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The Stages of a Sale: The Sales Pipeline Process Explained

Jill Bruno
May 26, 2023

As a savvy sales professional, I wouldn’t blame you if the phrase “sales pipeline process” sends a shudder down your spine. Buzzwords like this are thrown around far too often and are sometimes misused—with office bigshots confusing pipelines and funnels, without taking the time to nurture either. This leads to considerable gaps, leaks, and clogs in the sales processes, making your job a whole lot harder. 

The fact of the matter is this: without a thorough understanding of your pipeline stages, it can very easily get cracked—leaking valuable leads that could have become loyal customers. 

As a sales leader, you don’t want to be caught dead with a sales pipeline that isn’t up-to-code. Lucky for you, we’re here to walk you through everything you need to know—so you can save yourself some embarrassment.

Read on to discover everything you need to know to ensure your sales pipeline is built to last—so nothing slips through the cracks.

You Should Know This Already, but Let’s Define a Sales Pipeline

While a standard sales pipeline has five basic stages (lead generation, qualification, consultation, proposal, and sale), a great sales pipeline dives a bit further—and we like to go above and beyond. 

The problem with the five-stage pipeline is that it neglects a few key sales pipeline stages—including how to get leads into your pipe in the first place. Let’s dive into the different sales pipeline stages to ensure your pipeline is up to par. 

The sales pipeline in eight steps

Sales Pipeline Stage One: Prospecting

Newsflash: opportunities will never enter your sales pipeline if they’ve never heard of you before—which is why you should never sleep on prospecting. 

Prospecting is where sales and marketing align. With outbound and inbound prospecting methods, sales reps can gauge interest with potential buyers through personalized emails, customer referrals, pulling contacts from a database, social selling, and more. Prospecting is a crucial stage in developing your sales pipeline—in fact, salespeople who are top performers in prospecting generate nearly 3X more sales meetings.

Sales Pipeline Stage Two: Lead Generation

Now that you know who your prospects are, you’re able to generate actionable leads with high-value offers that collect prospect information. Use gated content like white papers, e-books, or newsletters to gather this info, or you could offer free-trial sign-ups or demo request forms. Once you’ve collected this information, you can begin to discern which leads are worth pursuing—and which ones you can toss aside.

Sales Pipeline Stage Three: Lead Qualification

Qualifying your leads helps you save tons of time and money. By evaluating if a lead aligns with your ideal customer profile, meets budget requirements, has a solvable need, and possesses decision-making authority, you can determine if it’s worth pursuing. If they don’t match this criteria, you can mark them as disqualified. Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

Sales Pipeline Stage Four: Book a Demo or Meeting

This sales pipeline stage is where it starts to get real. Now that you know which leads are qualified, you can dive into the next stage of the sales pipeline and begin to set up prospect consultations. 

This stage provides an opportunity for you to strut your stuff. A demo allows you to introduce the potential buyer to the full breadth of your offerings while giving prospects the opportunity to ask questions, address concerns, and gain a deeper understanding of how your offering can meet their specific needs. Bring your A-game and dress to impress!

Sales Pipeline Stage Five: Proposal

After a successful demo or meeting, the next step is to present a tailored proposal to the prospect. Unlike with dating, it’s okay to follow up after your meeting. You won’t look desperate, we promise. 

The proposal is your chance to really make a lasting impression and grab the attention of your buyer. In the proposal, outline the details of your product, including pricing, terms, and any additional information required for the prospect to make an informed decision. Summarize the concerns you’ve heard from the lead and state how your product or service can meet and exceed their needs. Want to show more value in your price points? Talk about competitive advantages and return on investments to help you stand out.

Sales Pipeline Stage Six: Negotiation

After the proposal stage of the sales pipeline, your prospect might have questions, concerns, or requests to modify your proposal. Don’t panic! This is fine and normal!  

It’s crucial to stay open during negotiation periods. Practice your active listening skills. The potential customer will be directly telling you what their pain points are. Objections, in most cases, reflect reasonable concerns that not only this customer will have but many other leads in the future may have, giving you a valuable opportunity to learn while building trust and rapport with your prospect. 

Sales Pipeline Stage Seven: Opportunity Won

Hooray! You did it! Your sales pipeline efforts paid off, and you closed the deal. 

As a disclaimer: this sales pipeline stage could also be titled “Opportunity Lost”, but if you nurture and maintain your sales pipeline, that really shouldn’t be an issue.

Sales Pipeline Stage Eight: Post-Purchase

Don’t quit while you’re ahead! 

While a prospect signing on the dotted line marks the end of your sales pipeline, it’s just the beginning of a long-term partnership. If you continue to nurture your prospect after the sale, your customer will know you have their best interest in mind, and you’re not just taking their money and running. This will do wonders for your retention rates, and will likely bring in more customers through word of mouth—74% of consumers identify word of mouth as a key influencer in their purchasing decisions.

Bonus: Tips and Tricks to Get Leads Through Every Sales Pipeline Stage

You’ve done this before—you know that in order to move your prospects through each stage of the sales pipeline process, you’ll have to do some upkeep on your end. In case you need a reminder, here are some tried and true ways to keep prospects moving through your pipeline and ultimately close the sale.

Pick Up The Phone

You can’t just wait for prospects to come to you. You must put in the work, which means more than just sending an email. Electronic communication is easily ignored. In fact, 35% of emails are never opened.

Cold calling is still an incredibly effective outreach strategy. Phone calls are the second most successful method for B2B salespeople, directly after referrals. If you want to leave a lasting impression and communicate confidence in your product, pick up the phone. It’ll do wonders for your prospecting game.

Do Your Research

You only get one chance to make a first impression. When engaging with prospects, whether in meetings, cold calls, or emails, understanding their pain points is vital. Failing to grasp their specific challenges makes it effortless for them to reject your offering—which leads to a leaky sales pipeline. 

Tailoring your value proposition to align with the customer’s requirements is essential. Focus on fitting your solution to their needs, rather than expecting them to adjust to your offering.

Nurture Your Leads

Some leads will need more help finding their way through the stages of your sales pipeline. 

To maximize the chances of converting potential customers, it’s important to recognize that some leads require multiple touchpoints to understand your value. Craft targeted sales sequences and email nurture campaigns to guide specific leads through the stages of the sales pipeline, bringing them closer to the coveted “Opportunity Won” stage. Additionally, this approach allows for early identification and resolution of at-risk deals, providing better visibility for sales reps and managers in the long run and optimizing the sales process.

Focus on Data

To minimize pipeline cracks, it’s important to focus on the data. Analyze key metrics such as new qualified leads, conversion rate per stage, sales pipeline velocity, days spent in stages, and overall pipeline value. Effective monitoring and management ensure a healthy sales pipeline with tons of opportunities for success.

Don’t let valuable leads slip through the cracks

Understanding the stages of a sales pipeline is crucial for building and maintaining a successful sales process. By focusing on the customer, nurturing leads, analyzing data, and following best practices at each stage, you can ensure a leak-free pipeline and increase your chances of winning opportunities.