This blog post originally appeared on AG Salesworks blog at http://www.agsalesworks.com/Blog-Sales-Prospecting-Perspectives/bid/97058/Should-Your-Company-Invest-More-in-Building-its-Sales-Pipeline#.UWVvFJN19NQ.
Over the first quarter of the year, and in particular the last month, we have heard this question a lot.
For many the question stems from doubt about the ability of Sales to produce replicable results, and for others it stems from a desire not leave anything on the table. In both instances the answer is the same:
Yes, you should always invest more in building your company’s pipeline!
Why? Because the pipeline is the soul of a business’s potential to grow and prosper. Without a strong pipeline, your company’s ability to succeed and meet customer and stakeholder expectations is greatly diminished. Today’s turbulent economic environment requires persistent and frequently incremental investment in one’s pipeline. To maximize your return you must invest in both pipeline quality and quantity.
Investing in Pipeline Quality
Investing in pipeline quality (ideally) comes first. This may seem counter intuitive if your confidence in sales’ ability to deliver is low and you need numbers, but it’s counterproductive to pump a higher volume of opportunities into the pipeline without addressing flaws in sales and pipeline management processes. You might survive another quarter if you crank up pipeline volume, but ultimately the pipeline will slow to a crawl without addressing quality. So, tackle quality first, or at least simultaneously with quantity. Improving pipeline quality requires investment in three areas:
- Aligning the pipeline’s stages and gates with the sales process. The first step in improving the quality of the pipeline is ensuring that its stages align with the sales process; this symmetry ensures that there is “one set of books” for revenue and eliminates misunderstandings between Sales and senior management, particularly Finance. The addition of gating factors for each stage increases managers’ and reps’ ability to pinpoint exactly where opportunities are in each stage and determine what actions must be taken to make progress, increasing their credibility both internally and externally as they manage the sales cycle.
- Calculating sales cycle times and conversion rates by gating factor and stage. Investing in measurement of sales cycle time, intra and inter-stage, enables managers and reps to spot and remediate trouble spots quickly. Measuring cycle time also increases reps’ sensitivity to, and understanding of how they are able to move different kinds of opportunities, building their agility and perceptiveness, and ultimately increasing their pipeline velocity and close rates, and forecast accuracy.
- Implementing a sales management review process focused on results, not activities or volume. Quality is maximized when the above investments are combined with a sales management review process. The best review processes, while led by managers, are two-way problem-solving conversations with sales reps. The focus of these conversations is not on activity or volume, but on the following questions: How fast is each opportunity progressing?, What gating factors have been accomplished and which need to be accomplished? How each gating factor can best be accomplished?, and If stuck, what actions are appropriate, and why, in the context of the account, to regain momentum?
Investing in Pipeline Quantity
Once pipeline quality has been improved, you are ready to invest in quantity. Driving an increase in the quantity of opportunities in the pipeline requires investments in:
- Identifying your target customer(s) and their specific needs, criteria, and behaviors. This may seem trivial, particularly if your company or territories are well established, but it’s not. The goal is to develop veins of prospects with homogenous characteristics that will reference each other, creating greater pipeline volume. To do this, review the accounts that you have won in the last year. Identify commonalities in their: needs/problems, buying criteria, demographic profile, and buying behavior. To develop even deeper insights, segment accounts before beginning this exercise into their groups, accounts that are brand new wins, accounts you are simply retaining, and accounts you are penetrating . Conducting this exercise twice a year will help Sales identify growth themes that enable reps to build their pipeline volume, and enable Marketing to sharpen its messages to clusters of prospects.
- Developing a tightly scripted automated marketing process and tele-prospecting process that scores prospects based on their behavior and characteristics. One of the most underleveraged tools to drive pipeline quantity is an automated marketing and tele-prospecting process. Most Sales organizations lack activity above the funnel, and therefore an adequate flow of quality opportunities. If you have not invested in an automated marketing and tele-prospecting process, it’s time to take the plunge. Fixing this problem has never been easier and more cost effective; an automated marketing and tele-prospecting process is the cheapest insurance you can buy against poor quota attainment and inadequate testing of your relevance in different markets.
- Segmenting your sales force to create Opportunity Development Specialists and Sales/Account Reps. You have heard a lot about how buying has changed; customers complete over 50% of the sales process before meeting your sales rep, customers expect your reps to provide more and deeper insights into your business, and more stakeholders than ever before are involved in the buying process, lengthening the sales cycle and increasing its complexity. Unfortunately, all of the above apply for most of Sales forces, yet many still lurch along expecting their Sales/Account Reps to prospect and cold call consistently and aggressively. It’s time to stop asking your company’s highest priced resource to do low-value, high volume work that is decidedly different than managing the later stages of a sales process. In most cases (except for selling in extremely mature markets, or in processes where the buyer expects a single point of contact) it’s far more efficient and effective to segment the Sales force into Opportunity Development Specialists and Sales/Account Rep roles and narrow Sales/Account Rep prospecting to a narrow set of highly qualified leads (e.g. a short list of 10-15) that have a tight fit with their current account base.
If you have not invested persistently in your pipeline, now is the time to catch up. With three quarters left in the year, there is plenty of time to make incremental investments that will help you exceed plan.
Remember, two investments are required. To achieve Sales efficiency and effectiveness you must invest in both quality and quantity on a regular basis.
Ask these 8 questions to assess your risk of unwanted turnover and identify ways to improve your front-line Sales Management.
One of the keys to sustained predictable growth that has been overlooked during the recovery is the need to retain top and high potential talent through high quality front-line sales management.
We are increasingly seeing top and high potential talent take flight from organizations as the economy improves. And, one of the underlying themes in many of these cases, is the lack of quality sales management. Instead of focusing on creating quality managers, organizations have over focused on sales rep training, sales productivity tools, and compensation.
Do you know if your company is at risk of losing its high potential or top talent?
If you don’t know the turnover risk or your sales team and lack the means to assess it, you should start by asking these questions:
- Do you know what is expected of you at work in terms of activities, interim goals, and business outcomes?
- Do you have the materials and tools you need to do your work well?
- At work, do your opinions seem to count?
- At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
- In the last week, have you received recognition for and constructive feedback on your work?
- Does your immediate manager care about you as a person?
- Do the managers with whom you interact encourage your growth and development?
- Does the mission of the company make you feel like your work is important?
Note, the above questions are adapted from Buckingham and Coffman’s First Break All the Rules.
The beauty of these questions, in addition to their simplicity, is that answers to them not only help you gauge the level of turnover risk, but also help you rapidly identify changes that can be made on the front-line to mitigate turnover risk and build a strong sales management team.
If you have not asked these questions recently, it’s time to get busy!
With over 486 million google hits, the prominence of Front-Line Sales Management as an issue is indisputable. Yet, few sales organizations have a tight enough focus on their Sales Managers, particularly when it comes to hiring, enabling managers with a process, and setting and managing performance expectations.
Our experience suggests CSOs should adopt three prescriptions to tighten their focus on Sales Management.
- Hire Slowly. All too often, CSOs rush hiring decisions opting to fill open sales management positions quickly – usually from the field – lest a sales team miss its numbers. This approach is flawed in many ways and has enormous negative consequences. Not only does it lead to sub-optimal revenue and profit performance by the team, but it also frequently leads to higher levels of turnover within the team and loss of alignment with the sales strategy. Why? Because Sales Management is a unique role, one that requires strategic thinking, managerial, coaching, process management, and motivational skills. Not to mention strong alignment and fit with senior management, particularly around strategic decision making and performance management. Instead of taking the easy path and promoting a salesman, CSOs should hire slowly and deliberately, making sure that candidates possess the foundational and strategic competencies necessary to drive improved performance across their team. Seethe Chally Group’s assessments at www.chally.com, they are a great resource that enables high quality hiring.
- Implement a Sales Management Process. Despite being heralded in so many articles as “the linchpin of strong sales performance”, too many sales managers remain mired in administrative roles facilitating their rep’s transactions, enabling cross-functional communication, or worse still walking the tightrope of managing their own book of business and their team’s transactions, as opposed to developing rep’s capability. What’s missing is an intentional process like the one pictured below.
Equipping the Sales Management team with, and teaching them how to use, this type of process shifts managers conversations and interactions with their reps from transactional administrivia to teachable moments that enable personal development.
- Fire Fast. When’s the last time you our your senior team fired a Sales Manager? I recently took a poll of clients and only 20% could recall a time when a Sales Manager got let go. Perhaps this is a consequence of misplaced loyalty resulting from hiring too quickly, but that doesn’t make it right and only serves to compound your company’s problems. Managers should be managed with the same process as reps. Expectations should be clear, performance outcomes should be tracked and reported frequently, and feedback and assistance should be given regularly. And, when performance does not improve quickly, sub-par managers should be removed before their sales teams are negatively impacted.
If you have recently completed a project to increase your focus on Sales Management, please comment below. If you’re about to start, make sure you are equipped to hire slow, implement a sales management process, and fire fast before you embark on the journey, otherwise your other investments may yield sub-optimal returns.