Sales pipeline stages are the steps within a sales cycle that identify the internal activities needed to move a prospect from initial contact to buying your products or services. There are nine sales pipeline stages every sales team should have, including tasks like prospecting, lead qualification, and product delivery—all of which can be tracked using CRM software.
Your business’ sales pipeline stages should directly support the stages of the customer’s journey, which is also known as the sales funnel. In other words, the internal tasks you create for your sales pipeline should also provide a framework for identifying new leads and ensuring prospects become more knowledgeable about your brand and offerings.
1. Researching Prospects
This is the beginning stage of the sales pipeline, where research is conducted to find potential businesses that could benefit from your products or services. The result of the research stage should yield a list with all of the contact names for the company leads you want to sell to, depending on the business size and the industry you are targeting. This can be done by developing buyer personas and ideal client types before or as part of your research.
Most research can be conducted online. However, there are data companies that offer lead lists, and lead generation services like UpLead can compile a list of potential customers to market your business to. As much research should be done as possible prior to initially engaging with a lead to have the best chance of moving forward to the next sales stages.
2. Generating Online Leads
Some businesses prefer to generate business-to-business (B2B) leads online by attracting prospects using search optimized content or online advertising, and getting interested leads to submit web forms through an online advertisement, company website, or social media page.
This stage requires using tactics like search engine marketing (e.g., paid advertising through AdWords) and search engine optimization (SEO) to get traffic to your company website. However, doing so successfully enables you to skip some of the other stages of the sales pipeline listed here.
This stage’s workflow is made even easier when your online leads are automatically exported into a customer relationship management (CRM) system through integrations. Many CRMs also make it easy for you to set up automated workflows through Zapier. For example, your business could use this integration to link online forms to your email tools, and then automatically send a promotional email or drop the contact into an email drip campaign when a form is submitted.
3. Introducing Products & Services
The initial introduction of your business’ products or services can be done either on a mass scale through advertising or marketing or personally through individual cold calling and introduction emails. Cold calling and introductory emails often require the delivery of a compelling elevator pitch, which is a brief summary of your offerings designed to spark interest.
The purpose of the elevator pitch isn’t to close the sale, but to move the lead to the next sales pipeline stage and see if the lead is interested in further discussion. It’s also important to note that the initial introduction may require a few attempts, especially if you weren’t able to get in touch with the contact, so following up consistently is paramount. You may also need to contact leads through other, non-traditional methods such as LinkedIn messaging or direct mail.
4. Lead Qualification
Lead qualification is the sales pipeline stage where you determine whether a prospect is interested in your products or services, and to what degree. This can be assessed while on the phone with them during your introductory call if they indicate they’d like more information. It also can be determined if the lead agrees to schedule an appointment with you to learn more.
Lead scoring is a way to quantify the quality of your sales leads by assigning a score to each based on factors such as emails opened, previous communications, website page visits, interactions with content, or whether they’ve explicitly stated interest. CRMs like Zoho CRM can score leads automatically, allowing sales reps to prioritize leads that are ready to buy or move to the next stage of the sales pipeline.
Generating referrals is an effective sales management method and one way to skip to the qualifying leads stage since the lead has already expressed interest to the referral source. Leads generated through advertisements or content marketing also can skip to this step, since the lead is essentially qualifying themselves by submitting a web form online or through social media, showing that they are interested.
5. Nurturing Leads
Nurturing leads is the next sales pipeline stage. This part of your sales plan involves following up and reminding the prospect of what you have to offer. The main purpose is to reinforce the relationship with the potential customer, so whether it’s the introduction stage of the sales pipeline, delivering the sales presentation, sending the proposal, or even closing the deal, consistently communicating to nurture prospects along to the next stage is key to your success.
Some examples of lead nurturing are setting up drip campaigns to auto-send emails to leads in a series or based on their behaviors, or sales representatives constantly reaching out by phone or email. These nurturing methods can also be applied to existing customers by keeping in touch with them for potential product upgrades and resell opportunities.
6. Delivering Sales Presentations
Delivering the sales presentation can encompass demonstrating a product or service, giving the prospect a free trial, presenting various ways your business can help the potential customer—or all of these. A less formal sales pitch could also be given during an introduction call and after the lead has expressed interest. Virtual sales pitches are often made as part of drip email campaigns and touch-base lead nurturing emails.
Below are some possible results of a sales presentation:
- Business deal closed: The lead agrees to do business and asks for any proposal, contract, or onboarding items needed to finalize the deal.
- Proposal required: The customer likes what your business has to offer and requests a formal quote or proposal to be sent for review before making a final decision.
- More information needed: The prospect wants more information or to schedule an additional meeting before requesting a formal quote or proposal, or finalizing the decision.
- Business lost: Based on the presentation, the customer determines they would not like to move forward.
Want to make sure your sales presentations are successful? Check out our step-by-step guide for how to create an effective sales pitch.
7. Sending Proposals or Quotes
Writing a business proposal can be as informal as an email to the prospect stating how much your products or services cost or as formal as a detailed proposal or legal contract laying out the terms and conditions. Regardless of how a proposal is communicated, it’s an essential stage in the B2B selling process; after all, no business will agree to purchase anything without knowing the cost and conditions.
8. Negotiating Terms
During this sales pipeline stage, depending on the size of the deal, there are many times a customer will be able to negotiate terms and prices. They may have the power to negotiate terms because of how large their company is or if your business is competing with other companies to win a deal. Additionally, the negotiation stage can take a long time to finalize if there are legal aspects involved.
One of the best ways to make this process smoother is by setting expectations early on about which terms, conditions, and components of the price can be altered, and which are set in stone. Negotiations can involve multiple parties including the customer, sales team, finance, and legal department, so be sure to communicate constantly to keep everyone on the same page.
9. Closing the Deal
Once the prospect is ready to move forward, there likely are contracts to sign and onboarding items to address. For certain businesses, the deal closing stage of the sales pipeline may be when invoices are sent and payments are collected. This also could be the stage where a sales rep passes the new customer on to an account executive or customer service manager to be their new point of contact.
After You Close the Deal: Retaining & Selling to Existing Customers
Closing the deal is rarely the final stage of the B2B sales process, even though it is seen as the last sales pipeline stage. Account management operations are often tasked with retaining customers by providing excellent service and fulfilling their product or service needs.
There should also be a plan for continuous marketing to existing customers to sell new products or services and/or upgrade them from what they already have purchased. Sales techniques like upselling and cross-selling can be incorporated when selling to existing customers.
CRMs can be used to retain current customers by actively assisting businesses in providing customer support and selling new products and services to existing customers. For more information on using CRMs for customer retention, check out our article on CRM customer retention strategies.
Sales pipeline stages start with researching, prospecting, and qualifying leads who may be a good fit for your products and services. These activities continue until the last sales pipeline stage ends with finalizing the sale and delivering a product or service that meets your prospect’s needs. Successful sales teams work together to develop collaborative pipeline stages and use CRM software to ensure no deals fall through the cracks.