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Stop Chasing Dead Ends: Ways to Focus on the Meaningful Leads in Your Sales Pipeline

Are you experiencing blocks in your sales pipeline? Four sales professionals with a combined 92 years of experience have some advice for you.
Columnist, American Express OPEN
July 17, 2017

When you've dedicated a career to sales and business development, there's no worse feeling than realizing you've followed a lead down your sales pipeline that didn't lead anywhere.

Maybe they were never going to buy from you in the first place, or perhaps they couldn't tell you no because they weren't the ones in charge.

Either way, time lost on a less-than-optimal lead is time you can't get back. So how can you take back control of your time and focus on the leads in your sales pipeline with greater promise than others?

Surely there are ways to spend less time on the people who aren't planning on saying yes and more time on the "probablys." I sat down with four sales industry pros to get their thoughts:

Ian Altman: host of the Grow My Revenue Podcast on iTunes and author of Same Side Selling.

Phil Jones: sales expert at Phil M. Jones International and author of the forthcoming Exactly What to Say.

Marcus Sheridan: president of The Sales Lion and author of They Ask, You Answer.

Mark Schaefer: president of Schaefer Marketing Solutions and author of personal branding guide KNOWN.

Dead End Red Flags: The Experts Weigh In

A lead may look juicy, but is it really? No matter how excited you might be about a lead, there are plenty of reasons that lead could be more dead weight than a profitable prospect. Given the limited number of hours you have in your day and constant sales goals looming, the pros weighed in on how you can see red flags in your sales pipeline before the move too far down the line.

Altman: The greatest red flag is when the seller is more passionate about the solution than the buyer. When that happens, bring your wallet—because you'll have to pay for it in time that you could have been better spent on better qualified leads.

Jones: The biggest red flag is when the communication breaks down and the discussion becomes evasive, dishonest or just disappears. When you have attempted multiple communications, using varying communication methods and fail to receive straight answers, it may be time to employ your efforts elsewhere.

Start applying deadlines for commitments and deliverables...If a customer can't make a deadline, that provides an "out" for a salesperson to politely move on without burning a bridge.

—Mark Schaefer, president, Schaefer Marketing Solutions

Sheridan: [When] they are not invested in the relationship: [they're] too busy to talk, too busy to learn, too busy to take a moment to truly consider the offer.

Schaefer: In sales, your job is to serve the customer, but over time there should be a fair exchange of value. If that exchange becomes too one-way, it may be time to move on, or at least put that lead on the back burner for another time.

Hard Conversations With Prospects: When to Have Them

There may come a time where you have to ask your leads the hard question: "Are you in or are you out?" These experts have advice that can help guide you on when to pull the trigger on that tough conversation.

Altman: When the prospect constantly introduces delays to a process, it's an indication that they might not see the importance of solving their issue. This should not be a "hard" conversation: It's a simple one centered on uncovering the truth. It might sound like, "I get the sense that the issue we originally discussed is not that big of a deal anymore. Am I missing something?"

Jones: A big one for me here is when the prospect is failing to see the true value in your offering and desperately pushing you to reduce your price and do the same for less. It is rare that you can drink champagne with a soda budget, yet many sales professionals find themselves working harder on securing a sale with very little margin [when they] could simply move that effort to a new, more qualified opportunity.

Sheridan: Learning the art of the frank conversation is essential in pushing prospects either down, or out, of the sales funnel as quickly as possible. It's time to have that frank conversation when prospects aren't mentally investing in your sales conversations. When you find your prospects just going through the motions, a frank conversation can help you identify whether this is a lead worth pursuing and you simply need to regroup or if your attentions are better focused elsewhere.

Schaefer: If you're being strung along, having a "hard conversation" probably won't make a difference any way. Instead, I would start applying deadlines for commitments and deliverables. That's a reasonable expectation for a business. If a customer can't make a deadline, that provides an "out" for a salesperson to politely move on without burning a bridge.

Sales Pipeline Management Mistakes: How to Avoid Them

Even the most seasoned sales pros make mistakes with a lead here and there. Use this cheat sheet to remind yourself whether you're taking shortcuts that could be costing you your real leads.

Altman: [A sales pipeline mistake is] forgetting that prospects are people. Every name in your pipeline is a human being and has a life outside of their discussions with you. People have other interests, other priorities and other obstacles to juggle and you are just a part of their much bigger picture. Learn the part you play, understand their bigger picture and invest effort in knowing a little more about who they are—not just what they need.

Jones: Great sales professionals choose the people they would like to work with. Build a specific prospect list of actual people that you would love to work with. Make sure that the list is full of people's names and not company names, and that the list is at least 10 times longer than the number of new clients you are currently looking for. Then slow down, research the people on the list, learn what makes them tick and find a way to converse with them, to build a relationship with them and learn from them in a non-salesy way. When you choose qualified prospects at the front end you spend less time dealing with the unqualified alternatives that chose you.

Sheridan: Sales pros too often send out generic emails—emails that look and sound like every other sales email in someone's inbox. To be great, you must stand out. Everything from what you write in an email subject line to the way you integrate video and images specific to the prospect's needs are essential to getting them to actually listen to what you're trying to say.

Schaefer: One of the big challenges is that most companies have not resumed the staffing levels that existed before the world financial crisis. We have to find increasingly time-efficient, and I would even say compassionate, ways to help our customers, knowing that they are under a great deal of stress.

Three ways to do this would be to: (1) create communication options that don't require scheduled calls or meetings, (2) find opportunities for your company to take work off their plate, and (3) use video communication more often to establish a human connection in a briefer period of time.

Getting to Yes: How to Help Make It Happen More Often

Altman: The most successful professionals don't coax a sale, they coach a decision. When you and the client both appreciate the impact of not solving the issue and the results of your solution, they'll be driving the purchase instead of you pushing the sale.

Jones: The one single behavior that changes everything in the world of sales is the ability to ask great questions. Becoming fabulously curious about your prospects' problem, their circumstances and their urgency to move forward provides you all the evidence to help secure the sale or walk away if you can clarify there is no genuine opportunity.

Sheridan: The best technique we teach sales pros to the strongest results is what we call “assignment selling." Assignment selling is the process of committing a prospect to view/read educational content produced by your company before the first sales appointment. The purpose of this content is simply to eliminate the 80 percent of questions that are essentially the same for every first sales call.

Schaefer: Time after time, I see executives respond to Facebook communications even when they are too busy to return phone calls or emails. I know that sounds weird, but there is something about the intimacy of social media communications that improves the response rate.

Read more articles on marketing & sales.

Photo: Getty Images
Columnist, American Express OPEN