What is a B2B sales pipeline?

Do you want a smooth and profitable sales process that keeps on delivering customers? You need to build a fully functioning sales pipeline.

A B2B sales pipeline represents the sales opportunities from prospect companies as they move through the sales process from a contact, to a marketing qualified lead (MQL), to a sales qualified lead (SQL) to a customer.

It defines the stages within your sales process into a series of discrete steps your sales team uses to guide a SQL through to their purchase decision.

If your sales team has built a robust, well defined and effective B2B sales pipeline, it’s much easier to drive a consistent and scalable sales strategy.

A B2B sales pipeline may seem and look very similar to a B2B sales funnel, but there are important distinctions between the two. In this post we’re going to explore some of those differences and dig into some best practices for building a high–performing B2B sales pipeline.

Ready? Let’s go.

Table of contents:

  1. B2B pipeline vs. B2B funnel: What are the differences?
  2. Navigate the stages of a B2B sales pipeline
  3. Measure and analyse your pipeline
  4. Typical sales pipelines for different business models

B2B pipeline vs. B2B funnel: What are the differences?

The big difference between a B2B sales pipeline and a B2B sales funnel is that the funnel focuses on the sales process from the buyer’s perspective and the pipeline focuses on the sales process from the seller’s (in this case, your) perspective.

A sales pipeline looks at the stages your sales and marketing team need to move a single prospect from a prospect contact, to an MQL, to an SQL, to a customer to a returning customer.

A sales funnel looks at what customers need throughout their customer journey to make a purchase decision – moving through stages like awareness, interest, decision-making and conversion.

While the two serve different purposes, they’re both serving the same objective: to build customer relationships and grow revenue. Different as they are, it’s vital your B2B sales pipeline and your B2B sales funnel work in close concert.

Navigate the stages of a B2B sales pipeline

A B2B sales pipeline tracks the sales process from leads prospecting, to qualification, to first contact and nurturing, to negotiation, to closing the deal.

At each stage, there are a number of techniques that B2B sales teams can use to make sure their pipeline stays healthy, with as many leads as possible flowing through to the bottom.

1. Prospect your leads

Prospecting for sales (also called lead generation) is the process of finding potential customers that are a good fit for your offering. It’s a combination of research, outreach, prioritisation and planning to create a list of high-potential individuals and organisations to focus your sales resources on.

When done right, it improves the quality of your leads entering the pipeline, making lead qualification (the next stage) easier, and more likely to develop into a customer.

Let’s look at some methods commonly used to improve this stage:

Research

When is this useful?
Whether you’re a startup entering a new market or an established player launching a new offering, every successful B2B sales pipeline is grounded in an up-to-date understanding of the market dynamics you’re addressing. Look for organisations with shared attributes that represent good opportunities for you – like size, budget, growth, job roles, associated technologies and more.

Top tips for B2B
Get ruthless about filtering down your prospect list. Separate your attributes into two categories: a basic fit, and an ideal fit. Your basic fit prospects will match simple demographic criteria – say companies within your desired industry, with +1000 employees, based in the USA. Your ideal fit prospects will also meet more specific conditions – like a data science team with +20 roles, or a certain incumbent technology stack, or a recent merger or acquisition.

Think of this as pre-qualification – so by the time you get to the lead qualification stage, you’re already working with a high quality list of ideal fit prospects. The more specific ideal fit prospect persona is, the more target you can be in your efforts – although be careful of going so narrow that you artificially diminish your target market.

LinkedIn Sales Navigator is a great tool you can use to research your targets with customised filters, so you can search quickly for prospect leads that fit your ideal profile.

Another great way to research leads is to outsource it to a company that specialises in lead generation. Find a company that has expert salespeople to handle this, and will provide you with relevant, actionable B2B leads.

Social media

When is this useful?
Building brand visibility on social media can enrich your B2B sales pipeline because it can attract leads to reach out to you directly. It also provides you with a more personal medium to research and reach out to potential prospects.

Top tips for B2B
LinkedIn is unquestionably the king of B2B social media. Share regular posts linking to relevant content (yours or content you’ve sourced), search for companies you may have identified in the research stage to get more of a flavour of their company and join groups related to your offering or market.

However, it can also pay dividends to boost your presence where your key buyers hang out. This could be Twitter communities, YouTube creators, sub-Reddits or specialist forums. Tread lightly here – broadcasting to industry communities without first earning the right can do more harm than good.

Referrals

When is this useful?
There are few more powerful forces in sales and marketing than social proof. Referrals are a great way to fill the top of your B2B sales pipeline with prospects that already know who you are and are already interested in what you do.

Top tips
Have a happy customer? Ask them to provide public feedback on their satisfaction with your product or service, get a list of other prospective customers from them or ask them to personally contact businesses they know will benefit from your offering. After all, they are the experts in their market.

Lead database management
Once you have your leads, you need to make that information accurate, up-to-date and easily accessible for your sales team. This is where your lead database comes in.

It should include things like:

  • Contact details
  • Key contacts within the business
  • Organisational chart
  • Geographic locations
  • Company challenges
  • “Hot”, “warm” or “cold” lead
  • Intent to buy

You can start your own from scratch, or, if you’re outsourcing lead prospecting, get specialists to build these out for you and properly review and maintain it.

2. Qualify your leads

Qualifying the leads in your B2B sales pipeline is the process of whittling down your leads to the ones most likely to purchase your product or service.

Traits sales reps should analyse are:

  • Challenges and pain points
  • Budget
  • Timeline
  • Special needs
  • Demographics
  • Possibilities for growth

It’s at this stage you can make first contact with the lead to ask them a series of qualifying questions. This can be done over the phone or through email / social media, and is a good way of gauging your lead’s interest and suitability, and starts to build a relationship.

Some good qualifying questions to ask are:
What business challenges can our offering help you solve?
What are any obstacles you’ve faced to solving these challenges and how would you use our offering to overcome them?
Who in your team would use this product or service on a daily basis?
What is your budget?
Who are the decision-makers in your organisation that have the power to purchase?

The BANT qualification technique

Originally coined by IBM, this is a traditional method of qualifying the leads that will be most valuable to your company.

The acronym stands for:
Budget – will your client be able to afford your offering?
Authority – does your contact have the influence to make purchasing decisions? Or do you need to identify other contacts?
Needs – what are the company challenges and pain points?
Timeline – when is your prospect looking to make a purchase?

If your lead meets your requirements for at least three of the BANT qualifiers, they are considered worth pursuing.

The ANUM technique follows a similar framework, but prioritises authority over budget – Authority, Need, Urgency and Money.

3. Contact

If you haven’t already contacted your lead in the qualification process, now is a good time to set up a connect call with them. This is just a friendly, no-pressure 10-15 minute call to get to figure out if you’re a good fit for each other.

Throughout this stage, you should listen more than you speak. Don’t rush to talk about your offering prematurely. Ask open, honest questions and build trust. Even if they’re not in a position to buy right now, they’re much more likely to re-engage when the timing is better if you respect their time on first contact.

4. Build a relationship

After initial contact is made, don’t let your lead go cold. Schedule follow up calls to check the status of their decision and discuss more ways that your two businesses can work together.

Alongside this, use techniques like content and email marketing to keep the lead interested and informed, while also scoping response time and levels to gauge their enthusiasm.

5. Sales call

This stage of the B2B sales pipeline is where you can get into your sales pitch. Avoid templated approaches – tailor every conversation around how your offering will specifically benefit the lead in front of you. Use the pain points and other information you’ve learned from the previous 4 stages to sculpt this.

Most potential customers want to see a product or service in action before making a purchasing decision, so conducting a live demo at this stage will help build on trust and improve the chances of closing the deal.

Identify decision-makers

If you haven’t done this already, ask your contact who the decision-makers in their company are. When doing this, also try to ascertain what their stake is, what their role is and what their specific pain points are. Prepare your negotiation to address this information.

6. Negotiate and close

The penultimate stage of the B2B sales pipeline leverages the information and relationship you’ve built so far to build a concrete offer and close the deal. Here’s a good way to go about this stage:

Negotiate

The negotiation stage in a B2B sales pipeline is when the final price, terms and contract are agreed upon and signed off. This is the most active part of your B2B sales pipeline and you should keep your prospect in communication as much as possible.

It’s vital you’re prepared for negotiations, as they can be very challenging to get over the line. To make sure you go in there ready for a win-win outcome, here are some things to consider.

  • Focus on the benefits – the return on investment is what customers will want most, so avoid talking about money and instead focus on facts, figures and success rates and success stories from using your product. Gather the evidence.
  • Have an agenda – this gives a structure to your meeting, and prevents confusing your potential customer. Make sure you set up for them to have equal input, so the negotiation feels as win-win as possible.
  • Know what to expect – having a set idea of your price structures, as well as what negotiations you’re willing to make and what you expect in return makes it easier for you to both walk away with a mutually beneficial deal.
  • Understand the process – you may not get this deal negotiated in the first call, and that’s ok. Plan for multiple outcomes such as follow up calls. Give both you and your potential customer space to come to the best deal.
  • Agree on the next steps – whether the prospect needs more time to consider the negotiations or is ready to close the deal, agree on and schedule your next steps so you are both clear on the outcome.

Close the deal

Closing is the last stage of the B2B sales pipeline. It’s vital to address any outstanding or new concerns the potential customer may have. This not only helps you close the deal, but sets a precedent for a trusting relationship in the future.

If the prospect agrees on a deal, you can take payment and start your customer onboarding processes. Be sure to honour any promises you made in the negotiation to get your relationship off on the right foot.

If the potential customer declines the offer or accepts from a competitor, keep them on your books and use it as a learning opportunity. Ask for detailed feedback on the outcome and use it as a guide to contact them in the future for any new business.

Measuring and analysing your pipeline

To evaluate the success of your B2B sales pipeline, you first need to understand the key metrics you should be analysing. These are a few important metrics you should track.

1. Customer acquisition cost (CAC)

This is the amount of money a business spends on sales and marketing activities to move a lead down the sales pipeline and convert them into a customer.

These can include things like:
Employee salary
Subscriptions to sales software and data-collection tech
Production of content and digital campaigns
Travel expenses
Inventory upkeep

CAC can help illuminate any inefficiencies within your B2B sales funnel spending.

2. Customer lifetime value (CLV)

This metric focuses on the value of long-term customer relationships over individual transactions.

The traditional calculation for this multiplies the average order value (AOV) by the average customer lifespan (ACL) to equal a customer’s lifetime value.

So for example:
If a customer’s monthly AOV = $1,525.
And their ACL = 30 months.

CLV = $1,525 x 30 = $45,750

3. Customer conversion rate optimisation (CRO)

This is the process of increasing the number of customers that move down your B2B sales pipeline and make a purchasing decision.

You can calculate this by dividing the number of conversions by the total number of leads and multiplying it by 100 to get a percentage. Conversion rates differ depending on the product offering, industry and price points.

The results from this can help you interrogate where the drivers and the successful parts in your pipeline are, and where the barriers exist that need to be improved upon.

Typical sales pipelines for different business models

Although different industries have different sales processes; SaaS companies won’t operate in the same ways as a construction company for example; the stages of the sales pipeline still remain the same as above.

However, each industry will have different ways of moving prospects through their sales pipelines. Here are some examples of differences:

SaaS sales pipeline

This industry typically has more competition, so demonstrating your offering’s unique benefits is paramount. So, the Sales Call stage should involve more comprehensive demos that actively engage your customers.

Product demos may even be used in first contact and offered much earlier in the Building Relationships stage.

Enterprise sales pipeline

When selling to larger enterprises, the Negotiate stage will be far more complex, involving approval from multiple decision-makers and stakeholders.

Field sales team pipeline

For field sales teams, the Qualify stage will most likely depend on geographic location and in-person meetings.

Transform your B2B sales pipeline

So, how can you build and manage your B2B sales pipeline to ensure it thrives?

At Webhelp, we use our experience, reach and modern sales expertise to create lasting value for the world’s most exciting companies.

If you’d like to find out more about what we can do for companies like you, we should talk.