Sales is an art. On the other hand, sales operations—the process of measuring and managing your sales effort—is a science.
Successful sales teams can forecast their results and stay organized with a level of precision that would impress most engineering teams. This level of organization starts with managing a crucial building block for any sales organization—their sales pipeline.
What is a sales pipeline?
A sales pipeline is a framework that describes the stages a lead moves through when engaging with a salesperson. Typically, these stages flow from least likely to highly likely to convert customers. It allows a company to track potential buyers as they progress through its purchasing process. All types of sales teams use sales pipelines, from enterprise SaaS businesses to mobile phone plan providers. A sales pipeline captures the stages a lead moves through when dealing with a salesperson.
Sales pipelines are typically created and managed by sales teams through a collaborative effort involving sales reps, sales operations, and sales executives.
However, other departments across a business also reference the sales pipeline and its stages. Executives use it to help inform annual budgets, while marketers use it to better understand how to support their sales team.
What are the seven sales pipeline stages?
- Lead qualification
- Demo or full meeting
- Negotiation and commitment
- 6. Opportunity won
Every business can define its sales pipeline stages, which should broadly reflect its sales process. If your business has a unique sales cycle, you may want to consider defining unique pipeline stages. However, most sales teams tend to organize their pipelines into the following seven stages:
Consider prospecting as a precursor to the sales pipeline. Leads in the prospecting stage haven’t yet had a conversation with a salesperson. They are at this stage because a salesperson has identified them as a likely conversion, or they’ve been identified in a customer acquisition campaign by the marketing team. The salesperson might be planning on reaching out to them, for example, via email or LinkedIn. Once the lead and a salesperson have communicated, the lead moves on to the next stage.
2. Lead qualification
This stage involves mutual evaluation between the lead and the sales rep. Most sales teams have a series of criteria to qualify leads, which can include location, budget, decision-making power, and fit for need. The salesperson’s main goal is to understand if their lead fits these criteria (while establishing a rapport and understanding their pain points, or problems). If a lead passes this stage, they’re typically referred to as a sales-qualified lead (SQL). This indicates the salesperson feels they are a valuable lead and worth taking through the next steps.
You can skip this phase if the lead has been pre-qualified in some way—for example, the salesperson already knows them personally or verifies their criteria through a platform like LinkedIn.
3. Demo or full meeting
If both the lead and salesperson see an opportunity for a conversion, they move on to a more in-depth meeting. The goal of this meeting is to go beyond marketing materials to concretely demonstrate the features and benefits of the product or service being offered.
For tech product-based companies, this often involves a product demo. The salesperson might share their screen and log in to a demo version of the product to show their lead how it works firsthand.
For service-based companies, like agencies, the meeting might take the form of a needs assessment or capabilities overview. The salesperson might ask in-depth questions about the lead’s needs and goals: “What type of cost per acquisition do you expect?” or “Who on your team would we work with on this project?” They may then introduce members of their leadership team or present case studies of their work.
The end goal of this meeting is for both parties to agree on pricing and other parameters, which the salesperson can then use to create a proposal. This can mean confirming the product has the right features, defining the engagement strategy, and sharing budget considerations.
Next, the salesperson presents pricing (or pricing options) to the lead, typically with a written summary from the demo or full meeting. Although a proposal can be presented person-to-person, it should include a written component, like a contract—but more often, a shorter, simplified quote sheet, slide deck, or summary of services. This way, the lead has something official to agree to.
The salesperson’s goal in this stage is to have their lead indicate their commitment.
5. Negotiation and commitment
If you sell to small businesses, you may be able to just send the contract and move the deal to the next step. However, if you sell to larger businesses or keen negotiators, you will likely go through this stage: negotiation and commitment.
Here, all possible stakeholders—including vendor management, finance, other executives, and other end users—are brought in to ensure the final contract terms, from product access to payment windows, fit their needs.
The salesperson’s goal is to create a final contract to which all stakeholders agree.
6. Opportunity won
You did it! This stage, sometimes called “closed won” or simply “won,” is when the deal is done. At this point, the contract is signed and the salesperson’s job is nearly complete. When sales teams talk about their “close rate,” they’re referring to the percentage of leads that passed lead qualification and made it to opportunity won.
The salesperson’s job isn’t entirely done once the contract is signed. A high-performing sales team also makes sure their former lead (now existing customer) receives exceptional customer service, from check-ins to onboarding calls about a tech product to setting up new add-on services.
Savvy salespeople know that a positive post-sale experience (sometimes called customer success) can lead to new referrals and upsells, and can increase customer lifetime value.
What are the benefits of a sales pipeline?
An organized sales pipeline serves two purposes: measurement and action. Think of these as looking backward and forward: sales pipeline measurement allows the team to look back and understand how things went relative to expectations, whereas sales reps use pipeline stages to inform future actions.
Sales leaders use sales pipeline stages to inform forecasts and understand how to improve their sales team’s performance. For example, they might see in their sales CRM that they have $200,000 worth of deals in the “negotiation and commitment” stage expected to close in November. If November passes and they only close $50,000, the sales team could then revisit the pipeline to review where they fell short and learn how to improve.
Sales professionals can use the pipeline’s stages to understand how to best communicate with potential sales leads. This is sometimes called pipeline management and involves a series of actions to track lead activity. For example, in the lead qualification stage, the focus is on learning about a prospect’s business and determining if it’s a fit for the products and services offered. This step is often more casual and relationship-building in nature. Meanwhile, at the proposal stage, the salesperson shifts to presenting more official documentation of services and pricing, with a focus on communicating how their offer fits the prospect’s needs. The focus is on helping the prospect feel good about committing.
Sales pipeline vs. sales funnel
A sales pipeline captures the stages a lead moves through when engaging with a salesperson. The stages almost always flow from unlikely to close to highly likely to close. In this sense, it’s very similar to a marketing funnel, also known as a sales funnel.
However, the two concepts serve different purposes. A sales pipeline only captures the stages in which a lead is in contact with a salesperson. A sales, or marketing, funnel offers a broader lens. It includes the lead’s full experience, from the first time they hear about the business to interactions on the company’s website or social media to their eventual sales conversation.
Sales pipeline stages FAQ
How do you structure a sales pipeline?
A sales pipeline is structured in stages based on your company’s sales process, typically from the earliest point of contact with a sales person to conversion, which is when you become a customer. These stages are usually tracked through a CRM (customer relationship management) platform.
How many stages can a sales pipeline have?
There is no upper or lower limit to the number of stages a pipeline can have. The stages of a sales pipeline should reflect the steps of your sales process. However, a typical sales pipeline has between four and 10 stages.
What are the sales stages?
The seven most common sales stages are:
- Lead qualification
- Demo or meeting
- Negotiation and commitment
- Opportunity won