Pipeline reviews are regular features of sales. They’re necessary so that everyone has the right information. But they can be difficult times for salespeople, who can feel under pressure. We look at how to do them well.
What Is a Sales Pipeline?
A sales pipeline is a way to track all the organizations who are on the way to becoming customers. It’s a visualization of where they are on that journey. It helps you understand how many deals are likely to close, when they are likely to do so, and how long it is taking for each to close.
All of that helps you understand the revenue that will be generated over a particular period of time.
What Is a Pipeline Review?
A pipeline review is a meeting where sales reps report to managers on the number of deals in their pipeline. You need to hold them regularly to make sure that your sales team is performing as you would expect.
A standard pipeline review is about gathering information to help the sales managers understand what deals are likely to close, and to identify recurring challenges and weaknesses in your sales funnel.
These pipeline reviews can be difficult because reps are incentivized to make the most positive possible report of their performance, which makes it difficult to forecast accurately what is likely to happen.
Other pipeline reviews are best conducted one-to-one, and they are about understanding in depth what’s happening with your rep, and what support they need.
What to Ask In Pipeline Calls
The standard pipeline call is about getting information. It’s about understanding what’s happening in the department, and identifying any weak spots. This should be a short call, weekly or fortnightly.
Find out if everyone feels confident about what’s entering their pipeline. Understand the level of engagement from each prospect and which deals are going to be closing next. Check that deals have moved on as they are supposed to. Ask if there are any deals where reps need feedback, support or new perspectives to move them on. Get feedback on what reps feel is holding them back. Understand any problems you can solve for them, any changes in the competitive landscape.
These meetings need to stick to an agenda. Everyone needs to be given their say.
Crucially, these meetings are not about identifying poor performers and certainly not about showing them up.
Keep an eye out for reps who aren’t moving deals on, though. If that’s happening, you need to offer in-depth support. That’s best reserved for individual reviews.
Coaching Pipeline Reviews
The pressure to show progress turns too many Pipeline Reviews into stressful interrogations. But we’ve got a better way.
Here’s a simple, 3-step method for doing pipeline reviews that go into more depth, and help coach and improve reps.
- Step 1: Win what’s winnable
- Step 2: Achieve balance
- Step 3: Set coaching goals
- Avoid these common traps
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.
You may need to “tune the engine” by fueling a stronger pipeline or “tune the deals” by ensuring your reps are hitting the right targets.
Here are three well-tested tactics to make sure your pipeline reviews are relevant, action-oriented, and inspirational for each member of your team.
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.
A salesperson can do everything except make a customer buy.
This is why your sales process MUST create buyer engagement.
To do this, add Buyer Verifiers to your sales process, and make these a key thing that you check during pipeline reviews.
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.
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 sale.
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.
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.
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 three times 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.
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 is often 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.
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.
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: Ensure A Balanced Pipeline Review for Each Rep
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.
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. Use the simple 3-step process I’ve shared in this article, and your reps will never feel this way.
- Win what’s winnable at every stage.
- Achieve balance to the pipeline and each rep will avoid dry spots.
- Set unique coaching goals to drive purpose-driven activities as a result of your pipeline review.
Also published on Medium.