Run a Google Image search on Sales Pipeline Diagram and you’ll see what I mean. I did, and saw lots of funnels, flowcharts, and decision trees, none of which convey the accurate function of a productive pipeline. Having fallen in this same trap myself once upon time, I want to convey a concept that I recently read to help get my point across.
Take a look at your own company’s sales activities, starting now through the next 12 months, and envision a pipeline. At that left edge are potentials — prospects, referrals, qualified leads from outbound marketing — that you’re FUNNELING into the pipe. They’re outside the pipe because it’s going to take you a while before you qualify, win contracts, and see any revenue from these potentials. Then, inside the far left (“in-12-months”) end of the pipe, you’ve got long-term projects that you’ve already signed and sealed, waiting their turn to be implemented. Your client may not be ready, or you may not have bandwidth to start until then.
Further into the pipe, at 6 months or so, these become short-term projects, and here is where you also have side input funnels through which will flow opportunistic deals (bluebirds, quick-cycle projects, limited-time promotional offers with quick turnaround, repeats from current clients) Finally, at the right end, closer in, are your projects that are kicking off or are about to be implemented.
Your first reaction when reading this may be, “but wait… I don’t know where my revenue is coming from 3 months from now, let alone in a year. Those side pipes are my only funnels!!!” That’s your first clue to get off the dime and start a series of marketing outreach campaigns, even as you are implementing projects. That is a big challenge, especially for sole proprietors and partnerships. But, who else is going to find your projects? No one but you.
For a great explanation of a true sales pipeline vs. funnels, buy the same book that I keep close at hand, written by Alan Weiss, called Million Dollar Consulting. (ISBN 978-0-07-162210-3)
The complexity of pipeline management grows when you’re forming and leading a partner channel. Your pipeline contains your collective deals, with multiple inbound funnels, each requiring exhaustive, continual assessment and implementation. The funnels often contain projects in government and enterprise settings, making for a very long decision cycle.
Your influence and impact as a head of channels is put to the test here — you might find your close rate to be lower than if you were courting the end-user directly. But, keep reminding yourself how many more feet on the street those channel partners give you!
Maintaining a disciplined, well-insulated funnel+pipeline system will always separate potential from actual business. We all know that Happy Ears are a common problem when forecasting, and need to temper optimism and competitive edge with real-life assessments. Marketing activity should always be aimed way out at that left end, where all the funnels are. Any contact within the pipeline should be process-oriented customer or account management, vs. image-building. Don’t oversell yourselves, rein in optimism with level-headed assessments, and you’ll succeed even more!