Sales pipeline management is a one-on-one conversation that a sales manager has with a salesperson about the opportunities the rep is currently working on and the likelihood of hitting the monthly sales projection. The best sales managers use these conversations to accomplish more than a sales forecast — they use these calls to improve a rep’s sales skills and win rate.
Unfortunately, many companies inadvertently place obstacles in their managers’ way — obstacles that inhibit effective pipeline management from paying off as it should. Here are three of the most common corporate obstacles to sales pipeline management.
The seller-focused sales model emphasizes the steps a rep should take in order to sell: qualify leads, identify needs, recommend a solution, give a demo, make a proposal, and so on.
The problem with these pipeline labels is they reflect the actions salespeople take, not what the customer does. Knowing that a rep has submitted a proposal doesn’t tell you anything about what’s going on inside the customer’s head. Have customers acknowledged any discontentment? Articulated their buying criteria? Provided access to another key decision maker? You don’t know what commitments buyers have made in their buying process.
While it’s possible for many salespeople to do a decent job of selling by following a company’s sales process, it’s a mistake to emphasize the rep’s actions. It leads both the sales manager and the rep failing to dive into the reasons why a sale did or did not go through.
Perhaps the most important goal of sales pipeline management is improving the predictability of sales — understanding why a deal leaks out of the pipeline. Without knowing the why, it’s difficult for the salesperson to replicate the success in one deal to the next. That also means that your sales reps’ forecasts are based on sales rep intuition, not actual evidence of customer actions.
A common disconnect occurs when a company implements a new sales training program but doesn’t bother to change the labels in their pipeline management tool to match the sales training.
One conversation we know happens regularly between manager and rep is a sales pipeline management call. One of the many benefits of doing sales pipeline management is the opportunity to turn the manager’s question, “Which opportunities in your pipeline will you close this month?” into a sales-skills coaching conversation that reinforces your sales training.
When there’s a mismatch between your sales training program and your pipeline stages, what typically gets lost over time is the sales training.
Effective sales pipeline management occurs when sales managers help their reps to recognize gaps in their strategies and see new, more effective ways to proceed. The most helpful sales pipeline management and coaching advice occurs in real time, in the early and middle phases of a sales opportunity when the rep can implement those coaching lessons to win. After all, the size of a purchase is determined by customers in the earlier phases of their buying process, not later.
A sales manager recently told me that every other Monday, he held one-on-one sales pipeline management calls with his team, after which he would push his team’s sales forecast up the chain of command. The following day, like clockwork, he would receive an urgent message from his boss saying something like, “Another division is coming up short on their numbers, so we need you to contribute more. Get with each of your reps immediately, identify the five or six best opportunities each has to close this month, and go close those deals!”
While admittedly there are times when this fire drill to close deals needs to happen, it’s not helpful for it to become, as it had for this company, a way of life.
Instructing your sales managers to go and close deals sends a message that closing deals is the most important use of managers’ time. That leads your sales managers to spend the bulk of their available coaching time working with your top-producing salespeople — because top salespeople are the ones working the largest opportunities. Meanwhile, other salespeople — the reps who would improve the most from pipeline management and sales coaching — are left to fend for themselves. This leads to more attrition.
Most sales managers have the raw materials to be great sales pipeline managers and coaches. As former peak-performing sales reps, managers have already proven themselves capable at asking questions that help customers better understand their problems, diagnose the cause of those problems and then help the customer recognize the benefits of a solution.
These sales skills — skills that enable one person to influence another to change — are much the same skills that managers require to be great at sales pipeline management. Remove the three corporate obstacles blocking the success of your sales managers — then stand back and watch your sales take off.
“Knowing that a rep has submitted a proposal doesn’t tell you anything about what’s going on inside the customer’s head.”