In the high octane world of large deal size, long and complex sales cycles involving many buyers and influencers, there’s an awful lot to think about and an awful lot of work to do. It seems unfortunate, then, that forecasting such deals remains a black art, despite the technology in place focused on helping this tricky area. This is because the technology is simply the delivery mechanism, and if your data and discipline is weak, what it delivers is weak.

Many hours get taken up in forecast calls and meetings, with jargon like ‘drop dead’, ‘best guess’ and ‘upside’ permeating them and generally obfuscating the truth, or as close to the truth as we can manage. There’s a much bandied about statistic that forecasts are about 50% accurate. That means you might as well forget your forecast calls and flip a coin.

That doesn’t stop sales organisations around the world doing forecasts. Since your pipeline is really just an extension of your forecast, looking further into your future, it follows that for many organisations the pipeline really is a pipedream, a funnel full of fantasy.

Outside the world of complex sales – and who knows what proportion of all sales that is, maybe 80% – there are hundreds of thousands of sales organisations that don’t do forecasts or count pipeline. They don’t set quotas or targets, they might not pay commission, they don’t do deal reviews. They have folk out there selling and what comes in, comes in.

I don’t know how they can run their business with any confidence at all, especially in tough times. I think in general it’s a function of sales being so late to the top table in business. It’s something people have always done based on their intuition. Up until recently you couldn’t study sales at University or College. There was a marked absence of methodology, theory, training and formal structure. Compare this with the much newer profession of marketing which has the best part of a century’s curricular preparation under its belt.

So here, dear reader, are my top 6 pointers for a sales pipeline that means something to your business and that you can plan around:

1) Define what a sales opportunity is for your business. An opportunity is more than a lead. An opportunity is a lead + BANT, where your prospect has identified there is Budget, you’re speaking to the person with Authority, they have shared a Need for what you can deliver, and there is a Time by when they need to act. If it’s not an opportunity, it shouldn’t be in your pipeline. It’s not real enough and it clogs your pipeline with uncertainty and inaccuracy

2) Get a sales process. A sales process is a series of buying stages your customers go through to buy your stuff.  You might need a separate process for each group of customers buying a product or service from you. Lumping all your prospects into one sales process – unless you’re very lucky – will cloud and average out your data, which is not good

3) Define each stage. What needs to be in place on the customer’s side for the deal to be at that stage? Examples might be: the customer has agreed to an exploratory meeting; the customer has shared the BANT criteria; the customer has confirmed your price is acceptable

4) Get your reps’ to buy in to what you’re doing, so they contribute to refining the process and see the benefits of following and recording it

5) Make sure you have consistency across the business.  If your sales stages mean exactly the same to each rep – and they record their progress that way – you have consistent, reliable objective data in the forecast and pipeline

6) Make the technology easy to use, so it gives more back than your reps have to put in. You want to achieve the following virtuous circle: the more I use it – the better my information – the more deals I close – the more progress or money I make – the more I use it.  Hint: spreadsheets are not the answer, you need to use something browser-based so that there’s always a single up-to-date version.  It’s way too tedious for everyone otherwise

An accurate pipeline helps you plan for success and get early warnings of potential problems ahead. But you gotta get the basics right first.