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Pipeline Integrity

by David Brock on February 20th, 2013

The funnel/pipeline is a key tool for sales people and managers to assess performance.  It provides so many insights beyond knowing whether you will make your sales goals.

One of the first things I look at on any new project is the pipeline.  It tells me so much about the organization or the sales person.  It’s one of the most powerful tools available to sales professionals, but too many fail to understand it.

A couple of years ago, I was called into a large technology company.  “Dave, our folks just don’t know how to close!  We’ve got lots of deals, but we aren’t able to move them into closing.  We need help!”   I asked the usual questions, “What’s the funnel coverage?”  The response–“Oh, it’s great–we have a great funnel, we have plenty of opportunities to chase after, that’s not our problem, it’s a closing problem.”

I followed with questions about win rates, velocity, cycle time, average transaction value.  The exec never really responded to those questions, she kind of danced around the issues.  All her answers kept pointing to closing as the problem people were facing.  In some sense it was true–they weren’t getting a sufficient volume of orders, but I wondered, “is it because the people can’t close?”

Finally, I said, “Could you send me your most current pipeline report?”

On the face of it, things looked great.  There was seven times coverage on the pipeline.  Then I started looking at things more closely.  The typical sales cycle for this organization was just a little over 120 days.  I saw a huge number of deals that had been in the pipeline for  a very long time.  Many were around the 250-375 day mark, a few around 500 days, one over 700 days, and one for 1200 days.  I looked at, the last time an activity was recorded against these deals—many had no activity for over 50 days..  “Hmmm” I thought.

I talked to sales people and managers about these deals.  “What makes you think they are real?”  All the usual explanations and excuses–in the end, none of them real, all were eliminated from the pipeline—over 30% of the total opportunities–just sloppiness and lack of attention.

I  went on, there were a large number of opportunities that were pretty new.  They were in the “qualifying stage” of the pipeline, yet they were projected to close within the next 30 to 60 days.  So we started going through them, “You haven’t even qualified these deals, your average sales cycle is over 120 days, why do you think they will close in 30-60 days?”  Then they started their stories–“This one’s different,”  “We’re wired for this,”  “They really want to do this fast,”  “I can make it happen.”  All the time I watch them wave their hands–the more they wave their hands, the more I think—“this is pure wishful thinking, they are clueless about what’s going on with the deal.”

It turned out many of the deals were real.  They had rock solid strategies, the only problem was the sales person was being unrealistic with the expected close dates.  I asked about it,  “Well we’re under a lot of pressure to bring things in, so I put a much earlier date–I’ll do everything I can to make it happen, but I’m really not confident.”  It was a fair response–management was creating pressure that caused sales people to put unrealistic dates into the pipeline–and they slipped, and slipped.

There were a lot of other problems that we sorted through.  Some of the deals involved sales specialists—the account managers were forecasting them, because they were under such pressure to put things into the pipeline, getting them closed in the current quarter, but when you spoke to the specialists, they thought many of the deals were just plain flaky, many were forecasted too soon.  We kept looking, trying to understand each deal.

We took the pipeline, we scrubbed all the dead deals that had been carried for ages,  We reset target close dates to more closely fit the reality of where people were in the sales process–still trying to get them to be aggressive in compressing the cycle, but assuring the target dates were realistic.

The end result–coverage went from 7 times to a little more than 3 times–OK, but enough to make my stomach churn a little.  They didn’t have great data on win rates, but it looked like they were hovering around 30%.

A lot of the deals were pushed out–more realistic dates, more realistic forecasts about transaction value.  Already, we could see a huge shortfall in the next 2 quarters.

On the surface of things, it looked pretty bleak.  What had looked like a robust funnel was now trending toward anemic.  It turned out, closing wasn’t the problem.  On the high quality deals sales people worked, they were flowing through the pipeline well, they  had very good win rates (The high quality deals had win rates of around 50-62%).  Sure, some folks needed a little work, but it wasn’t a systemic issue with the organization.

It turned out they had two huge problems.  They had a serious qualifying problem—but that was partly because of the management pressure to fill the pipeline.  The management team was so focused on their high coverage number, that sales people were relaxing their standards in qualifying–consequently a lot of marginal deals and far too many “wishful” thinking deals were polluting the pipeline.  Sales people were wasting time pursuing deals they would have little chance of winning.  Management was getting frustrated with their inability to close the deals–not understanding how flaky they were.  You can see what was happening, they were in a “death spiral.”

It turned out they also had a real prospecting problem.  They weren’t bringing enough high quality deals into the pipeline.  Part of it, was they didn’t have time to prospect for the right deals—they were distracted, spending time on those flaky deals in the pipeline.  By cleaning the pipeline, we were able to free up time to prospect—we did have to help them become better at that–but it was a pretty easy fix.

So the pipeline is a critical tool.   It tells you so much about what’s happening.  It tells you so much about where the potential problems are.  But to leverage it properly, it has to be accurate–you have to have great integrity in the pipeline, otherwise, you are just masking the problems.

A clean, accurate, high integrity pipeline is always critical.  Good or bad, it enables you to know what’s happening and immediately focuses you on the right solutions to achieve your goals.

Have you cleaned your funnel recently?  Are you looking at a high integrity funnel?  Do you know what do do as a result?

  1. Dave,
    an excellent example of what I call a funnel sanity check. I am amazed though of th low numbers of sales managers I find in the field who are capable of doing such a check. I think their unqualified focus on coverage alone blurs their vision. Most sales managers still also want to manage numbers (outcomes). Their colleagues in manufacturing have long learned that quality cannot be tested into a product. It is the process that must be mastered to have good quality.

  2. Dave,
    sorry just had another thougt triggered by the picture you used to illustrate the post. A few years back, I taught funnel management principles in a to a group of smart people in a continuous learning program at a Swiss university. I used a similar picture to yours. After I had explained to them how conversion rates from stage to stage determine the funnel shape, one participant made the remark that the funnel in the picture was not illustrated what I just had explained. He said, the picture of the funnel suggest that all deals eventually come out at the other end just at different velocities. Conversion rates however suggest, that deal are leaking out of the funnel. Actually the book by Don Thomson “keep the funnel full” explains just what the participant was saying. Actually I had already bought the book but did not have time to rea it before the class. Since then I have changed my metaphor to a leaking funnel. Actually my friend Hugh Macfarlane made it even clearer. He titled his book the “LEAKYFUNNEL”
    This remark should though not be understood as a critisism to your excellent post.

    • Thanks for the comments Christian. I’ve also had questions from people when I use either a pipeline or funnel analogy and the leaking problem. Usually it’s quick to resolve.

  3. Excellent blog posts! And excellent comments from Christian!

    A few comments on the “people” aspect:
    How management pressure “we need pipeline!” leads to weak deal qualification, which causes additional wasted resources, because people work on deals they cannot win….and even worse: people cannot create optimal value on the really important deals…
    We are losing focus – we don’t spend enough resources on deals we can win, which means on value we can create for customers.
    Horrible from a business perspective!

    Most important: The management team creates a completely wrong view, a completely wrong forecast regarding their performance – just because of creating pressure and fear!
    Horrible from a business perspective!

    A great example, how organizational drags and comfort zones “I need pipeline” within a selling system prevent people from creating value for customers!

    An excellent example to make sales managers aware how they should equip and guide their teams – and how not.

    • Thanks, as always, for the great comment Tamara. It’s a vicious circle. The pressure to get the right funnel volume/flow (ether from management or self induced) causes people to relax qualification standards, which is the start of the death spiral to pipeline quality.

      It’s critical to maintain high integrity pipelines. In tough business times, while it seems counter intuitive, tightening qualification/disqualification criteria is critical.

      Thanks for the great comment. Regards, Dave

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