Filling Your Pipeline & Minimising Lead Times

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Pipeline filling

Make sure instead that you are constantly filling your pipeline. Going a step further, I would say that you need to get out and meet as many people as possible who could be potential clients, regardless of where they are in their buying cycle.

The reason for this – you can’t grow a company on short-term opportunities alone. If you only focus on getting briefs or RFPs in the door so that you can pitch, then you are doing new business in the wrong way.

I’ve seen this sort of thinking a lot of times. People expecting to win a big juicy piece of work within 3 months of starting with us. It can happen, but it’s rare.

Short-term wins vs long-term growth

Let’s think about the short-term RFP. We contact a marketing director, she likes what she hears, she sends us a brief. Consider what she knows about our client – not a lot other than what we have talked about on the phone. Unfortunately (or “brilliant!” according to those in the wrong), our client will have been added as a challenger, late-entry company to a list of 5, 8 or 10 other companies. The marketing director has carefully selected the others over time and has probably met them a few times already. She may have seen some work in the press that she loved. She may know some of the other companies by working with them in the past. For me, that puts the challenger, late-entry company at a huge disadvantage already.

So why would you want this brief? “Because we can win it. Our normal pitch win rate is 2 in 3.”

I ask, “Is that for your inbound leads? Where the marketing director has had a good look at you over time, perhaps you have met with them, or someone has told them about your great work? Would I be right?”


Meet everyone and just be friendly?

Let’s consider this then. You need to go to all meetings. Change your thinking from being short-term into long-term growth. You need to meet everyone, whether they are ready to release a brief in 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, 12 months or 18 months.

I watched a company grow from 20 people up to over 100 within 5 years with exactly this sort of thinking. Every meeting had to be attended and get information. Chat to them. Don’t pitch. Creds are a no-no. Don’t even think about getting the laptop out. Just talk and make friends. Have a laugh. Invite them to the next event you’re hosting. And once you’ve seen them, if they don’t currently have anything on the table then don’t go in the huff and never contact them. One day they will and if you are the nice guy that always phones to ask how they’re getting on then you will eventually get on the pitch list.

The company I mentioned had that long-term view of how new business worked and it paid off handsomely. I saw many times how a brief would come in, 18 months after the first meeting, and it would be for hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions. And they were not the last-minute challenger company. They were the company of choice.

I’m not saying that you must wait 18 months either. That would be nonsense. 18 months is an extreme example.

The lead time in our business for winning new work can be anything from 3 months to 18 months (our average is worked out at 5 months).  We often, therefore, have our clients asking us how they can win work quicker – or at least minimise it being at the upper end of the scale.

There is no easy solution to this, but Icebreaker can help.

Here are 7 tips on how to get sales quickly and minimise your lead time:
  1. Go after accounts that you can win:
    • Where’s your experience? What’s your core speciality?  Really?  Then try to win similar work from similar companies.
  2. Don’t go after companies who have rosters or procurement departments:
    • If you go after Coke, Diageo, Unilever and Nike then expect a long wait. Not only do they mostly have procurement departments that take a while to go through the induction process, but they tend to only review their rosters every two years or so. You have to play a very long game with these types of prospects.
  3. Target smaller wins to build into accounts:
    • Don’t ever go looking to win a full account from a new client. We’ve found that as sectors have matured, so have their approaches to hiring companies.  They’ll probably want to test you first on some smaller campaign, so say yes, blow their socks off with how good your work is.  It may only be small beans at this stage, but its work and it should build into something bigger iyour company is any good.
  4. Avoid companies/pitches with multiple stakeholders:
    • Have you pitched to a room full of 10 stakeholders before? We have.  And the decision took months.  Not just because they don’t agree, but because two of them have taken 4 months to respond to the initial internal email conversation they were having.  And not one of them turned up to the meeting afterwards to discuss who to go with.
  5. Get into the buying cycle early:
    • If they have a brief ready to hand out, then they have already carried out their due diligence and have a handful of companies in mind that they want to pitch for the work. So, the pitch process is longer, getting everyone in the same room time and time again.  This means delays.  Get in and meet with the prospect, help them write the brief and you’ll find 8 times out of 10 that the brief doesn’t ever get sent to anyone else.
  6. Blow the opposition away – be creative:
    • Do something that shows you are the folk for the job. Design something, build something, invent something, do a test campaign, create something that hasn’t been created before.  It depends on the work, but do something out of the ordinary that makes the prospect think, “they’re the fella’s for me!”
  7. Be active:
    • You want your company to be a leader. Use social media and content marketing to help you get noticed.  It should be said, this is something every company should be doing all the time as it’s necessary in today’s world.  If you don’t, then you’ll never be noticed.  And you won’t get briefs landing in your inbox that no one else ever receives.

As I said, there isn’t an easy solution to this, but it’s about being sensible and not just targeting everyone out there.  You must be smart.  Smarter than the other company that’s looking to win all the same clients as you are.

You also need to work internally on your approach to winning new business. So before you even begin you need to do all of this below:

Define your sales cycle

The sales cycle is fuzzy for most companies. They write content, they go to events, they chat to people, they arrange meetings with people, they get briefs, they respond, they win some they lose some. They qualify at some stage along the way. The point is – defining your sales cycle is not difficult. In 2-3 hours in a room with a whiteboard you can define 2 sales processes – one for incoming and one for outbound. And of course, content, the internet and social media has changed the sales process – but the old linear sales cycle is still very relevant in the latter stages of any sell and you can always optimise.

Typical sales processes might look like this:

– Inbound:

  • Receive call [Discover and qualify with 5 key questions]
  • Meet [full discovery meeting with defined outputs, find out client’s buying criteria and close to next stage]
  • Receive brief [or not]
  • 2nd meeting to present proposal [demonstrate solutions with business benefits and costs]
  • Negotiation delivery and fees
  • Win/loss

– Outbound:

  • Make first call [state value proposition and establish initial interest]
  • Send info [short format, raise interest, highlight benefits]
  • 2nd call close to meeting
  • 1st meeting discovery [close to the proposal]
  • Then the latter stages of the cycle for inbound.
Write a game plan for each stage of the process and align your content

The crucial point is that at each stage of the process you need a clear objective, usually just to get to the next stage. Everything you then do becomes about connecting each stage.

Get input from your people too. If you enforce it then it will probably fail for lack of buy-in or because you’ll get it wrong so get people’s input in order to improve adoption.

Set benchmarks

What should your conversion rate be from first call to meeting? 15%? 10%? 5%? 50%? What about from second call to meeting?

Once you have agreed what you think is possible, based on past experience, then you can always aim for this target.  If you are way below then something needs to change.  If you are way above, perhaps you set the benchmark too low in the first place (or you are just doing amazing).

Educate everybody who sells

The simpler you can make it, the quicker people will adopt it. The training will take some time and it helps to explain the rationale. It’s usually necessary to do some coaching or shadowing too, and then monitoring to make ensure people stick to it, and it’s a good idea to document it, even if that’s only doing PDFs of any diagrams you draw using your phone camera or making videos of the training.

It’s important to help people improve performance through working together as a team. If you can get your people to see what’s in it for them – e.g. promotion or better bonuses – then there’s a very good chance that they will start to help by spotting improvements that you hadn’t even thought of…

Monitor and optimise

Six Sigma, Kaizen, Brailsford’s Aggregation of Marginal Gains – the lessons from everything from manufacturing to cycling tell us that optimisation increases performance and by finding improvements in all the areas that impact the whole the aggregate improvement will make a big impact on overall success.

Sales is no different. Left to a team of people without an overall process the results will be inconsistent, unpredictable and sub-optimal, dependent on human vagaries. I’m not saying make people slave to the process – anything but that – get your people to help define the process. The point is that without the process you have no means to measure and optimise.

Compare against your benchmarks and when you identify weaknesses, take action to improve it. That could be by automation, it could be improving the data, it could be by qualifying out bad opportunities, or it could be improving the process and training in the new process. The improvements you make can make a big difference – in a recent example we increased the conversion rate of one stage of our pipeline from 25% to over 70% – increasing our productivity by almost half again.

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