Sales / Sales Process

How to automate your small business sales pipeline

Paul Sokol

Updated: Sep 21, 2022 · 27 min read

Toolkit for download in this article

gears showing automation path

Sales pipeline management is one of those things that you probably don’t want to think about a lot, but you really should. Ergo, generating sales pipeline management best practices can only improve your business.

It sounds a little dry, but your sales pipeline which can be managed in a product like Keap, is the crux of your business; if you don’t sell, you won’t be in business anymore. So it's important to determine the individual sales pipeline stages.

What is a sales pipeline?

A sales pipeline example is the process your prospects go through to become customers. Calling it a pipeline helps you visualize a prospect’s movement toward conversion. There are five general steps to the pipeline, through every business has its own specific naming:

  • Awareness
  • Interest
  • Consideration
  • Decision
  • Purchase

Though each is its own phase, they are all interdependent, and each stage has to make sure it helps prospects move into the next one. Ensuring swift movement through each stage is how you make your sales, so proper pipeline management ensures fewer bottlenecks and resolves any problems quicker.

The pipeline funnel is a key tool for small business owners to have complete visibility into sales performance and encourage growth. The funnel is your guide for organizing your sales process—turning it into a well-oiled machine that is predictable and high in converting power.

Related Article:

Metrics that Guide a Healthy Sales Funnel

The pipeline funnel is visually represented as an upside down pyramid and depicts the journey from a prospect first making contact with your company, to becoming a bonafide customer. Here are seven key metrics that guide a healthy sales funnel, beginning with the most important metric of them all—identifying and defining the sales-ready lead, aka the qualified lead:

  1. Qualified leads: A qualified lead is when someone has been nurtured by your marketing content and is expressing an interest in your product. How you define a qualified lead varies from company to company, and it’s something your sales and marketing team need to agree on—as you sit down together and map out the buyer journey. In the best cases it isn’t just someone who randomly reaches out to you, but a lead who has an intent to buy. Marketing automation platforms like Keap help you define these leads with lead scoring. It’s also important to check how quickly your qualified leads are being helped as soon as they enter your funnel. Leads are nine times more likely to convert if you follow up within the first five minutes of their expressing interest—so you need to automate processes so that personalized messages can be sent as soon as they reach out.

  2. Win rates: This is the percentage of opportunities pitched that were won. To calculate it, you divide closed-won opportunities by total opportunities that were closed-won plus closed-lost. If a sales rep has 25 opportunities and closes 12 of them, her win rate is 48 percent. Tracking this number helps you gauge the overall health of your sales team and funnel, and allows you to assess performance over time.

  3. Average deal size: The average deal size is calculated from all your closed-won deals and it’s a metric that helps you project a number of sales you should be bringing in and the amount of work you should be doing to pull in those sales. It’s also a tool for risk mitigation: if your sales teams’ average deal size is $150,000 and one rep is working on a deal for $500,000, you’ll need to decide whether to give them the resources to follow it through or point them to more reliable smaller sales instead. And if you spot a general upswing in average deal sizes, you may need to rework your business strategy.

  4. Sales funnel leakage: When I moved into my house in New England, we found a house littered with leaks: there was a gaping hole behind the oven fan where hot air was being sucked out into the deep northern winter, while the stairwell to the unfinished attic had a door that wasn’t winterized and acted like a de facto heat suction device. It was incredibly easy to block these holes, and instantly make big savings on heat bills—but you have to first see the leaks that were apparently invisible to the previous occupants. The same applies to your business. Map out the key milestones along the buyer journey, and study the numbers to identify exactly where you are losing people. Why are they not following through? Go granular into your processes and by fixing those, you’ll be able to greatly improve efficiencies.

  5. Average sales cycle: This is another crucial metric: the average amount of time from an initial contact with the customer to the transaction or a won deal. If your cycle is swift, you’re operating healthily. If you’re lagging, check for leaks. Also, check your numbers by industry standards and your own historical data. According to SiriusDecisions, the average sales cycle for B2B companies has increased by 22 percent over the past five years—so it’s more important than ever before to streamline processes. Platforms like Keap allow you to run reports to get all these numbers in an instant.

  6. New leads per month: The healthiest of funnels—once they’re airtight—have a continuous flow of interest pouring into the top, which is filtered beautifully all the way down to closes. New qualified leads generated per month help you track the success of your inbound marketing.

  7. Employee morale: Amid all this talk of numbers, don’t lose sight of the humans who stand at the heart of your business. Check metrics like staff retention and run them by industry numbers, but ultimately this metric is all about getting up from your devices and making the effort to speak to people across your sales and marketing teams to find out how they’re feeling. Do they have the right tools, the right direction, and marketing materials? Implement employee-centric practices to keep morale high, celebrate successes, and implement funnel-building processes. With a healthy funnel and a clear sense of direction, you’re creating the conditions that will allow your team to fully thrive.

Pipeline Stages Every Small Business Should Use

To illustrate how an automated pipeline actually works, we describe how Sum of All Numbers, a bookkeeping and payroll services firm, uses these stages in its automated pipeline—a tool that has helped the California company quadruple its sales.

1. New opportunity

What it is

A new lead is identified and his contact information is recorded. In Keap, the collection of that information can automatically trigger an opportunity record to be created. Your sales rep will reference this record throughout the sales process, using it to access contact information, move the lead from one stage to the next, and set reminders for follow-up actions.

What happens

At Sum of All Numbers, an opportunity record is automatically created when a prospect fills out an online form for a free consultation or when a staff member records prospect information from a phone call. The sales pipeline software assigns a sales rep to the lead on a round-robin basis, and the rep receives a reminder to call the new prospect.

2. Contacting

What it is

It’s time for one of the most difficult parts of the sales process: simply getting a hold of the lead. The prospect remains in this sales stage until the rep makes contact, whether that happens after one phone call or 10.

What happens

To connect with the new lead, the Sum of All Numbers sales rep first picks up the phone. By recording the outcome of the call in the software, she triggers an automated series of events. Over the next three weeks, the software will send three emails and twice remind the rep to call again if she still hasn’t made contact.

Each sales email in the automated follow-up series serves a different purpose. The first sends the prospect a Getting Started Guide and asks him to choose a time to connect. The second, sent because the rep hasn’t yet reached the prospect, educates him on the value of hiring a bookkeeper. And the last email sent three weeks after the prospect originally expressed interest, asks if that interest still exists.

3. Engaging

What it is

By this stage, the sales rep has reached an important milestone in the sales process: She has actually talked to the prospect. Depending on your business, the sales rep might have one conversation in this stage or several of them as the rep determines whether the prospect is qualified to make a purchase. In the engaging stage, the rep might send a series of emails that educate the lead and collect information needed to qualify him.

What happens

The Sum of All Numbers sales rep talks with the prospect during a free consultation, the purpose of which is qualifying the lead. At the end of the consultation, the rep goes into the software to log one of these three outcomes, each of which triggers an automated sales sequence:

A) The lead is qualified For a qualified lead, the software automatically sends an evaluation form and other documents to be completed.

B) The lead is qualified but isn’t ready to buy While some businesses would forget about this lead, the Sum of All Numbers sales rep is sure to stay in touch. The conclusion is not that the lead doesn’t want to buy; it’s that he doesn’t want to buy right now. Triggering this automated sequence adds the prospect to a monthly newsletter list and sends a reminder for the rep to call him again in a year.

C) The lead is not qualified or interested If the lead is never going to become a customer, the sales rep applies a tag in the software that stops all communication.

4. Qualified

What it is

In this stage, the sales rep determines the lead is qualified, meaning that he has the need, budget, and authority to make a purchase.

What happens

The Sum of All Numbers sales rep sends the prospect paperwork that will allow her to create a proposal and close the sale. Inevitably, some prospects will forget or procrastinate on returning the paperwork, stalling the sales process. In that case, the automated sequence includes reminder emails and tasks for the rep to call if the prospect hasn’t yet responded.

Check out Keap's Lifecycle Automation Assessment to determine where your business stands among the industry's top performers.

5. Custom stages

Up until this point, the sales processes for most businesses involve the same general goals: contact, engagement, and qualification. Here’s where things start to change. Some businesses may have unique sales stages, like scheduling an in-person meeting, arranging for a free trial, or sending a product sample. Regardless, this stage of the pipeline is designed to move prospects closer to closing the deal.

6. Closing

What it is

As the sales process comes to a close, the sales rep asks the prospect to finalize the deal.

What happens

To close a new customer, Sum of All Numbers sends a proposal. At this point, it’s win or lose—accept or reject.

7. Won/Lost

What it is

It all comes down to this: The sales process ends in either a win or loss. Each scenario might prompt its own set of automated follow-up actions—like a series of welcome emails for a new customer, or a six-month check-in email for a lead who didn’t end up buying.

What happens

As she does when a prospect isn’t ready to buy earlier in the sales process, the Sum of All Numbers sales rep keeps in touch with the prospect who rejected the proposal. In six months, the software will give her a reminder to call and see if he’s changed his mind.

Pipeline management best practices

Know your pipeline

Before you manage something, you have to understand it. You need to know where your customers come from, your usual conversion rate, how long it usually takes to convert a lead to a customer, and much more.

You need to know what key decisions prospects are making that moves them closer to purchase. How do people find you? What pieces of content draw them in? What pain points do they have, and what information helps them make a decision?

The way to know these things to have a clear and intimate understanding of exactly how your pipeline works so that you know where to fix it.

Keep detailed metrics on your pipeline

If it’s essential to know your pipeline, then the second—and just-as-essential step—is to keep detailed metrics on how your pipeline performs. Here are the metrics you must know:

  • How many leads per month each source produces
  • Lead-to-opportunity conversion rate
  • Opportunities-to-closed-won conversion rate
  • Average closed-won deal size
  • Average sales cycle length
  • Win rate
  • Total number of open opportunities

Regularly optimize your pipeline based on your metrics

This is sort of a two-in-one step: In order to optimize your pipeline regularly, you also have to review it regularly. Regular, frequent reviews will help you determine trends (are conversions in one area off? Have things changed in the past month or year?) and solve for problems. But the key to knowing your metrics is that you’ll know exactly where in the pipeline things may not be going so well.

Formalize the process and include the team

Make sure that your pipeline management process is documented and formalized. You should not be the only person in your business who knows exactly what’s happening; in fact, anyone who has anything to do with your pipeline should be well aware of the process, metrics you measure, and how things are going.

This could mean you have regular weekly meetings to go over metrics, or even send out daily or weekly update emails with less-frequent in-person meetings.

Flag problems when they arise

The great thing about carefully managing your pipeline is that you’ll be able to see when problems arise. Here are some common ones to look for:

Stalled opportunities

These are opportunities that get stuck in one stage and don’t keep moving, and they’re at higher risk of not converting. If you know the average amount of time each prospect spends in each stage (and you should!), you’ll know when you have opportunities at risk

Skipping stages

Prospects who go straight from awareness to decision—or skip any level of progression—are less likely to convert. If you track where your prospects are going, or if they’re skipping, you’ll be able to tailor your content to their specific journey to raise the likelihood of conversion.

Too many opportunities

You also don’t want your pipeline to get clogged with opportunities—more is not always better. It’s far more advantageous to have a pipeline with fewer, high-quality prospects than more, low-quality ones. Too many will bog you down because your sales team will have to spend way more time sifting to find the quality leads.

Keeping a close eye on your pipeline will be well worth the work; the results of a well-managed pipeline will show themselves directly in your bottom line.

Sales automation process

When the sales process is automated, sales happen the way they’re supposed to. With automation software like Keap, small businesses can set up an automated pipeline that helps reps keep track of leads throughout each stage of the sales process.

Here’s an overview of what an automated pipeline entails. For an in-depth guide to automating your sales process template, download our e-book, "In the Pipeline: Keep, Convert and Close More Leads in Less Time with Automation."

Keeping track of sales opportunities

Keap, the progress of a prospect in the sales process is tracked via an opportunity record. The opportunity record helps sales reps in two important ways:

  1. An opportunity record provides the big-picture view of where a lead stands in the process. For example, some prospects are in the Contacting stage, in which the rep is trying to reach them, and others are in the Qualified stage, in which the rep knows the prospect is qualified to purchase from your company and is working to close the sale.
  2. An opportunity record helps the sales rep manage the necessary follow-up with the prospect by tracking the date and time for the next action that should occur. Using opportunities, the rep can understand how many people are in each sales stage and know which prospects should be prioritized (those people with a next action date/time of today).

Stages in the pipeline

Pipeline automation is all about driving people from one stage to the next. To be effective, the sales stages must be clearly defined, with each one symbolic of an important milestone in the sales process.

It doesn't matter what type of business you have: Every sales rep needs to determine whether the prospect is qualified to purchase the product or services being sold. However, getting someone qualified can take many conversations and contact attempts. In this example, the qualification takes place over three sales stages:

  • Contacting: When the prospect is in this stage, it means he was identified as a new opportunity and the sales rep made unsuccessful attempts to contact him.
  • Engaging: The sales rep has a dialogue going with the prospect but is still determining whether he's qualified.
  • Qualified: The sales rep determines that the prospect should move further down the pipeline.

pipeline in a crm

Sales email automation pipeline

Writing emails that will be sent automatically throughout the sales process involves thinking about the prospect's past and future communications with your company. To ensure your sales email is relevant to the prospect at the time he receives it, think about what you can—and can't—speak to in that stage.

Before composing each email, answer these six questions:

  1. Which sales stage occurred to trigger this email?
  2. What will happen in the next sales stage?
  3. On which day and time is this email scheduled to send?
  4. Which previous communications would the prospect have received by the time he reads this communication?
  5. Of which facts am I 100 percent certain at this stage?
  6. What should I not discuss at this stage?

The next sales stages

Once the sales rep makes contact with the prospect, the rep moves him into the Engaging stage. In this stage, the rep is determining whether the prospect is qualified—for example, whether your company is suited to serve his needs and whether he has the budget to make the purchase.

Once the prospect is qualified, your automated sequences contain emails that help drive the prospect toward the sale. The emails could include more detailed pricing information, comparisons, or other information the prospect needs to make the decision.

Other elements that can be automated:

Transactional sales milestone communications

Every sales process has certain milestones. You know, things like "Prospect Qualified" or "Demo Scheduled."

In most cases, these milestones usually require some outbound communication from the sales rep to the prospect. For example, after scheduling a demo, you might want your sales reps to send a follow-up email with the appointment details and other information. The good news is that these transactional-type communications are 95 percent the same for everyone. The only thing that changes is the specific transaction details (appointment time, prospect's name, etc.).

When you have a very clearly defined sales process with these kinds of milestones, it’s very easy to create automated emails once your sales rep moves an opportunity to the appropriate stage in your CRM.

Cold lead notifications

Most CRMs have the ability to trigger automation based on when a prospect moves into a sales milestone as well as when they move out of that sales stage. Hence, we can set up a delayed notification email to the sales rep if someone sits in a sales stage for too long.

Let's say, for example, we want to have a cold lead email go out to the sales rep 30 days after they get moved to the "Contacting" stage. The email can basically say, "Hey sales rep, this person has been in contacting for 30 days, time to move them or mark them as lost."

Creating an "invisible" sales manager

One role of a sales manager is to keep tabs on the sales reps on their team and how their pipelines are progressing. Using automation, it is very easy to add notes to a prospect's record if certain things happen (or don't happen).

Now, as the sales manager, you can easily set up some reports that look for those specific notes. If you see those notes happening more often for a certain rep, you can quickly identify that breakdown and chat with them to figure out what is happening.

You could even set up something like a fulfillment list of all cold leads and use that for a weekly one-on-one with your sale reps.

Once you have automated your pipeline, you'll start reaping the benefits. When sales reps are working opportunities and tracking their progress, leads will no longer slip through the cracks.

Plus, reps should be able to work their pipelines faster because everything is in one place—no more digging through notes or emails to figure out what needs to happen next.

Pipeline Template

Here’s the problem: Many small business owners don’t have time to figure this stuff out so they ask Google and copy what everyone else is doing.

Do copycats push the envelope for innovation? Did Elon Musk copy other car companies with Tesla Motors or did he copy NASA and Boeing when it came to creating and launching rockets into space? Short answer—no.

When creating a sales pipeline template for your small business you need to focus on a few key questions:

Question No. 1: How do you reach potential customers with your marketing?

Open up a word processor like Word or Google docs and list out all of the ways you attract potential customers.

Many small business owners will use advertising mediums like:

  • Facebook ads
  • Google ads
  • Direct mail
  • Flyers
  • Door hangers

Now select your top one or two.

Start with these because this is where you start to create "micro-impressions" on potential buyers. For example, when someone is browsing Facebook wouldn’t you agree they are in a different mindset if they see your door hanger on their front door? Yes, they are.

It’s important to realize this and start factoring that in when you connect with your potential customers.

Question No. 2: What’s the first step in your sales process?

Think of this question as what do you want them to do next so you know how to react.

Depending on your type of small business this first step could be when someone:

  • Requests a free quote
  • Downloads a guide or special report
  • Requests a consultation
  • Walks into your store or restaurant
  • Calls your office
  • Emails your business

The most common first step a potential customer takes is where you need to focus when designing your pipeline template.

When setting up my pipeline template I’d map out the first two steps, which would be:

  1. New lead
  2. Quote appointment scheduled

**Why use a "new lead" stage? **

The new lead stage would be for people who email and are not current customers. This would allow my sales team (or myself if I were the only salesperson) to know who I need to follow-up with and schedule them for a free quote. Plus, when I can see a daily or weekly lead count I can easily gauge how well any new advertising or marketing campaigns are working.

For example, if I started a direct mail campaign to specific zip code in my local area that sends people to a free quote form on my website and I get zero quote requests I know that marketing campaign isn’t working so I need to adjust the copy, look at the demographics of zip code, or look at a number of different things to get that marketing channel working or just move to something else.

Another example could be that I’m running local Facebook ads and I consistently see one new lead generated per day, but all of a sudden the leads drop to zero then I know something is wrong and I’ll need to fix it as soon as possible.

This allows me to react quickly and find a solution so the business can keep moving and lowers the risks of lost revenue.

With a "new lead" stage I will have one single source of truth to measure, react, and predict future revenue.

**Why use a "quote appointment scheduled" stage? **

If I know my business closes one out of five appointments, I can easily see how much revenue the business is likely to generate based on this single stage alone.

If the business isn’t scheduling enough appointments I can see a potential revenue shortfall and create a plan to increase the number of appointments quickly.

For example, I could send out a broadcast email to prospects in the "new leads" stage offering them an incentive to schedule a free quote with the business.

With insights like this I’m empowered as a business owner and I’m not running blind. I can take action and solve problems quickly.

Take the time to answer, "What’s the first step in your sales process?"

When you have at least one or two of those steps written down you can create a pipeline stage that matches your business’ needs.

Look at the examples listed above and start with one of those and think about how you could translate that into a sales stage that will help you keep a pulse on your business.

Question No. 3: What would you like to happen next?

With your first stage or two mapped out, what would you like to happen to really connect with your potential customer?

Would you...

  • Save their information somewhere (i.e. A CRM, Excel spreadsheet, a sticky note, etc.)?
  • Send a follow-up email to them (with the appointment details so they don’t forget and to help you make a good first impression)?
  • Save the appointment date and time somewhere (Google calendar, a physical calendar, etc.)?
  • Notify and assign the appointment with a team member (like a sales rep, assistant, etc.)?

I would want my company to stand out from any of my competitors and by following up I can create an experience that no one else in my local market can match.

I’d want to ensure that my businesses time and resources aren’t wasted, so I’d make sure that every quote appointment gets the following:

  1. An immediate follow-up email confirming the date and time of the appointment
  2. A task would get assigned to a team member or me to call and confirm the appointment the day before
  3. If each potential customer is worth $20,000-plus, I’d even mail them a postcard reminder (because no one else is doing that and I know it would make a good impression, if time allowed)

I’d do those three things to make sure appointments aren’t wasted and customers show up, because a "no show" is lost revenue and impacts the bottom line.

These are just a few ways you can map out your sales stages when designing your framework.

Question No. 4: What are your common objections?

If you’re selling a product or service, you know there are common objections you hear all the time.

Why not create a process to for your pipeline that helps you overcome these objections by positioning your business as the premier company to buy from, instead of calling more, emailing more, or knocking on doors more?

Those tactics only take you so far and you know there are companies in your business that aren’t working harder than you—the only explanation is that they are working smarter than you.

Creating a pipeline framework based on your most common objections is one of the ways to work smarter rather than harder.

Here’s how you can use this to your advantage.

I will assume these are the common objections when selling pool installations:

  • Need time to think about it
  • We want to get more quotes
  • Need to discuss with my spouse

With these objections listed out, I can create another pipeline stage, "Presentation/Quote Delivered."

This stage would be common enough for me to understand how many quotes have been given and which ones I need to track and convert into customers.

I can set up my pipeline automation to educate and connect with potential customers who are sitting in this stage of the buying process.

When I have the objections listed out I can create specific education tracks for the prospective customers to receive custom tailored information to help them move towards a yes or a no. I can create an automated campaign that keeps in touch with them and keeps the connection strong.

I could send a follow-up email a couple of hours after the meeting acknowledging their wishes to get more quotes while thanking them for their time too.

Question No. 5: What happens after the sale?

The best time to create a positive experience for your customers is after the sale is made. Many people use Google, friends and family, online reviews, and other sources before even reaching out to a company.

When you get a new customer you want to create an experience that earns you five-star reviews and creates raving fans of your products or services.

Mapping out your after sales process is a key component of your pipeline template.

There are basically two options that will happen with a sale…

Option 1: I’d like to buy

Option 2: No thanks

With those options in mind, you’ll need to create pipeline stages to accommodate those options.

I’d recommend creating a "closed/won" stage and a “closed/lost” stage.

When prospects are added to the "closed/lost" stage you can set up feedback loops like:

  • Surveys
  • Personal email to ask why they didn’t buy
  • Personal email to ask what your product or service was missing

Those feedback loops will give you insights on where you can improve and although it might be hard to read the information will be invaluable and show you exactly what to fix.

Your after-sales map comes into play when creating a "closed/won" stage. What are the processes and tasks that need to take place when a sale is made? Taking the time to map this out will give you clarity and also show you areas where you can improve the customer experience.

For example, some of the following things will need to take place after a sale.

  1. Payment terms and contracts signed
  2. Contracts sent to the office for processing
  3. Project manager assigned
  4. Book contractors/installers
  5. Check material availability
  6. Estimated installation time frame (i.e. five weeks)
  7. Project estimated start date planned
  8. Customer welcome call—next steps and notify of the estimated start date
  9. Welcome package mailed to the customer
  10. Contractors/workers booked
  11. Materials and supplies ordered
  12. Periodical project updates sent to the customer
  13. Project wrap up booked
  14. Pool welcome and delivery meeting booked with customer

Just doing this exercise alone will give you invaluable insights on how things operate in your business and you’ll quickly identify where you can improve.

If you take the time to think about and use these five key questions when designing your pipeline template, you’ll be miles in front of your competition who are just copying what everyone else is doing.

These questions will help you create an experience that will help you stand out, grow sales and knock the socks off your customers.

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