What’s a sales pipeline? How do I master it?

5 steps to consistent sales success (and a bonus template)

Looking to know more about sales pipelines?

We’ve summarized all there is to know about sales pipelines in this post. 👇

It covers the following points (you can click to a specific one too):

  1. What is a sales pipeline? (How does it compare to a sales funnel?)
  2. Typical sales pipeline stages
  3. How to build your own sales pipeline
  4. Tips and tricks to successfully manage your sales pipeline
  5. Talk pipeline like a pro: some of the slang you might hear among sales pros
  6. Bonus: a free sales pipeline template

Successful salespeople master their sales pipeline to guarantee consistent success, instead of the accidental win.

So if you’re in it to win it, bear with us. We promise it’ll be 10 minutes well spent. 👊


1. What is a sales pipeline?

A sales pipeline is an approach to selling that assumes that sales opportunities go through a typical set of stages before they are closed.

These sales pipeline stages depend on the sales process that is followed, which ideally aligns with the buyer’s decision process.

The goal within a sales pipeline is to move sales opportunities through it, either to the next stage or immediately to “lost”. Occasionally a sales opportunity may also skip stages. More about this when talking about sales pipeline stages.

A sales pipeline is often visually represented in a CRM in a Kanban board view, so that the sales team can keep an easy overview on what deals are in the pipeline at any time.

Here’s how such view looks within Salesflare.

visual sales pipeline
Visualize your sales pipeline to get a better grip on it.

You can see which sales rep is working on which sales opportunity, with which prospects, and what the value is of each potential deal. 👀

At the top of each stage, you can see the total value of the opportunities in that stage, which gives a good idea of the expected revenue your sales pipeline will generate. More on this later on.

 

What is the difference: sales pipeline vs sales funnel?

You’ll often hear people talk about their “sales funnel” instead of their “sales pipeline”. And when they do, they usually mean the same thing.

The term “sales funnel” (vs sales pipeline) refers to the fact that a healthy sales pipeline will most often contain a much larger amount of opportunities in the earlier stages, as many don’t move to the next stage and are lost.

The pipeline therefore doesn’t look exactly like a pipe, but more like a funnel, like this one:

funnel

Note that the ideal funnel should have its inflection point at the qualification stage (more about this in a minute). After this stage, the conversion rate from stage to stage should dramatically improve, as you’ve found that the opportunities are well qualified and the prospects are likely to end up buying.

A V-shaped funnel representation, which you will often see around the internet and within software, is therefore misleading. 😏 It may lead to the false impression that it’s normal that salespeople still lose out on a lot of sales opportunities after they have been qualified. And it’s not.


2. Typical sales pipeline stages

Even though every B2B sales process is different, it’s possible to identify a common set of sales pipeline stages. Most sales pipelines will only need to vary slightly from this standard set of stages.

Here’s these standard stages, which we offer in Salesflare when you create a pipeline.

 

Lead

You’ve found a good prospect, who seems to fit all your criteria, but you haven’t contacted them yet.

 

Contacted

You’re in contact with a prospect. Either they’ve contacted you with a sales opportunity, or you’ve contacted them to see whether there’s an opportunity to sell your product or services.

 

Qualified

This stage is crucial. If sales opportunities reach the “qualified” stage, it means that you have qualified them as an opportunity you can win.

The most known qualification criteria and a good place to start is BANT:

  • Budget: Do they have a budget to spend on your solution?
  • Authority: Are you talking to the right person at the company?
  • Need: Are they in need of your solution?
  • Timeline: Do they have a definite timeline in mind to buy? Or is it just “some day”?

If a sales opportunity is qualified, it moves on to the “qualified” stage. If it’s disqualified, you shouldn’t spend any further time on it.

Your time is precious, and it’s better spent with prospects who will probably buy.

Pro tip: It might be that you’re in a business where it often happens that you’re not talking to your prospect at the right time. And even though you shouldn’t spend your time on them now, you don’t want to lose sight of them either. In that case, make an extra stage “Fridge” behind the “Lost” stage for these prospects. That way you can easily come back to them later. ❄️

fridge stage in the sales pipeline
Consider adding a “Fridge” stage for opportunities you should revisit later.

 

Proposal made

If a prospect is qualified, you can start making up a proposal for them.

As soon as you’ve made this proposal, you are essentially waiting for them to decide; or to request changes to your proposal of course. 😅

 

Won / Lost

This is where you close the deal.

Did they buy? Congrats, you won the deal. 🎉

Did they drop out of the sales pipeline at any stage? Mark the opportunity as lost and move on.


3. Build your own sales pipeline

Now that we’ve established the default stages, it’s time to build your own pipeline.

Ask yourself the following questions: 🤔

  • What are the steps a prospect needs to go through before deciding to buy?
  • What do you need to do with a prospect within that process?
  • What are the key steps you can identify?

If you’re so detailed, you might find that you guide your prospects through 15-20 or even more steps before they buy.

A sales pipeline with that number of steps will however not be very usable. And the value of a sales pipeline stands or falls with whether you use it or not.

That’s why you should try keeping the number of stages in your sales pipeline limited to 7-10 stages. You can note the stages you omitted as tasks that you need to complete to reach the next stage.

Ready? Time to configure and customize your sales pipeline in your CRM’s Settings.

customize sales pipeline
Create stages, edit them, make extra pipelines. Make your sales pipeline represent your sales process as well as possible.

You might find that different products or different customer segments require moving the sales opportunity through a different set of stages.

If these differences are significant, it might be wise to create a separate pipeline in your CRM. Otherwise you’ll be trying to move (part of your) opportunities through a wrong set of stages.

Creating an extra pipeline can also be handy in case you want to separate pipeline overviews per department or per country. Or if you want to separate sales from account management.

Make sure therefore that your CRM supports multiple pipelines (like Salesflare).


4. How do you successfully manage your sales pipeline?

Now that you’re all set up, let’s start with the real work: managing that sales pipeline. 💪

While we’ve talked mostly about building the sales pipeline itself, actually managing this pipeline requires a few more things than this simple overview alone.

Let’s now dive into what else you’ll need to go above and beyond your sales targets.

 

Work with a clear tasks system

Every prospect has her own personal needs, wishes and timelines. Every single one of them wants to feel special and cared about, like she’s the only prospect you have.

This might feel daunting when you have tens or even hundreds of sales opportunities in your pipeline. And the absence of a clear system will lead you from the one disappointed prospect to the other. And many lost opportunities… that you probably could have won.

A simple, clear task system can solve this all. ✨

Two key rules:

  1. Always think next steps. When you complete a task, create the next one immediately.
  2. Stay organized, don’t start freestyling. When you stick to your task list, you stay in control of your sales pipeline. Without it, you’ll lose it.

This task list is best kept together with the rest of your customer data, in your CRM.

To make sure you’ll consistently keep using the tasks functionality of your CRM, it should:

  • Be very easy to use. If it’s too much work, you won’t keep up with it (rule nr. 2).
  • Send you notifications (on your computer & phone) when you need to do something.

Here’s how this for instance looks in Salesflare:

use tasks to manage your pipeline
The easy-to-use tasks system within Salesflare.

It shows the description of the task, the account/company it is related to, when the task is due, and who is assigned to it (particularly handy when you’re working in a team).

With the buttons on the right, you can easily complete, snooze, assign, edit or dismiss a task.

It’s also handy if you can view these tasks per specific account as well.

use tasks specific to an account to manage your pipeline
The list of tasks for a specific account. This allows you to zoom in and see the history of actions taken.

You might note the other types of tasks in this screenshot. These are “suggested tasks”: automatic tasks (which you can turn on or off) that help you to:

  • Follow up accounts that go inactive
  • Reply to emails from prospects that you’ve forgotten about
  • Remember to add notes to meetings

 

Keep track of your interactions

While it’s good to know what you need to do next, understanding the context and timeline is also critical.

This means knowing:

  • When you’ve emailed with the prospect about what
  • When you had meetings or called them
  • What has been discussed (your notes)
  • Any email or web tracking that shows you when your customers engage with you and what they show interest in

Without a good grip on the overall conversation with your prospect, it’s hard to steer it in the right direction. And nobody wants to be that salesperson who seemingly has forgotten completely about the previous conversation you had. 😅

Here’s how such a timeline can look:

a customer timeline
This timeline covers all interactions with the customer: emails, meetings, calls, clicks, web visits, notes, and more.

Minutiously keeping a timeline for each customer is of course a lot of work. And there aren’t many salespeople who have the necessary dedication to keep this up.

That’s why Salesflare automatically keeps track of all these interactions by synchronizing emails from your inbox, meetings from your calendar, calls from your phone, … and automatically tracks prospects’ activity across emails and websites. ⚙️

 

Automate part of your follow-up

Following up a large number of prospects involves a lot of talking to prospects, but also a lot of routine tasks.

This can have an important effect on how you feel as a salesperson (robotic or human?) and can influence how much positive energy you can spend with your prospect, which, in turn, can define how successful you are at selling to them.

That’s why it’s important to automate these routine tasks as much as possible.

Here’s a few pointers to get started:

  • Avoid back-and-forth emails to schedule a meeting. Use a meeting scheduler like Calendly or YouCanBook.me to share a quick link to your calendar.
  • Automate follow-up emails with a CRM (like Salesflare) that supports email automation. Set up triggered emails when prospects reach certain stages, when you give them a certain tag, or just send a mass email to reactivate a list of prospects at once.
  • Use a VOIP dialer on your computer to call customers with one click, straight from your CRM and from other places.

There’s more automation ideas in this article about automating your sales follow-up.

 

Keep an eye on your sales pipeline metrics

When you’re all up and running, it’s time to have a look at your metrics.

It will tell you how you are doing, how close you are to reaching your goals, and where you can improve. 💡

If you’re keeping your sales pipeline up to date well, your CRM should give you this data in a few nice dashboards.

First, it will give you an idea of your revenue metrics:

dashboard showing sales pipeline metrics for revenue
Find out all about your revenue metrics in a dashboard, compiled automatically from your CRM data.

This will answer questions like:

  • How much revenue have I already closed? (the ultimate success measure)
  • What’s the potential revenue I might close? (the current potential in your pipeline)
  • What’s the average length of my sales cycle? (your pipeline’s speed)
  • What’s the average value of my won deals? (the value per opportunity)
  • How many opportunities have I won? (how many signatures you got)
  • How many new opportunities have I created? (keeping your pipeline filled)
  • How does this compare to last period? (are you growing your revenue or not)
  • Which are my top earning accounts? (which customers bring you most revenue)
  • What are my top lead sources? (what channels are bringing you most leads)
  • What are my top lost reasons? (where can you improve to lose less deals)
  • How does my pipeline compare to last period? (how opportunities have moved along)

That’s a lot of insights you can already use to improve your sales process! 🤩

Additionally, it’s good to also have an idea of your team metrics:

dashboard showing sales pipeline metrics for activity
Know how well your team is doing, so you can coach them.

This will answer questions like:

  • Which sales rep is most actively selling? What’s the average amount of emails, calls, meetings; in total and per rep? (more input usually correlates with more output)
  • Which sales rep won the most revenue? (your top rep so far)
  • Which sales opportunities is my team abandoning? (red alert! 🆘)
  • What’s my closing percentage; in total and per rep? (your success rate per opportunity)

This will allow you to coach your sales reps based on real data. Or if it’s just you, improve your sales approach yourself. 📈

 

Flush regularly

Nothing renders your sales pipeline overview quite as useless as keeping a lot of dead opportunities in it. It doesn’t only compromise the overview; it can also mean you spend time and energy on opportunities that’ll never convert anymore anyway.

The solution: flush out these dead opportunities on a regular basis. Just close them all as lost. 🚽

Now, how do you easily filter out these opportunities from your pipeline?

You could filter out the opportunities that you started working on a long time ago and that are not in the won or lost stages already.

filter old deals out of sales pipeline
Filter out non-closed opportunities for which the start date was a long time ago.

Or, if you’re using Salesflare, filter out the opportunities that didn’t get any activity in the past few months (and that are not in the won or lost stages already).

filter inactive opportunities out of sales pipeline
Filter out non-closed opportunities for which the last interaction was a long time ago.

Then just apply a bulk action and move them all to the “lost” stage at once.

bulk close opportunities as lost
Select the opportunities and bulk edit them, to mark them as lost all at once.

And… your sales pipeline is sparkling clean again! ✨


5. Talk pipeline like a pro

So, you’re ready to be a pro now, but can you talk pro? 😏

Here’s a few things you can say to sound like you know what you’re doing.

 

How much pipe(line) are you making?

Or: what’s the total value of new opportunities you are adding to your pipeline?

 

I’ve got a ton of new SQLs

Or: I’ve just qualified a lot of opportunities, which turned them into Sales Qualified Leads.

 

How long is your sales cycle?

Or: how long do your opportunities take on average to get from the start to closing them as won?

 

What’s your ACV?

ACV means Average Contract Value. It’s the average revenue you derive from a single customer in a given period. If you’re not selling subscriptions, Average Purchase Value (APV) is used.


6. Bonus: a free sales pipeline template

We’ve just been showing you how you can build your pipeline and use a CRM to organize it.

But what if you’re not ready for a CRM?

In this case, we’ve built a handy (and free) sales pipeline template you can use to start tracking your pipeline. 🆓

It’s available for both Excel and Google Sheets. And it’s probably the most powerful yet easy-to-use template you’ll find on the internet.

You can download it here. 👈

It helps you track your pipeline and shows you revenue metrics as well.

If you want to use a clear tasks system, keep track of your interactions, automate a part of your follow-up, and of course much more, a CRM will serve you well.

And if you consider using Salesflare or have any additional questions about sales pipelines, hit us up on the chat! 😃

get Salesflare

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Jeroen Corthout

Co-Founder at Salesflare
I'm Co-Founder of Salesflare, the simply powerful CRM for small businesses. I love growth, automating sales, and building beautiful products.

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