Is your sales pipeline working for you or the other way around?  Do you have to mentally asterisk the meaning of your sales data?  Or worse yet, are you feeling like it doesn’t help you predict your sales revenue at all?  There’s an easy fix for this common problem which stems from using generic pipeline stages.  When you redefine your pipeline stages so they fit your business to a tee, you’ll reap these benefits:

  • Increase effectiveness of marketing by customizing email, webinar invites or other outreach based on stage
  • Increase efficiency by assigning specialists to different stages of the pipeline
  • Improve rep performance by analyzing the number of opportunities and dollars in each stage
  • Observe the length of time spent in various stages and devise strategies to shorten
  • Assign buying probability to each bucket and increase forecasting accuracy

Ready to get started?  Take a look back at the last 10-12 customers to buy your product. What was the buyer’s original introduction to your offerings? Who was involved? What critical sales interactions occurred along the way? Was there a live demonstration, pilot, background check, written proposal? Go one better and see if some of the deals you LOST recently were missing any of the steps you identified in the deals you WON.

Some common and critical events during the buying process should be very clear to you now. By documenting them chronologically you have just created a “buying map” for your product or service. Each milestone along the way is what we call a “pipeline stage.” Selling is simply moving customers from one buying milestone or pipeline stage to the next, all the way through to closing.

There are two main rules for defining a pipeline stage:

  1. An event that advances the sale has taken place
  2. The probability of closing has increased

For example, your customers begin as “Prospects” that don’t have any specific knowledge of your product. Then something happens that makes you aware their status has changed. They visited your website, clicked on a link, or possibly sat in your presentation at a conference. Those events elevate this particular buyer out of the “Prospect” universe to a more specific group that is sometimes called “Suspect.”

Note that there is a very clear line of demarcation between a Prospect (doesn’t know you) and Suspect (knows you). You are going to treat these two groups differently. You would have different action items for the two groups, and one is clearly closer to buying than the other. That’s the line you want between all good pipeline stages.

Generally speaking, but please DON’T apply general stages to your specific business, the educational sales process looks something like this:

  • Prospect – No awareness
  • Suspect – Has visited website, seen webinar, attended public presentation
  • Lead – Responded with interest to marketing or sales outreach, requested information, engaged in conversation at a cold call, set an appointment for a needs analysis
  • Qualified Lead – Need identified, buyers identified, budget and process identified
  • Evaluation – Solution presented, trial established, decision-makers are evaluating
  • Approval – Verbal approval, price and contract negotiation
  • Purchase Order – Purchase Order received and accepted
  • Implementation – Product activated/shipped
  • Opportunity Lost – A solid “no” for this school year

Before deciding if a stage belongs on your list, try these acid tests:

  1. How many days does a buyer stay in that stage? If less than a week, perhaps combine it with the one before or after. Remember that reps have to keep updating the opportunities in their CRM and a short stage provides less benefit than hassle.
  2. Would there be a big glut in a particular stage? That’s an indication that the stage is too broad – particularly when you see high numbers in a later stage. “Evaluation” for example can get really muddled in B2E sales. If there are steps within the evaluation stage you can segregate such as district approval is followed by school-level pilot, better to make those two distinct stages.

When you are happy with your stages, adjust them in your pipeline tool/CRM. Require reps to update their pipeline on the fly as best they can (many web-based CRMs have apps now to make this easy from the road!) but at the minimum, they should end each week by running through the pipeline and making all needed stage changes.

Now the sales automation world is your oyster!

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