Home

Product and service reviews are conducted independently by our editorial team, but we sometimes make money when you click on links. Learn more.

How to Build and Grow a Sales Pipeline

Marisa Sanfilippo
Marisa Sanfilippo
at Fortune Web Marketing

Building a sales pipeline can help you understand how your customers interact with your brand and products or services.

  • A sales pipeline describes the process a prospect goes through and how your sales and marketing team engages with them at each stage.
  • Sales pipelines are different than sales funnels, which describe a customer's journey from first encountering your brand to making a purchasing decision.
  • Both processes are important because they help you understand how customers identify your products and services, and decide whether to buy from you.
  • This article is for businesses that want to increase sales by optimizing their sales process and analyzing their customers' behavior.

A sales pipeline is a concept that articulates how your customers first come into contact with your brand and the steps your sales team takes to nurture that lead to ultimately purchase your goods or services. Constructing a sales pipeline for your company based on analysis of customer data and sales trends can help you develop better strategies to drive more sales and grow your business. Here's how to build and refine a sales pipeline.

What is a sales pipeline?

A standard sales pipeline includes the following five stages:

  1. Lead generation
  2. Qualification
  3. Consultation
  4. Proposal
  5. Sale

You should customize your sales pipeline to suit your organization and business model, though it is useful to have a baseline standard from which to start – future iterations of your sales pipeline can be altered to suit your unique circumstances.

Lead generation

The first stage is when your company is actively looking for potential customers. Efforts focused on increasing brand awareness are important at this stage. While few leads are ready to buy at this point in the pipeline, they will likely buy in the near future.

At this stage of the pipeline, attempt to gather leads through:

  • Social media ads
  • Google ads (pay per click)
  • Traditional print and media ads
  • Organic content, such as a blogging

Digital advertisements and content have the benefit of being interactive. Where print ads inform consumers about your brand, digital ads can capture leads. For example, if a user clicks your social media ad, they could be directed to a lead capture form.

Once you capture a lead's contact information and consent, you can continuously market to them. That's when you'll get to move on to the next phase of the relationship, or sales pipeline.

How to develop this stage of the sales pipeline

Lead generation is the foundation of the entire pipeline, and it begins with knowing your ideal customer through the use of buyer personas. Use these semifictional representations of your customers to determine your marketing and sales efforts.

To develop a detailed buyer persona, consider the following:

  • What type of media do they prefer to interact with? Examples may include:
    • YouTube videos
    • Instagram
    • Facebook Lives
    • Twitter
    • Specific magazines
    • Certain apps
    • Certain brands
  • What are their problems, and how can your products or services help solve them?
  • What channels are they most active on or likely to see? Consider digital channels like social media or email, as well as traditional methods like signage or billboards.

  • What type of content or free offer would they instantly say yes to?

  • What would be an easy, fun and on-brand lead magnet for your company to create?

Once you have answered these questions, it's time to plan, create and distribute content through your omnichannel marketing campaigns.

Qualification

Once you've captured the interest of an individual, you have to determine if they are a good fit for your business, which is known as qualification. To qualify your leads, ask questions about your customers' needs in a survey. Alternatively, you could extend free offers or send targeted email campaigns around specific products or services and gauge which customers respond to which types of content.

A qualified lead is one step closer to becoming a customer. Once you have a qualified lead, your sales team should invest time and effort into trying to make a sale. At this point, it's time to move on to the consultation stage of the sales pipeline.

How to develop this stage of the sales pipeline

This step will be especially important if you have many leads that were generated before you knew who you were talking to. However, it's important to ensure your pipeline has a step in place that checks qualified leads to determine if they are cold or hot leads.

A hot lead is someone who:

  • Has the budget for your product and service
  • Can make the purchasing decision
  • Wants what you're offering
  • Is eager to buy what you're offering

How you determine whether a lead is hot or cold depends entirely on what you're selling. For example, if you're selling a luxury car or an expensive service such as private coaching, you may need to have sales reps initiate the conversation with a phone call. This initiation can become a consultation, in which your rep finds out what the potential client needs are and determines if your products and services can meet their needs.

Consultation

During the consultation stage of the sales pipeline, the sales rep speaks directly with the prospect in person, on the phone or via video conference. The rep asks about the prospect's needs and discusses solutions that can be offered by the company.

A purchase may or may not happen at this stage. For B2C businesses, this might be a browsing customer who is still comparing their options. For B2B companies, it could be an exploratory call to discuss services. Either way, if the consultation doesn't result in a sale, follow-up is essential. The final decision will come during the proposal stage of the sales pipeline.

How to develop this stage of the sales pipeline

Make yourself available to prospects. Whether that's by email, social media messages, live webchat or some other channel, be sure to stay in contact with prospects, and be readily accessible to answer any questions they might have.

Timely responses are essential. Whichever channels your customers are able to reach you through should be monitored regularly and responded to as quickly as possible to keep prospects and customers happy.

Proposal

The proposal is when a sale will be made or a customer will choose not to buy. On the B2B side, this usually comes in the form of a formal agreement. An agreement typically outlines services and pricing, and requires the signature of both the prospect and the business. If the agreement is signed, the prospect becomes a client.

On the B2C side, repeated proposals come in the form of marketing content. Perhaps that customer that was browsing signed up for your email newsletter – proposals come in the form of email content related to their interests. E-commerce customers might abandon their cart, but sending reminders to complete the checkout process serves as a proposal as well.

Ideally, these appeals lead to the ultimate goal of every business: closing the sale.

How to develop this stage of the sales pipeline

Once the sales rep has developed a relationship with the client, it's time to make an offer in the form of a business proposal. The proposal should be modeled after what has been the most effective strategy thus far for your business. Take that strategy apart line by line and organize it so that it can be replicated by all your sales reps.

Sale

When a sale is made, the pipeline isn't finished. The business still must meet the client's expectations. The customer service team should work to ensure the satisfaction of every customer by monitoring every account and responding proactively to issues. The sales team should continue to offer cross-selling and upselling opportunities to existing clients wherever applicable, focusing on maximizing value to the client. The marketing team should continue to educate and inform clients about the products and services available to them that meet their needs. Existing customers should be nurtured into repeat customers by consistent contact and excellent service.

How to develop this stage of the sales pipeline

If your potential client is an instant yes, then your next task is to fulfill your promise and put them into your post-sale nurture pipeline until they're ready to be moved back into your main sales pipeline.

But what if they initially say no? Or, worse, what if they say yes and then ghost?

Create a system for follow-up contact. An automated version of this type of follow-up is cart abandonment sequences. For a sales rep, this may look more like a follow-up email or phone call that either results in a sale or marks the lead as being not ready to buy.

Key takeaway: Your sales pipeline should reflect reality as closely as possible while considering the experience of the individual customer. It's imperative that your sales reps always follow up with customers and prospects to prevent a lead from going cold.

What's the difference between a sales pipeline and a sales funnel?

A sales pipeline, which describes how your marketing and sales teams court a lead and convert them into a customer, is distinct from a sales funnel. A sales funnel is a representation of where your prospects are in their journey toward making a buying decision.

A sales funnel includes three major stages, though the specifics can be altered to suit a business's unique circumstances. A typical sales funnel includes:

  • High: High-funnel prospects are those who might be interested in your product or service but aren't actively looking to make a purchase.

  • Middle: Mid-funnel prospects know they could probably benefit from your product or service, but they are still investigating the market and aren't ready to buy just yet.

  • Low: Low-funnel prospects are ready to make a buying decision immediately or in the very near future.

Understanding where prospects enter your sales funnel, and from which marketing channels, can help refine your sales pipeline to prevent prospects from dropping out of the process and increase conversions.

Like sales pipelines, sales funnels can be adapted as needed to suit the needs of the businesses that create them. Creating subsections of the three-part funnel described above can be a useful way to focus on the more granular aspects of your sales funnel.

Key takeaway: Sales funnels explore the prospect's journey, while sales pipelines examine your sales process.

Why establishing a sales pipeline is important

By not implementing a sales pipeline, you run the risk of a sales rep acting in a way that could potentially conflict with their co-workers, company policy, or result in dissatisfied customers. With a systemized approach, you can refine your process to increase conversion rates and revenue. Establishing a sales pipeline also makes it easier to train new staff on how they can succeed in their position.

What to do before building a sales pipeline

The first step before building a sales pipeline is to get crystal clear on whom you want in that pipeline. This will have a significant impact on every stage of the pipeline, but most dramatically on your lead generation phase.

Consider the following:

  • Whom are you trying to sell to?
  • Who has been buying?
  • What problems do you solve for your customers?
  • Why do they buy from you instead of your competitors?
  • Where do you reach them (online, TV, radio, etc.)?

Use the answers to these questions to create buyer personas that represent your customers. Start with just one buyer persona focused on your No. 1 customer. What motivates that person to buy from you?

Key takeaway: Develop a buyer persona for your most important customer. Consider this individual's ideal experience when building your sales pipeline.

Image Credit: Vadym Pastukh / Getty Image
Marisa Sanfilippo
Marisa Sanfilippo
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
See Marisa Sanfilippo's Profile
Marisa is an award-winning marketing professional and contributing writer. She has worked with businesses large and small to help them drive revenue through integrated marketing campaigns and enjoys sharing her expertise with our audience.