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The Ultimate Guide to Sales Pipeline Stages

The Ultimate Guide to Sales Pipeline Stages

Anirban Banerjee
Anirban Banerjee
January 30, 2023
5 min read

You’ve noticed those large display areas telling you when to expect your train at Grand Central station (or any subway station), right? There’s usually a line-up of the next few trains coming in. You know which one you’re going to make it to and consequently get a pretty good idea of your arrival time at your destination. If you have a friend who lives 10 minutes away from the 42nd Street station, for example, you’ll probably add 10 minutes to your train’s arrival time when giving your friend a heads-up on when to expect you at their doorstep. 

Similarly, when you book an Uber to go to dinner and drinks, you know what time your ride will arrive to pick you up (so you can be ready and waiting.) Uber also gives you an ETA as does Google Maps, in case you decide to skip the drinks and drive yourself. This means you can give your date a fairly accurate estimate of what time you will meet at the restaurant. 

Maybe one day you have plans to take an Uber somewhere, but you decide to take the subway instead when you check your ETA and realize the subway will be faster. However, you would not have been able to make that decision confidently if you didn’t have an ETA for both the Uber and the subway. 

When you don’t check your ETA and end up with a lo-oo-oong ride ahead.

A sales pipeline achieves the same sort of future view for sales leaders, with the same goal of making informed decisions. It tells you how many prospects your salesforce is working with, and how close (or far) from conversion they are so that you can

  1. Make accurate sales forecasts
  2. Accelerate efforts on one area of the sales pipeline or even tweak your sales strategy if you are not on track to meet sales goals and revenue goals. This is known as sales pipeline management. 
Your sales pipeline helping you measure how close you are to achieving sales goals

As you can imagine understanding your sales pipeline and its various stages, help with better sales pipeline management and maintaining a healthy sales pipeline. You need effective sales pipeline management for successful sales. As a result, it is relevant whether you want to optimize B2B sales or B2C sales.

So what are the sales pipeline stages and what should you do to quicken the pace of prospects moving to the next stage of the sales pipeline? 

Complete guide to sales pipeline stages

Here are the 7 sales pipeline stages, with ideas on how to overcome bottlenecks at each stage so that you end up with an effective sales pipeline that helps achieve sales goals.

1. Lead generation 

All the advertising and SEO initiatives that you undertake draw in sales opportunities that are at this stage, leads. People click on advertisements or open up articles or infographics that you post to your website, blog and social media. Some of them leave their details in order to download a resource like an infographic or a guide of some sort or to sign up for a webinar you are hosting.

This is your lead generation sales pipeline stage in action. Any sales prospecting also happens during this first stage. Sales opportunities pour in indiscriminately. There’s no telling if the lead is just a student doing research for his homework, or a potential user for your SaaS product. You sift the chaff from the grain in the next stage of the sales pipeline. 

What if this stage of your pipeline is looking bleak:

Having too small a pool of new leads affects the whole sales pipeline because this is essentially where your sales team goes fishing for new leads to nurture. 

Your reps when they’re working with dead-end leads

If your pipeline review reveals that this stage has too few leads, you might need to scale up your marketing efforts. You may not need a very large budget – although that certainly helps – but you do need to put more content out there. 

Another option is to try cold calling from a large database that you procure from a vendor that does that sort of thing. However, this outbound method of selling (versus the inbound method, where you use relevant content to draw customers in) is rather dated and unpopular today. Caller ID app Truecaller doesn’t help things because it will mark the numbers your reps use as spam. 

2. Lead qualification

Lead qualification itself has three stages namely

  1. Marketing qualified
  2. Sales accepted
  3. Sales qualified 

During this stage of a sales pipeline, you find out whether the lead is worth any meetings, demos or nurturing. Marketing uses automation, typically, to check that leads fit within the target audience. Sales leaders accept leads based on their likelihood to buy and then allocate leads to the salesforce. A sales rep finally qualifies the lead either in the next step (with a discovery call) or. with some LinkedIn-based research. During their LinkedIn “stalking” they figure out if the prospect has the decision-making authority. They find out if they’ve got budgets. (If they just opened a new office, you can assume they’ve got capital, for example). 

They find out what other products they’ve used. Is there an awful review by them on your competitor’s website? You know what you’re up against. 

What if this stage of your pipeline is looking bleak:

If your pipeline review shows that you have sufficient leads that aren’t being qualified, then you need to figure out which stage of qualification has roadblocks and tackle those. Maybe you need to have a conversation with marketing about delivering a specific number of qualified leads by a specific date in order to meet your quota. Document your discussion. 

3. Contact/ Outreach 

Now it's time for the discovery call. Alternatively, if all necessary “discoveries” have been made during the qualification stage , then it is time to make contact. Your prospect has clearly heard of your brand by now. 

What if this stage of your pipeline is looking bleak:

If you have a sizable pool of qualified leads and they aren’t getting through the contact and sales outreach stage quickly… How do we say this nicely? … Well this seems to be on your sales reps. Why aren’t they making those calls?

  1. Are they filled with dread? 
  1. Are they bogged down with admin work? 
  1. Do they genuinely have no time because they’re dealing with prospects that are closer to conversion? 

If you said yes to either 1 or 2 (or both), conversation intelligence can help your reps overcome pre-call jitters by giving them on-call assistance. It also reduces admin workload by automating a lot of the sales tasks that are more administrative than actual selling. 

If you said 3, you might want to think about whether you’re spreading your team too thin. 

Do your sales reps feel like this?

Maybe you need a larger team? Sales pipeline metrics like average win rate can help you show your company’s leadership what your reps are achieving so that you can make your case for a bigger team. 

4. Demo or pitch meeting

At this stage, your prospect gives the sales professional a sufficiently long time slot to see how your product works and the benefits that they can derive from it. Of course, your sales team needs to also know your product well enough and prospects need to find it truly beneficial.

What if this stage of your pipeline is looking bleak:

If people aren’t agreeing to product demos and pitch meetings, you need to work with your reps on being more convincing. If people are agreeing to demos and pitch meetings, and still not moving to the next stage, it could be one of several things:

  • Your reps aren’t explaining the product well (or aren’t even fully convinced about its attributes themselves). Sales professionals get jaded hearing objections all day. Have a refresher with the product team, perhaps.
  • Your sales team is not focusing on the right thing, perhaps. Are they positioning the product as a solution to a specific problem? Maybe prospecting and discovery calls need to be better so the sales team speaks to the prospect’s business goals and challenges rather than about your product. 
  • Your product needs fine-tuning. But before you start pointing fingers at the product team, you need evidence, so it is important for your sales team to ask prospects what they think and document their answers.


5. Negotiation 

This is often the most challenging part of selling. You’re trying to get more out of the prospect. The prospect is trying to get more out of you. You’re pretending to shake hands when you’re actually arm-wrestling. Nonetheless, products and solutions are sold on a daily basis, so clearly, both prospects and sales reps make it out of this stage happy. The trick is finding that sweet spot where both parties are satisfied. 

You balancing your company’s goals and your customer’s goals

What if this stage of your pipeline is looking bleak:

Is the competition undercutting your prices? Maybe there’s a price war in your sector. That can be fairly complex to navigate. However, one thing that a lot of sales leaders can try is bundling in other services to make the offer more attractive. If your product is premium maybe you simply need to up the team’s skills in presenting product differentiation. Sometimes the deal value might be above your prospect’s decision-making authority. In such cases, you might want to consider breaking it down into smaller chunks. Maybe offer a month’s or quarter’s subscription instead of a minimum year’s subscription to allow your lead some proof of value to take to their higher-ups.

6. Closing 

This is where the prospect inks the dotted line. We’ll pause while you do your victory dance. 

What if this stage of your pipeline is looking bleak:

If all the other pipeline stages look fine and there’s a bottleneck here it's probably because you’re using closing techniques that are aggressive. The kind that Alec Baldwin made popular in the 1992 film, Glengarry Glen Ross. 

Cussing gets you neither fish, or paying customers. 

The kind that makes prospects distrust you and run for the hills. This one is simple. Use more friendly and upfront techniques instead. 

7. After sales

Wait, why are we talking about after-sales?

Wasn’t the point of a sales pipeline to make sure you meet your quota?

Doesn’t the pipeline end with conversion? 

Well, let's call this a  circular pipeline. It has to be, because it's got to tie in with your sales cycle. 

A happy customer is technically a prospect for future sales, cross-selling and reselling. They can also help with referrals. So yes, you do need to maintain customer relationships after the sale is made too. 

What if this stage of your pipeline is looking bleak:

If your past customers never pick up your calls, you’ve either not checked in at all when they started using your product, or they had a terrible experience and never want to deal with you ever again. Be sure to check in post-sales and enable customer success with your product. Drop a birthday or Christmas greeting. If you keep in touch, you might even find out if they are not having a good experience with your product. You might be able to rectify this before they write you off completely. 

Perfect sales pipeline management with Wingman 

At the end of the day, what do you need for better sales pipeline management? You need to know where the obstructions between lead and paying customer are. And you want to know why customers aren’t moving to the next stage.

If only you could listen in on every call and know what the problem is. Oh wait, you can! Enter conversation intelligence. 

With Wingman’s conversation intelligence, you get smart call recordings, transcripts and call summaries so that you can find out whether it's something your reps are saying or doing wrong. If that’s what you find, you can coach them. Maybe even use Wingman’s live, in-call cues to help them improve their game on call. 

Alternatively, maybe leads are saying something that hints to a product disadvantage. Now you have documented evidence for your product team, rather than he-said-she-said from your sales reps. 

Conversation intelligence also gives you at-risk deal alerts so that if there are deals in your pipeline that need your intervention, you can rush to the rescue. 

Easy CRM integration means that you get all your deal-slash-prospect info in one place, and better raw data for your sales pipeline management.

Meet sales targets with ease when you have Wingman by your side. Sign up for a demo today. 

You, meeting your targets easily, with Wingman. 

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