The B2B sales cycle has a reputation for being long and complicated, but the secret to growing revenue is simple: you need a complete B2B sales pipeline.
The term sales pipeline is one of many in the colorful and often complex vocabulary of modern-day salespeople.
In order to generate, track, and ultimately convert leads, you’ll need a framework that provides an overhead view of the stages, tools, and actions it takes to get there.
To help you build your own pipeline (and eventually close deals and grow revenue), we’ll use this guide to explore:
- What a B2B sales pipeline is and how it’s different from a traditional sales funnel
- What you need to start building a B2B sales pipeline
- The 7 stages of a B2B sales pipeline
What is a B2B sales pipeline?
A B2B sales pipeline is as it sounds: your business-to-business sales process represented as a kind of pipe system.
Where an ordinary plumbing system is connected by pipe fittings or connectors to control and divert the flow of water, a sales pipeline lays out the steps of the sales process to mark the progression from customer to client.
It’s an illustration of a measurable process that should be defined by your unique sales cycle.
Used in this way, your sales team’s pipeline accomplishes several things:
- Provides a set of actions for SDRs and AEs to take at each stage
- Identifies any bottlenecks in your process
- Forecasts the likelihood of a lead to buy
- Compiles data on how deals move forward to close
- Records a history of previous sales cycles to audit later on
Done correctly, a sales pipeline will give you valuable insight into your current processes as well as provide a breakdown of achievable tasks your team can use to close deals.
Sales pipeline v. sales funnel
It’s easy to mix jargon up, especially when there’s so much of it in the industry. That said, we should take a moment to clarify an important distinction between similar terms.
Sales funnel is a term commonly used interchangeably and as a synonym for a sales pipeline. Although they share many similar qualities, they serve two distinct purposes.
Let’s start with the sales pipeline.
A pipeline depicts your sales process visually. The various points that break up the process usher members of your sales team through the different stages with instructions on what to do and when. This keeps everyone on the same page based on proven, tested methods to close the deal.
For example, if your SDRs are at the prospecting stage, they’ll need to focus on validating your ICP and collecting the information of the decision-makers who are the best fit for your solution.
A B2B sales pipeline helps salespeople visualize the actionable steps they need to carry out and guide them to new business with a company.
The real difference between a sales funnel and a pipeline is a difference in perspective.
Your internal sales team uses a sales pipeline to illustrate the sales process for those doing the selling. Are your SDRs generating leads? Is it time to submit a proposal? The sales pipeline gives you a system of direction to improve performance.
However, a sales funnel represents the buyer’s journey. It depicts what stages leads will move through before deciding on a purchase.
In short, it follows customer behavior.
Each stage of a sales funnel depicts where the customer’s head is at. A customer in a sales funnel, for example, may move from awareness to discovery to intent to purchase.
Using data scraped from a variety of sources (i.e. website analytics, social listening), the funnel monitors their pattern of decision making.
Understanding the sales funnel helps your sales team by providing more context. It can also help bridge the gap between sales and marketing.
Inbound practices of gathering information via website and customer data help the qualification process for sales reps. With a sales funnel they become more customer-focused, meeting and converting leads at just the right time.
What does a B2B sales pipeline need?
Now let’s take a look at the tools of the trade.
What software and best practices does your sales pipeline need?
First, you’ll need a database to store all your information. For smaller businesses, a spreadsheet or google sheet should be enough. The fewer prospects you have, the easier it is to manage.
For larger enterprises, though, you’ll need a dedicated sales CRM with a larger suite of features. With the right bells and whistles, a proper CRM will significantly optimize the performance of your team.
With the right CRM you can:
- Set reminders to follow up with prospects
- Analyze the success rate of certain messaging
- Track KPIs
- Cut down on time-consuming, administrative tasks
- Streamline account maintenance
- And of course, organize all the data of your prospect pool.
Other benefits of a CRM include company-wide transparency into the sales process, increased scalability, and bespoke reporting to benchmark performance.
There’s no shortage of CRMs on the market, so there are plenty of options out there to meet the particular needs of your sales team.
This seems obvious, but perhaps the most important component of any sales pipeline is the goals you’ve set to achieve. The framework for the entire sales process is constructed around them.
It’s not an exaggeration to say most salespeople are target-driven and competitive. Yet, to set each rep up for the best chance to succeed, you must take into account their individual strengths and weaknesses.
It’s likely you have some top performers over the phone who don’t flinch on a cold call. No doubt there are others who could win a Nobel Prize in Literature for their masterful emails or subject lines.
Identifying who excels at which skill will give you valuable insight into where and how high to set achievable goals.
Additionally, there are proven formulas on goal setting you can use. One of the most popular methods is SMART goals.
The SMART framework is broken down as:
Combine SMART goals with the knowledge of your team to give yourself the best chance at success.
So, you have a CRM to manage your treasure chest of prospects, clients, and accounts. It’s an invaluable tool as we’ve seen, but to fully support your efforts in building out a sales pipeline, you need winning content.
Obviously, marketing content like blogs, ebooks, and whitepapers is important. Modern sales are won by offering value in each relationship. In this sense, both traditional marketing and content marketing go a long way.
However, when it comes to a sales pitch, we’re referring to a different kind of content. We’re talking about the templates your sales team distributes internally among its members.
There’s certainly a discussion to have around scaling personalization and how antiquated some templates have become. But still, they’re an important tool in every sales toolkit.
Templates set a standard and establish consistent brand messaging. They also engender collaboration among the team as reps swap ideas and work together to produce effective copy.
Your sales content database doesn’t have to be limited to only email templates. It can also include:
- LinkedIn templates
- A list of best practices for the team to adopt
- Cold call scripts
- Pitch decks and PowerPoint presentations
- Ready-made proposals and contracts
If you don’t have a CMS or similar application, create a hub on Google Docs where your team can access all of the above. Encourage reps and AEs to submit their personal approaches to the database.
A content database will improve efficiency. It’ll keep your sales pipeline running smoothly and unclogged with the right messaging available at the right stage.
Defining the stages of a B2B sales pipeline
Speaking of which, it’s time we take a brief glance at the different stages of the B2B pipeline.
The exact names of each stage can change between companies, but these are some of the most common.
This is the first step of any company’s pipeline. It’s also one of the most critical. If you want people to buy your product or solution, you need to go out and find them.
For outbound sales development, use a multi-channel approach of LinkedIn, email, and calling – and not necessarily in that order. A/B test your methods and use a combination of personalized outreach that targets verticals as well as individual buyers.
With relevant, well-researched messaging, you’ll have scheduled a meeting (or 5) for an initial chat about your solution.
Congratulations! The war is not yet won, but take pride in this victory.
This can be one of the most difficult stages to reach. And even if there isn’t a strong business case or proposal to follow, use this as a learning opportunity and replicate the successes that brought you here.
Now it’s time to see if we have a serious buyer.
The AE will review the call during and after the meeting to determine if there’s a genuine sales opportunity. They’ll accomplish this by asking certain questions:
- Are we speaking to decision-makers?
- What does their buyer committee and buying process look like?
- What’s their budget?
- Is now a good time to buy?
The right answers and a decision from an AE will move the prospect onto the next stage.
Provided the AE has qualified for the opportunity, we’re now ready for the demo.
Let’s take a look at what’s under the hood. This stage is self-explanatory but key because it’s more show and less tell.
Led by the steady hand of the AE, the prospect will finally have the chance to see for themselves how the tool operates.
The software and solutions in today’s digital buying landscape can be complex, especially for SaaS and more niche markets.
Thankfully, a Sales Engineer or Solution Consultant will come on board to walk everyone through the trickier parts of the program.
At this stage, there’ll also be a technical alignment to ensure the tool integrates with the tech stack your prospect already has.
The prospect is now ready to pull the trigger, initiating the final stages of our pipeline.
Before we close, a series of conversations will take place with procurement and finance to iron out the final numbers of the deal.
There’ll be discussions on payment clauses, length of contracts, and general terms and conditions. So begins the start of a mutually beneficial partnership.
You don’t have to wait for the digital ink to dry to celebrate. Open your finest bottle of champagne and move on to onboarding.
Maintain your B2B sales pipeline
By now we hope you have a better idea of what a B2B sales pipeline is and how to start building one. Like the sales process itself, it’ll take some tweaking and refinement.
Don’t be afraid to continually audit the stages you’ve defined for your team and the actions assigned for them to take – even when meeting your sales goals.
Outperform expectations with frequent analysis. Remove cold leads to make room for new ones. Tighten up productivity by cutting out energy-sucking tasks that take time away from actual selling.
Ultimately, how you maintain your pipeline will depend on how your company is run. Build it according to your needs and you’ll find it takes very little maintenance at all.
If you’re interested in growing revenue, Sellerate can help. We specialize in B2B outbound sales development. We’re artisans in sales pipeline construction.
Our team is your team, so if you’re looking for talented sales professionals to identify, qualify, and generate opportunities for your business, book a call with us today.