Sales Pipeline: We're Only As Good As Our Next Step

October 28, 2018

No sale can be counted upon unless the prospect is actively engaged in the sales cycle.

What does it mean to be "actively engaged"? This is defined by the prospect's willingness to commit to a valid next step.

What is a valid next step?

A valid next step meets all three of the following criteria:

  1. There is an appointment on the prospect’s calendar. This may be an in-person appointment or a telephone appointment.

  2. The appointment is scheduled on a specific date at a specific time.

  3. There is a specific agenda for advancing the sales cycle. In other words, the purpose of the appointment cannot just be to schedule a future discussion.

While there is no guarantee that opportunities that meet these three conditions will close, the chances of making sales to actively engaged prospects are far greater than the chances of making sales to prospects that refuse to commit to meaningful next steps.

At the end of every appointment with a prospect, your salespeople should determine whether there is a reason to meet with the prospect again. If there seems to be a reason to meet again, your salespeople should attempt to schedule the next appointment before leaving the meeting. This approach has two powerful advantages:

1. If prospects are truly interested in moving forward, they will readily commit to giving the salesperson more time and schedule the next appointment in their calendar.

Too often prospects will say, "Call me next week to schedule our next appointment." In many cases this is just a smoke screen to get the salesperson out of the prospect’s office. How often have your salespeople been told to call prospects the following week, only to find the prospects don’t return the phone calls?

2. Putting a next appointment on the calendar before the current meeting ends ensures the next appointment will take place in a timely manner.

Why is this important?

Schedules can fill up, even if the follow-up scheduling call is made just a few days later. By scheduling the next appointment before leaving the current appointment, your salespeople can advance sales cycles as quickly as possible.

It is important to emphasize that next steps must be structured to productively advance sale cycles. Scheduling calls to "check the status of things" or to "see if the prospect is willing to consider our company" are not valid next steps.

Additionally, any scheduled next steps must be within the normal sales cycle. A prospect that agrees to schedule an appointment on a date outside the normal sales cycle cannot be seen to be actively working toward making a buying decision (though of course these calls do deserve follow-up).

When these "Next Step" rules are followed exactly, it is not unusual to find that just a small percentage of the opportunities in your salespeople’s pipelines meet the three criteria. This is entirely intentional!

The simple truth is that prospects that have agreed to schedule valid next steps are much more likely to buy. These are the REAL opportunities. Tracking the number of real opportunities in each phase of the sales cycle will tell you whether your salespeople have strong enough pipelines to ensure (consistent) future success. If they don’t, they need to get busy prospecting!

By closely monitoring your salespeople’s next steps:

  • You will be able to separate reality from fiction and fact from opinion.

  • You will be able to focus your time and attention on helping your salespeople advance sales cycles with real prospects.

  • You will be able to help your salespeople determine how much prospecting activity will be required to generate enough real prospects to consistently make their numbers.

  • Your salespeople will be able to give you more accurate forecasts.

Remember, time is your only inventory!

Don't waste your time chasing prospects who are not serious about buying your products or services. Use the "next step" test to validate whether an opportunity you are pursuing is a REAL opportunity.

If a prospect is willing to schedule a next meeting on a specific date at a specific time with a specific agenda for advancing the sales cycle, you have a real prospect. If your prospect is NOT willing to make this kind of commitment, you need to question how serious they really are... and spend more time finding real prospects!