Over the years there were times when our pipeline was ‘stuck’. It was full, and we were waiting for it to burst, but the deals just weren’t rolling in.
This happens with individual reps you are managing of course, but sometimes it seems to happen across the board as though a pandemic has swept the sales team. When the pipeline is stuck, it’s not that you are losing deals, it’s that they are sitting in no man’s land.
Throughout my career, I have dealt with stuck pipelines in a variety of ways. When it was my own personal pipeline, I didn’t have a methodology more than just increasing my activity and my attention on each deal, running the deal fundamentals, and making sure each opportunity got very personalized TLC, with a dash of The Law of Attraction thrown in to bring in the deals just when I had reached the tail end of my rope.
When I started running a team I needed to be more concerned with their pipeline than mine. The Law of Attraction was great, but I couldn’t lead a team with that. As a manager, my intervention techniques ranged from jumping in head first to run their deals myself (not a good idea….bad micromanagement…bad, bad, bad) to panic with a lot of arms flailing, a raised pitch in my voice commanding everyone to bring the deals in, now. Also not a good technique.
Over the years I learned to calm down, and deal with a stuck pipeline in a more methodical, rational fashion. It was an evolution….once I finally saw that jumping into man the deals myself and jumping up and down in frustration wasn’t giving us the results we wanted.
Here’s what I do when my team’s pipeline is stuck, and if you are an individual rep, you can adapt these steps to your own personal pipeline too. Before you read on, you should know there is no 24-hour, overnight remedy for a stuck pipeline (short of offering discounts or other concessions, and that is likely to backfire, so please don’t do that). To unstick your team’s pipeline, you are going to need 2-4 weeks. But, once you get started you will see progress right away:
Inspect the numbers.
Make sure you really understand what is happening from a metrics perspective. Are you opening enough deals? Are more deals going to closed lost than is typical? Are things stuck at a particular stage or is it across the board? This is where your historical averages really help you get a handle on where things are off.
Look at the stages.
Once you understand the numbers, if it is truly a stuck pipeline you are dealing with*, dig into the stages. Where are your deals hung up? What’s supposed to be happening at that stage (hopefully you have a playbook to reference)? What steps or commitments might your reps be missing? What skill gaps might be exposed? Determine some probable causes so you have a handle on what’s going on.
Run a quick workshop.
Bring your team together to really put the stalled stage(s) under a microscope. Discuss what is supposed to be happening with deals leading into the stage, reinforce what is ideally happening in the stage, and discuss what is supposed to happen as deals exit that stage to move on to the next. Role play common scenarios. The workshop sharpens the team’s focus on the skills and steps necessary to keep things moving through the stage. Trust that this step will have an immediate action in what your reps are saying and doing because it will.
Conduct a deal strategy session.
A few days after the workshop, hold a team deal strategy session. This is of my favorite things to do because it is so effective. Before the meeting, identify the deals that are “most stuck”, based upon your averages. For instance, if deals are stuck in the ‘evaluation’ stage, and the normal time in that stage is 45 days, I will flag every deal that’s been sitting there more than 45 days. I also flag deals that have been sitting too long in the stage preceding evaluation and the stage that happens right after evaluation. A pipeline is an eco-system and I like to treat it holistically. After I’ve flagged the deals, I hold a team deal strategy (usually over a lunch meeting) where we discuss each deal I’ve identified. Yes, depending on the size of your pipeline, this might be many deals and it might take a couple of hours. I hate taking reps away from selling time, but I hate a stalled pipeline more, and I know the team deal strategy is beneficial for all. If you really do have a large team and doing it with everyone at once would be untenable, you can always divide into smaller groups to consolidate how much time this takes, but make sure you are present for each deal strategy session with each smaller group.
The steps above will take about two weeks from start to finish, and you should start to see momentum in about two to four weeks. I know, when the pipeline is stuck, four weeks is an eternity. I could tell you it will be quicker, but let’s just be real instead. You aren’t managing a single deal that’s stuck, you are managing to reinforce skill and focus and best practices across your team.
What can you expect from this approach? A steady, calm focus on the stages that are stalling will give everyone a renewed sense of purpose and sharpen the skills they need to push their deals through. Deals that shouldn’t be in the pipeline will fall out, moving to closed lost. And solid deals that needed to get unstuck will move forward to the next stage. Because you do this across the team, the reps will help each other, invigorating each other with new approaches.
Of course, this assumes the work you’ve put into your deal stages are accurate and don’t need to be tweaked. If they do need to be tweaked, that should reveal itself during this process as well.
As a footnote, if you are just getting started selling your product or service, you won’t know if your deals are actually stuck because you won’t have solid baseline data based on historical performance. That’s frustrating. If you think deals are stuck, that probably means the number of deals you thought should come in haven’t come in (which means something is wrong, or your numbers were overestimated). Without historical averages, you’ll have to rely on good sales sense to try to diagnose and solve the issue. If you don’t have baselines established, your team is probably still young and small enough that you can personally get on the phone with some of the deals to try to determine what’s going on. This isn’t micromanagement, it’s necessary when you are just getting started. You can’t keep your sales process at arm’s length.
*If you dig into the numbers and your deals are sitting in stages for the average number of days they always have, you don’t have a stuck pipeline, you have some other problem. It may be the quantity or quality of deals you are opening or a skill gap with a subset of reps. A topic for another post, another day!