Are you managing your pipeline, or is your pipeline managing you? Pipeline management is integral to sales success, but many confuse having a pipeline with managing their pipeline, and if your fiscal year ends December 31, the question, and the distinction between the two is even more relevant.
Part of the issue is the mixed signals many reps receive; on the one hand, they are encouraged to pursue quality prospects, and then they hear that there is not enough in their pipeline. They go out and fill their pipeline, just to be told that they need to focus and spend time with “good” prospects. It is the familiar quality versus quantity question. To assist, companies or managers should present a more specific profile of what the right prospect looks like. There are only so many days and hours, you can’t spend your prime time with everyone. Having a “Right Prospect Profile” helps reps focus and prioritize, ensuring that they work on those with the best fit for the company, whether you measure that in profitability or market share. I’ll say it, when it comes to prospect, profiling is OK, a thorough screening process does pay off. While it may seem obvious, at times it is not, often it is not the biggest and shiniest targets that are the best, defining and agreeing can save time and pay dividends.
Another practice that confuses things is when companies set arbitrary targets for what should be in the pipeline. For example, at 180 days there should be eight times quota, at 90 days five times quota, at 30 days 3 times quota, or variations on that theme. Isn’t that just another way to tell the reps to go out and fill their pipe with crap, the further out you are, the more crap. I do understand where this comes from, but it does mislead sales people, and at the very least causes them to spend time filling rather than qualifying and selling. This type of approach not only messes up your metrics and conversion ratios, but also causes you to lose track of good prospects, prospect ready to commit now, that instead are lost in the shuffle. Further, you end up carrying questionable prospects into the New Year, and by the time you realise that some have to be swapped out for real prospects, you end up playing catch up in Q1.
Compounding the problem is what I call the “every prospect is sacred” phenomenon (just think Monty Python), where reps are afraid to or are not permitted to fire prospects early rather than later.
Another challenge that arises with a bloated (rather than vibrant) pipeline is a false sense of security it gives some sales people. “Look at all the opportunities I have, I need to go and work them, I’ll prospect when I move a few through”. The end result is that your pipeline begins to dictate and manage your activity and success, rather than the right way round.