He was at a risk of being fired.
It was the sales pipeline.
It wasn’t growing fast enough … and it wasn’t four times his overall sales goal[i].
“Michael”, the VP of Sales said to me, “I’m worried that we don’t even get to tell our story … and we are unable to create or uncover new sales opportunities … it’s depressing”.
Growing the pipeline. I’ve written about the pipeline quite a bit over the years (here, here, and here). It’s a topic that consistently rears its head in almost any discussion with a sales leader and for many of those in the executive suite.
The pipeline in business-to-business sales is often the key barometer for how a company is doing. Think about it, do you have enough of a compelling offering and message that prospects or customers put you in their ‘consideration set’ for a project or to help solve a problem?
If they won’t even consider you (e.g., you are a no-name firm; not big enough or myriad other reasons) then there could be a couple of things going on, at a minimum. For instance, your offering or message is not even good enough to get you in the door or you are targeting the wrong prospects.
First off, before I offer a few suggestions and ideas, there is no Silver Bullet here … multiple elements drive the sales pipeline, both strategic and tactical, and the ongoing solution must be multi-pronged as well.
For example, I sometimes hear that “we need to get more meetings” – maybe, but if those meetings are with the wrong people or go nowhere, you get into ‘meeting loops’ that produce little results and add a lot of cost.
So wanting to grow the pipeline begs a number of important questions.
- What does your ideal prospect/customer profile look like?
- Are you calling on the right prospects/customers that fit the profile?
- What do you want to grow the pipeline with (what type of deals)?
- What is the current shape of the pipeline?
- What are the dynamics of the historical and current pipeline?
- Existing customers vs. net new prospects?
- Sales cycle velocity? Stall points?
- Value of opportunities? Weighted and unweighted?
The first two bullets (questions) are critical.
Climbing the Right Wall
If your ‘ladder’ is not on the right wall, it doesn’t really matter how fast you climb – you are pursuing the wrong prospects and customers – those that are not a good fit for your solutions or where you can add the most differentiated value (I go into more depth on this topic in this interview).
The right ‘wall’ is the critical first piece that you need to look at – otherwise you’re optimizing against the wrong problem. You can also analyze the pipeline by looking at the themes, patterns, and characteristics of where you are winning and losing deals to understand who might be your ideal prospect or customer.
Examining Pipeline Dynamics
Next is that you really need to understand the dynamics of your pipeline – most companies don’t do this. Over the last three months, for example, what’s pushing out, what’s being accelerated, what is being written-up or down[ii], and what’s being won or lost? This isn’t theory or some analytical exercise – it’s understanding what’s happening in your pipeline and what it could be telling you.
I’ve seen win ratios increase 20-30 points when sales organizations understood where to focus their time, effort and energy in terms of the pipeline.
Sense of Urgency
In terms of effort and energy, I had a highly successful sales executive once tell me that the key to sales success was urgency. The best sales professionals had a sense of urgency (get it done now), while the best prospects also had a sense of urgency – to improve, to realize value, to be better.
The master skill was harnessing and identifying a sense of urgency.
For pipeline diagnostics, a model I like that can help to identify issues once you are on the right ‘wall’ is around the right story, people and time. See the 3 key questions below. Are you …
The right story is all about really knowing your audience / ideal profile and what resonates with them, which alludes to question number two. The last part is knowing their sense of urgency or their ‘stack’ of priorities – where does the problem or opportunity currently rank. What is top-of-mind and top-of-budget?
To close out the conversation from the beginning of this piece, the VP of Sales was not fired … but the pipeline didn’t grow much. Instead, he focused on sales effectiveness and winning more, and a few large ‘swing’ deals were closed that made the difference.
The pipeline problem, however, is an ongoing challenge for most sales leaders – there is a ‘go-get’[iii] number every quarter. If you’re a sales leader and you don’t really understand your ideal customer profile or the dynamics of your pipeline, you really hurt your ability to be successful quarter-after-quarter.
"Don't wish it was easier, wish you were better. Don't wish for less problems, wish for more skills. Don't wish for less challenge, wish for more wisdom." - Jim Rohn
[i] Win ratio was 25-33% - leadership wanted 4x to be safe.
[ii] What opportunities are increasing in value or deal size (written-up) during the sales process and what’s shrinking
[iii] This is the sales/revenue number that must be won every quarter, above and beyond any recurring or contracted revenue that ‘bleeds-over’ from quarter-to-quarter + any revenue leakage.