The Importance of Early-Stage Pipeline Management

Learn how to empower your salesforce with these pre-proposal tactics that will help close the deal.

Jay Spielvogel, CEO of Venator Sales Group
Jay Spielvogel, CEO of Venator Sales Group

Anyone leading a sales team has heard this one before: “I thought I had a 90% chance of closure and just received an email out of nowhere that they are staying with the existing vendor. I’m so confused.”

Sound familiar?

I hear these situations far too often from packaging and processing OEM salespeople. And then more questions follow. Is it the salesperson’s selling technique? Are they targeting the wrong prospects? Or perhaps they are just not trained correctly when it comes to managing complex sales cycles associated with packaging and processing equipment?

As much as all these factors can play a role to some degree, the real issue lies within the culture of risk aversion that exists in most end-user buying organizations, where every equipment decision requires full consensus from multiple stakeholders. As the red-tape measures seemingly get more bureaucratic, OEM salespeople must learn to adapt their selling style to this new environment. They can no longer continue to sell as they did decades ago asking a few good probing questions and demonstrating product or engineering expertise, but still complying with any request for a proposal (RFP) without question or consideration of whether the deal is closeable or even viable.

So, how should salespeople navigate this cultural shift? How do we remediate the risk of failure and improve conversion rates?

The answer lies in strategic pipeline management and deal coaching in the early stages of the equipment sales cycle. The critical point in time when a salesperson has the greatest leverage to negotiate for information and access is that moment just before the salesperson submits a proposal, pricing, and specs.

Unfortunately, most sales managers focus their coaching and pipeline reviews on opportunities that are later stage and nearing closure. They assume that previous training and sales experience will act as a guide, and therefore allow the salespeople to manage the earlier stages of the sales cycle on their own. For the most part, deals do not rise to the level of management’s attention until proposals are sent and closing delays begin. Regardless of the manager’s best efforts and good intentions, it is often too late to coach an opportunity after a proposal has already been sent due to the loss of leverage that should have been established in the beginning.

Great sales management requires coaching a sales team through all opportunity stages, especially when a key contact begins showing interest in receiving a quote. This is the critical moment in the sales process that either makes or breaks a good opportunity. It is what I describe as the “collaborative prospect” stage. This stage is where a salesperson develops a partnership with a key contact, typically at the plant or engineering level, who will help navigate the organization’s buying culture, provide relevant and accurate information about the constituents and their issues, and ultimately, clear a pathway to the higher-level decision makers.

However, this is where the biggest mistakes are made. The average salesperson sees a request for pricing information as the ultimate buying sign and will enthusiastically hand over their presentation material and proposals before obtaining all the information they need. Rather than intelligently challenging the buying process, the approach most salespeople take is the path of least conflict.

In the collaborative prospect stage, salespeople must be willing to courageously challenge the internal champion and negotiate for information and access in return for presentations and quotes. They must continue qualifying the opportunity by gathering information about:

• Competition

• Other stakeholders’ concerns and involvement

• Incumbent vendor relationships (a powerful force in packaging and

processing)

• Competing priorities

• Potential opposition in the account

This “collaborative prospect pre-proposal” stage is also a great opportunity to test an internal champion’s influence and power.

Since following the path of least conflict often drives most salespeople’s behavior, managers must be willing to coach reps and help them better manage the early stage opportunities. This level of pipeline management will result in a much greater number of deals successfully progressing through the pipeline to ultimate closure. It will also empower the salesperson with a decision framework to gauge whether to invest time and resources before it is too late.

Jay Spielvogel is CEO of Venator Sales Group, a sales consulting and training firm specializing in boosting packaging and processing OEM sales performance. Contact him at: Jay@venatorsalesgroup.com

More in Business/Management