What the heck is a sales pipeline?

And how can you use it to improve your close rates?

In this article, you’ll learn the answers to these questions along with the essential sales pipeline management tips every sales rep should know.

What Is a Sales Pipeline?

Let’s start from the beginning.

The first recorded sale was in 8,100 B.C.E…

Fast forward about 10,000 years, past a couple of dumb jokes, and you get the popularization of the term “sales pipeline.”

What is a sales pipeline?

Every customer starts out as a total stranger. They’ve never heard of your brand before. Then, they see an ad, they read a piece of content, or they encounter a salesperson, and they gradually get to know your brand better.

Over time, they become a prospect, then a lead, then a qualified lead, and eventually, a closed sale.

You can think of this progression as flowing through a series of interconnected pipes. A whole line of them.

Realistically, it’s just a convenient way to visualize your sales process.

For most businesses, the sales pipeline looks a little something like this:

1. First impressions.

Customers start out as strangers. So do the people who eventually become your best friends. Sooner or later, they’re exposed to your brand for the first time, which means you need to give them a great first impression.

2. Qualification.

Let’s not waste time with tire-kickers and people with budgets too small to become customers. Let’s qualify these leads and make sure they’re a good fit.

3. Discovery.

Then what? You have to get to know your potential customer. How big is their business? What is their biggest pain point? What is their budget? Who is their favorite Avenger?

4. The pitch.

You give them a demo. Or a presentation. Or a quote. Whatever form it takes, you have to get them thinking seriously about your offer.

5. Consideration.

Cue the Jeopardy! theme music. Here, your prospect mulls things over.

6. Follow-up.

It’s unfortunate, but most people will have no trouble leaving you hanging. You have to follow up with them to get a response (and try to minimize or overcome objections that stand in your way).

7. Close.

And finally, we have the close. It’s often seen as the hardest phase of the sales pipeline, but if you have a full sales pipeline management strategy in place, this should be a slam dunk. See our guide on how to close the sale for help with this step. And don’t miss our guide on how to increase sales.

What Is Sales Pipeline Management?

So what is sales pipeline management?

This is a descriptive term for all the processes you use to design, implement, and tweak your sales pipeline to perfection.

Consider:

Creation.

A sales pipeline may emerge organically, but it’s often better to design your process from the ground up. Break it down into phases based on the average customer journey and flesh out the steps you want to take in each phase.

Execution.

Sales pipeline management is also about effectively executing this vision. You have to train and educate your salespeople to follow your direction – and improve the implementation of each step along the way.

Refinement.

Your sales pipeline won’t be perfect, even with a crystal-clear vision of its development. You have to measure and analyze your results, then gradually refine your approach until it’s capable of getting the results you want.

Sales Pipeline Management Tips

Now, let’s look at some actionable tips you can use to better manage your sales pipeline.

1. Document the process.

So, do you have a sales pipeline already? Let me see it.

Oh, you don’t have anything to show?

If that’s the case, you’re like 60 percent of other sales team leaders. Your sales pipeline exists as a nebulous, fuzzy, abstract idea – not as a documented blueprint.

It’s time to change that.

Formally documenting your sales pipeline has advantages. For starters, you’ll be forced to define the terms of your pipeline. You’ll also have a consistent form of documentation you can return to in the future, so you can see how far you’ve strayed from your original vision.

Even more importantly, this system of documentation serves as an important tool to train new salespeople – and they’ll have a resource they can use to learn and improve their sales skills.

Don’t feel too intimidated. Your document doesn’t have to be perfect. To start, it just has to be in place. You can always update it later with new information and ideas.

For help, see our guide to building the perfect sales process.

2. Create content.

You just got done documenting your formal sales pipeline. Now it’s time to document everything else.

Content is the heart of modern digital marketing. You need content for social media marketing. You need it for search engine optimization (SEO). And these days, you need it for practically every phase of the sales pipeline.

New customers can find out more about your brand by reading your blog. Prospects can learn more about your products by reading brochures or watching video tutorials. You can use eBooks to generate and filter qualified leads.

The options are limitless.

The point is, content can help you solidify every stage of the customer journey – and ultimately perfect your pipeline. Here’s a great guide to content marketing.

3. Use a CRM.

Customer relationship management (CRM) software accomplishes many things simultaneously.

It helps you keep track of customer data. It centralizes and coordinates the efforts of your team members. It allows you to produce reports and analyze your results. It’s amazing.

But there are a couple of catches to using a CRM platform effectively. First, you have to choose the right CRM platform. There are literally hundreds of options to choose from, but only a small handful will be a perfect fit for your organization.

You also have to use these platforms consistently. Your CRM isn’t supposed to be a “sometimes” platform. It’s an “all the time” platform. And every member of your team is responsible for using it the same way.

See these guides for help choosing a CRM Platform:

4. Get quality leads.

The leads are weak!”

Well, yeah, they might actually be. Macho, gung-ho, or aggressive salespeople will insist that blaming the leads is a tired excuse by bad salespeople to justify their own ineptitude.

And yes, sometimes this does happen. Strong leads can be lost by inexperienced or lackluster sales reps.

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But even considering that, the quality of your leads has a massive impact on your bottom-line results. It doesn’t matter how far someone gets in your sales pipeline if they’re not a good fit for your organization.

What does that mean? It means your whole strategy has to start with getting the best-quality leads (with the help of marketing and a lead generation strategy).

Use these resources for help getting high-quality leads:

5. Ditch the dead leads.

A lot of organizations have this recycling system in their sales pipeline. If someone drops off and shows no interest in the product, oh well – they remain in the lead pool indefinitely.

The idea behind this system isn’t inherently bad. People do change their minds sometimes. Keeping them around could be a future opportunity.

But in my experience, this is unlikely. If you have a dead lead, take them out of the system entirely. Don’t waste any more time on them.

6. Keep your systems updated.

Your sales pipeline changes form over time. It’s your job to keep all your systems updated.

You have to periodically revisit your sales pipeline and tweak it to fit your current needs. You have to review and refine your CRM procedures. You have to update and review the new features of your CRM.

In other words, you have to stay in motion.

Even if you’re not sold on this concept, bear in mind that your competitors are doing the same. Your fiercest competing businesses are constantly updating their approaches; if you don’t follow suit, you’ll fall behind.

7. Set both individual and team goals.

Chances are, your sales department functions as a team. Your leader sets a direction and your reps work together, sharing tips, exchanging information, and generally supporting each other.

If you want to be successful with your sales pipeline implementation, you need to set both individual and team focused goals. You need to coordinate the entire team in improving efficiency and results; but you also need to cater to individual strengths and weaknesses.

In both areas, goals will serve to motivate and guide your workforce. Plus, you can celebrate their achievement with a party or something.

See this guide to setting effective sales goals for help.

8. Automate whatever you can.

Many modern sales apps have at least some automation potential. Use it.

Any automation will improve your sales pipeline management – and in several ways. For starters, it will reduce manual effort; an automatic trigger can save minutes, if not hours of labor.

Automation also reduces the possibility of an error occurring. If your follow-up email template is already written and programmed, it’s not going to be forgotten. The same can’t be said of emails manually written by your sales staff.

On top of that, automation makes things easy to measure and track. Check out our list of sales automation software!

9. Trim the sales cycle.

Okay, I get it. Some industries naturally have a longer sales cycle. It takes people longer to come to a decision about a $500,000 equipment investment than it does to buy a $20 necktie.

But there’s almost always room to make that sales cycle shorter.

Shorter sales cycles have tremendous advantages. You can move people through the system quicker. You can pinpoint pipeline deviations more readily and more specifically.

And if a lead becomes dead, you can move onto someone else much faster.

10. Follow up.

Follow-ups count. Most of the people who eventually say yes to your offer will initially say no.

It’s just the way it goes. And a lot of the people who want to say yes will just… not respond to your email. Sometimes for days.

If you want to move forward with these people, you have to send follow-up messages to them. And yes, those follow-ups need to be part of your sales pipeline management strategy.

Fortunately, you have a lot of options here. You can automate follow-ups. You can use templates and offer content. You could even train your salespeople to follow-up in specific ways.

See these guides for help:

11. Measure and analyze your efforts.

Here’s some good news; if you’re using a CRM or a similar sales management software, you’ll have a built-in way to measure your progress. You can capture data on things like close rates, lead scores, and more.

Of course, capturing data isn’t enough. You have to analyze the data to evaluate your progress.

Which sections of the sales pipeline seem to show the best results? Which ones seem to be faltering?

This is the only way to determine the effectiveness of your approach, and the only way to figure out how to improve.

12. Collect feedback.

You also have to get feedback.

Customer feedback matters because they can tell you directly which strategies are working and which ones aren’t. They can complain, praise, compliment, and criticize however they like, and you can use this information to better sculpt your sales pipeline management strategy.

But you also need to think about sales rep feedback. Which phases of the process seem to be hardest for your salespeople? Are there specific tools they’re missing that could help them improve? Do they have any other insights, requests, or criticisms?

These are the people on the front line of your pipeline, so take them seriously.

See our guide to the best customer feedback tools for help here.

13. Experiment.

I’m glad you’re reading my list of tips, but honestly, tip lists aren’t going to be enough for you to perfect your sales pipeline management strategy.

Why?

Because every business is different. And on top of that, things change quickly.

The only real way to figure out the strategies that work for your business is to experiment. Try stuff out. See how it works. How does it impact your bottom-line results? What can you try next?

As long as you keep experimenting, you’ll keep learning new things. And as long as you keep learning new things, you’ll have a runway for sales improvement.

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