There’s a huge difference between a healthy sales pipeline and a rotten one. It’s long been a hobby horse of mine, and something I’ve regularly written about. But I don’t think I’ve ever managed to articulate the problem quite as well as my friend Dave Brock in his recent article “Pipeline Stench”.
Dave paints a graphic (and splendidly olfactory) picture of the difference between a healthy and a rotten sales pipeline. I strongly recommend that you read his article. I won’t attempt to paraphrase the full article (and I doubt that I could do it justice anyway). But I would like to build on Dave’s thinking, and offer a few additional remedies that could help stop pipelines turning into stagnant, smelly sewers.
Sewers are designed to carry rubbish, and all manner of unpleasant substances. Pipelines, on the other hand, are intended to carry your future customers from stage to stage in their buying decision process.
Filter out the rubbish
So the first obvious conclusion is that you shouldn’t allow rubbish to enter the pipeline in the first place. Your marketing should target people and organisations that closely align with your ideal prospect profiles - and if you haven’t yet achieved organisation-wide consensus about what an ideal customer looks like, you need to address that problem immediately.
Next, you can’t afford to allow your sales people to qualify sales opportunities on an ad-hoc basis. Heaven knows, I’m no great fan of the traditional BANT approach to opportunity qualification for the reasons outlined here, but without a consistent, organisation-wide approach to qualification, you’ll end up allowing a load of opportunities that could never possibly close to clog up your pipeline.
Unblock the pipe
Then, assuming that you’ve eliminated “opportunities” that could never by any rational assessment become customers, you need to clearly understand where and why otherwise well-qualified opportunities end up getting stuck in your pipeline. Where are the blockages? Where are the constraints? Where do you need to take a high-pressure hose to remove the bottlenecks?
Some of these, inevitably, will be outside your control. But if you take a systematic approach to identifying where and why deals typically get stuck, I can guarantee that with a little lateral thinking you can find un-blocking remedies. You just need to be aware that many of the reasons deals get stuck at a particular stage are because of things that happened or didn’t happen upstream.
Make change happen
An opportunity hadn’t been sufficiently well qualified. An obvious potential blockage or land mine hadn’t been anticipated and pre-empted. The prospect had been “oversold” by an over-enthusiastic sales person about how easy it was all going to be. Most commonly of all, the sales person hadn’t recognised the project as a change management programme within the prospect, and ignored the difficulties and dynamics of making change happen.
Deal get stuck, and start to rot, when we fail to qualify well, when we fail to surface and pre-empt predictable objections, when we lack a strategy, when we fail to implement an effective action plan, and when we fail to approach the problem as a change management project. And once opportunities start to loose momentum for avoidable reasons, our chances of ever closing them diminish alarmingly.
Cut out the rot
Read Dave’s article. Put away the air freshener. Have a really good deep sniff around your pipeline. Flush the rotten and stagnating deals away (or conduct major surgery to remove the rotten bits). Open up your pipelines so that the well-qualified deals can flow through. And then commit to stop putting any more rubbish to the pipeline in the first place.
Will the apparent value of your pipeline go down? Absolutely inevitably. But then, the value was never real in the first place. All it did was to encourage you to come up with completely unrealistic and unfeasible revenue forecasts. Wouldn’t it be far better to start with a clean, accurate pipeline, and keep it that way?