Sales Pipeline Stages: A Breakdown

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Sales Management : 9 min read

Sales Pipeline Stages: A Breakdown

Your company’s sales pipeline is the road that every prospect drives down to become a customer; sales pipeline stages help pave that road, and can turn it into a highway.

Each stage allows you to visualize your sales process and track the next steps required to progress prospects towards purchase. For example, here’s the sales pipeline view we use in Copper:

Copper CRM Sales Pipeline

Every business has its way of selling (aka. its “sales motion”), and its sales pipeline stages should reflect that.

That said, there are some core principles to keep in mind for pipeline stages that tend to be quite similar across businesses. After all, no matter what you’re selling and who you’re selling to, you typically have to identify new prospects, engage them, and evaluate whether they’re the right fit before finalizing the deal.

But there’s something else that most businesses have in common: their sales pipeline stages aren’t well defined.

When this happens, one stage blurs into each other, and your pipeline is no longer an effective tool for mapping out your sales process.

The 4 main pipeline stages

Because no two sales processes are alike, most businesses perform different activities to drive leads from initial point of contact through to sale.

For instance, software companies might offer free trials so prospects can test the product before opening their wallets. Since they’ve signed up for a trial, they’ve made it clear that they’re most likely a qualified lead that’s interested in the software.

A real estate agent, on the other hand, would likely need to get on the phone with a prospect during this qualification stage since the personal relationship is such a critical part of the sale.

That said, the process can usually be broken down into the same top-level stages:

Some businesses use spreadsheets to create and manage their sales pipelines, but it’s actually not very efficient or collaborative. Instead, it makes more sense to use a CRM like Copper, which allows you to create a more streamlined sales process and close deals in less time.

How does this happen?

For starters, Copper makes it easy to capture the crucial details about your leads—who they are, why they need your solution, as well as what you’ve learned from conversations with them:

capturing details about leads in copper crm

As you take leads through your sales stages, these digital records really come in handy.

That’s just one advantage of using a CRM over a spreadsheet. But there are other benefits to using a CRM to manage your pipeline stages too:

A stronger, more predictable process makes it easier for you to sell.

There’s no guessing when it comes to taking the next step. Each stage of your sales process is clearly defined in your CRM, and it’ll remind you when it’s time to reach out to prospects and customers.

This not only makes sure that you move prospects consistently through the pipeline, it also shortens your sales cycle and helps you avoid missed follow-ups.

Automating easy tasks saves time and allows you to focus on what matters most.

The steps you take to woo prospects are going to be largely the same across deals.

Your CRM helps you maintain a clear, logical, and consistent process—and can automate routine tasks (like reminding you to reach out to a prospect if you’ve gone a while without hearing from them) so you can focus on building those sales relationships.

Fewer sales opportunities get lost or forgotten.

With a stronger process and a lighter load (in terms of tasks you need to do manually), you can spend more time generating leads for your business and adding them to your pipeline.

But remember, the more leads that end up there, the easier it is to lose track of them. Your CRM is a great source of information and insight about your opportunities, and can help you stay on top of what you need to do.

More accurately predict your workload and cashflow.

Your CRM doesn’t just track the prospects that you’ve got in your pipeline. It also provides information on how likely you are to turn a lead into a customer, how much revenue that customer might bring, and whether you have enough coverage to hit your monthly or quarterly targets.

Whether you’re a solopreneur or a growing business with a small team, you need a reliable and repeatable sales process. Consistency is key when it comes to selling efficiently.

Here’s how you’ll accomplish that at each of the key sales pipeline stages:

Stage 1: Prospecting

In order to use a sales pipeline, you have to first fill it with prospects. But where do you find them? And is it solely up to you to make the introduction?

Here’s what you should be doing at this stage:

Create an ideal customer profile.

The first stage is about identifying the best leads for your business. It’s critical to the whole process because the quality of leads entering your pipeline will directly affect your revenue.

So where do you start? How do you actually find people who’ll buy your product or service?

An ideal customer profile, or ICP, is a breakdown of your best customers based on key demographics like industry, profession, location, budget, and other factors that influence their buying decisions.

Ideally, you should have a good habit of logging data in your CRM—about both your prospects and existing customers. Using this information, it’s easier to figure out who your customers are and where you find the most success when you’re pitching. If you notice any recurring traits or patterns, awesome! This likely describes an ideal customer for you.

With Copper, we can filter our contacts for current customers (or active engagements) and get to a pretty detailed level to figure out what made these people go from prospect to customer:

filtering people in copper crm
Pro-tip 👇

Who's your ICP?

Use this free template to figure out who your ideal customer is.

Make time for finding leads every day.

The more you practice working through the sales process, the more comfortable and confident you’ll become in identifying leads.

Defining your ICP will help, but it’s also a good idea to schedule time every day (even if it’s just 30 minutes at a time) for prospecting. You can approach this in a few ways:

Email

Let’s say you’re a real estate agent and noticed that a new couple just put their home up for sale. It looks as though they’re trying to sell it on their own, so you want to introduce yourself as a local expert who’s there to answer questions they might have about the market.

So, you send them a prospecting email. It could be as simple as:

Hello Mr. and Mrs. Johnson!

My name is Jane and I’ve been a long-time resident of Savannah (going on 30 years now!) I noticed you put your home up for sale and wanted to see if I could be of assistance.

I know how difficult it can be to crack into this market, and might have a few tricks up my sleeve that can help you seal the deal with a buyer.

I’d love to set up a time to chat about your plans for your home at 25 Winchester Drive. I’m free tomorrow between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. if that works with your schedules!

Talk soon,

Jane Mansfield

Now, the beauty of emailing prospects is that you’re probably going to re-use some form of this message with similar prospects. So, instead of writing these emails from scratch every time, save them to your CRM as a template.

All you’d need to do is open the email template, personalize a few details, and send it along.

And because Copper is conveniently integrated with Gmail, you can send this email directly from your lead’s profile in Copper:

Copper CRM Email Template

If you’re already working in your Gmail inbox and it’s more convenient to stay put, use the Copper extension to email the prospect:

Copper CRM Gmail Extension - Send Email

Find the prospect you want to email and click on the mail icon in the top-right of their profile. If you have email templates saved in Copper, they'll appear here.

You can do the same thing from an open email window, too. Rather than write your email from scratch, use the template button in your Copper toolbar to fill in the message for you:

Gmail Email - Choose Template

Writing prospects can take up a lot of time in your sales pipeline. If you can find a CRM or a Google Chrome extension or some kind of tool that saves you time in this step, do it!

Call

If you want to call a prospect instead of (or in addition to) emailing them, there’s no need to recreate the wheel there either.

Just like with emailing, you’re probably going to make the same kinds of prospecting calls over and over again.

I’d highly recommend saving your scripts or call templates somewhere that you (and anyone else on your team) can easily find.

A CRM is great for this too. If you don’t have a “call templates” section, you can always improvise and save it under email templates, and just name it “Prospecting Call Template X”:

templates in copper crm

A big advantage of saving your prospecting call templates is that it makes it easier to collaborate on refining your intros and improving them as you experiment and discover more effective approaches.

This can become a collaborative space for your team to strategize how to approach prospects and get the conversation started. And if you’re on the hunt for some proven sales scripts, check out these resources:

Write a letter

You could also try a unique approach in prospecting: write a handwritten letter.

That’s right! Take that message you would’ve otherwise sent through email (or left on a prospect’s voicemail) and write it out by hand. You can even add a little treat to the envelope to make sure prospects notice it when they collect their mail.

(And if you don’t feel like handwriting a bunch of letters, there are services for that.)

Just don’t forget to follow up using more modern methods (i.e. email and phone). While a letter is a good way to grab attention, it’s not trackable—but it may win you some points if you know your prospect is more old-school or would appreciate handwritten letters.

Let your leads come to you with automated inbound lead generation.

Generating inbound leads improves your prospecting. Why? Because inbound leads are the ones that find you—through your website, Facebook, or other forms of advertising—and take it upon themselves to reach out first.

Unlike cold leads that aren’t expecting you to reach out, inbound leads are warm; they’re already thinking about making a purchase.

This gives you a chance to take some of the burden of prospecting off your shoulders.

And the best way to generate inbound leads? You’ll need a few tech tools to do it.

Lucky for us, Copper integrates with all kinds of tools, so we definitely leverage those connections to get inbound leads.

Here are a few examples:

Google Sheets

You don’t need to work with data in one app and then manually recreate it in another. It’s possible to make your favorite apps talk to one another, even without the help of a software developer or any knowledge about how to use APIs.

All you need is a connector like Zapier or IFTTT to build the connection. Even better, these connectors usually have dozens or hundreds of “formulas” you can use to set it up for you.

Take, for instance, Zapier which has over 200 Google Sheets-Copper integrations. All you need to do is allow Zapier to log into your apps and then tell it where to put your data. For example:

  • When a new person is added to Copper, Zapier automatically adds a new row with their info to your selected Google Sheet.
  • When a new entry is added to your Google Sheet, a new Copper Lead is generated with that data.

It’s not just contact information that can be copied from one app to another with Zapier. For example, you can auto-create opportunities in Copper when a Google Sheet is filled out. Or you can create a new task for yourself (like to send a welcome letter to a new lead):

Zapier Google Sheets Copper

Whether someone manually adds lead data to a spreadsheet, or you have an automated process to fill it with leads, this integration takes out that extra step of moving data into the pipeline as an opportunity.

This would be useful if you’re collecting leads from event signups (like for a webinar or open house), related product purchases, and so on.

Your website

Zapier makes it just as easy to automate the transfer of lead data from your website’s contact form to your Copper sales pipeline with Mailchimp integrations.

If you use Mailchimp to create forms and collect leads—say, for a newsletter signup or a free ebook download—this integration will instantly take new form fills and populate your pipeline with the leads:

Copper-MailChimp Integration

Social media

Zapier also has a pre-built Facebook Ads-Copper integration:

Zapier Facebook Ads Copper

This way, when you run an ad on Facebook, you don’t have to go through the extra steps of collecting lead information from Facebook or a tracking spreadsheet and then importing that into your CRM—Zapier will automatically take those ad-generated leads and add them to Copper as new leads.

Stage 2: Qualification

Without proper qualification of leads, you’d be spending equal time on everyone—even if some of them aren't the right fit for your company.

That can result in missed opportunities; if you don’t know who your high-value prospects are, you can’t spend that extra time and effort to sell to them.

Research shows that 67% of lost sales are a consequence of salespeople not efficiently qualifying their prospects before taking them through the sales process.

Here are three qualification tactics that can help you identify who is a good customer in the making.

1. Research

Some of the initial encounters you have with prospects are going to be light on details, especially if your lead is just someone who filled out a form on your website. What can you decipher about a lead from their name and email address?

Well, thanks to the internet, everyone has a (digital) paper trail. Use that to your advantage before you spend too much time on them.

You could use:

  • LinkedIn to research a lead’s background (and, later, find new leads similar to your clients).
  • Other social platforms to see what they talk about, top concerns they have, the kinds of products they recommend, and so on.
  • A Google search to see if they have any history as a consumer—reviews they’ve given, blog posts they’ve written, etc.

To take it a step further, you could score your leads to rank their sales-readiness. You’re basically using a points system—you can award and subtract points for a lead based on different characteristics and actions taken that show they intend (or don’t intend) to buy:

sample lead scoring

Based on these points, you’ll know how to prioritize these leads. (Generally, you’ll want to reach out to the ones with the highest scores first because these are the leads who are the easiest to sell to, the most likely to spend a lot of money on you, and/or the closest to buying.)

Bonus tip: if you’re using Copper, you can add lead scoring to your CRM and really keep all the data on your prospects in one place:

adding lead scoring to copper crm

2. Use a framework like BANT to save time

One of the most popular frameworks for further qualifying leads is described by the easy-to-remember acronym BANT.

BANT stands for:

  • Budget: Can a prospect afford your offering?
  • Authority: Do they have purchasing power?
  • Need: Does the prospect need your product or service?
  • Timeline: When are they looking to buy?

This is a useful set of qualifiers to help you quickly assess a prospect’s fit. Depending on what you’re selling, not all of these may apply (or you may add others to the list).

The key here is to understand how sales-ready your leads are so you avoid spending time on someone who isn’t seriously considering buying yet.

Check out this article to learn more about how to use the BANT framework to qualify leads quicker.

3. Talk with them.

There’s only one way to really qualify a lead: have a conversation with them. You may have already done this if you actively approached them during the prospecting phase.

But there’s a difference between:

“Hey, I want to quickly introduce myself and make sure you’re the right person to talk to.”

And:

“Let’s schedule a quick chat to talk about your pain, what you need, and see if we can find a solution for you.”

You need that in-depth conversation so you can get information and more importantly, make sure the prospect has all of the information they need to move forward. It’s an important conversation, and you need to show up prepared.

If you plan to meet them in person, choose the right venue. If you plan to meet them virtually, schedule your conference room and test your tech equipment.

Know the attendees on both sides. The last thing you want to be doing is scrambling during a demo or looking for information because you weren’t prepared for the call.

Pro-tip: Don’t forget about planning your questions and talking points ahead of time.

At the end of the call, gauge how they’re feeling and propose next steps.

“So, it looks as though your team regularly exceeds project budgets and it’s cutting too deeply into your margins. If you want to hit that Q4 goal of $500,000, then we’re going to need to remove some of that time waste.

“Give me 24 hours. I’d like to talk to my manager about which plan is right for your company. I believe you’d do well with the Professional plan since it saves our clients about 25 hours of work each week. But I want to crank the numbers and see if there’s an even better solution. Do you mind if I reach out tomorrow with a formal plan and pricing?”

What you’ve done here is this:

  • Zeroed in on their pain.
  • Summarized what you discussed.
  • Given them next steps to look forward to.

You’re not putting pressure on them to make a decision on the spot. The wheels are spinning in your head because you believe you have a solution for them, but you want to make sure this is a good fit—for both of you.

Just remember to make a note of what you talked about in your CRM so you can refer back to it during your next call:

Adding a Note to Copper crm about leads

Then, set a reminder for yourself to prepare the proposal and deliver it by the time you promised, either in your calendar or your CRM.

Copper adds your tasks and reminders straight to your Google Calendar thanks to its handy G Suite integration:

Copper CRM New Task in Google Calendar

This is the last chance you have to qualify your lead and make sure you’re not wasting time sending them a proposal.

In most cases, if you get to the end of the call and have a good feeling about it and they don’t hesitate when you mention following up, you should be good to go.

Stage 3: Proposal

Now, the moment of truth.

Once you’ve qualified the lead, it’s time to send them a detailed proposal laying out what will be offered, at what price, and for how long. With all of the work that you’ve already put in, this is a stage where deals are often won or lost.

When executed properly, proposals not only help close the deal but also make the sale larger than it otherwise would have been.

There are a number of things you should do to maximize your chances that the lead will say, “Where do I sign?” instead of, “Eh, I need to think about it”:

Use a standard template.

Having a go-to template will save you time and make sure you cover all your bases. As you learn what works and what doesn’t for your business, you can refine your template over time. Customers will also appreciate not having to wait a long time for you to send a proposal over.

Whether this template lives in Google Drive or a formal proposal tool (like PandaDoc), share it with your team and make sure you’re using it consistently.

Include the right level of detail.

As for writing the proposal itself, you’ll probably be able to use a lot of what’s already in your proposal template.

Still, go through it with a fine-toothed comb before you finalize and send. You want to make sure all the essentials are covered.

For instance:

  • Summary of your prospect’s pain or need
  • Proposed solution with all specifications clearly laid out
  • Pricing
  • Next steps, timeline, etc.
  • Terms and conditions
  • Frequently asked questions

This should neatly summarize everything you discussed while also clearly proposing what you’re going to do for your almost-customer. They should walk away with all the answers they need to make a decision.

Make it all about the customer.

Remember: this is about proposing a solution for their pain, not advertising how amazing your product or solution is.

They don’t care about the product. They have a problem, are looking for a solution, and want to see results. So, when you put the finishing touches on this proposal, make sure the spotlight remains on them.

For example, say you’re selling software. Instead of saying:

“Our product has:

  • Feature A
  • Feature B
  • Feature C”

The proposal should instead say something like:

“With Product X, you can expect:

  • 25% in cost-savings
  • To retain at least 33% more customers
  • A 10+% increase in revenue from Facebook ads

This is your final chance to show them how life-changing your solution is—focus on the benefits!

If you don’t hear anything back within a few days, take control of the situation and reach out.

Don’t be afraid to ask for the sale.

If you’ve followed the steps outlined above and gotten to this stage in the process, you’ve earned the right to ask for the sale.

And if you they say “No” or “Not right now”, make sure you find out the “why” behind it so you know how to counter their argument.

Pro-tip 👇

Seal more deals.

Learn how to close sales and seal deals with this free guide.

Stage 4: Closing

The proposal is out. You’ve done all of the hard work in partnership with the prospect, and gotten to the end of the road.

This stage ends in one of two ways: the prospect becomes a customer (wahoo!), or the prospect makes the decision to hold off for one reason or another.

Regardless of the outcome, there are a few things you should do to close things out.

If you’ve won a sale, you should follow up with:

  • A “Thank You” immediately after the sale closes. A handwritten note would be a nice touch, depending on the depth of the engagement.
  • If needed, a simple onboarding or training process to get your new customer up and running successfully.
  • A 30-day “Just checking in!” email or call to see how things are going.

Don’t forget about the importance of ongoing support and customer service, as well as future opportunities to provide them with free content (to add value to their solution) and discuss potential add-ons and upgrades.

Pro-tip: These follow-ups are a huge opportunity to save time since they can be easily automated with a tool like—you guessed it—a CRM.

In the event that you lose a deal, don’t write the prospect off just yet. Preferences and circumstances change. Here are some ways to stay top-of-mind without irritating them—and learn from the experience so you continue to improve your approach:

Nurture the relationship.

Do your best to maintain the relationship with occasional emails or phone calls to check in. This is another reason it’s important to have a CRM—not only can it support your sales process, it also helps you keep track of prospects that can become customers in the future even if they say “no” now.

Carefully review your previous interactions.

It’s always helpful to review your emails, call recordings, and presentation material whether you win or lose—be as unbiased as you can.

You’ll notice important variations in the way you present your solution. It could even be as minor as making your body language more open and positive. You may also note differences in how your prospects responded.

When combined with your post-sale research, you’ll eventually be able to anticipate red flags and pivot to keep a lead who’s leaving before it’s too late.

Ask for feedback.

Ask your prospects and customers what they appreciated about your approach, and what they feel you could have done better or differently. You’ll get answers to help you improve your game while also showing respect for the prospect’s judgment (e.g. “Can you teach me something?”).

Pro-tip: Take something away from every new interaction with a prospect—whether it’s money in your pocket, feedback on how you can improve for next time, or both.

Polish up your sales pipeline stages today.

It’s true that you can go out and attract prospects and close deals without clearly defined pipeline stages. As they say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.

But it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to grow your business to its full potential without a process-oriented and efficient approach.

At the end of the day, you need to have a purposeful plan for every stage in your pipeline in order to boost your bottom line .

From the initial contact with a lead, to the final close of a deal, you need to have a sales pipeline structure in place. What does yours look like?