Building Your Sales Pipeline

IF YOU'VE EVER had a conversation with someone in your company responsible for sales or business development, you have probably asked them a few of the stock questions. How's business going? Any recent successes? Are the numbers up? Chances are the answers you got will all have related to what has already been achieved - work done and invoiced, contracts negotiated and signed, projects confirmed but not yet started. By now, there is probably not much that can change the expected level of revenue. Of course, the entire senior management team will push everyone to "sell more" to the clients involved, but realistically that will have little impact on the bottom line.

This is a classic case of managing by results, otherwise known as "row boat management". While your business is moving forward, you are looking backwards. Of course results are important, but they are only part of the picture. Unless you have a clear view of the horizon ahead of you, the business will be at risk. If the management is to make informed decisions, they must have an understanding of current results plus a way of assessing future business opportunities.

The best way to do this is by having a pipeline. A pipeline is a system of planning for future business flow generated by accumulated efforts and activities. In other words, it is about monitoring and managing what your company does today, since this will determine future success.

Many people in the world of professional services are notorious for not implementing long-term sales strategies. They concentrate on today's work and only start thinking about how to find new clients when there is a lull. Therefore, it is worth considering the following statements:

1. There is always a time lag between business development activities and winning new work. It can take months or years to land a new client.

2. Not all business development activities produce results; not all proposals result in new business.

3. Recent results are history and do not guarantee future performance.

4. Business development can be planned, managed and monitored.

These points apply to virtually every business, which is why it is so important to have a pipeline to identify and develop new opportunities. It does not have to be a complex tool. You should have a simple and workable process like that described below. There are four key stages for any pipeline:

Prospecting Assume that there are many companies in the market that could use your services - and probably an even greater number that cannot or will not at this moment. All of them are currently outside your pipeline. Let's call them undefined prospects.

The key is not to try to be all things to everyone, but to select carefully the companies which have real potential to become valued clients. This smaller group should be made up of defined prospects which you have consciously chosen to focus on for a variety of reasons.

You want these companies to become clients, but before actively pursuing them you need to do your homework to understand them better.

Promoting After completing the prospecting stage, you will have a list of companies to target for marketing. Consider how best to approach them - send a newsletter or invite them to a seminar.

This allows you to target the client with certain activities, but you still may not have the opportunity to sit down with a decision maker and really talk about business or show how you can help.

Accept that things may not go as fast as you want and it will usually take time to secure the first "meaningful" meeting. This is all part of the process of "promoting" yourself and giving prospects a chance to size you up.

Projecting Once your marketing activities have started to pay off, you can begin an active dialogue about the prospective client's business issues and your services.

Now is the time to redouble your efforts and find ways to close the deal. At this stage, you are "projecting" that at some future point you will work together, but should remember that nothing is certain yet.

Protecting The prospect is now a client. It may be a major contract or just a chance to get your foot in the door. You must execute every part of the job exceptionally well by delivering an unbeatable level of service. Further opportunities will then follow.

Consider how the pipeline relates to your business. Are you selecting suitable defined prospects from the total market? Do you maintain an effective marketing campaign targeting them and then find opportunities to have face-to-face contacts with key decision makers? Have you been managing the selling process effectively by using well thought out tactics? Do you really "protect" your existing clients and anticipate their ongoing needs?

These are the key steps to moving defined prospects along the pipeline so that they become and remain valued long-term clients. In some instances, the process can be relatively short. However, if it seems to drag on longer than expected, do not give up. A good prospect is worth the work. Also, note that the key word in managing the pipeline process is "activity". By planning and tracking exactly what you have to do to develop new business, you will be in a far better position to assess opportunities for future business flow.


GIGO If you're not concerned about the companies in the "prospecting" section of the pipeline, then, by default, you are probably not too concerned about the clients you may eventually have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. This is GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. If you select the "wrong" prospects, they may end up being poor or problem clients. You may have won the business, but it could be a hollow victory. Think carefully about your ideal client base, then carefully identify prospective clients that fit the mould.

Don't Switch Off The more clients you secure, the less time there is for sales and marketing. When results hit a peak, business development activities drop considerably. Although this won't have an immediate impact on your business, it will have in future - the only question is when. You could work harder, recruit extra staff, or reduce your chargeable hours to focus more on sales activities, but it may be too late. This particular trap occurs because you're only measuring results. The key is to make all business development activities ongoing and to keep reviewing your pipeline.

The Warm Lead Even when you've done everything right and finally have a face-to-face meeting with a key decision maker, sometimes you don't go further for reasons beyond your control. Maybe the client is satisfied with their current supplier or is in cost control mode. Keep these "warm" leads in the "promoting" stage. Plan extra marketing activities which will keep your name in front of the client and make sure they remain aware of what you can do for them. With hard work and a bit of luck, some of the potential clients in this group will respond to your marketing efforts and call you first when the time is right.

Newsletters Many firms use newsletters to promote their activities and services to existing and potential clients. Unfortunately, most have the same look and this rarely differentiates the company from the competition. It provides little enticement for clients to study the content. Executives are busy and don't have the time to read everything they receive. Therefore, if you are sending a newsletter to clients, it is essential to make it different, attractive, relevant and interesting. If it is "a good read", it will enhance your reputation and standing. If not, you know where it will end up.