Sales teams that fail to manage their sales stages with a clearly outlined sales cycle tend to bring in less revenue.
A study conducted by Vantage Point Performance and the Sales Management Association found effective pipelines are directly linked to business growth. Companies that mastered an efficient sales cycle have 28% higher revenue growth than those who don’t.
The pattern is clear: High-performing sales teams use pipeline management and sales stage definition to supercharge their sales processes.
In this guide, we’re going to walk you through how to effectively manage your own pipeline over nine sales stages:
Let’s dive into each of the stages of the sales process and see how you can start managing your pipeline more effectively with a clearly outlined sales cycle.
1. Sales Prospecting to generate new leads
There are several prospecting and lead generation tactics you can use to build up a database of prospects. Whether you’re networking or cold calling, landing high-quality leads is the aim.
In-person networking at events, while time-consuming, is a great way to find new leads. In one survey, marketers said that events were the most effective marketing channel. It’s easier for reps to find out if a prospect is a good fit by talking to them in person. It’s also a valuable opportunity to form in-person connections in what has become a digital world. Outreach activities like cold calling or cold emailing should also be top of the list, as these are tried and true tactics for any sales cycle.
Sales teams can utilize lead generation tools to make prospecting easier. Leadfeeder, for example, generates leads from website traffic. The tool provides reps with a list of companies whose employees have visited their website. The data is broken down into:
- Company size by number of employees
- City and country
Use this data to get more intentional prospects and further optimize your sales cycle.
Using LinkedIn, sales reps can search for leads based on criteria like job role and company size.
Reps can also use Smart Contact Data to gain valuable insights into your contacts. It automatically retrieves web-data about your leads from sites like Google+ or LinkedIn that you can use to personalize your conversations.
There are also plenty of tools to use during the prospecting stage of your sales cycle. Our smart conversational Chatbot, part of the Leadbooster add-on, goes a step further and engages in conversations with leads the moment they land on your website. It asks potential leads simple questions and intuitively responds based on their answers. For example, if a lead asks to learn more about a product, Chatbot can instantly send a link to a promotional video or provide more detailed product documentation.
Additionally, Chatbot integrates automatically with Pipedrive’s scheduling tool to set up meetings on your rep’s behalf, making sales cycle management easier for you and your team. Your reps can leave the office at night and wake up the following morning to a new meeting with a hot lead—without even lifting a finger.
Another tool, Hunter, finds email addresses by automatically searching to see if any email addresses are associated with the domain name you are searching for. If successful, it will then narrow the results down based on job roles at the company. This can be supremely helpful if you’re attempting to contact somebody based on a website visit but are struggling to find their email address through traditional search methods.
Having all of this information automatically on hand enables sales reps to qualify high-quality leads far more easily.
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2. Qualifying new leads
Once you’ve generated leads, the next stage in the sales pipeline is qualifying them.
Qualified leads should fit your target market criteria, have a need for your product and be able and motivated to buy.
Let’s break down why qualifying every lead is synonymous with an effective cycle:
- It saves time: Understanding how interested a lead is saves valuable time. If you can tag leads as “hot” and “cold,” you’ll know better where to focus your energy. A cold lead will need more nurturing and thus take longer to close, while hot leads are generally more easily converted into deals.
- It stops your sales team from getting overwhelmed: Qualifying new leads makes it easier to follow up efficiently.
- It arms you with useful data: It gives you more information on how to approach a lead in a way that makes it more likely they’ll convert. Rather than spending valuable time on poorly qualified leads, focus on profitable ones that are more serious and able to buy your product.
Leads turn into prospects as they go through the qualification process. The main difference between a lead and a sales prospect is the level of interest they show in your product or service. If leads demonstrate that they’re genuinely keen on buying your product, and/or are engaging consistently with your sales reps to learn more about your offerings, they move lower down the funnel and become prospects.
|Top of funnel to middle of funnel
|Lower to middle of funnel
|Varying levels of qualification
|Qualified for purchase intent and ability
|Predominantly one-way communication
|Predominately two-way communication
|Receives communication from a general business address
|Receives personalized communication from a rep's address
|Several steps from actualization
|One step from actualization
To qualify a lead into a prospect, many sales teams use the ANUM framework: a sales technique checklist reps can use to qualify leads based on four factors:
- Authority: Does the lead have the authority to make purchasing decisions? Ask them:
- How does your organization make buying decisions when it comes to products like ours?
- Aside from yourself, is anyone else involved in these buying decisions?
- Should they be included in this conversation?
- How do you think they will feel about purchasing our product?
- Need: Does the lead have a need for your product? Ask them:
- Can you take me through your procurement process?
- Do you experience quality issues?
- How long does it take to resolve those issues?
- What are the business ramifications of those issues?
- Urgency: Does the lead have an urgency to buy your product? Ask them:
- How important is it for you to solve this issue?
- When do you want this issue to be solved?
- How bad would this issue have to get for it to move up on your list of priorities?
- Money: Finally, does the lead have the money needed to make the purchase? Ask them:
- Do you have a budget allotted to this type of purchase?
- If you don’t mind sharing, what is it?
- How much would you spend to solve your current issues?
- What would you expect our solution to deliver for it to be a wise financial investment?
Only after a lead answers these questions can they be considered completely qualified.
Inviqa’s co-founder, Paul Wander, says that they have a rigorous and scientific approach to their lead qualification process.
Inviqa builds and maintains their sales pipelines in Pipedrive. Each pipeline has exactly the same stages:
- Needs ID
- Supplier Selection
According to Wander, no lead is labeled as qualified without a strong reason.
“So, for example, if a member of my team says they are engaged with a client, I ask whether they have talked to them directly,” he says.
“If someone says, ‘I’m engaged’ when really they mean that they’ve sent an email and got an email back, then no, in reality, you have not engaged with that person.”
Wander says the company is trying to be rigorous and disciplined about what makes an opportunity advance through the sales stages. He says if all salespeople are following the same definition, you can trust the sales cycle.
Effectively managing your leads at this stage is crucial. The easiest way to stay informed about each lead and deal in your pipeline is by using a CRM tool. With Pipedrive, your sales reps will be able to house and update information and set activity reminders for tasks to manage leads and prospects efficiently.
3. Reaching out to new leads
Reaching out to leads for the first time is tough. One study found that it takes an average of 18 attempted calls for a sales rep to connect with a prospect. And email follow-ups are just as unsuccessful, but that doesn't mean cold emails should be removed from your sales cycle. Yesware conducted an in-house study of 500,000 of their own sales emails and found a 30% response rate to the first email and 14% to the fourth.
Yet here's where the study gets interesting. After a constant, downward trend, the tenth email in their sales sequence saw a slight increase in the response rate on the ninth.
The takeaway is to remain consistent with follow-up emails as persistence sometimes does pay off. Although you are less likely to get a response as the number of sent emails increases, it’s still worth pursuing the chance—until you get a response that asks you not to keep emailing.
Cold calls are also an effective way for sales reps to make contact with prospects. Here are some cold calling scripts to help you with your confidence on the phone.
Following up with prospects is an important part of the job, but it takes time. Automating your follow-up emails to target and nurture prospects that are on the fence can save time. You can use a CRM with email automation to set follow-up frequency, track interactions and handle scheduling while your sales reps are selling and pitching to leads.
You can even build custom email templates to use in your outreach. With Pipedrive’s custom fields, you can use data stored in your CRM to add a touch of personalization to your follow-up emails to leads.
If a prospect interacts or replies to the email your sales rep will be notified.
Persistence pays off when it comes to prospect outreach. Your first email or call will usually be ignored or rejected. Having a follow-up plan is the only way to move prospects to the next stage of your sales cycle.
4. Setting your initial appointment/meeting
The secret to saving a ton of time on this step is by automating your appointment scheduling process, as this will:
- Minimize the admin time involved in setting appointments
- Help you make sure you don’t double-book your calendar
- Cut the friction involved in finding a time that suits you and your prospect
- Improve the lead’s experience of booking a meeting with you
You’ll need a meeting scheduling tool to automate this part of the process. The best apps are easy to use and seamlessly integrate with your existing tech stack.
For example Scheduler, Pipedrive’s scheduling tool, enables sales reps to book a time on their calendar with a prospect by just sending them a link. The prospect can then see when the sales rep is available and pick a slot that suits them.
After the meeting is booked, it will be added automatically to both calendars, and the pitch preparation stage of your sales cycle can begin.
5. Defining a prospect’s needs
The key to creating a persuasive sales pitch is by defining the prospect’s needs.
You can do this by focusing on the value of your offering instead of the price. By defining needs ahead of time, you’re positioning yourself ahead of the competition.
Value-based selling shows prospects how your product will solve their problem. Speak to your prospects on a human level, understand their pain points and effectively explain how your product is a resolution. Show them how your product will work in their real-world scenario and paint a picture they can’t turn away from.
The first step in the sales cycle is to research your prospect to get a deep understanding of their needs, as this will help you engage in more meaningful conversations that lead to strong relationships. The method, called consultative selling, focuses on showing your prospect that you care about connecting with them on a person-to-person level, which in turn builds trust.
It differs from product-based selling as the salesperson’s role is more important than the product itself, and therefore it places an emphasis on value and relationship building over features and price.
Product-based selling approach
Consultative selling approach
|Emphasis on features
|Emphasis on values
Price and availability are key
|Price is less important than value
|Value is defined by the product
|Value is defined by the customer
|Salesperson brings less value
|Salesperson helps define value/benefit
|Salesperson sells more by working harder
|Salesperson sells more by working smarter
Consultative selling can help sales reps build a deeper relationship with prospects. Start by revising some of the simpler questions you asked during the qualifying phase of your sales cycle based on the ANUM framework mentioned above. Then, really listen to their needs and what they hope your product or service can do for their business.
By understanding your prospect's situation, you can position your product accordingly. You can extract more information from your prospect on your initial call by asking open-ended questions, such as:
- What business problem are you hoping we’ll be able to solve?
- Can you describe your current situation right now for me?
- Tell me how you hope that will look once you’ve addressed your problem?
Do whatever it takes to make sure you fully understand everything the prospect has told you. In your own words, repeat what your prospect has told you to ensure you’ve accurately captured their needs. This will ensure you haven’t misunderstood or left anything important out and will position you well for your product presentation later on.
6. Presenting a solution
At this critical phase, you need to present your offering as a solution to your prospect’s needs.
Using the power of “why,” sales reps can present their product as a solution by explaining why it will work instead of how.
To do this:
- Start with a problem: At the beginning of your sales cycle pique the prospect’s interest by sharing a problem they have that your product can solve. Answer their “why” first.
- Introduce some value: Summarize the value of your product. This shouldn’t be spotlighting a feature. Focus on painting a picture of an outcome instead.
- Introduce the product: Highlight why it’s the solution to the problem.
- Show proof: Showcase stories of your happy customers. Pinpoint facts and figures to prove your other customers have had success, and portray the emotional side of how using your product has helped them solve their problem.
- End with a question: Ask your prospect, in an open-ended way, about their business and their current situation.
By presenting your product like this, you give your prospect the opportunity to imagine what their life would look like with your product in it. After you’ve finished speaking, listen to your prospect’s concerns and be ready to answer any questions they have.
You can even go one step further and draw direct comparisons with your competitors. Yesware gives their reps battle cards to help during their pitches. The battle cards are filled with stats about how their product is better than their competitors’ alternatives.
Another important factor while pitching is to keep track of time. If you talk for too long, your prospect could lose interest faster than you might think.
Recent research by Gong found nine minutes is the optimal time for a sales pitch. If a rep wants to command the attention of your customer, they must introduce a 'brain-perking' change of pace in their pitch, explains Gong’s Chris Orlob.
No matter how you build a pitch, avoid presenting too many indiscriminate facts. Remember to focus on value and how your product will solve your prospect’s problem.
Equalman founder Erik Qualman says the hardest part of selling a product to a prospect is avoiding the curse of knowledge.
“You know your product or service inside and out, and this can actually negatively impact your sales process if you use this ’kitchen sink’ approach,” he said.
“The best approach is to understand what feature of your product or service reduces the most friction for that specific prospect (note: it’s imperative to research and understand the prospects' challenges and friction points) and continually drive this home.”
7. Negotiating & overcoming objections
In sales, there will always be objections from your prospects, sometimes at multiple stages of your sales cycle.
However, negotiating and overcoming sales objections is possible if you’re prepared for them. The most common objections from prospects revolve around budgets and timing, but there are other commonalities like:
- Competition: If the lead is using a competitor, it’s your job to prove your product is a better option.
- Trust: Is your company new? Have some testimonials ready to showcase your success.
- Change: Change is hard. You need to convince them that your product is worth it by highlighting what the change could mean for their business.
- Authority: Are you dealing with somebody who can make a purchasing decision? Ensure from the start that you’re dealing with a decision-maker.
- Need: If the prospect thinks they don’t need your product, it’s up to you to change their perspective and add value.
If you plan for these objections before they’re served up to you, they’re easier to overcome. Chances are, your entire sales team is dealing with similar pushback from each of their prospects. You can use this to your advantage by discussing frequent objections in a sales meeting to stay prepared.
Work together as a team to:
- Write a list of the most common sales objections heard each day
- Come up with a plan on how to overcome them
- Look through past lost opportunities by analyzing call transcripts and emails
- Prepare a shortlist of the most common objections
- Figure out why the objection couldn’t be overcome, and how your reps can tackle it differently moving forward
- Write scripts your sales reps can use to overcome specific objections in the future with consistent tactics
Check out our sales Overcome Sales Objections tool to see how the experts tackle some of the most common objections or watch one of the videos in our series online.
Amerisleep’s Joey Holt says his sales team overcomes objections by preparing for every kind of conversation.
“We view customer objections as a huge opportunity when we engage those buyers in the right manner,” he told Forbes.
“We’ve trained our sleep specialists in DiSC assessment to identify and communicate better with our customers’ personality styles.
Our staff can easily adapt to every kind of customer, including ones with strong assumptions and objections about how our brand and products compare to our competitors.”
Stick to the roadmap your sales team has built and attempt to overcome objections one step at a time. Not every lead can be won and you may need to let some go if they aren’t the right fit.
8. Winning the deal
The most exciting stage of the sales cycle: closing. It's time to win the deal with your prospect and get them to sign a contract.
However, getting that contract signed is easier said than done. So, how do you win the deal?
Closing a deal takes time. Your prospect will probably need to bring your solution to their team for input and advice. If they aren’t the only decision-maker, they'll need to seek approval to make sure your solution is in line with their business strategy.
This all takes time and rushing a prospect can dismantle your relationship. However, you do need to make sure the prospect knows you haven't forgotten about them and that you're serious about doing business with them. Maintain contact with them by sending valuable information that may pique their interest and edge them towards a close.
These can be in the form of interesting blog posts and case studies, or new product features that may solve one of their problems that you’ve identified in your qualifying research or on a call.
If you’re hitting a brick wall and not hearing back, try sending a conversation starter email by asking questions like:
- “What is your timeline for buying?”
- “Do you need anything else before you make a decision?”
- “Are other decision-makers involved?”
- “Can you jump on a quick call?”
Once the prospect is on board, get that deal signed swiftly. If you’re using a CRM like Pipedrive, you can generate a proposal that has eSigning functionality with Smart Docs Pro.
Using Smart Docs, sales teams can track how a prospect is interacting with a proposal via inbuilt document analytics. If they’ve opened the proposal and not signed it, you’ll be able to follow-up to ask if there’s a problem.
The key to effectively managing your pipeline is keeping track of what stage each deal is at. Sales Management Group’s David Wallace says sales pipeline visibility is vital for managers, primarily because the pipeline is what drives most business organization-wide decisions—and not just in sales.
“It has ramifications for production, marketing, HR,” he says.
“If you don’t have the right visibility, you don’t know how many resources to have onboard or how much cash you’re going to have.
Without pipeline visibility it’s difficult to manage a business.”
Pipeline visibility is easy to achieve using a tool like Pipedrive. Sales reps can move deals through the workflow in a visible and collaborative manner.
9. Generating referrals
After you close out your deal, there's still another stage left in the sales cycle. The last, crucial step of pipeline management is generating referrals from your new customers.
Yet a surprisingly low number of sales reps ask their customers for a referral. A study by Marc Wayshak found that 47% of top performers ask for referrals consistently while only 26% of lower level performers inquire.
It can be difficult to muster the confidence to ask for referrals when faced with the possibility of rejection. To combat this dreaded scenario, streamline your referrals process to make it as easy as possible for your new customers. Here are three ways you can secure referrals from a new customer:
- Use the power of LinkedIn: LinkedIn shows your new customer’s connections. Use them to your advantage and look up prospects who fit your target persona. Then, ask your new customer for an introduction, potentially with the offer of an incentive, like a discount.
- Time it right: Don’t ask for a referral on the same day you close a deal. Instead, wait until your new customer has been able to benefit from your product to ensure they’re happy and ready to pay it forward.
- Exceed their expectations: Go above and beyond in the first few weeks after closing a deal. Check in with them to see how they’re doing. If you can reciprocate a referral, do it. Exceeding their expectations after a sale is one of the best ways to stay top of mind.
You can even give customers a sales referral template they can use when introducing you to other potential customers. It should include an explanation of who you are, how your client knows you and the product, and why they are introducing you.
Sales cycle wrapped up
Managing a pipeline effectively is easier when you’ve got a process in place.
Closing a deal is more than just prospecting and pitching. Sales reps need to carefully define their prospect’s needs, streamline appointment setting and create smarter, more targeted pitches in order to succeed.
The secret to effective pipeline management often comes down to your sales toolkit. Utilizing sales tools and automations can not only give you a more visible pipeline, but can also save time that can then be spent on selling.
With more time on your hands, you’ll be able to close more deals. It’s a win-win for your entire sales team.
Get organized with your free sales pipeline excel template
Want to simplify the way you manage sales? Download this free sales pipeline template and test it out now.