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The Pipeline Review–An Underused and Underappreciated Coaching Opportunity

by David Brock on August 17th, 2009

The pipeline review, I’ve participated in 100’s of these, somehow they all look the same.  Everyone’s sitting around the table, the only people paying attention at any moment is the interrogator—I mean sales manager, and the interrogatee–the sales person on under the microscope at the moment.  The others pretend they are paying attention, hiding behind the screens of their notebooks—both for protection and for their real purpose–doing email, at least until its their turn under the spotlight.

The “conversation” between interrogator and interrogatee tends to go like this:

Interrogator (sales manager):  “What’ happened to this deal in the past week?”  (If he had read the call report or CRM notes, he would know.

Interrogatee (sales people):  “Well I met with the decision-maker and she said this, to which I responded, to which she responded………”  Basically, the interrogatee does a recap of the sales calls and activity on the situation.

Interrogator:  “What’s next, when are you going to bring the deal in?”

Interrogatee: “Well I have these next steps, the deal may slip beyond my forecast date, we’re facing tremendous competition.”

Interrogator:  “Well we have to win this.  Tell me about the next deal.”

And the “conversation” goes on, until everyone in the room has had their turn under the spotlight.  Usually, there isn’t enough time, so the last few people are either spared or have to rush through their deals. A lot of time is spent in rehashing old details as well, because we forgot them.

These are supposed to be “conversations,” but more often they seem to be brain dumps whose only purpose is to inform the manager–so she can go through the same thing with her manager.

To me, these have always seemed like such a missed opportunity.  There are some tremendous things that can be accomplished from an effective pipeline review.  It’s not only an important business review, providing the manager with a snapshot of the business, but it’s a tremendous opportunity to build skill, capability, and engagement in the team.  Here are some thoughts:

1.  The pipeline review is basically the manager’s opportunity to see if things are “in process.”  With most sales organizations and territories, there are two many things going on for the manager to dive into the details of each opportunity and to micromanage them,  the pipeline review should really focus on assuring the process is being executed.   Most people focus on activities rather than the execution of the process.

A strong sales process is based on the organization’s best practice in moving opportunities through the customer’s buying cycle.  If a sales person executes the sales process well, they should win much more often than they lose (this assumes the organization has a strong and effective sales process defined—which I’ve learned is not a great assumption.).  A sales manager cannot and should not inspect every opportunity.  The manager should inspect each person enough to know they are executing the sales process is being executed as effectively as possible.  Typically, I like to look at 2-3 deals per person, drilling down into where they are in the process, verifying they actually are there, and understanding their view of the next steps.  If I see evidence the process is not being followed, is being executed poorly or inefficiently, if the person is guessing rather than dealing with fact; then the warning sirens start going off—the process is out of control.  If it is out of control for the 2-3 deals I am reviewing, it is likely to be off for all the other deals.  In these cases, I need to schedule a 1 on 1 with the sales person and do a real deep dive into all their opportunities, making sure they understand the process, they understand where each opportunity is in the process, and they are executing the process as effectively as possible.  This may require a coaching and training for the sales person who is not using the process.

2.  The pipeline review is a tremendous opportunity to leverage the shared experience of the team to build stronger sales strategies.  Each sales person brings a different experience base to the table.  For the most critical deals (perhaps the 2-3 for each sales person), as you look at the next steps, engage the entire team in suggestions to improve the strategy.  The manager should pose some questions: 

  • Based on the review, do you see any major exposures in this deal?  Is there anything that we are overlooking?
  • What can we do to strengthen our competitive position in this deal?
  • What can we do to create a more compelling and differentiated value proposition for the customer?
  • What can we do to shorten the sales cycle in this deal?
  • Would you do something differently than we have outlined?  (Sometimes you may want to encourage a discussion about disqualifying and abandoning the opportunity.)

The manager should engage the team in a short conversation about the deal.  It is their time to contribute ideas and for the sales person owning the deal to listen and consider incorporating them in the strategy.   The manager should make certain that everyone in the team is engaged in these conversations (perhaps not on every deal, but in some part of the discussions).  In addition to strengthening your sales strategy, everyone contributes to building skills and capability with their team mates.

3.  Be Prepared(OK, I confess I was a Boy Scout):  Too much time in pipeline meetings is spent review past stuff and not focusing on moving opportunities aggressively through the   pipeline.  Much of that information has been available before the meeting, but the manager (and others) haven’t looked at it, so they waste everyone’s time by going through it again in the meeting.  (Which also brings up the point, if you aren’t going to read it, why are you asking them to report on it).  Whether you report in a CRM system or you have other pipeline reports, take time to read them beforehand.  Prepare what you want to understand from each person to make certain their process in in control and they are moving aggressively through the selling process on their deals.

Some managers respond:  “Dave, you don’t understand, we just don’t have the time to do this.”  I’m not very sympathetic, we tend to spend too little time planning and too much time shooting from the lip and correcting our mistakes.  A core responsibility of the manager is to make certain their people are leveraging their time in the territory as effectively and efficiently as possible.  The pipeline is one of the key indicators of this.  A manager who does not spend time understanding, preparing and effectively reviewing the pipeline is not doing their job.

4.  Don’t miss the forest for the trees.  Most reviews focus on deal activity.  Manager’s need to look at the overall composition of the pipeline/funnel.  Does each person have a sufficient number of deals in each stage to have a steady flow of opportunities through the pipeline?   Is the funnel balanced?  What do the overall funnel metrics for each individual look like, are they in control?  Are there problem funnels? (For example, hit rate, average cycle time, average deal size, disqualification rates, product/solution mix, customer retention/acquisition, growth, etc.).  Spend time talking to the team about the overall funnel and how they are doing.  Spend time getting ideas about how people can improve in certain areas.  (for example disqualification, better proposing, better use of tools to improve efficiency, etc.)  (For a checklist on problem funnels, please send me an email—dabrock@excellenc.com)

Sounds like a lot to accomplish.  It is!   And initially, it make take a little more time than the traditional review  (but then the quality of the outcome is superior).   With some practice, quickly reviewing a few deals with each sales person, checking for things to be “in process,” engaging the team in building stronger sales strategies and looking at overall pipeline composition, can be executed in the same time as the traditional reviews.

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5 Comments
  1. George Blasingame permalink

    I used the One-on-One process which is much more effective. The rest of your sales team could care less about hearing about what is going on in Johnny Smith’s territory / accounts. Also, you can do a One-on-One while you are making calls with your rep and you can do a different rep every day if you want. One-on-Ones also helped me to put a more laser-like focus on the specific rep I was working with.
    I did have more formal team Account Reviews semi-annually, but they were primarily to see the reps on their feet, see how organized they were, and also to show off my promotable reps to my manager, who I would invite to the review.

  2. Martin Plantier permalink

    Point 4 us very true, and all too often verified. There is actually a behavioral take on this, which I found explained here:

    http://www.salesclic.com/sales-funnel-blog-en/sale-management-a-risk-of-the-pipeline-review/

    The “portfolio approach” to the sales pipeline sounds like a good allegory.

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