3 Keys to a Healthy Sales Pipeline: A Small Business Guide to Better Selling
By Valerie Schlitt
My Uncle Jack was a salesman. When our family got together, he would talk about the fancy restaurants he’d go to, the traveling he’d do to meet his clients, and the golf courses where he’d play.
I also remember how he’d describe his approach to door knocking and cold calling. He had dozens of phone books stacked in his office, along with other hard-copy directories and piles of business cards.
These were the sources of his next sales opportunity. Uncle Jack had devised an elaborate follow-up system to keep the wheels rolling. He would make an index card for each prospect, order the cards by date, and keep them in a box so he’d remember to call on the right day. I was mesmerized by this.
My uncle’s success depended on his ability to find the next opportunity, gain his clients’ trust, and close sales. He loved every minute of it, and seemed to do well at his job.
But if Uncle Jack were to come out of retirement today, he’d notice dramatic changes in how the most successful B2B companies handle sales. Digital-age technology has completely upended the sales world from both the seller and buyer perspective.
On the buyer side, a wealth of easily accessible information allows decision makers to be more selective about the products they want. Before even speaking with a sales representative, 68% of B2B buyers prefer to research online, according to Forrester Research.
Moreover, they’re involving more people in the buying process. Harvard Business Review reveals the average number of decision makers at a company is 6.8; in Uncle Jack’s day, it was 1 or 2.
Vendors have responded by using technology to identify companies that best match their offerings—sometimes before those companies even know they have a need. Next, they implement multistep, integrated online campaigns to keep their brand front and center as companies move through the “buyer journey.” They even use sophisticated methods to track companies’ online behavior throughout that journey to review every click, email open, or visit to a website or landing page.
Finally, many of the savviest companies rely on “inside sales” teams to either close sales or set qualified appointments. This is one of the biggest changes my Uncle Jack would notice; inside sales teams are cheaper and can focus on a single task, unlike higher-paid field sales representatives like Uncle Jack who have broader responsibilities.
Clearly, a new way is taking over. The sun is setting on the age of the generalist.
As the owner of a company that offers lead generation and appointment setting services, I’ve been following the changes in the sales process for close to 20 years. Each step has become vastly more complex, with the largest companies utilizing a slew of cutting-edge technology tools at each phase.
And as the founder of a once-small (and still not very large) business, I’ve watched in awe as the process has become increasingly sophisticated, automated, and specialized. It can seem impossible to keep up with what the biggest players are doing.
Generally speaking, there are four main challenges that hinder small businesses that are trying to modernize their sales operations:
- Technology skill sets are hard to find
- The sales landscape is constantly changing
- A generalist can’t keep up with specialized sales teams
- Everything’s expensive
So how can you overcome these challenges at each step of the way? Which phases of the sales process should you focus on to gain the most bang for your buck?
Each step is important, but I’ve identified three areas where small businesses can really excel—and may, in fact, have an advantage.
1. Lead generation
Lead generation should be your single biggest focus. Spend about 50% of your sales energy on generating leads, and I’ll tell you why. Every sales process starts with leads, and it’s crucial to have a trusted, reliable, and robust source of them in order to eventually convert a sufficient number into sales.
Broadly speaking, a lead is any company that might match your ideal client profile. Of course, there are dozens of vendors, paid directories, and software tools out there that will help create a perfect list of those companies—(or provide them up front, customized to the client’s specifications).
The costs of buying a list ranges from very inexpensive to a very large investment; likewise, the quality of those lists varies from almost unusable to excellent. Unless you’re a list expert, it’s difficult to know whom to trust.
Here, small businesses have a big advantage: we’re agile, and typically our team members are accustomed to being assigned multiple tasks. Most small businesses find that creating lists in-house is usually simpler, more predictable, and far more cost effective than purchasing a list.
Start off by doing some research. Googling terms like “top 100 manufacturing companies” or “all bakeries near me” can help you understand exactly what you’re looking for and keep you from pursuing any service or process that doesn’t provide exactly that.
Another option is to take full advantage of the “personal touch” of your small business. For instance, while you may not be able to sponsor a show or purchase an exhibitor booth at a trade show, you can still learn a lot by simply walking the floor. Stop by as many booths as you can; you could return home with the names and numbers of hundreds of qualified leads.
In addition to trade shows, networking groups remain a fundamental source of leads. Technology has made it easier to find these events than ever before. For instance, websites like meetup.com can help you quickly identify events that will attract companies in your target market.
Pay special attention to companies that aren’t direct competitors but also do business with your ideal client profile. You can leverage relationships with such companies into formal referral partnerships, which can really jump-start lead development.
There are some more passive lead generation techniques you should implement, too. You need a web presence that is consistent, professional, and compelling. Make sure your phone number is at the top of your website’s home page and that you include a form for people to respond to you.
A shrewd approach to blogging or posting on social media can significantly bolster the number of inquiries you receive through your website. Develop meaningful posts for Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter that will drive interested prospects to your page. You can use the same or similar postings across many platforms to save time.
In particular, it’s crucial to use web analytics to monitor site visits so you can continually improve both the quality and quantity of leads that you capture organically.
Finally, CRMs (customer relationship manager systems) have evolved to the point where they can track everything—lead source, phone calls, emails, social media posts, and calls to action—that might inform you about a potential customer. Many CRM platforms offer tremendous functionality and include scaled-pricing models designed to fit most budgets. The best-known of these include Salesforce, VanillaSoft, and Microsoft Dynamics. If you’re on a tighter budget, you might consider looking into alternatives such as Pipedrive or Zoho.
Because it is both tremendously important and an area where small businesses can have a significant advantage, lead generation should be your single biggest focus. Working your sales funnel should be your second biggest.
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2. Moving prospects through your sales funnel
Once you’ve built a list of qualified leads, it’s time to start cultivating the relationships that will move them further along in your sales funnel. Spend about 25% of your sales efforts on this.
In the days of generalists, this is how Uncle Jack would spend most of his time. Today, though, he would probably work only the largest or most qualified leads. To save costs, many companies assign inside sales reps to work the phones, doing virtually anything Uncle Jack could do without ever meeting the client face-to-face. Leads are handed off to field sales reps only when and if needed.
There are all sorts of options for outsourcing your inside sales, but for a small business, it might be best to develop skills in-house. There’s a good chance that there’s already someone on your team who, with the right tools and training, could develop the expertise of an excellent salesperson. Maybe it’s even you! In fact, for most small businesses, the CEO is the primary salesperson.
Again, start by doing research. From books to blogs to interactive presentations, there’s a lot of material designed to help sales professionals hone their skills. The right sources will help you understand both the fundamental practices and underlying concepts of effective selling.
If it all starts to feel overwhelming, don’t be afraid to ask for help! There are lots of sales coaches out there. Find one who you can connect with emotionally. Even just two or three individual consultations could make a huge difference.
In a complex sales environment, the key to working your pipeline is attention to detail. From practicing your pitch and knowing how to respond to questions or objections to understanding how the inflections of your voice or your facial expressions affect the impression you leave on your prospects, every detail is important in sales.
But as the buyer decision-making processes change, it’s increasingly important to supplement your “soft skills” with subject-matter expertise and all-around knowledge of your offering. If you are the CEO and salesperson, you probably already have this knowledge. If you delegate selling, make sure to provide this knowledge to the person closing your sales. From CFOs to IT or HR directors, every persona involved in a prospect’s purchasing process is likely to approach you with concerns related to how your product affects them. You need to be ready to respond to a myriad of questions.
Finally, it’s worth looking into a videoconferencing platform such as Zoom or GoToMeeting. Videoconferencing makes it easier than ever to have face-to-face sales conversations—and share your screen—without even leaving your office. Once you find a product that you’re comfortable with, it will be well worth the small subscription fee.
But even after you’ve closed a sale, your relationship with the client isn’t over! Another crucial phase is the one that comes after closing: onboarding and retention.
3. Onboarding and retention
The old saying still applies: It’s easier and less expensive to retain an existing client than it is to sell a new one.
In reality, retention efforts begin during the sales process. We’ve learned that customer loyalty is greatly shaped by a buyer’s experience well before a deal is signed. Still, at the moment a new client makes a purchase or signs a contract, you need to be focused on retaining that client. Allocate 25% of your sales efforts—yes, this is part of the sales process—to retention.
Especially if your offering requires extra time or staff training to implement, it’s important to communicate regularly with clients during the onboarding phase. Your ability to be available, knowledgeable, and transparent will result in satisfied clients.
And satisfied clients don’t just enable you to upsell or cross-sell to your customer base. They also give referrals, a valuable source of high-quality leads for any small business.
Meanwhile, dissatisfied clients can be disastrous. Like you, your competitors are using increasingly advanced tools and techniques to target customers. Moreover, with most potential customers doing online research, a few bad reviews can tarnish your reputation, significantly stalling or reversing growth. It’s important to check in on your customers periodically to make sure you can address any issues before they get too frustrated.
This is another area where the right CRM can be hugely helpful—staying in touch with everyone requires a sophisticated system of organization and many CRM systems can automatically set reminders and help you track the progress and user experience of all your customers.
But of course, these tools should be used to enhance—not replace—personal, one-on-one interactions. Keep your focus on interacting with as many customers as you can, whether through personal phone calls, personalized note cards, or onsite visits. The human touch goes a long way!
No longer the responsibility of “generalists” like my Uncle Jack, the business of sales has become big business. On the surface, this shift also seems to benefit big businesses disproportionately. After all, large companies have lots of options when it comes to building—or buying—the required expertise; indeed, entire industries have evolved to support each specialized step.
But the reality is smaller companies still have some advantages. Though we, as small businesses, may lack the resources of larger competitors, we often have more tight-knit, malleable teams and are generally more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of individual team members.
As a small business owner, you can take advantage of those strengths to determine exactly what you can handle in-house, what needs to be outsourced, and what processes may not even be necessary.
Remember, focus 50% of your efforts on ensuring you have a steady, reliable flow of new leads. Work your leads through the sales funnel, nurturing those that are not yet ready to purchase. Then, extend your selling process well after your clients have purchased throughout the lifetime of each client.
In a world without salesmen like my Uncle Jack, that’s how you can get the most bang for your buck!
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