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Building and Managing a Bigger Sales Pipeline
Updated: February 10, 2010
Why do you need a pipeline in the first place?
Most leads aren't sales-ready: Whether you're sending out campaigns or fielding inbound calls, as little as 15 percent of your leads are going to be both qualified and sales-ready. The majority of your leads may be qualified, but they're not ready to be worked into an active buying cycle. You need a pipeline that can triage and communicate with these prospects accordingly.
You can't focus on everything: You simply cannot keep everything in your head. Notebooks and post-its on your computer monitor aren't going to help either. You need a system to manage lead volume, status, next steps, reminders, etc. for you. Your time, right now, is best spent on the best prospects, ready to take the next step. Let your pipeline manage the rest of the work for you.
The right message at the right time: With every stage of the buying process, your prospects will want (and accept) different things from you. This includes type of information, frequency of contact, and channel(s) used to communicate. By using a pipeline with defined stages, most of this thinking is already done for you. You simply execute.
Maximum sales, minimal work: An effective sales pipeline strategy will help you get the maximum sales and conversion from your prospects, while doing as little work as possible. It's not about being lazy or taking shortcuts, it's about working smarter and respecting your buyers. And it works.
How to approach your sales pipeline
It's a pipeline, but your prospects shouldn't know that: The last thing you want to do is make your prospects feel like they're in some kind of sales funnel. Don't treat them like a number, and don't force them to go faster than they're willing or ready to go. An effective sales pipeline will nurture prospects on their time with occasional offers to let them self-select into a more active communication and buying cycle
DO NOT SELL: Seriously, especially in the early stages when prospects aren't ready to buy. Instead - add value, educate, connect and empower. Become a trusted adviser for your prospects, someone they can trust, someone they know won't sell them something they don't need, or that won't benefit them. The more you build value, the more your prospects will look forward to hearing from you.
Automate as much as you can: This means reminders for next steps, the next steps themselves (based on activity triggers), content templates you can quickly customize for individual prospects, etc. Custom communication is important, but if you understand your customer base, there's plenty to templatize and automate to save you significant time and hassle as you execute.
Differentiate from competitors: As you build value and communicate with prospects all along the sales pipeline, also build differentiation and preference for you and your products/services. Don't slam competitors, and in most cases don't even address them directly. But make it clear how you're special, how you're different. Differentiation and preference will lead to action and decision in your favor.
Key strategies for effective pipeline execution
Use a lead management system: At minimum, make sure you have a CRM system that integrates contacts, accounts and sales opportunities in one place. Salesforce.com does a great job of this, but may be too much for small businesses. For smaller or early-stage organizations, I'd also recommend PipelineDeals or Highrise.
Clearly define lead & opportunity stages: Define not only the stages your prospects go through (from the very beginning, nurture stages through to the sale), but also define your communication strategy at each stage - what do they get, how often, in what format, etc. Defining this up front will make decisions and actions both faster and more successful as you execute (especially if you have a team where common definitions are critical).
Focus on great content: Be remarkable. Be educational. Make yourself required-reading for your prospects. Teach them how to do their jobs better, how to live their lives better. Great content, especially in today's information-overload world, can be a powerful differentiator and attractor of new business to you.
Make it easy for prospects to move forward: Give your prospects ample chances to "raise their hand" to move forward more actively into the buying stages. Create offers that inherently mean they're interested in moving forward - price estimator tools, free trials, buying guides, etc. Integrate these offers into your other content, putting the prospect in control of taking the next step. If you're done your work up front - building value, differentiation, preference - they'll come to you to buy far more often.
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