Managing the Sales Pipeline: Definition, Tools, and Strategies
Brought to you by LinkedIn's Sales Academy
December 11, 2019
Anyone who works in the B2B space is familiar with a sales pipeline, or at least the underlying concept. Also often referred to (and depicted visually) as a sales funnel, a sales pipeline represents the flow of prospects and customers that make a business run.
However, the nature of the sales pipeline has changed in recent years. With this in mind, let’s get up to speed on the modern definition of sales pipeline, the various stages to focus on, and the strategy for building a B2B sales pipeline that produces consistently to keep your quotas clicking.
What Is a Sales Pipeline?
The sales pipeline is a model that tracks incoming prospects for your business, as they enter the sales process and move toward becoming customers. The idea behind this framework is to give your entire organization visibility into forecasted deals, while offering the means to systematically improve your prospecting and conversion techniques by analyzing what works and what doesn’t.
Below, we’ll clarify the definition, distinction, and stages of sales pipeline, while offering templates and guidance to bolster your own.
Sales Pipeline Definition
One prevalent point of confusion when it comes to defining sales pipeline is how it differentiates from a sales funnel. Some will argue that the two terms are entirely separate, but ultimately they’re very similar. Sales funnel stages — generally framed more from the buyer’s point of view — are typically labeled along the lines of awareness, consideration, and conversion. This lingo might differ from the common sales pipeline terminology below, but the stages are fundamentally aligned and inherently follow the same funnel-like structure — larger at the top/front, and increasingly narrow as you move through.
Here are a few sales pipeline definitions we like:
A sales pipeline encompasses every stage of your sales process. An opportunity moves from stage to stage of your pipeline based on concrete actions, which is usually represented visually in your CRM. Because sales processes differ from company to company (and even product to product), your sales pipeline should be unique and reflect the typical buyer's journey.
A sales pipeline is a visual snapshot of where prospects are in the sales process. Sales pipelines show you how many deals salespeople are expected to close in a given week, month or year and how close a rep is to reaching their sales quota.
A sales pipeline is a visual tracker of where customers are in the sales process. By visualizing how close leads are to making a purchase, the pipeline helps reps determine what they need to do to achieve their quotas.
Sales Pipeline Stages
Situating the sales pipeline by stages helps teams understand where prospects are at in the sales process, and which techniques are best suited for each scenario. The more rigorously you record and analyze data based on engagements and outcomes, the better you’ll be equipped to optimize for each stage.
Stage 1: Prospecting
The first step, naturally, is bringing people into the pipeline. This is handled differently depending on the organization, and has traditionally been considered more of a marketing function, but modern sellers are increasingly being empowered to fuel the pipeline independently. Being active on social media can help you identify new prospects, and might even lead you to draw targeted inbound interest.
Sales Prospecting Tips:
- Talk frequently about topics important to your business and share relevant content on social media to surface users in your industry or niche
- Be wary of “prospect lists” available for purchase
- Work with marketing to develop brand awareness campaigns, creating familiarity at this initial stage
- Start on the right foot: Don’t blanket new connections with immediate sales pitches
Many organizations are transitioning toward a “quality over quantity” approach to prospecting, especially under account-based frameworks.
Stage 2: Qualification
Here’s where the pipeline begins to narrow. It is highly advisable to implement some level of qualification filtering at the prospecting stage, so as to keep things manageable, but this is where the sales team can really start to whittle down and exclude prospects that don’t align with the solution or don’t have a clear buying need. There is a wide variety of parameters and tools you can use for qualifying prospects, and LinkedIn can be extremely valuable for this purpose.
Prospect Qualification Tips:
- Align with marketing on qualification thresholds (consider doing away with the divisive MQL/SQL distinction)
- Weigh intent signals heavily when qualifying prospects (i.e., are there tangible indicators that this person or this business has an actual need for what we offer?)
- Consider whether the individual in question has actual impact on purchase decisions (i.e., can this person actually influence the buying committee?)
Stage 3: Meeting
Once a prospect is in your pipeline and qualified as an actionable lead, it’s time for the sales team to take action. This third sales pipeline stage is where you actually begin to interact with prospects and move forward with business conversations. The label “meeting” feels slightly outdated since so many of these conversations now take place in a virtual setting; this stage is also commonly referred to as “Engagement,” “Follow Up,” or “Relationship” stage. (We tend to prefer the latter, because it recognizes the value of building relationships even in the absence of an eventual sale.)
Prospect Meeting Tips:
- Bring a strong understanding of the prospect’s business and industry into the conversation, or risk losing them quickly
- Collaborate with marketing, fellow salespeople, and other outward touchpoints to ensure coordination and consistency in messaging
- Instead of simply thinking about a sale, make it your goal at this stage to develop solid, lasting relationships
- Test different channels for communicating with prospects — phone, email, messaging on LinkedIn, etc. — to determine which ones yield better response rates, and more substantive engagements
Stage 4: Proposal
By now, you’ve established a clear fit and the prospect has indicated that they’re weighing your solution as an option. At the proposal stage, it’s time to exercise those salesperson skills and make a strong, persuasive pitch.
Sales Proposal Tips:
- Provide proof and validation content, such as authentic customer testimonials, pertinent case studies, and third-party references
- Make sure you’re influencing multiple members of the buying committee, and not falling victim to blind spots
- Trust is of the essence here — be honest and transparent
- Video can be very powerful at this stage, whether it’s illustrating what your solution does (product demo) or creating a “face to face” dynamic that goes amiss in online interactions
Stage 5: Closing
The finish line. At this point, the prospect either signs on and becomes a customer, or moves on. However, viewing this as the end of the sales cycle is a mistake. Existing customers are key sources for upsells, renewals, and referrals, so don’t remove from them your radar just because they’ve left the new business pipeline.
Resources for Closing Deals:
- New Study Reveals Key Features of Closed-Won Deals Influenced by Sales Navigator
- B2B Sales Closing Techniques
- Know the 5 Preventative Measures to Close Deals
Sales Pipeline Metrics Worth Tracking
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” This classic adage comes into play constantly in the business world, and is especially pertinent where the sales pipeline is concerned. These are some of the most important sales pipeline metrics to track. When they’re trending in the right direction, it’s a sign that your pipeline is in good health.
- Pipeline Velocity: How fast are prospects moving through the pipeline and becoming customers, on average?
- Conversion/Close Rate: What percentage of prospects entering your pipeline are becoming customers?
- Average Deal Size: How large are the deals completed with prospects who convert in your sales pipeline?
- Customer Acquisition Cost: What is the total expense (sales, marketing, etc.) to acquire a new customer, on average? Comparing to Customer Lifetime Value helps you understand the ROI of your activities. This is the simplest form of a sales pipeline calculator, which seeks to project and estimate likely revenue based on your current pipeline forecast.
BLOG POST: Turning Sales Pipeline Growth into a Reality
Sales Pipeline Templates
Many of today’s B2B organizations find that the best path to sales pipeline management is syncing their CRM with an intelligence platform like Sales Navigator. This combines visibility with actionable insights, helping your team prioritize and stay focused.
However, if you’re looking for some quick sales templates to get started, here are a few we like from around the web:
- Sales Pipeline Excel Templates via HubSpot
- Excel and Word Sales Pipeline Templates via Smartsheet
- Detailed Sales Pipeline Management Template for Excel via Microsoft
Building a B2B Sales Pipeline that Produces
Now that we’ve developed an understanding of the sales pipeline and its various stages, how can your organization enhance and optimize practices for better outcomes? Here are some of our best sales pipeline tips for LinkedIn and beyond.
- Start calling it a sales and marketing pipeline. This creates a sense of shared accountability (and credit) in sales pipeline management, supporting alignment initiatives. Marketing plays a key role in this realm.
- Stay vigilant with measurement. A stagnating sales pipeline is often indicative of underlying problems. Stay on top of them, and on track with your goals, by keeping a close eye on your pipeline performance based on the metrics above.
- The pipeline doesn’t end. We alluded to this before but it bears repeating: relationship-building shouldn’t stop when a prospect becomes a customer. A highly satisfied advocate can be a salesperson’s best friend.
- Examine each stage individually. Pinpointing where snags are occurring in your pipeline will help you address them with specificity and precision.
Keep Your Sales and Marketing Pipeline Flowing
A consistently fruitful pipeline is the lifeblood of a B2B organization, and a hallmark of sales teams that consistently crush their quotas. Remember that outdated information can lead to a clogged sales pipeline and a lot of wasted time. Take steps to ensure prospect and account data is accurate and up-to-date. You can use Data Validation in Sales Navigator with your CRM to keep your prospect data clean and reliable.
For more guidance on sales pipeline management for modern organizations, visit the Sales Academy and sign up for classes on demand!