The Changing World of Managing Sales Pipeline

Having been in sales for what is approaching 30 years, it never ceases to amaze me how often conversation around pipelines produce so much debate. Just being able to agree on what constitutes a pipeline is in itself a most contentious point.

Way, way back before modern day CRM systems existed, sales people would sometimes produce a written list of deals, if of course anyone even bothered to record them on paper at all that is. Often this sales intelligence would only be held in the sales person’s head.  It was after all THEIR deal and as such no one really got to know much about it, not until the bell of a win needed to sounded off. Well of course, that is with the exception of the boss (SM) or the boss’s boss (SD) or the really big boss (MD). Even then extracting sales pipeline information usually took a lot of moderate to severe levels of coaxing.

Fast forward a few years and electronic systems began to appear, which were there to “encourage” sales people to start to actually record sales opportunities for others to see and understand. This may have even been backed up by the use of sales system and planning tools, with the likes of Miller Heiman and all the wonderful array of coloured sheets making an appearance. By the late 90’s and early 2000’s many ‘Strategic Account Planning’ solutions followed from an array of vendors.

By now the job of selling was becoming ever more organised with plans in place to support and encourage each and every sales user to take advantage of the new helpful tools designed to help you to be strategic and think bigger. In truth, for many sales people these tools were seen as a major hindrance, as the sales people themselves were now being directed and controlled to ask questions and to collect bucket loads of information from the customer.

I can recall the first time I sat in front of an owner of a large manufacturing company, explaining that the questionnaire of many several pages was there to benefit him. “Do you really think I’m going to sit here whilst you interrogate me with that load of garbage” he quipped upon seeing my sales planning booklet (I’ll not name the brand for fear of being sued).  I spent the majority of the meeting trying to get him to understand that ultimately, this was really going to benefit him and would in the end help me provide better service to him and therefore his company. In the end he finally got it and was good enough to provide enough insight for me to go back to the office to report and illustrate what a fantastic strategic sales job I’d done - oh yes, even I was quick to seek praise to gain favour!

The sales planning book featured in my kit bag for several selling seasons, until one cold winter my company announced that we were going to start using a new system that was to revolutionise the way we were to interact, sell and support our customers. Customer Relationship Management in all its electronic glory had arrived.  Wow was my immediate response as it had come from out of the blue, absolutely no prior knowledge was shared. This was it then, we had a system that was going to do much of what we were doing, only more efficiently and accurately, at least that’s what all us sales guys were sold by the CEO himself.

I was more keen than many to make use of it as even in my younger days, my memory had always been poor (even at school) and therefore my capability to forget things was impressive. So bad that if I didn’t write things down, I would simply forget to action even the most critical task. Being able to record my tasks, calls, call-backs, meetings and follow up actions was frankly something I thought was a gift from god.  For me CRM made great sense and I think my early use and positive experience, is what all these years later has lead me to be as passionate about CRM and why I really do believe that using today’s modern CRM solutions makes so much sense. I might favour Microsoft Dynamics, but all CRM system make great sense, irrespective of which flavour is consumed.

Of course for every one person like me (CRM believer), there were at least three others who dislike it. Actually when I say dislike, perhaps HATRED if a more suitable adjective.  I simply never stopped hearing complaints about using it from sales colleagues who were being requested to record what they perceived was their own “intellectual property”.  Some sales people decided not to use it at all, despite the CEO’s direction, preferring instead to stick to perhaps the best kept secret CRM system of all time, namely Microsoft Excel!  For me the poor adoption by so many was really due to them not really recognising or having been explained the benefits of use at all.

So the interesting thing to note is the sales people concerned were not against the reasoning for CRM (proven by their recording of things using Excel), it was just the mere fact that “their” information and insight was no longer being guarded by them and only them. Just having to share with others was against many a salesman’s principles.  I recall one very successful top sales achiever comment; “I don’t want to show anything to anyone…once they know what I do and how I do it, they’ll all be copying me”. Clearly he was never destined to move onwards and upwards into a managerial position. No, indeed for him it was a question of just remaining ‘top dog’ and there wasn’t any way he was ever going to collaborate or work towards a common goal - the only goal was his 30-60-90-REPEAT pay packet cycles.

The same top achiever all too soon realised the importance of CRM when he was knocked off the top sales pedestal by other colleagues who had embraced the new way of working, who as a direct result were simply closing more deals due to their increased awareness and overall working efficiency.  Just having clear visibility of what deals they were working on, was for many people enough to make all the difference. I soon realised that I wasn’t alone in my struggles pre CRM, in fact others were also prone to moments of failure in terms of following up with prospects and taking all the appropriate actions to help close sales. CRM really did make a serious impact for those who adopted it.

The other great transformation that came with CRM was being able to identify visually what the pipeline funnel looked like, and I mean not just personally but for the entire company. It is all well and good performing well yourself, but if others fail to deliver, it’ll be short time until any organisation takes measures to reduce the deficit – the truth is no one really enjoys working for a company that either dismisses or lays off “under-performing” colleagues.

Having a complete understanding of what was coming allowed management to make better and more informed decisions, particularly important given I was in the business of selling skills from our pool of professional services resources. If we could see we needed more, we could at least recruit accordingly, as opposed to facing the often common problem of not being able to deliver on what had been promised at the point of sales close.


To be or not to be…that’s the probability question!

What constitutes probability is sometimes argued about quietly adamantly given the wide range of opinion and many points of view. Most if not all CRM solutions allow users to set probability factors on the sales opportunity. How anyone interprets the rules or measures each factor and sales stage in the process is the real question. Actually it is not really a question at all, that’s the great thing about CRM, it lets users build their own rules, allowing for the wide ranging interpretation of the rules of engagement.

For some companies (like the one I worked for) the sales opportunity recorded the classic BANT qualification. If I could clearly identify and record the need, budget, authority (the decision makers) and knew the timeframe for the sale, then I’d moved from a 0% to a 20% probability. The fact that there might have been several other potential suppliers competing for my sale, was simply not factored in. Over time and with much hindsight competitor threat was soon factored in to the probability equation. Anyway moving on…

Once I’d met the prospective customer and exchanged information (including delivering my sales pitch) the probability would immediately rise to 40%. If I’d met with key business decision maker or board of decision makers, this would rise again, this time to more impressive 60% value.

Formal proposal produced and sent out accounted for a further 20% taking my chances of sales win to 80%. All sounds great and straightforward doesn’t it. Well no, we all know it’s not quite that simple in the real world. If you consider that perhaps my company was one of four others competing for the sale and all my opponents had established the same understanding as me, and all had presented and delivered their proposals, the fact is that my 80% only had a 1 in 5 chance if all things were equal. It is what I did as a salesman and what my company could offer, that would ultimately be responsible for the win or loss. As good as CRM is at recording all interaction, as well as the facts and key contact information, you simply cannot expect CRM to predict correctly all of the time. I think I lost count of the number of 80% probability deals that were not won due to a variety of reasons – if I’m being honest, being outsold accounting for the majority.


Can CRM Systems Provide More Accurate Predictions?

Today’s modern CRM solutions like Microsoft Dynamics 365 do feature new intelligent features which help organisations score their opportunity probability based on a number of factors, not least the level of interaction – particularly focused on email activity. Does a high level of interaction mean your sales opportunity is likely to close more than low interaction? Well perhaps the most likely answer would be a positive, YES. I would like to say that I agree, however given my sales experiences over the past 3 decades, I be inclined to air some scepticism on this response. 

I’m sure I’m not alone in being someone who’s failed to close a sale that was thought to be a “100% in the bag” deal. Despite covering off every angle, understanding the process, building relationships with key decision makers and stakeholders and having sold the solution to meet the needs of everyone concerned, the sales did not happen!  Perhaps the prospect simply changed their minds or selected to buy a similar solution from another equally confident sales person. Perhaps they were being taken over by another company and no one got the sale.

Whatever the reason, as good as we all think we are and as “intelligent” as CRM systems have become, you just can’t expect to get it right all of the time.

Pipeline is pipeline and until it is closed absolutely nothing should ever be treated as guaranteed. For me what is vitally important is being able to use CRM to help me manage pipeline as effectively as I can. I don’t expect it to make flawless predictions just yet, I think I can do that myself.

Human instinct will continue to play the biggest part in any human to human interaction. One day I’m sure CRM and AI based computer systems might become better at managing sales pipeline than me, but as of today I think that’s a good few years away…at least I hope so otherwise us sales folk might be looking for something else to dominate our lives! :)