We asked 300+ Sales Managers in the US how they managed their pipeline review process, the result? It turns out there are plenty of opportunities to improve the process in both the quality of the discussion and the time spent on preparation.
It's all in the balance
In a previous post I made the argument about the benefits of a well-established pipeline management discipline. But how exactly should these be run?
Sales Managers have to balance the pipeline management discussion between reviewing/inspecting the current pipeline and coaching the seller for more longer term impact. Both are equally important.
Inspection is necessary because it allows accurate forecast reporting up the chain and establishes credibility of the sales team as it becomes more predictable. The challenge is that this scrutiny alone can be perceived by a seller as oversharing or micromanagement from the manager's part if there is very little value exchange. But the quality of the discussion is impacted by both sides, Sales managers need to ask the right questions, and come prepared help to avoid meaningless discussions and further frustration.
Coaching allows the sales manager to focus on seller behaviors that have a broader, longer term impact on the revenue growth strategy. Proper coaching creates a learning culture, that positively impacts morale and at the same time facilitates execution of agreed plans and aids the seller's decision making process and skill set.
Add to all this the fact that most of these conversations do not happen face to face (according to our research 50%+ of these sales teams work remotely), making them more challenging if they are not well structured and prepared.
Here are 3 fundamentals every sales manager should be doing:
Setup a timing and cadence (and stick to it)
It's important to set the right amount of time and frequency for these conversations. Establishing a regular cadence sets expectations with each seller, allows meetings to be predictable so they can spend more face to face time with customers and helps managers stick to a discipline.
The cadence will depend also on the maturity of the sales team but in general there are several variables that influence this:
Number of sellers per manager and their location (remote vs. local)
Business review cycle (monthly or quarterly)
Complexity of the sales process / number of sales stages
Management style (e.g. formal meetings vs quick calls)
In our research we found that only 55% of the sales managers were having one on one meetings with the sellers on a weekly basis, choosing rather to meet on monthly or quarterly cadence. Depending on the variables above, sales managers should host individual weekly calls with their team, reserving one day, typically a Friday or the equivalent last work day of the week.
An example of a suggested rhythm could be:
Inspect current pipeline health and opportunity reviews weekly
Data quality at least once a month
Coaching sellers preferably after the close of a period (month or quarter)
Lost and Won opportunities, ideally in the following two weeks after the close of a period and before #3
The separation is in preparation
Sales managers have to come prepared with a list of key items and more important, powerful questions that can help assess roadblocks and support the sellers in removing them while at the same time getting a real view on where the opportunity stands vs just pure seller optimism. These questions should trigger a debate on the next steps required on an particular opportunity.
Preparing to have a productive meeting is key, but the process of preparation should not be cumbersome. Many companies leverage emerging technologies, like predictive analytics to help formulate the right questions.
Typical closed questions will not help drive an effective meeting. Some examples of these would be:
Is this opportunity still on track to close by the end of this month for $100K?
Can we move this opportunity to the next sales stage?
Who is the decision maker of this opportunity? What role do they have?
What is the customer need?
Is this deal secured by giving the discount?
Rather, use powerful, open-ended questions like:
Describe the closing plan agreed with the customer to get their order processed in our system?
What evidence demonstrates agreement with the customer in the current sale stage?
Who else is impacted if the problem is not solved?
What happens if the customer doesn’t buy our product or any competitive solution? What new ideas have you brought to address customer pain points?
What are we obtaining in exchange for this discount you negotiated?
Ensure every discussion has an action item and a follow up
In the case of pipeline management having the outcome of each conversation be a series of action items is critical to set expectations and hold the seller accountable. Every new meeting should open with a quick review of any previous outstanding action items. This provides an opportunity for the sales manager to help if an item is stuck and no progress has been made. Not all pending action items should be covered, rather focus on those stalled and/or requiring frequent follow-ups due to their severity.
In today's world there are many tools to help make these best practices operational. The first landing effort may require a major effort in both time and money but consistency and repetition are fundamental to create a habit. Over time, sellers will have a better understanding of the customer's purchase journey, and sales managers will reap the benefits through increased forecast accuracy and better quota attainment.