Everything You Need to Know About Sales Pipeline Management

Payal Gusain
8
min read
September 28, 2023

As a sales manager, sales pipeline management is probably the biggest mountain you’ve got to move –and keep moving. 

How do you make sure data is reliable? Are you making accurate sales forecasts? Are SDRs following proper pipeline hygiene and crushing sales quotas?

*Phew*

So, how do you get a team of A players, a healthy sales pipeline, and a consistent closing ratio? 

In a dream sales scenario, leads going in from one end of the sales pipeline would come out of the other as won deals.

In reality, the pipeline isn’t leakproof. 

To keep a well-oiled, smooth-flowing pipeline, you may only need timely tactics to fix the leaks. Or you may have to go for a strategic overhaul. How to tell?

If you want in on the secret, we’ve got you. Keep reading to learn about the ABCs of sales pipeline management.

What is a Sales Pipeline?

A sales pipeline is a visual representation of the sales process from the point of view of a sales rep. It gives a bird-eye view of the prospect’s journey from the first contact to the point of sale.  Salespeople usually use a CRM to create and maintain their sales pipeline. If you’re a small team, then spreadsheets or some basic project management tools are used.

This level of transparency into the movement of prospects lets you see the progression of deals, check the status of current targets, identify the next best steps, and forecast revenue for the given quarter. 

As a sales team, you can identify and diagnose bottlenecks before they clog the pipeline and keep the active deals moving forward. Have your ducks in order, if you will!

5 Stages of a Sales Pipeline Explained

There are 5 sales pipeline stages in a typical sales pipeline. Here they are!

The five stages of a sales pipeline

#1 The Prospecting Stage - Identifying New Prospects and Cold Outreach

A typical sales process with the inbound or outbound lead generation. Either SDRs get a list of leads that were generated through inbound marketing campaigns, or create their own list of prospects through prospecting, and the next natural step is to call them and make a pitch. 

#2 The Qualification Stage - Qualifying Leads to Find Viable Prospects 

At the qualification stage, you weed out the suspects (a lead who fits the ICP but has no intention of closing) from a bunch of leads to find your viable prospects (a lead who fits the ICP and has shown interest in buying at multiple touchpoints).

This is done through nurturing methods like personalized email outreach, cold calling, or cold linkedIn outreach — to test the level of interest they have in buying from you. 

Alt text: Tip for qualifying a lead into a sales opportunity

#3 The Meeting Stage - Understanding the Prospect Needs

This is the stage where you should initiate contact with a discovery call to see if the prospect will convert into a sales opportunity. To answer:

  • Know the prospect’s needs, budget, and business context. Do they have a clear goal in mind? 
  • Understand how your product solves their pain points
  • Find out who’ll be involved in the decision-making process

And accordingly, you go into a sale or close the deal.

#4 The Proposal Stage - Presenting a Proposal

If the prospect verbalizes or signals interest in a purchase, you can take the leap and present a sales proposal. It should communicate how your product will impact their business outcomes, pricing information, and how your product cuts above the competition.

Remember: Stakeholders will be keenly reviewing the offer made. So, take extra pains and tailor the value proposition to better suit their needs and desires.

#5 The Closing Stage - Signing a Deal

At last, you get to close the deal. But before you get a sign on the dotted line, you’ll most likely be negotiating the proposal once more, following up a couple of times, conducting demos and doing more. 

This is important. You want to keep a fine balance when adjusting ‌scope, pricing, and delivery expectations.

And voila! You’ve got yourself a sale. Now that we’ve covered what a sales pipeline is, let’s look at how to manage and maintain one effectively.

Also, check out enterprise sales strategies

What is Sales Pipeline Management?

Sales pipeline management is a process of organizing, updating, and managing information about current and incoming sales opportunities, pipeline stages, qualification steps, and close rates of different sales cycles.

As a sales manager, you can deep dive into the data pool to diagnose pipeline health and forecast revenue for the coming months. It also helps you

  • Gauge the length and complexity of the entire sales process
  • Pinpoint the pipeline stages where a number of leads are getting stuck
  • Seek clarity on three fronts: accountability, handoff, and compensation
  • Share key insights with the executive leadership, marketing, and CS team

Also, check out: List of Sales enablement tools

10 Expert Tips for Highly Effective Sales Pipeline Management

Below are some tried-and-true sales pipeline management tips backed by experts. Read on!

Tip #1 - Keep the Pipeline Balanced to Avoid a Falling Closing Ratio

In a Q&A round with Selling Power, Dave Kurlan, Founder and CEO of Objective Management Group and Kurlan & Associates, highlights the benefits of having the right balance of qualified and closable sales opportunities.

Reasons for keeping the sales pipeline balanced

Tip #2 - Hold Weekly Pipeline Meetings with Account Managers

“Pipeline meetings keep your sales team accountable, organized, and motivated,” says Joshua Host, CEO of Thrivelab.

And gives a rundown on how to start a pipeline review and engage your team weekly: “Each sales rep walks through their pipeline, including which leads they need to contact, how relationships are progressing, and wins and losses from the previous week.” This is a clever way of detecting and solving problems early on.

Tip #3 - Pour Energy Into the Most Promising Leads While Nudging the Rest Gently

Not all leads are going to result in big wins. Talking about the importance of spending more time on high-value leads in sales pipeline management — Sudhir Khatwani, Director of The Money Mongers, Inc., gives a brilliant analogy:

Every lead has its own story. Some are eager with wallets in hand. Others? They're curious but cautious, like window shoppers. The trick is knowing who's who.

Pour your energy into the ones showing promise, while giving a gentle nudge now and then to the window shoppers, keeping them in the loop with updates, maybe a helpful article or two.

Tip #4 Integrate Referrals into Your Sales Process  

Did you know 84% of B2B buyers use a referral to get started? Encouraging referrals at different pipeline stages of the sales process can cut short the sales cycle and improve the win rates.

Rafael Sarim Oezdemir, Founder & CEO of Zendog Labs, swears by referral integration. He shares: “At every pipeline stage, motivate your team to get referrals. This can enhance lead quality and quantity. A simple strategy? When engaging with current leads, inquire if they can recommend others who'd find value in your offerings.

Tip #5 Provide Side-by-Side Coaching to Never Have a Closing Problem Again

More often than not, a closing problem is actually a discovery call problem. Because sometimes in the grand scale of things we may tend to ask uninteresting questions to prospects. 

In his podcast episode, Mastering the Sales Pipeline from the Sales Gravy podcast, Jeb Blount suggests active coaching as an effective solution to this.

He says: “As a sales leader, you’ve got to listen to your salespeople and coach them side by side. Because sometimes it’s hard for them to see that they’re not paying attention or asking the right questions.

It’s important that you join sales conversations with them and listen to how they ask the questions in the moments based on the conversation.”

Tip #6 Keep Your CS and Marketing Team in the Loop About Key Pipeline Changes

“It’s critical to continuously update every team in the company about any changes, shifts, or trends in your sales pipeline,” stresses Lisa Richards, CEO and Creator of the Candida Diet

A cartoon depicting the relationship between sales and marketing teams.
Source

Why? “Since the pipeline affects nearly every aspect of your company, make sure to provide monthly and quarterly status updates so that everyone is abreast with any new information derived from your pipeline analysis.

This way, everyone has the same information and is making sales efforts towards the same sales goals.

Tip #7 Don’t Tell a Story, Ask Questions to Better Engage the Prospects

Mark Hunter of The Sales Hunter Podcast tells what most people get wrong about the discovery stage: They go straight into storytime. When, in fact, “your potential customers don’t care about storytime. What they want is to have a conversation. The earlier I have a conversation with a lead, the sooner I can qualify them.” 

He also suggests asking the following questions to qualify:

Questions to consider when qualifying a lead

Tip #8 Define the Exit Criteria for Each Stage in the Sales Process

How can sales reps determine when to qualify a prospect and move to the next steps? Clearly defined exit criteria can help with this.

Ryan Mckenzie, the Co-Founder & CMO of Tru Earth, shares how his own team maintains a consistent and standardized sales process:

“We've broken down every stage that a lead goes through, from cold lead outreach to closed deal, and mapped out what needs to happen at each stage. It helps make forecasting more accurate and allows the sales team to identify bottlenecks that might be slowing deals down.”

Tip #9 Make Regular Pipeline Updates a Ritual Not an Event

Prospect data can be a goldmine, but only when updated regularly. As John Pennypacker, VP of Sales & Marketing, Deep Cognition says: “A lack of consistency and disjointed information sources causes a lack of visibility across the sales stages, leading to more significant problems.”

This happens because “sales pipelines change constantly. There is a continuous flow of qualified leads, they progress from one stage to the next, and transactions take place. Without careful organization, your sales pipeline will be disorganized and chaotic, making you inefficient and possibly losing sales.”

Tip #10 Boost Pipeline Visibility to Stay Agile, No Matter the Level of Change

Pipeline visibility is key to successful management and control,” shares Michelle Delker, CFO and CPA of The William Stanley Group. “Being able to clearly see the health and status of your pipeline enables you to make informed decisions, take proactive measures, and ensure continuity of operations.”

This is where pipeline management tools become a blessing. “Implementing a CRM system can help tremendously in gaining this visibility, as it offers a real-time overview of your entire pipeline.

Also, check out: Best pre-sales softwares

Sales Pipeline Management After Closing a Sale  

Sales pipeline management doesn’t stop at closing. Whether a deal ended in flames or fortune, your next steps should be to:

  • Go the extra mile and map out the delivery expectations. A memorable onboarding experience will help you land and expand later.
  • This is also the perfect time to rewind and analyze the deal flow. Reassess the sales metrics, questions you asked during sales calls, and lead qualification methods.  
  • Map out a timeline for follow-ups. This could earn you loyalty, upsell, and fetch a good chunk of referrals. Here’s one example:

A timeline for following up on customers after a successful sale.
Source

Q1. What does a healthy sales pipeline look like?

A healthy sales pipeline is always filled with a sufficient number of well-qualified leads, moving smoothly from the first contact to the point of sale. There are no prospects stuck at any stages for longer time than they’re supposed to take. It also has a shorter sales cycle and a consistent closing ratio with zero dormant leads. 

Q2. How do you accelerate the sales pipeline?

Here are the 10 best ways to accelerate the sales pipeline:

  1. Focus on piping hot leads and nurture the warm ones
  2. Use lead scoring to engage leads most likely to buy
  3. Drop the dormant deals
  4. Instead of guessing, directly ask the prospect about the next steps
  5. Try multithreading via email and social media to get the prospect’s eye
  6. Do frequent data cleaning and refresh for accurate information
  7. Use automated nurturing sequences for email campaigns
  8. Build a repeatable sales coaching process for your team
  9. Actively review sales performance to discuss setbacks and milestones
  10.  Ask long-standing customers for referrals
"Previously, there was scope for error and we’ve gone from a process that could be time consuming and painful to a process that’s super quick."
—CHRIS LANCASTER, SUPPLY CHAIN PROJECT
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"Previously, there was scope for error and we’ve gone from a process that could be time consuming and painful to a process that’s super quick."
—CHRIS LANCASTER, SUPPLY CHAIN PROJECT

"Previously, there was scope for error and we’ve gone from a process that could be time consuming and painful to a process that’s super quick."

—CHRIS LANCASTER, SUPPLY CHAIN PROJECT

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