Conducting Killer Pipeline Reviews Your Salespeople Will Thank You For

sales pipeline reviews
Sales Management

In the movie “Dirty Harry,” Clint Eastwood’s character asks one of his “bad guys” what has become an iconic question…

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Sadly, many salespeople feel like they’re facing off to Dirty Harry every time they have a Pipeline Review. He’s staring down at them while they squirm and sweat.

This approach makes for a successful movie, but it’s important to remember: Your salespeople are not the bad guys, and you are not Dirty Harry.

I recently met with the VP of Sales of a large, publicly traded company who told me that nobody gets fired for missing quota in their company. Instead, they get fired for failing to forecast quota.

“Dirty Harry” syndrome is real. And the pressure to show progress turns too many Pipeline Reviews into stressful interrogations. But we’ve got a better way.

Keep reading to learn a simple, 3-step method for doing pipeline reviews that work.

The Secret to Successful Pipeline Reviews

What are You Driving?

As sales leaders, we have the awesome opportunity to drive the revenue that fuels the organizations we are part of. Whether you’re driving a high-performance race car or are behind the wheel of something you can barely keep on the road is, in large part, determined by the vitality and the efficiency of your pipeline.

In the world of sales, pipeline is life. Strong, vibrant pipelines provide power to salespeople and sales leaders. But it can be a scary ride.

According to CSO Insights, only 47% of opportunities forecast to close actually closed in 2018. Thirty-two percent of these deals forecast as wins were lost to competitors and 21% were no-decisions.

Chances of your forecast deals closing: 47.3%.

Chances of winning at craps in Vegas: 49.4%.

pipeline reviews forecasting deals

When you are betting career success at odds lower than the odds you get in Vegas, something needs to change.

The pipeline review is arguably one of the most important meetings a sales leader can conduct with each member of the sales team.

The best sales leaders understand how to use the pipeline review to optimize the vehicle they are driving. Whether you need to need to “Tune the Engine” by fueling the pipeline or “Tune the Deals” that take you across the finish line, here are three well-tested tactics to make sure your pipeline reviews are relevant, action-oriented, and inspirational for each member of your team.

RELATED: Weekly Sales Meetings Such. Here Are 5 Ways to Improve Them

Step 1: Win What’s Winnable

Pipelines that move, win. Some deals move fast, and others move slow. But they need to move.

Winning in the world of pipeline isn’t just reserved for the “Closed/Won” status. Winning is about successfully accomplishing the goal of the sales stage regardless of which stage a deal is in.

At Xvoyant, we work with sales leaders in 19 countries around the world, and every time we engage with a new sales team, I find it interesting how subjective a sales stage is and when a salesperson feels they should advance a stage.

Many sales processes include “exit criteria.” But I’ve found this criteria doesn’t solve the problem of creating an accurate picture of where an opportunity stands.

Create Buyer Engagement

Barry Trailer once taught me to look at stage advancement as though you were driving on a toll road. When you come to the toll booth, someone must pay the toll before you can keep driving.

In sales, the toll at the toll booth must be paid by the customer. This is a big deal. Too often, a salesperson sees “exit criteria” as things they can do.

They can’t.

A salesperson can do everything except make a customer buy.

This is why your sales process MUST create buyer engagement.

Winning what’s winnable is more than just pushing deals across the finish line. A successful pipeline review needs to “Tune the Deals” that your sales organization is riding on.

To do this, add Buyer Verifiers to your sales process.

A Buyer Verifier is something a prospect or customer must do in order to satisfy the goal of the sales stage and move to the next stage. Only the customer can provide this. Never the salesperson.

Once you know the goal of a stage and the one to two Buyer Verifiers that demonstrate the goal was achieved, identifying the key activities that help a salesperson accomplish these goals becomes simple.

Add Purpose… Not Pressure

The purpose of a pipeline review is to create purpose-driven activities on what a salesperson can do to advance an opportunity and ultimately win the business. Buyer Verifiers are the best way to create purpose-driven activities rather than adding pressure and flogging the forecast.

RELATED: Sales Managers: The Reason Reps Don’t Follow Your Sales Process Is You

When reviewing current opportunities, here are five lenses to apply to help you tune deals with confidence.

1. Stalled Deals

Most sales teams have some measurement of cycle time. It is important to measure Days in Stage for each rep. When current Days in Stage are greater than the average Days in Stage for that salesperson (not a team or company average), you have a stalled deal.

With a clear verifier objective, the pipeline review now becomes a strategy session on how the salesperson can engage in activities or utilize company resources to help secure the verifier and advance the sales or win.

This approach helps opportunities maintain a rhythm before they enter a stall that leads to a “death spiral.”

2. Must-Win Deals

A best practice for every sales leader is to identify an opportunity or two that is particularly strategic to the development of the salesperson or their overall success, and then help them in the pursuit of these opportunities.

Any “Must Win” should have ongoing, active goals around how verifiers are secured. This is an important part of every pipeline review because it allows the leader to participate without taking over.

RELATED: PODCAST 52: Building Sales Coaching and Training Framework w/ Rob Jeppsen

3. Misaligned Deals

Salespeople have different approaches to opportunity management. But try this simple approach.

Use your CRM solution to match Buyer Verifiers to sales stages. When a deal has advanced to a point that’s not matched by the appropriate Verifier, this is a deal you need to tune.

pipeline reviews misaligned deals

In this example from one of the companies we work with, a salesperson has marked this opportunity as approved and ready to close. However, it is a misaligned deal and is stalled.

Upon inspection of the Verifiers, the stall has come from skipping the first Buyer Verifier confirming who the key stakeholders were.

Later, the salesperson skipped the closure plan, and now the deal has stalled waiting for InfoSec Approval. This stall could have been avoided if a pipeline review had identified the misaligned opportunity.

4. Outlier Deals

When a salesperson is working on a deal significantly larger than their individual average deal size, make sure to pay particularly close attention to the purpose-driven activities and the verifiers they create.

The order of magnitude to qualify an opportunity as an outlier is different for each company and each rep. A good rule of thumb is this: If an opportunity is 3X the average size for the rep, it is an outlier.

The entire buying process likely is different when this happens, and your outliers may require a new set of sales activities and buyer verifiers. Don’t let these catch you off guard.

5. Pushed Deals

I’m always surprised by how few sales teams track pushes. A push happens when the close date comes and there is no win or loss. The deal just lives on.

RELATED: How to Know If a Deal Will Close: A 3-Part Checklist

Here’s what we’ve learned as we model individual wins and losses…

Win rates generally go up after one push. This often surprises people, but there’s a good reason for it. Most of the time, salespeople are making their best guess as to the possible close date. Once you get to the point of making a closure plan, it’s possible to get a firm close date.

PRO TIP: Consider having a structured Closure Plan as part of your Sales Process.

But since many sales processes don’t ask the salesperson to create closure plans with buyers, when the first push comes, this often is the first time a salesperson can gain real insight to an accurate close date.

If you’re coaching the rep effectively in the pipeline review, the salesperson will ask the buyer when the deal can close, so there’s no guesswork.

The “Do We Have a Deal” conversation is an important one, and it generally leads to more accurate close dates. So, one push is a good thing. Two pushes usually have no impact on close rates. But once you hit the third push, this is the time to circle the wagons. Win rates fall by over 10% with the third push and beyond.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Buyer Verifiers do a lot of things to help make a pipeline review action-oriented. Tuning the Deal with Verifiers is the best way to move from just selling something to being seen as a company who’s in a sales process with someone.

pipeline reviews buyer verifiers

This diagram reminds me of a rowboat. When both oars row in unison, the boat goes straight and fast. When only one side rows, the boat just moves in a frustrating circle.

Remove unnecessary frustration and losses by making sure sales activities create Buyer Verifiers. Win rates will go up, sales cycle time will go down, and your buyer will appreciate the process of buying from you.

The point? Use your pipeline reviews to create buyer engagement… not just sales engagement.

Step 2: Achieve Balance

If the deals are the wheels that move your sales organization, an individual’s pipeline coverage is the engine that creates horsepower for your sales team.

A strong pipeline review will make sure there is balance for the salesperson in both the short and long term.

Individual Reps Need Individual Plans

Many organizations have “Average Coverage Ratios” that calculate the average amount of pipeline to goal for a rep to succeed.

Great leaders don’t create action plans based on averages. They help reps create plans based on their unique capabilities and goals.

Calculating how much pipeline an individual needs to win at every milestone (month, quarter, or fiscal year) is not hard to do, and it can make a difference in identifying the purpose-driven activities a rep needs to complete to have pipeline balance.

Here are a couple of easy metrics that will help you add teeth to your coverage models –– and that your reps will thank you for:

Metric: Required Pipeline in $$

Formula: Salesperson Goal in $$ / Salesperson Win Rate

For example, if a salesperson has a $1MM goal and a 50% win rate, she needs $2MM in pipeline for that time period. This metric works since it is a requirement based on the unique goal AND the unique win rate of the salesperson.

Average coverage ratios are like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” This model is sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold, and only rarely is it just right.

Get it right. You owe it to your reps to paint a well-lit pathway to success.

Metric: Required Pipeline in # of Opportunities

Formula: Salesperson Required Pipeline in $$ / Salesperson Average Deal Size

“Elephant Hunting” is a popular sport for salespeople… particularly when they are behind goal. Understanding how much deal flow an individual salesperson needs to win just by being “average” is an empowering metric.

Relying on “Career Best Effort” in order to win is a poor strategy. “Required Pipeline in # of Opportunities” creates consistency while removing pressure to win at all costs.

These ratios –– the Required Pipeline $$ and ## to Actual Pipeline $$ and ## –– are gold in a pipeline review.

If you use these calculations, they remove all defensiveness in a salesperson, because they are calibrated to the unique profile of the individual rep.

Remember, creating a pipeline is just as important as moving it. A balanced pipeline gives a salesperson power. Help them learn the power of a fat, balanced pipeline by helping them create pipeline development goals at every stage. Advancing deals to close may seem sexy, but filling the pipeline is more important.

Make the health of the pipeline a key part of your pipeline reviews. Balance here, now, leads to wins later.

What’s been your experience? Have pipeline reviews felt like a Dirty Harry movie? If you’ve had good pipeline reviews, what made the difference for you?

pipeline reviews achieving balance

Step 3: Set Coaching Goals

Set goals to create purpose-driven activities. Your salespeople should expect pipeline reviews to lead to changes. Based on what they learn in these reviews, they’ll discover things they need to do more of or do differently to either Tune the Engine or Tune the Deals… or both.

Coaching goals should never be to “Win the Deal.” Instead, great leaders set goals to complete purpose-driven activities that either create rhythm to opportunities through Buyer Verifiers or horsepower to the pipeline creation engine.

The difference between a conversation and real coaching comes in the commitment. If you aren’t tapping into the power of commitments with each salesperson, give it a try.

This will fuel your informal dialogue with each rep as you help them develop “New Normals” as they become more than just hard workers.

Common Pipeline Review Traps to Avoid

Generally conducted every 2 weeks, the Pipeline Review is one of the most commonly conducted meetings in a sales org. Unfortunately, rather than making them more laser-focused, this frequency often leads to an approach of “winging it,” which leads to mistakes.

Here are a few common traps to avoid in your pipeline reviews:

Trap #1: Flogging the Forecast

One of the primary reasons pipeline doesn’t close as forecast is the lack of Verifiers. When these are missing, Sales Leaders are left with no fallback other than asking a salesperson, “What Do You Think?”

Sometimes, a barrage of “What Do You Think?” inquisitions leaves the salesperson wanting to manage expectations yet still look good to their leader.

When the leader flogs the forecast, rather than focusing on pathways and verifiers, the emphasis on the outcomes ultimately leads to a series of guesses rather than a compilation of strategic plans. And while pressure can turn coal into diamonds, pressure does not create predictability in sales. Planning does.

Trap #2: Crutch, Not a Coach

One of the most common “Deadly Sins” of 1:1 Coaching is to take over an opportunity or dictate how a rep should engage.

Pipeline Reviews are fantastic opportunities for leaders to coach reps. Unfortunately, these are also opportunities for leaders to take control. Taking over or telling a rep what to do stunts growth. It doesn’t stimulate it.

Focus on coaching, not becoming a crutch.

Trap #3: “Trust Me”

It’s common when discussing an opportunity in a Pipeline Review, for a sales rep to say, “Trust me.” There are lots of different ways this presents itself, but basically, the salesperson asks the leader to overlook the lack of Verifiers and cross their fingers.

Ronald Reagan gave sales leader everywhere great advice when he said, “Trust but verify.”

Save Your Luck for Vegas

Rick Page wrote in his bestselling sales book, “Hope is not a strategy.”

He’s right. You can win without a plan –– it’s called luck. And since you’re not the sales leader, you can get away with relying on luck.

But here’s the reality…

You’re here to create predictability. Leave luck for Vegas.

Verifiers, custom coverage plans, and unique coaching goals are the building blocks of Pipeline Reviews your salespeople will look forward to. Don’t just go through the motions of doing Pipeline Reviews. And don’t let your Pipeline Reviews make your team members feel like they’re facing Dirty Harry.

Use the simple 3-step process I’ve shared in this article, and your reps will never feel this way.

  1. Win what’s winnable at every stage.
  2. Achieve balance to the pipeline and each rep will avoid dry spots.
  3. Set unique coaching goals to drive purpose-driven activities as a result of your pipeline review.

Happy selling.

Rob Jeppsen is the Founder and CEO at Xvoyant— a technology tool to help fix the broken sales coaching model. Rob has been recognized by the American Business Awards with 15 Gold and Silver Stevie® Awards, in categories including Sales Leader of the Year, Sales Process of the Year, Sales Team, Sales Curriculum of the Year, and Sales Coaching Program of the Year. He has also trained over 900 organizations and speaks at leading events across the country.