Anatomy of a Sales Pipeline

A sales pipeline differs from company to company. You can have as many or as few stages as you deem necessary. Although sales pipelines are not one size fits all, they all tend to follow the same general structure. 

Here are the most common stages of a pipeline and how they fit into a typical sales process. 

Lead Generation / Lead Stage

We define a lead as a potential customer in your target market with whom you’ve engaged in one-way communication. This could be a website visitor, someone who saw an ad from you, or received an email, among other activities.

Leads may spend a long time at the top of your funnel educating themselves about your product or service before moving into the next stage, or move rapidly into the qualification stage — either on their own or directly as the result of a timely engagement from you.

Check out our detailed chapter on lead generation for more information.

Prospecting / Prospect Stage

We love this summary of prospecting from Close:

“Unlike lead generation which involves reaching out to many people at a time, prospecting is a more one-on-one approach to pull in prospects that may want to buy from your business.”

Prospects are leads that have shown interest in your product and who have engaged with you in a sales conversation. 

This stage is where your sales pipeline truly begins. It’s the relationship-building stage in which you move a potential buyer from awareness to interest, or from casual interest to serious interest. Email outreach typically takes center stage in this phase, but in non-pandemic times, face-to-face networking at industry events can also play a valuable role.

Lead/Prospect Qualification

Not all leads or prospects should be weighted the same. 

Although a lead might have interacted with your company, upon further research they may not be a good fit for your product or service.

Consider questions like:

  • Does this person/company have the budget for your product?
  • Does your product/service actually meet their needs?
  • Do they seem like they’re in buying mode?

The answer to these questions, at a minimum, should be yes. If there are more negative responses than positive they are likely not a great lead. 

Some of this qualification can happen in parallel to your prospecting efforts. Research both the lead and the buyer using tools like LinkedIn or Klarity, examine their website to see whom they’re selling to and how they position themselves, and see if you can identify current customers who match their profile or buyer persona.

Qualifying your leads will help you sort out the people that likely won’t buy your product or service and allow your sales reps to spend their time and resources on nurturing the most promising leads down your pipeline. 

Check out our detailed chapter on lead qualification for more information.

Contact

The contact stage is exactly what it sounds like. Here a sales rep on your team will initiate contact with a prospect (usually an MQL). 

For an SQL, this might take the form of a cold call or email. In other cases sales reps will use techniques such as social selling and initiate contact through social media. 

During the contact stage there should be a flow of information from your sales rep to the prospect so that they are best informed about your product. Essentially this is where you are selling them on why your product is the best on the market. 

Offer

You should move to this stage only when there is an established relationship with the prospect and they have all the information necessary to understand who your company is and what you offer. 

Here you present your product or service with a well thought out and tailored proposal. 

Close

After laying out exactly what you have to offer it is time to try and close the sale. Some prospects may say yes right away and that makes closing the deal fairly simple. 

Others may waver and negotiation may be required in order for your prospect to feel comfortable enough to buy your product or service.

Nurture

Just because a prospect says yes doesn’t mean your work is done. You want to make sure to strengthen your relationship with your customer and build a level of trust. Customer retention is just as important as customer acquisition. 

The best way to keep your customer is to periodically remind them that you exist and continually make them feel important. 

This can come in the form of an email or custom offers to reward their loyalty to your company.