance the pipeline. We’ve written about essential sales forecasting techniques before.
We wanted to give you a step-by-step process you could replicate to effectively manage your sales pipeline.
Creating The Pipeline
1. Find Your Prospects. Before we can talk about managing your pipeline, you need a pipeline to begin with. Where will you find your leads? There are many ways to generate leads. That’s a whole other post, or book for that matter. Check out the 30 greatest lead generation tips, tricks, and ideas if you need some inspiration. A couple tools that help you build your sales pipeline are a lead capture form and a lead and contact clipper. A lead capture form gives you the ability to capture information from prospects who visit your website and want more information. They give you the ability to create and embed lead capture forms to display on your website and Facebook page. Lead capture forms can be solid gold for your business. The contact information you glean from these forms belongs to people excited enough about your product to offer their contact information. Leads generated through these forms have contacted you directly and expect you to reach back out to them. By linking your form and your CRM, you can ensure that any and all requests make it to your sales team. Second, the Lead and Contact Clipper allows you to save full LinkedIn and Facebook profiles to your CRM with the click of a button. Create tasks for yourself to reach out to these prospects so you can start to build a relationship.
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2. Determine The Real Potential. To begin, obtain critical information from the prospect including potential total sales dollars and volume for a specific time period (weekly, monthly, annually, etc.). Remember, there’s no room for estimation or guesswork here! There is no doubt that a current client or a prospect has the more accurate information about how much product/service it may buy. This is also an opportune time to determine a client’s relevant purchasing policies. Is the client prohibited from buying all of product All from one supplier? On a monthly basis? Annual basis? Are the client’s purchasing decisions based solely on price? Collect every bit of information that can effect whether a client can or will buy from you. Don’t forget to check your gut either. While a prospect could be walking the walk, try to really gage their intent to follow through. How responsive is the prospect? Do they get back to you right away or are they quick to disappear? How serious is the prospect? Figure our objections early to have a more accurate sales pipeline later.
3. Identify Decision Makers. In some cases, your contact may be the decision maker. But many times, purchasing decisions may be made by key executives based on price, volume, volatile market conditions or other reasons specific to their industry. Asking your contact about key decision maker(s) can be an awkward conversation that may not help you in the end. Try softening your approach: let the client know that this purchase would represent a significant expenditure for your company, where it would need executive approval. Once you’re on topic, ask if that’s their policy, too. Don’t forget to ask for any purchasing directive the executives have provided – this can be a huge asset. Another tip, offered up by Tom Hopkins on Twitter is to “get involvement by asking who will be using your product the most.”
Managing The Pipeline
4. Follow-Up. Follow-up is critical to close on any request for business. We even wrote about how to make the perfect sales follow-up. Document all follow-up actions you agreed to complete for all clients and prospects in your CRM – make sure to add a description of the action required, contact name, and estimate date of completion for each action item. Then track and complete these actions accurately, totally and within the agreed timeframe. Make sure to immediately follow-up on any urgent requests, request for a quote or – perhaps most importantly – a first call from a potential client. During this period, be aware of other potential sales offered to a client and learn their hot buttons.
5. Measure Results. For each prospect, track and measure your successes (and failures)! Tracking the results of your sales forecasting – especially in a CRM -measures your closure rate and the accuracy of your sales dollars and volume pipeline. Accurate sales forecasting optimizes business planning and cash flow.
6. Analyze Results. Now that you’ve tracked the key information and actions on each potential sale, you have a roadmap to success. Repeat the path that has earned sales. Stay away from the actions where sales were lost. But always looks for ways to make improvements to your strategies, and put those techniques into action. Then share the “do’s” and “do not’s” with your sales force – when one of you benefits, everyone can benefit.
Without sales, a business can’t survive. Developing, tracking, managing and analyzing your pipeline can directly increase sales and build your business. Let us know, what are your tips for effectively managing your sales pipeline?
* This post originally appeared on the Base blog.