Make your sales pipeline much more believable

“…and, knowing that he had committed the most heinous of crimes, he retreated slowly back into the shadows, never to be seen again.”

Sometimes, when I’m reading a sales pipeline and comparing it to the previous version, I feel like I’m reading a chapter from a bad Murder Mystery novel. Ever felt the same?

A lack of continuity, ‘close dates’ disappearing off into the future, ‘deal done’ percentages changing like the wind, and deal values, well, it’s like we’re now talking about a completely different deal! These are just some of the (many) inconsistencies that I come across on a regular basis, and all of these only serve to muddy the waters, not to make the picture any clearer.

In a sales led business (check out this blog if you’re not clear about what this means for you; Are your revenues limited by a permanent glass ceiling?), managing your sales pipeline accurately is a real artform, but it’s mainly driven by process (i.e. House Rules) and a consistent expectation about how data and information are recorded.

Traits to follow

It’s very easy to see which businesses are in control of their pipeline almost entirely by the way they’re handled and managed internally. Here’s a list that compares the traits of good pipelines to bad ones;

Good Pipelines Bad Pipelines
Sales data is always up to date Sales data is rarely up to date
Ratio of marketing contacts to opportunities is accurate Ratio of marketing contacts to opportunities is not understood
‘Close’ ratio is tracking Quarterly/Annual targets ‘Close’ ratio is not understood
Monthly business closed is within +/- 7.5% of projected value at beginning of month Monthly business closed could be any number, good or bad
Sales ‘close’ dates rarely move materially when ‘% win chance’ is over 80% Sales ‘close’ dates move materially all the time (but particularly at month end)
‘Weighted % win’ pipeline value has a compound annual increase of c.3% ‘Weighted % win’ pipeline value peaks and troughs all year with no consistency
Most people believe this pipeline is accurate most of the time No one has confidence that this pipeline is accurate for any length of time

Which list do you identify with?

When you compare the bad pipeline with what good looks like it’s easy to see how far off the mark a lot of businesses are with their sales management. Any one of those ‘bad’ issues can materially impact the accuracy of the entire pipeline, and that in turn will make it unreliable as a management tool.

After all, what exactly is the point of having it if it’s not accurate? Not only is it not helping, I’d go as far as to say it actually makes life harder.

Behaviour Bites

So, if you’re responsible (either directly or indirectly) for a bad sales pipeline, isn’t it about time that you stopped playing with it and got it into a shape so it acts as the bellwether for your sales performance?

If you break it down there are really just two components here that need to work together in order to fix this issue; your sales people and your CRM software.

I’m not going to spend anytime telling you which CRM solution to use because (even as a technologist) I really don’t care. The fact is there are literally dozens of them to choose from and they all more or less do the same thing. Spend some time and pick one that does what you need it to do in the simplest way possible and that meets your price point. All I would say is that you shouldn’t waste your time integrating it to anything for at least a year, until you’ve decided that you really know how to use it in anger through experience (or even if you want to continue using it at all).

No. Much as CRM is an important vessel in which to keep your precious sales data, in reality, creating and keeping an accurate sales pipeline is really about managing your sales people to deliver the behaviour that you want to see.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not being derogatory about sales staff, however, if you don’t provide the rules (and enforce them), people will just make them up as they go along. And that is not a good thing.


You make the Rules

Instead it makes a lot of sense to figure out exactly what’s needed internally in order to make your sales data as accurate as possible and then manage the expectations of staff to deliver what’s required. Here an example of some rules that you might like to consider implementing;

  • Your CRM data is never more than 24 hours old

The right working practice is to update CRM every time an interaction is made with an opportunity either directly or indirectly (e.g. either by sending an email or creating a proposal) but at the very least any material changes need to be applied to the opportunity as soon as possible, and certainly within a working day.

My experience is that sales staff often pay lip service to this rule, but it’s critical if you want consistent accuracy. Don’t take excuses and let everyone know that a persistent failure here is career limiting!

  • Every opportunity must be recorded in the CRM

This is a good one. Sales staff can sometimes ‘top drawer’ opportunities for a rainy day and keep them off the system whilst following them up on the quiet. This way, they won’t get pestered for updates and if they don’t happen, no big deal. If they do happen, well, it was just a stroke of luck, and they’re now a hero.

What some people don’t understand is that no one ‘owns’ an opportunity. The business allocates them to sales staff to try and get them closed. If someone comes across an opportunity on their own, it’s company property. Certainly, this person will likely be allowed to run with it (usually), but the business has to know what’s going on at all times. Also, it just might be that someone else may have a great contact within this ‘hidden’ opportunity that could help it close more quickly. How can they help if they don’t know about it?

Whilst it’s great to get an unexpected revenue surprise, the novelty will soon wear off when you immediately have to plan or find working capital to finance something that you should have known about ages ago.

Dig deep into these cases, when they happen, and make people understand why it’s not acceptable.

  • Make sales meetings short and often

The time of the ‘day long’ sales meeting has truly come and gone. If all your sales info is up to date you shouldn’t need to spend hours on end trawling over it to find out what you should already know.

Instead, have regular catch up calls (maybe every 10 days or so) where your team briefs the group on their top 3 sales opportunities, by revenue, that are going to close this month. There should be no surprises here as timescales are short. Where people need support for deals that are outside of this timescale, take them offline and handle them directly.

I find this method works well as it keeps teams in the moment and focussing on what needs to be done now to close deals this month. Also, nobody wants to be the one coming to these meetings without 3 opportunities…

  • Make your data visible

If at all possible, put up a screen that shows the state of your current pipeline internally. This way, not only will all staff get a feel for where the pipeline is at any particular time, sales staff specifically will quickly realise that there will be a spotlight on them if their data isn’t in there and up to date, which is kind of the point.

Ultimately these House Rules (and there’s many more) should form part of a Sales Playbook that makes these expectations clear to all of your sales staff from day one. This will also include how to properly categorise opportunities as they pass from one stage to another, but that’s a whole other ball of wax to discuss later ;-).

Getting your pipeline data into an accurate and consistent state takes time, energy, gumption and determination. You need to be clear with your sales staff about what is mandatory and what isn’t, and then stick to your guns.

In the end you’ll have a reliable management tool that will be better than a barometer!


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