Step 1 of the 4-step pipeline plan: Objectively Assess Your Sales Opportunities (From “Get Real with your Sales Pipeline” Series)

I will assume since you are reading this post that you’ve bought into the idea – or, are at least intrigued by the idea – that it’s time to introduce and leverage some process into wrangling (aka managing) your sales pipeline.

We introduced this idea of a funnel management process in the first post, “Get Real with your Sales Pipeline.” We made the case that for start-up companies the ability to accurately forecast sales is a key business need. We proposed that managing and assessing the sales pipeline is more effective if you have a good process to fall back on. Then, we introduced a 4-step plan to act as a process for managing the sales pipeline.

This second post discusses the first step in that 4-step plan.

Step 1: Objectively assess the strength of the sales opportunities in your pipeline so you can focus your efforts on the right ones.

The first step in creating an accurate and reliable sales forecast is to have a handle on where each prospect is in the buying process and what it will take to close the sales objective for that prospect.

The important word here is objectively. As you objectively qualify an opportunity, you will determine the strength (aka probability of closing) of each opportunity. As you learn more about the sales situation you will also flow naturally into developing the next steps and actions required to move each sale forward –either to a close or forward and out of the funnel.

Fortunately, there is a bonus to putting time into qualifying! When you can more effectively assess where your opportunities reside in the sales funnel, you can prioritize your account management efforts. Including, for example, when you need to put more effort into prospecting for top-of-funnel activity (aka lead generation efforts), so your funnel doesn’t dry up.

So, let’s get started by going through the key questions you can use to objectively qualify where a prospect is in their buying process.

As I mentioned earlier, the nice thing about these questions is they also will foster great discussions with your prospective clients about their vision and needs, and they will lead you into defining next actions to move the opportunity forward.

Key Questions to Assess your Sales Pipeline

Is this something that your team has decided to implement? Or, are you currently researching and gathering information about going in this direction?

The good thing about this question is that the answer lets you know how close your prospect is to buying.

If they are gathering information or researching an approach, you are entering in at the beginning of their process and the sales opportunity needs to be developed before will close. Not a bad thing, but not low hanging fruit either.

Your aim here is to understand the customer’s needs and vision, and begin to understand (and/or help define) their high-level requirements. Once you understand their concept, you can begin to share client success stories that match their experience.

Ultimately, your goals at this stage: show interest, ask good questions, establish credibility and trust, establish their need, understand their problem and whether you can solve it if you can solve it then define how your offering resolves the problem. Be sure to tell them what your unique strengths are vis-à-vis getting delivering the solution to their problem. Happily, as you go through the process of gathering this information you’ll be building the foundation of a relationship and defining a single sales objective (SSO) that they can buy-in to. What you want to end up with is a shared vision of their needs, and of how you can solve them.

Ask additional questions, like these, to uncover their vision, needs and requirements:

What problems are you trying to solve?
What does a (winning) solution look like?
What results do you want to achieve?
Are you able to do this now? (If yes) How do you do it today? What is working and what isn’t working in your current approach?
Tell me more about what is prompting the change?

Many sales professionals feel that uncovering an opportunity that is early in development is positive because your company can set the bar in your favor by helping the customer define a vision and requirements to meet their objective in a way that aligns well with the unique strengths of your product/offering/company. You can also establish trust and credibility by the consultative nature of this type of selling process.

Defining an SSO (SSO=customer problem + your solution that customer buys into) is what normally triggers forecasting of an opportunity in time and dollars. Prior to defining an SSO, the opportunity is still in the prospecting phase. Once you have defined and have buy-in to an SSO you can begin to gather information about timing, decision budget, and decision process, etc.
On the other hand, if you learn that your customer has a well-defined need, and is ready to find, buy and implement a solution you can ask if they have documented their requirements, and if they will share that document with you.

Then you’ll want to move quickly to understand their requirements and determine their timeline, stakeholders and decision process and the process/plan they intend to use to assess solutions, as well as any steps they’ve already completed (i.e. be sure to ask about and understand the competitive landscape).

If you find that they already have an RFP (Request for Proposal) out, you may want to consider closely whether there is still an opportunity worth pursuing or if you may be too late to the game.
In either case, the answers to these additional questions will help you determine the probability of a close and timeline for forecasting the sale.

A good question to get them talking more about their process is: Tell me how you are going about finding your solution?

As a part of this discussion you will want to understand the following:
• How will they make a decision?
• Who are the stakeholders involved in the decision process?
• What are the stakeholder roles, or expertise, vis-à-vis the process?
• Who else is in the mix? I.e. competition?
• How much are they willing to spend? A good way to ask this is: Tell me what your thoughts are on spend? Or, how much are you willing to spend? What do you want to spend? How did you arrive at his amount?
• When do they want to implement?

As you gather the answers to these key questions you’ll gather more detail about where your customer is in the sales process. You will also understand how your client views your solution, strengths, and weaknesses, and as a result, you will be able to engage them on next steps. The more thoughtful the questions are that you ask, the more you will build trust with your customer.

The last point to consider: as you go along, be sure to ask questions in order to get your client to confirm that you are reading their situation correctly. You will also want to ask for their commitment to next steps and outcomes, and align these next steps with what you’ve learned about their decision process and the stakeholders that need to be involved. Non-committal replies or a hesitation to engage in next steps are red flags that indicate things are not on track.
These “trial close” questions will serve you well and will test your client’s interest in having your company provide the solution.

About Lilly Ferrick
Lilly Ferrick LLC offers services in part-time or fractional sales management, contract sales, sales process consulting, and one-on-one sales coaching. We help companies win larger, more profitable engagements, decrease length of sales cycle, manage pipeline, and improve closing rates. Please contact us to learn more, or to schedule a complimentary session.

Get Real with your Sales Pipeline: 4 Steps to Managing that Pipeline

For many startups or small companies the CEO is the salesforce.

The good news? Most CEOs, by nature, have strong sales instincts. CEOs are passionate, accustomed to pitching ideas (and their companies) and can usually determine which relationships to target and what solution to pitch. The downside? The CEO is the sales force.

For all companies, but particularly for startups and small organizations, it is critical to forecast revenue. Investors want updates, budgets have to be managed, and talent acquired in tight alignment with growing revenue. Being able to deliver a solid sales forecast is the answer to that cliché CEO interview question – “What keeps you up at night?”

Two major challenges companies encounter when the CEO is the salesforce are bandwidth constraints and the lack of a formal sales process. These challenges can make managing the sales pipeline tough.
Introducing and committing to an ongoing process for managing and accessing your pipeline will go a long way to helping you address these challenges.

If you want a forecast you must accurately assess and manage your pipeline. Implement this 4-step plan and you’ll see the accuracy of your sales forecast improve:

1. Assess the strength of your sales opportunities so that you can focus your efforts on the right ones.

2. Determine what actions to take for each of your target opportunities: to move it forward to close, or qualify it out of the pipeline.

3. Prospect Weekly: aka, finding or engaging new opportunities – so your funnel doesn’t dry up.

4. Commit to a weekly review of your pipeline. It is dynamic and you must be disciplined to keep track of where you are and what actions are needed to move each opportunity forward.

Oh, and the last thing is most important! Don’t do this process in a vacuum. A pipeline review is not a solitary activity. If you are a small start-up or even a sole practitioner, you will need to find a teammate or a coach to participate in your weekly pipeline review.

Stay focused on the right things!

This post is the first in a series on Sales Pipeline management. Subsequent posts cover the 4-step pipeline management process in detail, and will discuss activities and specific questions that you can apply to your sales calls to help you continuously assess your opportunities and generate accurate forecasts.

About Lilly Ferrick
Lilly Ferrick LLC offers services in part-time or fractional sales management, contract sales, sales process consulting, and one-on-one sales coaching. We help companies win larger, more profitable engagements, decrease length of sales cycle, manage pipeline, and improve closing rates. Please contact us to learn more, or to schedule a complimentary session.

How Much Money Is In Your Pipeline?

Do you know? Can you quantify what’s in there? Can you reasonably estimate the likelihood of close and the time it will take to get there?

A client had with a tall order to nearly double revenue during a specified period of time. My question: “What’s in the pipeline?” Their answer, “I don’t know”.

How much is in your pipeline? To look, to count, to quantify can be unnerving. It’s what we beat ourselves up over as business owners, not knowing important stuff. Last week I HAD to do some clean-up bookkeeping. I had paid invoices I’d not marked as “paid” in nearly a year. So, my accounts receivable was deceiving me and I was nervous. Alas, I got help. “Bookkeeper, hold my hand please as we get to the real number. “ I was pleasantly surprised. I had more coming in than I expected. I’d beat myself up more than necessary. Avoidance causes me (and you) more stress, less good. We need good, pleasant surprises.

Back to that pipeline.

Put a dollar figure to every prospect you’ve connected with in the last three months that has indicated they need a solution. (They can go back in queue to be called on if it has been longer than three months. They can’t be counted as a likely buyer, even if you had the warm fuzzies when you talked.)

Did you talk about money? Hopefully so. Name that number. The next questions to answer: When did you speak with them? Where do your services/products stand as a solution for them? Was there confirmation that they would buy from someone? Was your company on the short list, i.e., are you a top three pick? If so, you can call that a 33% shot at winning the business.

If money was not discussed, you have no number unless you have a general amount of money you typically charge. If that’s the case, estimate low on both money and probability of close. I’m not skeptical. I am realistic about likelihood of purchase if money’s not been discussed and you don’t know where you stack up against other options.

For those in the pipeline in which timing and money have not been discussed, go back to the prospect and find out their intentions.Their intent determines your next actions and if the next steps involves the prospect, be sure to secure a commitment from them so your selling process has no loose ends.