image showing fixing pipe

Fix your leaky sales pipeline: a new way of looking at selling

The sales pipeline is the greatest opportunity – and source of frustration – to most businesses. We would like to challenge conventional thinking on this with a new way of looking at your sales performance.

The very term pipeline is often a misnomer, typically sales prospects are viewed as a funnel, where many opportunities are “poured” into the top, most drop out along the way (quite a leaky funnel!) and only a very few drip out of the bottom as closed deals and won business. However, even the pipeline analogy – left to right rather than top to bottom – suffers from poor quality engineering, as the leakage rate is also horrendous.

This is a very depressing way of thinking about sales. Each week, month and year a salesperson must find ten to twenty times their target in prospects and then expect the majority of them to vanish along the way as they struggle to maintain at least two or three really strong opportunities, hoping all the time that even these are also not going to fall victim to a “leak”. It also can lead to a defeatist mentality in sales teams, from defensive behaviour in not entering opportunities on sales prospect reports, to a sense of despair that yet another sale has disappeared, that perhaps never actually had a serious chance of success.

But a pipeline should be what pipelines are, a way of transporting a commodity – water, gas, oil – from start to finish of a journey with minimal, if any, loss. This may sound too good to be true – that every initial contact, however vague or unlikely, leads to a confirmed sale. We can’t offer this, but what we can do is to help you create a more positive vision of a pipeline – a full and stable pipeline, as engineering designed it to be. Sales can also become a commodity, something that comes naturally, with the right point of view.

The key change in concept is to think from the point of view of the buyer, not the seller. For each purchasing decision taken there will then only be two outcomes: no decision, or a purchase from a supplier (but quite possibly not from you, when switched back to the traditional view). It’s the “no decision” that is the biggest competitor out there in any industry and with a “market share” far in excess of any of your competitors. Estimates vary on this due to the difficulty of measurement but it can easily be higher than 60% of all identified needs to buy that end up with no progress. If you understand the pressures a buyer has – they need to perform too, just as your sales team needs to perform – then you are already ahead of most of your competitors in sales maturity.

Why is no decision taken? It is because the buyers themselves are confused by complicated purchasing processes, internal politics, uncertainty of available choices and general risk aversion within an organisation. Hence the second key concept is to extend your pipeline far beyond the traditional point of initial sales contact, connecting early in the needs identification process and often even before your product or service has been considered. You must think not only of the buyer’s needs but also their wants, and most importantly subtle things such as emotions and personal goals more than the features, pricing and closing tactics of your offering.

It is by facilitating the buyer in guiding them through the process that your pipeline becomes one and the same as the buyer’s experience. That way, buyers buy because your solution solves their needs. Unless a buyer can come up with their own answers for all the disruption to an organisation’s embedded systems, traditions and culture that a new identified need brings (i.e. a sale, viewed from the other side), the decision is often simply a no decision. But when a decision to buy is made, make sure it is from you and help to mend your leaky pipeline by being the one who empathises best with the buyer’s experience.

To put it simply, a buying decision is much more that a choice of product or service from competing suppliers. If viewed as that, your chances of winning the deal are already typically lower than 20%. If responding to a written request for proposal and with no previous relationship, probably even much lower than that again. Not odds worth taking a quick gamble on, never mind funding a full time sales team with all the associated costs. But once you have switched on to the buyer experience model, the traditional sales tactics only come in to play at the very end, often after the key decision to buy has been made. Then facilitation of a buyer’s needs and turning it into a sale is relatively easy.

Price is only an issue if the buyer can’t decide between two equivalent things, and in fact is not the key criterion for a sale by any means. If the pipeline process has been extended back far enough in the buyer’s process, it will be hugely more successful, and things such a price and detailed product features comparisons are far less important.

The goal is to get your spanners, nuts and bolts out and get your pipeline built right back into the early stages of a change process, long before it is clear that a tender or request for proposal will be made. Forget about selling, think about facilitating the buyer’s decision process. Many of these things have little to do with your product or service and can cover a diverse range of issues, mostly internal and sometimes quite specific to individual buyers. You can then drop the number of prospects to chase, as the leaks will be getting fixed by this attitude shift alone.

If you don’t extend your pipeline you are trying to catch, or tap into, an existing flow. Pipeline or funnel, call it what you will, but as in the real world example of trying to catch fluid in mid-flow, it is tricky, messy and a very leaky operation indeed. Pipelines do not work well when they are too short and far away from the source!

Hence the simple conclusion is that you need to focus on buyer experience. Sopra Steria has long and deep experience in consulting in customer experience and employee experience. We now think that the time is right to talk to us about buyer experience and allow us to help you improve your sales effectiveness, paradoxically not by thinking of it as sales but as buyer experience improvement. When we say buyer experience we mean not simply as that of the contact with your company, but the whole experience of making a decision about buying. The difference in thinking produces remarkable results!

Published by

Philip Watt

Having worked in a range of sectors, primarily financial services, utilities, telecoms and technology, I enjoy bringing an “outside-in” perspective to business challenges and leading thinking around customer centricity. I work with businesses to identify and solve challenges that include digital adoption and development, experience design and persona-driven journey mapping to improve results in a tangible way with a pragmatic delivery focus. Over twenty years of global corporate experience, both in delivery roles within business and external consulting, leveraging cross-sector best practice ideas transfer. Specialisms: - impact of customer-centred design on acquisition and retention - multi-channel optimisation - digital innovation

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