The Pipeline Paradox

How Many Deals a Salesperson Can Actively Engage Simultaneously While Remaining Productive?

March 5, 2019

Sales Pipeline

Through my role as a sales leader at Microsoft, I’ve come across many companies that have an ongoing debate about how many deals a seller can actively engage simultaneously while remaining productive. They are looking for an industry benchmark, or a magic answer that can accurately determine the right number of accounts for their salespeople. Should they cover more, less, or the same? We talk about the seller being an inch deep and a mile wide and being a mile wide and an inch deep. And I’m certain, at least in my business, that being a mile wide and a mile deep is not the answer. The quandary, then, is how do we manage breadth and depth simultaneously when there is pressure to always have full pipeline coverage, yet at the same time develop deep relationships with our customers and prospects. It’s a paradox that doesn’t necessarily have one answer.

Who is your customer?

Not all accounts are created equally, in terms of the time and attention required to optimally build the trusted relationships that yield sales results. There are times when a more targeted, intimate approach is appropriate. In direct sales, you must be very close to that customer and intimately understand their business. Otherwise, you’re going to struggle to differentiate yourself from somebody else who is pursuing the account with a competing solution. We need depth, because customers and prospects will not find credibility with us if we don’t understand their industry, their business, and their specific strategy. In my previous article, 4 steps to productivity through social selling, I talked about the importance of using LinkedIn (aka Sales Navigator) and other digital sources such as Twitter, company websites, and 10-K reports if the company is public.

Listen, then listen some more

Because of the nature of our business, I do ask my teams to cultivate a different set of skills, based in part on my background as a management consultant for the first 8+ years in my career. By nature, salespeople talk a lot. Yet consultants listen, because they’re trained to deconstruct a business problem and be active listeners who learn by listening. They look at strategy, at how a company is oriented, then think about the products and services that solve that specific company’s problems. Our salespeople need to do the same – from selling cars to selling software, we are no longer selling products. Instead we are selling solutions to solve a unique problem or address an amazing opportunity. It’s no longer good enough to just sell someone on features. You must develop that long-term relationship. Align around what innovation really means. Understand their strategy and long-term needs. And always empathize with them on the improving the experience and needs of their customer’s customer. It requires listening, being a good partner, and engaging your customers in meaningful conversations rooted with questions creating constructive tension. This can be challenging to achieve if you’ve cast your net too wide.

Fine-tune pipeline management

Don’t get me wrong, we need breadth too. I want my teams to think big and work on expanding their opportunities through social networks and other channels. But I also want other engines, people dedicated to breadth, to focus on qualifying the prospects generated through those channels. It is important to have multiple engines, or routes to revenue, in our organizations to handle breadth and depth. Yet too often, companies try to do both at the same time with the same people, contributing to constant fluctuation, uncertainty, and lack of fidelity in the pipeline. Not only can this have a bullwhip effect, it can potentially wreak havoc when trying to forecast sales. Every company, every seller, must have a social strategy for cultivating opportunities, but we must also have the mechanisms in place to handle processes to quickly and effectively qualify prospects.

In the end, we’re faced with managing this pipeline paradox. Yes, we have Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) systems to guide us to the next best offer or help us understand relationship insights and health. But those are just part of a solution that helps sellers and sales managers handle growing account lists and quotas more strategically. With a more holistic strategy in place, we can engage customers in ways that make the most of our opportunities.

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