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What Is a Sales Pipeline and How Do You Build One? A Complete Guide

Sales pipeline graphic with sales reps pushing money through a winding pipeline
A sales pipeline follows the journey prospects take from first contact to purchase. [Salesforce]

Managing your sales pipeline lets you catch tiny problems before they become big.

Sellers love the close. But focusing solely on the close is like a marathon runner trying to take a shortcut — you might get ahead, but you’ll be kicked out of the race. The best sellers, like the best runners, log the steps and embrace the journey to success. That’s where a healthy pipeline comes in. It gives you the structure and guidance to build strong relationships and secure consistent deal wins.

That may seem like quite a hurdle, but we’ll show you how to build a healthy sales pipeline, step by step.

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What is a sales pipeline?

A sales pipeline is a visual representation of where each prospect is in the sales process. It helps you identify next steps and any roadblocks or delays so you can keep deals moving toward close.

A sales pipeline is not to be confused with the sales funnel. Though they draw from similar pools of data, a sales pipeline focuses on where the prospect is in their buying journey, which helps reps determine what they should do to keep deals moving. A prospect lingering in the negotiation stage, for example, may need a change to product price to move them to the contract stage. 

The sales funnel is also a visual representation of the sales process, but from the customer’s point of view. Think of it as the conversation that happens in a prospect’s mind as the steps of the sales process progress, underscoring their level of engagement and “buy in.” This ranges from awareness at the start of the sales process — “This is a cool new product” — to evaluation and purchase towards the end of the process — “I have to make sure this product has all the features I need before I buy.”

Why is a sales pipeline important?

A sales pipeline gives you a bird’s-eye view of where every deal stands in the sales process — and any obstacles that may hinder a successful sale. With this information, you can address roadblocks and increase the chances of closing the sale.

A sales pipeline also provides a clear picture of potential overall revenue, allowing you to create accurate forecasts. With these forecasts, you can see how likely you are to hit revenue targets and adjust sales strategy as needed to make sure you hit your goals. 

Ultimately, a healthy sales pipeline is about keeping deals moving. Without one, prospects can get stuck in the sales process and reps may not know how to get them unstuck. This results in missed sales targets and lost revenue — not to mention a frustrated sales team.

How do sales pipelines work? 

A sales pipeline follows the journey prospects take from first contact to purchase. Once a lead has been deemed qualified (a good fit for the product), they enter the pipeline as a prospect and reps track progress as sales conversations unfold. When the prospect meets specific exit criteria (requirements needed to complete a pipeline stage), they move to the next stage in the pipeline. This progression is typically tracked using a customer relationship management (CRM) platform and displayed in a dashboard that provides a visual representation of the pipeline’s health and performance.

You can compare this journey to a free-flowing river. If there are problems upstream, there will eventually be problems downstream. For example, let’s say you noticed deals are getting stuck in the meeting/demo stage. In too many instances, prospects attend the meetings but don’t move forward, causing a bottleneck. To tackle this, you can evaluate the effectiveness of your demo videos and refine the content as necessary, or review the recordings of recent demos to identify areas of improvement. You can also offer additional training for your reps on how to lead effective demo calls. 

Below, we walk through the specific stages of a sales pipeline and how they help move a prospect closer to a sale.

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What are the stages of a sales pipeline?

The stages of a pipeline may vary slightly based on industry or sector, but they generally follow the same order: prospecting, lead qualification, sales call or meeting, proposal, negotiation and commitment, contract signing, and post-purchase. Each of these stages helps you identify next best steps based on where prospects are on the road to a sale. 

Prospecting

Sales prospecting refers to the process of finding potential new customers. There’s outbound prospecting, which involves cold outreach to folks who match your buyer persona, and there’s inbound prospecting, which involves outreach to individuals and businesses who have already expressed interest in your product or company by signing up for an event, a newsletter, product information, or a demo. 

Lead qualification

Not all potential customers are likely to close. Before you pitch your product, you need to make sure it’s a good fit for the prospects you’ve identified. This is where lead qualification comes in. First, set a baseline of criteria for qualification, like leads who are in a specific geographic location or industry. Many CRMs will let you set these and do automatic lead scoring so you don’t have to review leads manually. Follow up on leads who meet preset criteria with a lead qualification call, where you gather important information like their needs, budget, timeline, and who has the power to make purchasing decisions. The leads who best align with your product and are most likely to buy become qualified leads, or prospects. By focusing on qualified leads, you optimise your efforts and increase the likelihood of closing deals with the right prospects.

Sales call, demo, or meeting

At this stage, you’ve strategically filtered out leads that are not ready to buy, and are zeroing in on those that are. This is when you start to go in for a sale. Schedule a demo or meeting to discuss product solutions to customer pain points. Make sure everyone involved understands the goal of this meeting; having an agenda prepared ahead of time will help keep everything on track. Keep in mind: This is an opportunity to build a business case demonstrating how your product will help your prospect achieve their goals. 

Proposal

This stage is when you make an official sales offer. Summarise how your company can help address the potential customer’s pain points, reiterate pricing information, and demonstrate how the business value of your product more than offsets its cost. Key things to remember at this stage: personalisation and perceived value. You want the prospect to know you understand their company inside and out, so make sure you’re not giving them a one-size-fits-all proposal but tailoring it to their specific pain points.  

Negotiation and commitment

The prospect will likely have objections or additional inquiries that require renegotiating the initial proposal. Discuss expanding or shrinking the scope of work, adjusting pricing, and managing expectations to reach a final agreement. 

Contract signing

Pop some bubbly because you just closed a deal. Make signing the contract simple by using an e-signature service that allows your soon-to-be-customer to sign and upload from anywhere. Now you can move the deal toward order fulfillment.

Post-purchase 

The close of a deal is just the beginning of the customer experience. The buyer will expect attentive service during implementation and regular monitoring of the account’s progress. At the right times, you can cross-sell existing customers on new services and upsell them on premium solutions. 

“You need to take ownership of that account because if you aren’t doing the right thing, if you aren’t following up, it’s up for grabs for someone else to take over,” said Galem Girmay, Revenue Enablement Manager, APAC & EMEA at UserTesting. “You want to protect what you’ve worked so hard for and make sure you’re always moving the conversation forward.” 

How do you build a healthy sales pipeline in three steps? 

For a pipeline to be considered healthy, it must flow. Prospects must move from one stage to the next in a set time frame or be filtered out from the pipeline. To ensure there’s continuous flow, reps should regularly bring in fresh leads, qualify those leads, nurture leads to increase interest in a purchase, and, ultimately, close deals. Reps can track this flow in a customer relationship management platform (CRM). Regular pipeline reviews are also important — they help you see which deals are stuck so you can determine what you need to do to get them moving again.

“You want to make sure your goals as a sales team are reflected in your CRM, so that means having accurate data and updating your pipeline consistently as a prospect progresses from one stage to the next stage,” said Girmay.

Here’s how you build a strong, healthy pipeline:

1. Bring in leads that are likely to close. 

Each company will have different criteria for what counts as a good lead, with many companies even using a lead scoring system to prioritise leads based on how likely they are to purchase. For example, at Salesforce, our lead scoring system is powered by AI to automatically prioritise leads based on existing customer and marketing data.

In many cases, however, you’ll need to follow up directly with leads to make sure they’re a good fit. Here are some common questions to ask when qualifying leads:

  • What pain points or needs do you have?
  • Do you have a budget for our solution? 
  • Are you in a decision-making position? 
  • What’s your timeline for purchase?

These questions ensure you don’t clog your pipeline with stagnant leads and throw off your sales forecast.

2. Nurture leads until they close.

Nurturing leads involves developing and reinforcing prospect relationships by providing powerful insights that build trust in your solution. When it comes to nurturing, personalisation and communication are the name of the game. 

There are multiple ways to accomplish this, but a common one is email nurturing. It’s cost-effective and easy to automate with email templates and follow-up tasks, and track with analytics often built directly into AI-powered CRMs. You can send personalised content like blogs, videos, white papers, and e-books in your emails, delivering valuable information that addresses prospects’ unique needs. 

Other forms of nurturing can include direct mail, follow-up calls, or social media marketing. No matter how you do it, it’s important to keep the water warm with consistent follow-up and outreach since prospects typically won’t make a purchase during their first interaction with you.

3. Maintain relationships to win future cross-sells and upsells.  

A seller’s job isn’t done when the deal closes. You need to continue to nurture strong relationships with existing customers to win future cross-sells and upsells. By staying connected and offering valuable support, you can position yourself as a trusted advisor and increase the likelihood of providing them with relevant upgrades, upping their contract value, and increasing their customer lifetime value. 

With a clear view of your sales pipeline, you can assess its overall health and take proactive measures (like those noted above) to address issues. For example, if your pipeline is top-heavy with prospects getting stuck in early sales conversations, you can focus on nurturing leads to move them closer to the final stages. For a bottom-heavy pipeline, you can prioritise lead generation and prospecting to ensure a steady influx of new opportunities. It’s all about finding the right balance to maximise your revenue potential.

What tools do you need to build and maintain a pipeline?

To maintain a healthy sales pipeline, you need effective tools to track and propel deals through each stage. That includes tools to organise customer data, align team efforts, and provide clear visuals for reps to prioritise tasks. Here are some pipeline management tools to help.

Customer relationship management (CRM) software: CRM software is a critical tool for managing and organising customer data, tracking interactions, and monitoring the sales pipeline. It helps you centralise customer information, track leads, and automate tasks, improving efficiency and enabling better customer engagement. These days, a CRM with AI functionality is key —  it can automatically add data from different sources like emails, calls, and meetings to deal records and identify next best steps in the sales process to ensure you keep your deals on track.

Sales analytics and reporting tools: These tools provide valuable insights into key pipeline metrics like conversion rate, deal age, and number of qualified leads. This allows you to identify trends, measure current sales against key performance indicators (KPIs), and make data-driven decisions to optimise your sales strategies. Real-time data is key here, as it empowers you to adjust your strategy quickly to avoid potential pitfalls.

Communication and collaboration tools: Communication tools such as email clients, messaging platforms, and video conferencing software allow reps to connect with prospects remotely. Also, they give sales teams the ability to hold real-time conversations from anywhere, allowing team members to discuss leads, share updates, address customer inquiries, and coordinate activities. Real-time, collaborative messaging tools like Slack make it easy to share information, delegate tasks, and take quick action if a deal gets stalled in the pipeline. 

Sales enablement tools: These interactive tools use content, coaching modules, and training courses to help reps onboard, improve their skills, and close deals efficiently. As the market and buyer needs change, sales enablement gives reps the tools to handle the latest prospect needs, addressing issues quickly and efficiently to ensure deals move quickly to a close.

How do you evaluate your sales pipeline?

A healthy pipeline is characterised by swift progression of deals through each stage, leading to a high conversion rate (percentage of leads who buy). To evaluate and improve this, you need to track topline metrics like number of qualified leads, conversion rate, and deal age to see how smoothly leads move through each stage of the pipeline. Additionally, tracking deal signals like lead source, industry, and decision-maker role can help ensure you’re targeting the highest-quality leads.

Top sales pipeline metrics

To keep your data clean and deals moving forward, you can set up trackable metrics and prospect details in your CRM and review them regularly. There are many metrics you can track, but the most critical ones are tied directly to the number of deals in your pipeline and how they’re moving from prospecting to close. They include:

Number of qualified leads: As noted above, a qualified lead is a prospect whose needs align with your product solution and who has the intent and resources to buy. The more qualified leads you have, the higher your conversion rate is likely to be. 

Conversion rate: This metric measures the percentage of leads that successfully convert into paying customers. It helps you evaluate the effectiveness of your sales efforts and identify areas for improvement. If your conversation rate is low compared to previous quarters, for example, you might take a look at the quality of your leads to see if they’re really good fits for your product. 

Age of leads: The age of leads is how long it takes leads to move from first stage (prospecting) to final stage (purchase). Identifying patterns here is key to seeing lags in your process. If you’re noticing a marked increase in the average age of leads — or an outlier — it could be an indication that some of your prospects are stuck in the pipeline, or aren’t likely to buy and should be removed.

Pipeline coverage: This is the total value and/or number of deals in your pipeline, which allows you to see if you have enough potential sales to meet your revenue goals. If your pipeline coverage is high, it means you have a good chance of reaching your targets because there are sufficient deals in progress. If your pipeline coverage is low, it suggests you may need to generate more leads to ensure you have enough potential revenue to meet your goals. 

Other key pipeline signals

While essential, the above pipeline metrics may not tell the full story of your pipeline health. Tracking a few additional deal signals gives you a deeper understanding of your ideal customers, what they like, and how successfully you’re bringing in leads likely to close. 

Lead source: This is the origination point for your prospects. Where did they come from —  through marketing efforts, direct contact, or cold outreach? Once you start paying attention to these sources, you might discover that some have a higher conversion rate than others. Lean into these prospecting sources to ensure higher-quality leads.

Industry: Buyers from a wide range of industries might be interested in your product, but is it a bit more popular in certain industries? Tracking this metric will help you discover that. 

Decision makers: Do you have a direct line to the folks who will ultimately sign contracts?  If not, what decision-makers should you be targeting?

What’s next?

Once you’ve got a healthy pipeline, the key is to maintain it, track your performance, and adjust as needed to meet changing market conditions and buyer needs. To help ensure you’re building strong relationships and establishing trust, make sure you effectively handle objections that pop up during the sales process, and drive value from first conversation to close. With a solid sales process and strong sales pipeline in place, it will be a lot easier to hit those ambitious sales goals — even in changing times.

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