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!

Customer service in a connected device world

By 2020 it is predicted that 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet. The estimates from various sources vary by tens of billions, but the trend is undoubtedly rising to a massive number. By 2020 around 3 billion people will have the means to own multiple devices, many of them connected constantly. Most vehicles will have significant connectivity. Consumer goods will be unusual in not having connection, and embedded connectivity will be present in billions of sensors that can be monitored and controlled.

We are seeing a rapid evolution from simple networked devices, through networked industries where supply and service chains are interconnected, to a vision of “networked everything” including the customer and their expectations of service, with the ability to compare alternatives constantly.

What impact will this have on customer service?

As physical objects become more like services due to their ubiquitous connectivity, the customer service associated with a product also becomes more like that expected from a service. There will be a reduction in basic setup questions and also reporting of faults, as pro-active self-diagnosis will be the norm. The need to activate and manage warranties, repairs and reverse logistics will be much reduced. All of this will cut down the need for contact centre support on a transactional basis. Mobile and tablet channels will inevitably become the centre of “networked everything” interactions, being the natural control centres for the end user. The vast majority of device service interactions will be invisible to the owner.

There should also be a corresponding increase in data-driven offers and responses that can be used to enhance and differentiate the experience of product ownership. An evolution of interaction, building on social networking principles that are both non-intrusive and natural will be the key to successful service delivery.

All of this will be location independent – customer service will be expected and demanded at any time and in any place, and the device itself can react in real time.

How will brand equity be preserved with so much automation and standardisation of service levels? Here basic customer experience principles will still apply. When the products are becoming ever smarter, keeping the customer in the centre of the service management process will be the main challenge and not leaving them feeling disconnected, or from a service marketing perspective unaware of the great service being provided in the background.

The sheer volume of device interactions must be distilled into the traditional “moments of truth” in a customer journey, and where before these often dealt with problem resolution should focus more on the building and maintenance of brand reputation and differentiation. The service design principles behind this are evolving and will ultimately redefine customer satisfaction – or else the ability to quickly lose your brand reputation in the new world of connected smart devices.