Maintaining a healthy sales pipeline: Processes and tricks

Maintaining a healthy sales pipeline: Processes and tricks

Posted: Wed 31st Jul 2019

Maintaining a healthy sales pipeline is essential for long-term business success and improving the process can pay dividends.

In this blog, we aim to help business owners with products or services that require personal sales processes, with advice from members on what techniques have helped them make more sales.

Developing a sales process

It's really helpful to think about the different stages potential customers go through. You probably have a good idea about this already, but might not have written it down. Work through a few examples with your team or a mentor and think about the commonalities in the journeys customers took before they bought something.

The process is often described as a "sales funnel", which tracks the stages all the potential customers you're talking to are at. Prospects are likely to drop out at each stage, creating the thick top and thin bottom that gave the approach its name.

Sales funnels vary by industry and are tailored to the way a particular business likes to operate, but there are common stages:

  1. Lead: a target customer that you haven't spoken to yet. This could be someone that's filled in a form via your website or that you have identified through research.

  2. Prospect: someone that you are in an active conversation with, whether by email, on the phone or in person.

  3. Qualified prospect: you know the prospect has a need for your product, has the budget for it and is in a position of authority to make a buying decision.

  4. Proposal: you agree the price and other specifics of the sale.

  5. Sale: the customers buys your product or service. Think about the follow-up marketing you can do to keep in touch.

It works best if everyone in the business is following the same process. A well-maintained sales pipeline will allow you to forecast sales, spot opportunities and improve on any weaknesses in the process, such as a lot of customers dropping out at a particular stage.

Weighted sales pipelines attribute a likelihood of deals at different stages of the pipeline being successful. For example, you may know that 35% of the people that reach the proposal stage end up buying the product.

Adding the percentage value of the deals at each stage gives you the weighted pipeline value - the amount you expect to earn from the sales that are currently being discussed.

Finding the right prospects

Finding the right contacts and starting a conversation takes time. Use every opportunity you can to look for the right contact and understand how you might be able to reach them, from popping into businesses to looking at LinkedIn.

Fitbakes founder Ella Rauen-Prestes has to identify the right buyers in supermarket chains and said it's a really difficult process.

"We want to contact Selfridges, who do we talk to there? We talked to a lot of people that are in the food market and sell to Selfridges, but it's hard to get it out of some people. Maybe you have to give them something you can give them in return.

"In some cases, I gave them social media help. When we finally got to a buyer, it was the wrong buyer, but he was able to introduce me to the right person."

Ella added it can take from six months to a year to get a listing in a major retailer. Part of this is due to buying cycles, because buyers in particular segments may only add new listings at one point in a year.

The importance of qualifying people

Qualifying prospects properly saves time and makes sure you have an accurate picture of how healthy your sales pipeline is. Figure out the essential details you need to know to move people to the next stage in the process.

A lot of this work happens in the qualified prospect stage. Don't be afraid to ask people if they have the budget available, whether they're the right person to talk to and when they're likely to buy something (a purchase might need to wait for a contract to renew or be tied to a particular year's budget).

Develop a follow-up process

You need to create a diligent follow-up process to make sure you don't miss out on opportunities. Finding new suppliers might not be a priority for the person you're pitching, so it's easy for the people you're pitching to miss an email or not respond to a voicemail.

Three or four points of follow-up are a reasonable level of persistence. It's easy to feel uncomfortable and worry that you are hassling people, but it's important to try to get over this. Remember that people expect to be sold to and you're offering will solve a problem for them.

Fitbakes has a sales meeting every Thursday morning where the co-founding team go through what's happened and what deals they expect to move forward. They often don't hear back from buyers, so it's important they push for an answer even if it's a "no". They try to move everything they're working on forward at least once a week.

The meeting helps keep the team accountable and gives them the chance to help each other when they're stuck. Introducing a level of accountability into your process can help make sure you stay motivated.

David O'Coimin, Enterprise Nation member and founder and CEO of Nook, believes that getting the small stuff done is key to maintaining a healthy sales pipeline healthy.

"If you can get something done in two minutes, do it now. Respond to people and give them what they need. It's sending the email, that quick phone call. People put it off and drag their ass about that. When I make calls it doesn't take long and things blossom from it. So, why don't I do that more often?"

Tools to set up a sales funnel

Most small business owners start with an ad hoc approach to developing their sales process. Perhaps they keep track of contacts on Post-it notes or a diary, but more commonly it's a spreadsheet.

Ella and her co-founder handle the sales at Fitbakes. They rely on what she describes as a "very large, not sophisticated spreadsheet", which they call "sales pipeline". The information they record includes the retailer name and type, their contact, a summary of the conversation so far, who's responsible for the contact and the follow-up date.

Nook's spreadsheet-based sales pipeline includes every product and enquiry and they track the country, sector and the channel the sales being made through. They've sold 660 Nook's so far and David confessed that using a spreadsheet has become difficult.

"I'm terrible at this. It's all in Excel and things are dropping through the cracks. We're using it like customer relationship management (CRM) software, but people can't use it at the same time. Some contacts haven't been touched in so long. There's a desperate need for more process and automation."

There are low-cost and free CRMs that you can use to get started, like Pipedrive and HubSpot.

Chris has over a decade of experience writing about small businesses and startups. He runs Inkwell, a content agency that helps companies that sell to small business owners grow their audiences through content marketing. You can find him on Twitter at @CPGoodfellow.

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