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Sales Pipeline Guide

Introduction / Chapter 3 of 7

7 Steps for building a sales pipeline + 6 pipeline strategy tips

by Steli Efti, CEO

Last updated July 17, 2020


Building a high-converting sales pipeline can be like putting together an elaborate puzzle. There may seem to be an overwhelming number of pieces, but when they all fit together, the end result was certainly worth the effort.

The smoother your pipeline is, the faster your leads will convert to customers.

If you want a smooth and effective sales pipeline, you’ll need to fit these two delicate pieces together: your business process and your customers’ needs.

To create a pipeline that fits these two pieces of the puzzle together, you’ll need more than just the essential pipeline stages we discussed in chapter two of this guide. Using those as a basis, you’ll need to construct your own highly-adapted pipeline based on your process and your customers.

In this chapter, we’re going to show you:

  • 7 steps for building a sales pipeline that flows smoothly
  • Sales pipeline development strategy: 6 ways to level-up your pipeline

Ready to get started?

7 steps for building a sales pipeline that flows smoothly

Here’s how to build a sales pipeline that’s adapted to your business and works for your customers:

Step 1: Decide where you’re going to build your sales pipeline

As mentioned in Chapter 1, a sales pipeline can be built in a spreadsheet or a dedicated sales CRM.

Which one is better for your business?

If you’re a freelancer or solopreneur who handles less than 10 deals at a time, a spreadsheet might work just fine.

Psst… If you’re looking for a CRM spreadsheet template for Google Sheets, check out SalesTable. It’s free!

Of course, a spreadsheet lacks the more robust features that a CRM can offer. For example, in Close CRM, your pipeline view shows you a quick overview of all the deals you have on tap, plus the value that’s in each stage of your pipeline.

Building a sales pipeline as seen in Close CRM

Best of all, the stages in the pipeline are customizable to your needs!

For businesses with more than one salesperson handling more than 10 deals at a time, using a CRM is the best choice for maximum efficiency (and faster conversions).

Step 2: Define the stages of your buyer’s journey

It’s true: a sales pipeline is built around the actions your reps take, such as prospecting, qualification, meetings, and closing. (For a full overview of 7 essential sales pipeline stages, check out Chapter 2 of this guide.)

However, when building your sales pipeline, it’s essential to keep in mind the perspective of your customers.

So, take some time and sort through the data to find out how customers come into your business.

Obviously, no two customer journeys are the same, especially in the digital age. However, see if you can find common entrance and exit points; how do people first find out about your business or product, and at what point do they buy?

Once you have the ends, dissect the middle of this journey: where do they look for information? At what point are they willing to speak with a sales rep? How do they decide between you and the competition?

Example of a customer journey map

By understanding your customer journey, you’ll be better able to build a pipeline that adapts itself to their needs.

Step 3: Decide how many separate pipelines you need

When analyzing your buyer journey, you may discover there’s more than one clear path to a sale.

If so, don’t panic: this might just mean you need more than one pipeline.

Sometimes this has to do with the product you’re selling: if you sell more than one product, each product may have its own unique customer journey.

Or, it may have to do with your customers themselves: for example, if you sell a SaaS product to both small and enterprise-sized businesses, the sales process and customer journey for each will be very different.

In these cases, you’ll need to develop separate sales pipelines. That way, your pipeline is always efficient for the opportunities inside it and adapted to the correct customer journey. You don’t want your sales reps improvising in the middle of the sales process: instead, build separate pipelines that give them clear guidelines on how to conduct a sale for a certain product or with a certain type of opportunity.

Step 4: Create your sales pipeline stages and review with your team

Using the seven essential sales pipeline stages we discussed in chapter two as a basis, it’s time to create your own pipeline stages.

Just as a recap, here are the stages you should include:

  • Lead generation
  • Prospecting
  • Qualification
  • Contact
  • Proposal
  • Negotiation and close
  • Retention

For more details, head back to Chapter 2.

Remember: everything is better when it’s done with your team! Your reps are in the action every day, and they probably have some powerful insights to help build and adapt these stages to better fit your business.

So, set aside some time as a team to go over the pipeline stages and optimize them to your needs.

Step 5: Calculate your ideal pipeline size

Now that your pipeline is starting to take shape, you’ll need to calculate the right pipeline size for your business. In other words: how many opportunities do you need to have in your pipeline in order to reach your sales goals for the quarter or the year?

By calculating this at the outset, you’ll make sure you’re giving the right priority to prospecting and lead generation, and will be better prepared to reach your goals on time rather than scrambling at the end of the month.

Here’s how to do it:

First, determine your target monthly or quarterly revenue (eg: $10,000).

Next, divide that by your average deal value (eg: $10,000 ÷ $100 = 100). Now you know how many deals you and your team need to close to reach your goal.

Lastly, divide that by the average conversion rate for each stage. For example, if 50% of deals in the negotiation stage end up converting and you need to close 100 deals to reach your goal, you’d need 200 leads to reach the negotiation stage every month.

To complete this, move backward through your pipeline following the same steps above and determine how many leads should land in each stage per month. Then, you’ll have a clear view of how many leads should be entering the top of your sales pipeline per month.

Graph showing how to calculate your ideal pipeline size

Step 6: Define trigger behaviors and actions that help conversions at each stage

What are some clear signs that an opportunity is going to convert to the next stage in the pipeline? What are the common behaviors that indicate they’re interested in buying, or what rep actions seem to have the most effect on conversion in a certain stage?

Analyze your customer data and try to find these commonalities. This will help you improve your process and build better strategies to close more deals.

For example, let’s say that out of the opportunities that go through a product demo, 45% continue on to negotiations. Why that 45%? What was it about the product demo that sold them? Was there a specific feature you showed to that 45% and not to the others? If so, you might be able to increase conversions by showing that feature in all your demos!

By defining these trigger behaviors and actions, you can adapt your sales process and maximize the power of your pipeline.

Step 7: Perform regular sales pipeline reviews and clean-ups

Here’s how to do it:

  • Set a time every month to do a quick purge of your sales pipeline: Start by identifying prospects that have been in your pipeline longer than your average sales cycle, and be prepared to remove them. Just remember to do a quick follow up before you take them out of your pipeline, and leave the door open for future sales.
  • Double-check your data: Every week, run through your pipeline to make sure the information there is accurate. Do any opportunities need to be moved to different stages (either forward or backward)? Are your value estimates correct? Are your estimated close dates accurate?
  • Meet with your team once a week to discuss the big fish: While it may not be feasible to sit down and talk about every deal currently on the table, you can set some time to sit with all your sales reps and discuss some of the more valuable deals that are open. This kind of brainstorming session brings all the reps on board to identify risks, come up with responses to objections, and build ideas to move the deal forward.

Using these seven steps, you’ll not only build a highly-effective sales pipeline that’s adapted to your business: you’ll also be able to maintain it.

That said, there’s always room for improvement.

Once your pipeline is up and running, it’s time to take it to the next level.

Sales pipeline development strategy: 6 ways to level-up your pipeline

Use these seven steps for a better pipeline development strategy, leading to a more efficient pipeline and accelerated sales.

1. Segment your lost leads by the reason they were lost

Just because a lead is lost for now, doesn’t mean it’ll be lost forever. In order to perform a valuable follow-up down the road, you’ll need to know why they were lost in the first place.

Did the lead specifically say they weren’t interested in your product? If so, was there a reason (budget, timing, etc.)? Or, did you simply lose contact over time? Did the lead stop responding to calls and emails? Was there just no way to push them through to the next stage?

Maximize your follow-up efforts by segmenting these lost leads by the reason they were lost. That way, you can make a plan to re-engage with them down the road according to their particular circumstances.

2. Create a pipeline with specific steps to re-engage lost leads

When you purge your pipeline of leads that just aren’t moving forward, as we discussed above, you don’t need to delete them forever. Instead, create a separate pipeline just for leads that have been lost.

Here’s why this works:

  1. You’re getting lost leads out of your regular sales pipeline and clearing the view. That way, reps can focus on deals that are currently on the table.
  2. You’re creating a separate space to focus on leads that were lost, and your pipeline stages can specifically reflect this tailored approach to selling.

Pro tip: In Close, users on Pro or Business plans can create multiple pipelines. That means you can create a specific pipeline just for your lost leads.

In this separate pipeline, you can set stages that are unique to re-engaging with leads that have been lost. For example, your beginning stages might include steps such as:

  • Maintaining contact through social media
  • Reaching out with relevant content
  • Using the HUCA follow-up technique to turn a no into a yes

When a lead from your regular pipeline gets lost or falls off the radar, move them to your lost lead pipeline and set a date in the future to start following up again.

If you’ve segmented your lost leads by the reason they were lost, you can adjust that first follow-up to fit the situation.

For example, if the lead was lost because the timeline wasn’t right, send a follow-up email in a few months with information on a product update or to congratulate them on a recent event or accomplishment at their company (such as a promotion, anniversary, or even just a killer blog post).

On the other hand, if the lead was lost because they simply stopped responding to emails, you can set a follow-up date in less than a month to reach out over social media, respond to their posts, or tag them in a relevant thread or conversation.

By nailing down your best processes for follow-ups depending on the situation, you can 10x your follow-ups and bring your sales pipeline to the next level.

3. Analyze the performance of individual reps

Each sales rep has their own strengths and weaknesses. If you want to give more power to your pipeline, you need to understand those strengths and weaknesses, and use them to your advantage.

To start, you need to dig into the data.

Using Close, for example, you can analyze data around each individual rep. With the Explorer, you can see specific actions (such as calls made, emails or SMS messages sent, leads created, call duration, etc.) and how each individual rep performs.

First, you’ll see a graph with all the reps, and below you’ll find a list that ranks them by this action:

Explorer graph in Close CRM

Or, you can Ctrl-Click on a rep’s name to see only their information in the graph:

Single out a user in the Explorer graph in Close CRM

This way, you can analyze what your reps are doing, which actions they perform better at, and the results they’re getting.

Then, use this to your advantage: Match the reps that perform best in certain areas to the right tasks and prospects.

For example, is there a rep on your team that’s a stunning emailer? Match her to the prospects that prefer email communication. Is there one rep who doesn’t handle product demos very well? Team him up with a rep who excels at this so they can work together to seal the deal.

By knowing what your reps are capable of, you’ll know what to give them in the pipeline and maximize the results they get.

4. Prioritize the best leads

You’ve worked hard to set up a pipeline that runs smoothly and gets filled consistently, but now your reps may start to get overwhelmed by the number of new leads coming in. (If you’re facing this problem, it means you’re doing something right. Kudos to you!)

To maximize the time your reps are spending on new leads, it’s essential to prioritize them based on how well they fit your product and how likely they are to close.

In other words, you need to set up lead scoring.

Start by defining specific actions and behaviors that consistently appear in your best customers. Do the majority of your good customers come in when they start a free trial? Are they all coming in through referrals? What about your email subscribers: how do they interact with your emails? Do the subscribers who click through end up being customers?

Once you identify these behaviors, set up a points system that ranks leads based on how they interact with your website or emails. You can also add negative scores for behaviors that indicate a low-value lead.

Your points system could look something like this:

Action Score
Clicks through newsletter +20
Visits pricing page +30
Attends webinar +15
Signs up for a trial +45
No-show for demo -20
Never opens newsletter -25

To add these scores to your CRM, create a custom field within your lead view.

Setting up a custom field for your sales pipeline in Close CRM

Then, you can either add the score manually, or you can update it automatically by linking your CRM to a lead scoring tool like MadKudu.

Pro tip: Use Zapier to create automatic lead scores and add them to your CRM, like Close. You can even set up a multi-step zap that alerts reps of a new lead’s score via Slack, or randomly assigns the new lead in Close.

Create automatic lead score and add them to your CRM using Zapier

5. Define when to purge deals from the pipeline

While you want your reps to do as much as possible to salvage leads that have gone quiet, it’s also essential to set proper limits and remove dead leads from your pipeline.

Start by defining when to move a lead from the main pipeline to your lost lead pipeline, as mentioned above. For example, if there’s been radio silence for more than 30 days, move that lead out of the main pipeline to make room for new, hot leads.

But, when should you purge a lead completely from your pipeline?

There are some obvious signs that it’s time to remove a lead from your pipeline, such as:

  • They tell you clearly they’re not interested
  • They purchase from a competitor
  • They stop responding completely

But you can also set your own definition of a dead lead depending on your experience with customers. For example, has a lead been in your pipeline longer than your average sales cycle without making progress? Or, was a prospect excited about your product but got shot down by the higher-ups at his company?

By defining the right moment to purge your pipeline of dead leads, you’ll keep your pipeline clean and your reps focused.

Pro tip: Before you remove a lead from your pipeline completely, send them a breakup email. This gives them one last chance to convert before you end the relationship.

6. Create templates for your most common actions

To spend more time selling and less time doing repetitive, manual actions, it’s essential for your pipeline to include templates for your most common actions.

With a well-built pipeline, reps will always know what they should be doing. But by including reusable templates, you’ll help your reps complete these actions more efficiently, moving deals through the pipeline faster.

For example, when dealing with new leads in the prospecting or qualification stages, reps should have access to cold call scripts and email templates.

Or, when reps are ready to send proposals, pitch decks, and contracts, these should be pre-made and ready to adapt to the current customer.

All of this internal sales content is essential to moving deals quickly through the pipeline. You can use a sales enablement tool such as Showpad to manage and surface relevant content right when reps need it the most.

Pro tip: Need help building this essential sales enablement content? Get a head start by downloading our Sales Enablement Toolkit, with customizable templates for all the sales enablement content you need!

Build your sales pipeline, then take it to the next level

We’ve just given you the pieces to the sales pipeline puzzle: it’s your turn to put them together and build something incredible.

Above, we gave you seven key steps that you can use to build your own sales pipeline:

  1. Decide where you’re going to build your sales pipeline
  2. Define the stages of your buyer journey
  3. Decide how many separate pipelines you need
  4. Create your sales pipeline stages and review with your team
  5. Calculate your ideal pipeline size
  6. Define trigger behaviors and actions that help conversions at each stage
  7. Perform regular sales pipeline reviews and clean-ups

Then, you saw 6 ways to level-up your pipeline, including smart ways to organize and follow up with lost leads, prioritize hot leads, and use sales templates.

Using the methods and tools we’ve discussed above, you can get a headstart on creating a pipeline that not only works for your team but also works for your customers.

But once your pipeline is up and running, how can you analyze it and keep it as healthy as possible?

Keep reading to discover the most important metrics you should be watching in your pipeline, as well as proven methods to analyze the health and efficiency of your pipeline.


Sales Pipeline Guide: Table of Contents

Table of Contents

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