The Importance of Early-stage Pipeline Management

“My key contact is ghosting me now that I sent them a proposal.”

“I thought I had a 90% chance of closure and I just received an email that they are staying with the existing vendor. I’m so confused!”

Do the above scenarios sound familiar?

I hear these situations far too often in companies, spanning industries worldwide. Is it the salesperson’s selling technique? Are they targeting the wrong prospects? Or perhaps they are just not trained correctly when it comes to closing?

As much as all these factors can play a role to some degree, the real issue lies within the culture of risk aversion that exists in most buying organizations, where every buying decision requires full consensus from multiple stakeholders.  As the red-tape measures seemingly get more bureaucratic, salespeople must learn to adapt their selling style to this new environment. They can no longer continue to sell as they did decades ago: asking a few good probing questions, but still complying with any request for a proposal without question or consideration of whether the deal is closeable or even viable.

So, how should salespeople navigate this cultural shift? How do we remediate the risk of failure and improve conversion rates? 

The answer lies in strategic pipeline management and deal coaching in the EARLY stages of the sales cycle.  This is the critical point in time where a salesperson has the greatest leverage to negotiate for information and access: that moment in time just before the salesperson submits a quote and a copy of the presentation material for review.

Unfortunately, most sales managers focus their coaching and pipeline reviews on opportunities that are later stage and nearing closure. They assume that that previous training and sales experience will act as a guide and therefore allow the salespeople to manage the earlier stages of the sales cycle on their own. For the most part, deals do not rise to the level of management’s attention until proposals are sent and closing delays begin. Regardless of the manager’s best efforts and good intentions, it is often too late to coach an opportunity after a proposal has already been sent. I compare it to trying to push toothpaste back into the tube.  It is impossible, due to the loss of leverage that should have been established at the beginning of the deal.

Great sales management requires coaching a sales team through ALL opportunity stages, especially when a key contact begins showing interest in receiving a quote.  This is the critical moment in the sales process that either makes or breaks a good opportunity and it is what I describe as the “Collaborative Prospect” stage. This stage is where a salesperson develops a partnership with a key contact who will help navigate the organization’s buying culture, provide relevant and accurate Information about the relevant constituents and their issues, and ultimately clear a pathway to the higher-level decision makers.

Unfortunately, for improperly coached salespeople, this early stage is where the biggest mistakes are made.  The average salesperson sees a request for pricing information as the ultimate buying sign and will enthusiastically hand over their presentation material and proposals before obtaining all the information they need. Rather than intelligently challenging the buying process, the approach most salespeople take is the path of least conflict.

In the Collaborative Prospect stage, salespeople must be willing to courageously challenge the internal champion and negotiate for info and access in return for presentations and quotes.  They must continue qualifying the opportunity by gathering information about:

  • Competition (internal and external)
  • Other stakeholder’s concerns and involvement
  • Incumbent vendor relationships
  • Competing priorities
  • Potential opposition in the account

This Collaborative Prospect pre-proposal stage is also a great opportunity to test an internal champion’s influence and power.  (For more on the topic of testing for influence refer to our previous article,Great Meetings that go Nowhere.”)

Since following the path of least conflict often drives most salespeople’s behavior, managers must be willing to coach reps and help them better manage the early stage opportunities.  This level of pipeline management will result in a much greater number of deals successfully progressing through the pipeline to ultimate closure.  It will also empower the salesperson with a decision framework of whether to invest time and resource before it is too late.

 

Venator Sales Group is a Sales Consulting, Optimization, & Training firm with a laser-focus on improving every aspect of a client’s sales culture and sales performance. Founded over a decade ago by high-performing, professional sales practitioners, Venator combines a strategic sales management approach with real-world understanding of the factors necessary for success in today’s selling environment. Venator helps companies turn around inconsistent or lackluster sales performance by infusing a sales culture based on accountability, compliance, and critical thinking.

Contact Venator to learn how you can build a more successful, scalable sales team.

Phone – 914-220-5484, Email – Info@venatorsalesgroup.com

Follow us on LinkedIn.

Don’t trip on the way down

I recently had the opportunity to observe a salesperson in action at a networking event.  I was talking with the CEO of a medium sized company when another gentleman came over and introduced himself.  He explained that he was an account executive for a firm which specializes in providing outsourced technology solutions.  The CEO responded with interest as well as concern with his existing technology company.  He enthusiastically suggested that this salesperson follow up with his internal technology person and even gave him the direct line to call.  The salesperson “diligently” asked if he could reference this conversation when calling the technology person.  After receiving this final endorsement, the salesperson then moved to shake hands and bid the CEO farewell.  On the surface, and I think most people would agree, this salesperson seemingly stumbled upon an amazing opportunity:   speaking directly to the CEO about his needs and concerns. How often does that happen?

However, having witnessed this interaction and looking below the surface of the scenario, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What will happen when this salesperson calls the internal technology person?”  Often, when salespeople are endorsed “down the ladder,” the person at the lower rung does not respond with the excitement and anticipation expected. I have seen too many lower level people override the endorsement by either ignoring the calls or brushing the salesperson off.  Naturally, the salesperson instinctively fights their way back up the ladder to report this challenge to the original endorser in this case, the CEO.  Unfortunately, either because the moment is gone, or for political reasons, these attempts to regain access to the CEO are much more difficult than anticipated and often futile.

So, what’s the solution? How do we deal with this opportunity threat before it happens?  The answer is to have what we call a “Post-Endorsement Dialogue”, which consists of a few simple questions for the CEO upon the initial introduction to diffuse potential threats:

  • Have you discussed your concerns with the technology person?”
  • What were his thoughts on the issue?”
  • What is the possibility he will not be open to speaking with me?”
  • Is this issue critical enough for us to speak a little further?
  • “Would you be willing to introduce us?”
  • What if the salesperson can get the CEO to set up the meeting and sit in on it?

Many experienced salespeople reading this article may be thinking, “I would push to have the CEO involved in the first meeting.”  This is never a bad idea, but quite often it backfires when the lower level person shows up.

How many times have you done an amazing job selling the power-person and then they introduce their lower-level people to gain consensus? How often do those people look to justify their value by poking holes in your solution?  Whether for self-protective reasons or simply to protect the status quo, they take a dominant role in the situation and act as an opposing gatekeeper.  Unfortunately, in many cases, any attempt to regain the favor of the higher-level stakeholder is met with, “I appreciate your hard work here and the solution your company is offering, but I have to trust the people who work for me and their opinions.”

Here again, the “Post Endorsement” dialogue is the ounce of prevention that is worth a pound of cure.  When a high-level stakeholder offers to introduce you to a lower level report, several critical questions can help avoid the above scenario:

  • “Have you had previous discussions with her about this topic?”
  • “What is at stake for her and how committed is she to fixing the issues?”
  • “Will you speak with her prior to us meeting? What response do you anticipate?”
  • “What is the possibility she may pushback prior to, or during the meeting?
  • “What would some of her objections be?
  • “How would you feel about those objections and how would you respond?”
  • “How do you want me to respond to any pushback during the meeting?”
  • “Can we set up a follow-up time for you and me to speak/meet to debrief?”

The key in both these scenarios is to create alignment with the higher-level stakeholder, prior to engaging with their lower-level reports and this can be done by asking some critical questions.  This approach will also allow you to explore and amplify the top-level person’s perspective on the issues, concerns and vision.

Ultimately, the objective is to evoke a sense of interest and urgency with the top person, so they protect us from “tripping on the way down.

Venator Sales Group is a Sales Consulting, Optimization, & Training firm with a laser-focus on improving every aspect of a client’s sales culture and sales performance. Founded over a decade ago by high-performing, professional sales practitioners, Venator combines a strategic sales management approach with real-world understanding of the factors necessary for success in today’s selling environment. Venator helps companies turn around inconsistent or lackluster sales performance by infusing a sales culture based on accountability, compliance, and critical thinking.

Contact Venator to learn how you can build a more successful, scalable sales team.

Phone – 914-220-5484, Email – Info@venatorsalesgroup.com

Follow us on LinkedIn.

Next Page »