Ep 33: Your Sales Pipeline: A Realistic View

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“Unless we have the foresight to see things coming, we’re not going to be set up for success.” – Taylor Barnes


Today’s Challenge – The Sales Pipeline

Josh Sweeney: Hi, my name is Josh Sweeney, joined by my co-host, Taylor Barnes Taylor, how are you?

Taylor Barnes: Josh, I’m good, but I’m in deep thought. Many times I pray and I ask for the foresight to see things coming. And then when they get here, I pray for the courage to do something about them. Now, in sales, that really messes me up because of how inaccurate the data could be in a sales pipeline. Long winded way of saying I’m a little confused, Josh.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, well, sales pipeline inaccuracy can cause a ton of confusion, especially when things hit that you didn’t expect or when things drop off that were supposed to close tomorrow and all your numbers are just really jacked up in that deal flow.

Taylor Barnes: Exactly.

Josh Sweeney: So the leader challenge that we’re talking about today is, how do you get a realistic view of the sales pipeline? So let’s start off talking a little bit about why the pipeline gets messed up in the first place.


A Lack of Incentive

Taylor Barnes: The reason that we see a lot is pretty practical: the reps aren’t updating the sales pipeline. I know every sales manager out there can understand this. There is something that is innately wired into us as salespeople when all we want to do is create and close and create and close. And I can totally respect that. But unless you are built as an organization that has someone that actually is updating the data, then ultimately it falls on the sales rep to do that. And, for the most part, sales reps don’t care about updating a spreadsheet and a piece of software. They just want to get to the next deal, get to the next client, make the next sale. So it kind of goes against how they’re innately wired, you know what I mean?

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, most definitely. If updating the sales pipeline doesn’t provide them any value, then there’s just no point for them to update it. They don’t see a use.

Taylor Barnes: Yep, you’re exactly right. Not all sales reps like to really dig into the data, there are not many that I can think of off the top of my head that go into their CRM or their sales pipeline every day and be like, oh, this is what I have coming up. They just wake up and they look for their purchase orders in their mailbox. That’s how they know how they’re doing. Or they look in the rearview mirror at a previous month. So from your point of view, what’s another reason that we don’t get a realistic view of the sales pipeline?


Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

Josh Sweeney: Another one reminds me of a friend of mine that was actually just lamenting the other weekend around how he gets completely harassed on every deal in the pipe. He works in an organization where there are different lines of business and there’s a sales manager for each line of business. So not only does he have a direct manager, but if he’s selling a different line of business, he’s being asked about the sale from that business line manager, and then by an executive. So, in the early throes of a big deal, he’s getting harassed by three people.

Taylor Barnes: Mm hmm.

Josh Sweeney: Multiple times a week on a deal that he might have just put in. He says, “I don’t even want to put stuff in because that just means more work for me.” That’s a big problem, too.

Taylor Barnes: Big problem.

Josh Sweeney: Constantly getting harassed about the deal you have in the sales pipeline. “When’s it going to close?” He’s like, “hey, man, how about you help me close it, or help me in some way?”


Under-Promise and Over-Deliver

Taylor Barnes: And I get it. We’ve both been in sales and we know how it is. The last thing that we want to do is create more levels of micromanagement. That doesn’t sound good. So why not create the opportunity behind the scenes and maybe not enter it in there? Because I won’t get harassed. So that’s pretty classic. You know, it kind of goes along the same lines, Josh, but I would say another one that I see a lot is the sales reps want to under-promise so that they can over-deliver. They want to have the element of surprise and they want to run in and say, “yeah, you guys didn’t know about this, but guess what? I just closed today.” That’s fun as a startup, I remember those days. But I will say, as you get more mature as an organization and more mature in your sales processes, it comes with a price. And that price is usually that you don’t have enough time or bandwidth to deliver.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. If you’re under-promising and downplaying the deals, you’re probably going to get harassed about them less.

Taylor Barnes: Yeah.

Josh Sweeney: And then, when it closes, everybody’s happy because oftentimes that’s the extra bump or extra win for that month or quarter. So it looks better to some extent, but yeah, it messes up a lot of downstream actions.

Taylor Barnes: Yeah. To their credit, it goes back to what makes a great salesperson, and that is the extreme opportunistic mindset and the ability to capitalize on a given situation which takes a ton of action. Go, go, go, hustle, hustle, hustle. It doesn’t leave much time for sitting down and updating a piece of software. Some data that’s going to give other people, not him, but other people, a view into what’s coming. So, talk about a challenge for a lot of sales leaders. This is a big thing.


A Confusing CRM Setup

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, most definitely. The other one that comes into play in addition to reps just not doing it, under-promising and over delivering, or wanting to avoid being harassed is having a standard in your CRM or in your sales tool. The sales stage that an opportunity is in means something different to each rep. It seems super simple, but it’s actually not. Or too many stages in the CRM to keep up with. So if I have 10, 15 different stages for a deal, that actually makes it harder for the rep to update and they’re less likely to do it. Compound that with inaccurate stage definitions and you’ve got a recipe for disaster and sales pipeline accuracy.

Taylor Barnes: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. Issues with sales stage definitions is something that I hear a lot about. Unless that’s defined it’s going to confuse the sales reps. They might not even know what to put in there because they don’t understand the sales stage definition. CRM’s that come off the shelf come with extreme amounts of possible data and criteria, which will result, as Josh said, in too many stages in the CRM to keep up with. So if, for instance, you want a rep to enter in an opportunity and it’s got 15 to 16 different chevrons full of data for them to put in, well, that might be a little bit overwhelming.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, there’s too many stages, the definitions aren’t right. I see ones that are a mix-match of present tense and past tense stages. It seems trivial, but when you want sales pipeline accuracy to know how many deals are in proposal, like the proposals out the door and in the hands of the client, it changes the definitions and numbers drastically, especially as the sales team scales up. The more people, the more of an inaccuracy you’re going to have.


The Manager’s Role

Taylor Barnes: Yeah, and I love this topic because I feel like it’s really common and I feel like a lot of the solutions that we’ve come up with can really help. So let’s get into solutions. I think one of the solutions that we can talk about from a sales manager’s point of view, and you alluded to in your example, is we don’t need this to be a harassing process. It needs to be a helping process. So one of the questions that we’ll ask is, what kind of sales manager are you? The one that just wants to know because you want to be able to spin it around to your boss or the CEO and say, hey, my reps got this going on, or you want to know because you want to really get involved, get in the trenches, help them move it along in the process.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, most definitely. If I’m a rep and I know you’re just going to come to me and ask for where a deal is at, and you’re going to ask that a lot, and put pressure on me to close it, then I’m going to be less engaged as a rep. If you come to me and say, “what can I do to help move this along?” Asking how you can help is a completely different perspective. As far as updating the sales pipeline, my solution for that generally involves how the sales meeting is run. One thing I like to do is go through the opportunities or deals in the pipe and do the checks and balances at the beginning. So I’m going to say, is this close data still accurate? Oh, well, this close date has passed. You need to update it right now. Go ahead.

Taylor Barnes: Mm.

Josh Sweeney: I tell people, if you’re going in on a sales meeting with me and we’re doing a check in, you need to have the CRM up on your other screen with your deals and your sales pipeline available. So I know every week it’s going to get at least updated once.


Speaking the Same Language

Taylor Barnes: Yep, yeah, absolutely. I like that a lot. Now, we also talked about the confusion around how a sales stage is defined. So obviously, the solution to that is to train our sales reps on those definitions so that we can speak the same language. And Josh, as a sales operations guy, I know you can understand the value in this to have everybody speaking the same language. Unless we have the foresight to see things coming, we’re not going to be able to assist that sales rep and make sure that he or she is going to be set up for success. Standardizing is probably another good word to use here. Standardizing what the sales stage means, when to update it and things of that nature, just to create some consistent language.


Automation in the Sales Pipeline

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, and those sales stages should have a strong meaning. They have all those different nuances, and those only get more complex when you have too many sales stages. We really have to make sure that those sales stages matter. That they have a differentiator that helps. I think that leads into the next thought: after training and standardizing those, how does updating the sales stage make a difference to the route? Now, we follow ABM, account based marketing, processes and best practices. And what we do there is we actually tie the stage to many other things that help close a deal. So I’ll give you an example. If I update to a certain stage, then that’s going to go into a certain group or a certain list in the CRM and we’re actually going to show that person different ads. We could show them a different ad campaign based on the stage that they’re in. So you could be seeing a broad ad and then you could be seeing a different positioning statement that’s further along in the buyer’s journey because you updated that. Or it could automatically trigger notifications to the operations team and now people are proactively coming to you. There’s all kinds of things where the stage really matters and it’s tied into other business processes. Another one of my favorite ones is closed-won. To me, when you mark something as closed-won, all these automated emails should start firing off.

Taylor Barnes: Yes, I agree.

Josh Sweeney: It should start going to the client. It should start going to the ops team. It should go to accounting to get the W-9’s. What we really have to do with the sales stage is think about how we provide the same level of value when it’s closed-won as when it’s in proposal, proposal delivered or in negotiation, whatever your stages are. How do we provide that same level of automation?


Setting Up for Success in the Sales Pipeline

Taylor Barnes: Yeah, now we got to remember why we’re talking about this. The reason these solutions are just so important, not just for forecasting your month or your quarter in terms of your overall top line revenue, but the larger that you get, the less scalable the surprises are, the surprise deals that go from 25 percent to 100 percent overnight with absolutely no data. And then you need something to really happen or action to be taken the next 24 hours. I mean, talk about something that’s going to really tick off your delivery team because they haven’t had time to review. They haven’t been engaged prior to the closed-won. You’re really going to be putting them in a tough spot. And remember, we are designed to set them up for success so that they can successfully deliver for us. It’s one of those things where, as a leader, if you’ve got the stages to match, the ABM process that Josh talked about, aligning with the sales enablement, and contact automation when and where possible, then you’re only going to set your team up to succeed. The last thing in the world we want to do is affect the customer experience.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely, and I like the one on the surprises. So the final solution we have is how do you offset some of those surprises? Surprises are always going to happen, but there is data in the system. If you’re using the CRM, there’s data around each rep, you can start to understand the trends. For example, we know that rep number one over here always puts a close date that’s 30 days out from when it came in. But, the average closed day is really 90 days. He is always off by 60 days. So there are lots of ways you can look at that data to offset the surprises and have candid conversations during a meeting and say, “OK, well, I know you’re putting this at the end of the month, but, I’d like you to go ahead and push it out another 60 days. Go ahead and push the pace, keep going. But we know when we’re projecting it based on the real numbers, which is what we’ve reinforced with data over years.”

Taylor Barnes: Yeah, absolutely. Understand that the earlier that you can get, I’m just going to use project management as an example here, the earlier you can get project management engaged, the better it’s going to be during transition and ultimately into delivery. So as you define your sales stage, one of the questions I’d like to ask you is, when do you think it’s time for your delivery team to know? Our example is at 75 percent. There was a lot of built in automation that goes to the project management organization that says this is probably coming or this has a good likelihood of coming. Here’s the heads up. Let’s start getting ready to go. I wanted to get that one last little piece in before this amazing final question you have for our audience, Josh.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, that’s a great piece of information, because you definitely want people to know what’s coming and get involved as early as possible, but not too early. So the timing really matters.

Taylor Barnes: Mmm.

Josh Sweeney: So our final question is, what are you doing as a sales leader to ensure that you have an accurate pipeline?

Taylor Barnes: And this has been Purpose-Driven Sales with Barnes and Sweeney, now go lead with purpose.

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