Sales Pipeline: A Complete Guide for Sales Leaders

Boost pipeline growth with a sales development strategy aligned to buying behaviors and business goals.

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Streamline sales pipeline development, from strategy through execution

As buyer behaviors evolve, forward-looking sales leaders must continually adjust go-to-market strategy, customer engagement approaches and sales processes to accelerate and sustain pipeline growth. This four-part toolkit equips you to:

  • Increase pipeline volume and quality through better CSO-CMO alignment

  • Accelerate sales development productivity by improving execution

  • Design a best-in-class sales development program

  • Understand the technologies required to support sustained growth

How to execute a future-ready pipeline growth strategy

Grow your sales pipeline and deliver greater value to buyers by refocusing on the customer and revamping sales execution to align to the way customers buy.

Look to multichannel, multifunction programs to accelerate pipeline growth

Building a sales pipeline is harder than ever before as buyers shift toward self-guided, digital buying behaviors. In fact, 75% of B2B buyers prefer rep-free experiences instead of working with a sales rep directly.

To compensate for this shift, many sales leaders demand a higher volume of activity from the sales organization to make up for lower engagement rates — more calls, more emails and more social touches. This can create tension among sellers and marketing partners, not only because bandwidth is limited, but because more touches lead to diminishing returns and potentially annoyed prospects and customers.

Successful sales leaders bring sales and marketing functions together to design orchestrated programs that deliver more value to prospective buyers, increase engagement rates and make better use of available resources.

Orchestration is a key strategy for solving the sales pipeline challenge. Three proven steps enable successful execution and engagement with hard-to-reach buyers:

Step 1. Assign a program owner from sales and marketing. The program owners assigned to design an orchestration plan should be responsible for three core elements:

  • Marketing air cover. Marketing delivers digital advertising to key contacts or specific target roles at target accounts across the entirety of the program.

  • Pre-outbound. Marketers, executives and/or other nonsellers deliver a set of initial touches via multiple channels (email, phone, social) before sales or sales development begins their primary direct outreach campaign.

  • Outbound. Sales or sales development delivers a set of direct outbound touches aimed at driving direct engagement with targets, with the intent of having more in-depth conversations to qualify potential needs and promote a high-value offer.

The most effective orchestration programs require a high level of coordination to ensure that everyone involved stays on message and supports one another to drive meaningful buyer engagement. Clear identification of owners and timing of each planned touch will create a more seamless and impactful experience for the buyer.

Step 2. Invest in the right revenue tech stack. Investing in and optimizing the right revenue tech stack is essential to successfully orchestrate program planning, execution and pipeline growth. For example, within the revenue data category of the tech stack for pipeline growth, sellers might use account, technographic and intent data to guide account prioritization and selection. Technology can help keep everyone aligned and aware of what’s happening, and can also accelerate sales pipeline velocity through automation of workflows.

Step 3. Reinforce cross-functional alignment. Handing “leads” off to sales (along with full responsibility for turning those leads into new opportunities) is no longer an effective go-to-market strategy. Engaging today’s buyer requires marketing, sales development and sales to work in parallel. To find the optimal mix of tactics, channels, number of touches, level of personalization and other program elements, conduct frequent progress reviews with the entire go-to-market team. Discuss results and key lessons, and make necessary adjustments to the orchestration plan midstream when required.

As accounts advance through the sales pipeline, plan new orchestrated programs to further relationships and advance active opportunities through the pipeline.

Unlock the value of account planning to drive greater sales growth

Existing customers play a major role in meeting revenue goals. Recent research reveals that sales leaders expect 70% or more of their organizations’ revenue to come from current customers. Yet efforts to drive cross-sell or upsell in accounts can fail when they are too generic or lack insight into the specific and total addressable opportunity.

Six specific strategies can help sales effectively identify, size and prioritize potential opportunities in accounts for sales growth and revenue expansion. 

  • Expand: Purchase of additional primary product usage or volume by the existing business unit sponsor, or a price increase with the sponsor

  • Upsell: Purchase of additional capability or of a separate product that is premium to the original product by the existing business unit sponsor

  • Cross-sell: Purchase of different products, capabilities or solutions by the existing business unit sponsor that satisfy additional, complementary needs not met by the original product

  • Penetrate: Purchase of additional primary product by the new business unit sponsor

  • Develop: Purchase of additional capability or of a separate product that is premium to the original product by a new business unit sponsor

  • Diversify: Purchase of new products, capabilities or solutions by a new business unit sponsor that satisfy additional, complementary needs not met by the original product

These strategies are not mutually exclusive. Each can be used across the entire customer account to get closer to achieving the total addressable account opportunity.

Once the organization has determined the sales growth strategies it will adopt, align each to a specific sales motion — i.e., a sales-driven engagement approach to advance or achieve the desired type of growth. Examples of sales motions include:

  • Audience identification. Analyze and recognize customer stakeholders who can mobilize unengaged stakeholders who would benefit from the services offered.

  • Product utilization. Train and educate customer end users on the product’s capabilities, benefits of further consumption and additional usage.

  • Demand monitoring. Track consumption, satisfaction levels and additional capability requests to ensure they align with customer objectives.

  • Opportunity identification. Evaluate and detect the next-best solution to improve the customer’s outcomes, or close a gap by identifying a current, new or complementary product.

  • Customer improvement. Offer a unique perspective to improve the customer’s business, lay out a vision of the future and justify the ROI.

  • Commercial insight. Highlight the supplier’s unique strengths, challenge customer assumptions and catalyze action by the customer.

  • Sense Making. Guide customers who are overwhelmed with information toward evidence that highlights you as the best supplier while prioritizing simplicity over comprehensive, complicated details.

Similar to growth strategies, the sample sales motions are not mutually exclusive. For example, when using the Cross-sell and Diversify strategies, apply the Sense Making approach to more clearly articulate the customer’s unique business challenge and amplify the impact of both strategies.

Build buyer stakeholder intelligence into your account management strategy

The days of the proverbial senior decision maker are behind us. The average buying group now includes 11 active members, each with their own perspective and ability to say “no.” Pipeline growth relies on the ability to drive buyer consensus.

Customer consensus doesn’t result from connecting individual stakeholders more closely to the seller organization. Rather, it comes from connecting them more closely to each other and their own organization.

Our analysis of more than 700 individual buyers shows that customer stakeholders fall into one of three groups — and not all are useful in supporting the buying process. These groups include:

  • Mobilizers: These stakeholders excel at rallying their organizations around a purchase, driving consensus and championing change. 

  • Talkers: These stakeholders are always willing to talk with sellers and share information but are not capable of moving a purchase decision forward.

  • Blockers: Blockers are the anti-customer stakeholder; they are wired to avoid change and strongly prefer stability over disruption. As such, they rarely help suppliers.

To help the sales team move stakeholders successfully through the sales pipeline, facilitate collective learning by:

  • Recognizing and leveraging Mobilizers. Mobilizers have a common trait focused on getting things done. They can be effective customer change advocates and overcome internal resistance utilizing stakeholder-specific persuasion tips, tools and coaching guidance from the seller. Once Mobilizers are identified, prompt sellers to capture and record valuable customer intelligence from Mobilizers such as information on upcoming initiatives, friction points inside the organization, shifts in influence dynamics, and key stakeholder turnover.

  • Recognizing and engaging Talkers. Although Talkers are ineffective at influencing purchase decisions, they know their organization well and are willing to share — or even overshare — insider knowledge. The account plan should prompt account managers to capture information on company challenges, staffing changes, strategic shifts, upcoming initiatives, etc., that they then can validate with a Mobilizer.

  • Recognizing and engaging Blockers. Although Blockers are unlikely to be helpful in the sales process, they must be included in the customer decision-making process. Plan how to engage Blockers to minimize or prevent any negative impact on potential purchase decisions. For example, if a Blocker opposes doing business with your company because of a prior negative experience, ask them for honest feedback, and share how your company will commit to making up for past mistakes.

  • Providing commercial coaching. In commercial coaching, sellers work together with Mobilizers to develop a plan to drive buying-group consensus and then empower the Mobilizer to put that plan into action. The seller’s teaching must capture the Mobilizer’s attention, motivate them to champion a change, lead them to rally the other 10 stakeholders in the buying group, and cast a vision that leads the customer back to their unique solution.

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FAQ on the sales pipeline

The sales pipeline is a tool that gives a visual representation of where potential buyers sit in the stages of the sales process. A sales pipeline is essential in that the information it provides helps sales teams manage opportunities more effectively, forecast more confidently and ultimately, convert leads into sales.

Typical sales pipeline stages include problem identification, solution exploration, requirements building, supplier selection, validation and consensus creation. Many B2B buyers will revisit one or more of these stages before making a purchase.

To glean the most value from (and build confidence in) sales pipeline analytics, sales leaders must drive consistency in opportunity management processes, deliver actionable metrics to sales managers and enhance the analytics with qualitative insights.

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