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Sales Management

The importance of Early-stage Pipeline Management

Jay Spielvogel

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

“I thought I had a 90% chance of closure and just received an email out of nowhere 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 managing complex sales cycles?

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. Since most organizations are implementing processes where every buying decision requires full consensus from multiple stakeholders, salespeople must learn to adapt their selling style to this new environment.  As the red-tape measures seemingly get more bureaucratic, salespeople 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 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, typically at the technical or operational level, 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 most 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. 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:

This Collaborative Prospect pre-proposal stage is also a great opportunity to test an internal champion’s influence and power. 

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.

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Sales Management