Managing Your Sales Pipeline

mature female customer service representative
Pipeline management helps you make quotas. Assembly/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Almost every salesperson is held accountable to a set of quotas. Commissions are usually tied to that goal structure, meaning that salespeople are highly motivated to meet and exceed those quotas. The catch is that trying to meet those quotas without a pipeline management plan is highly risky.

A salesperson needs to be aware of how many sales she’s made so far, how many she can expect to get from her sales currently in process, and how many more she needs to build from scratch.

Careful planning comes with an additional bonus – it leads to a steady flow of sales, instead of the feast-or-famine cycle that accompanies poor pipeline management.

Make Sure You Are Speaking to the Decision Maker

Controlling your pipeline starts with your very first contact with a new lead. After you’ve opened the conversation and piqued the lead’s interest, but before you start scheduling the appointment, confirm that you’re speaking with someone who has authority to buy from you. This may sound like common sense, but an amazing number of salespeople will spend enormous amounts of time and energy courting a lead only to find out that they’ve been speaking with the wrong person.

Once you’ve determined that you have the actual decision maker on the phone, ask some probing questions to find out the magnitude of the prospective sale. Ideally, you’ll want to find out (1) how much money the prospect intends to spend and (2) how long it will take them to make a decision and close the sale.

In practice, you almost certainly can’t come right out and ask these sensitive questions so early in the relationship, so you’ll need to hint around the edges. You can often get a sense of their budget by asking about similar items they’ve purchased in the past, and you may be able to get a sense of their time frame by exploring the prospect’s level of urgency.

Follow Through

After you’ve made the initial contact, follow-through is a major factor in speeding a sale along toward a happy conclusion. Schedule your appointments with prospects as early as possible, and respond promptly to any requests for information. And don’t forget to call and email the day before an appointment with a quick reminder of your visit. Yes, this does give the prospect a chance to cancel on you, but it’s better than showing up and wasting an hour on a no-hope sale. And when the appointment ends, the follow-through should continue.

Free Trials and Demos

When a prospect is slow to make up his mind, try dangling a carrot or two. Free trials and demos are ideal for this purpose, since once the prospect has actually used your product or service they’re much more likely to stick with it and make the purchase. Freemiums - small, no-obligation gifts to a prospect - can also kick the sale out of neutral gear.

Track Your Prospects

Finally, keep track of how many prospects you have at each stage of the process. If you have lots of sales that are close to closing but no appointments scheduled, you need to do lots of cold calling. If you’re in the opposite situation, cut back on the cold calls and focus on research and presentation touch-ups.

Don’t forget to make a note of the expected budget for each prospect as well, since a really large sale might be worth two or three small ones.

Keeping an eye on your metrics can also help you become aware of any weaknesses in your sales strategies. For instance, if you schedule tons of appointments but only a few of them convert into actual sales, it’s time to brush up your closing skills. Spotting and fixing problems with your technique early on – before they affect your final numbers – keeps you out of those awkward discussions with your sales manager!

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