Creating a customer pipeline is not a "set it and forget it" process. Not by a long shot. "It is essential that a business know, manage and update its pipeline at all times," stresses Lain Karan, a training and recruiting specialist for the Neil Chonofsky division of Mutual of Omaha Financial Services.

A pipeline is the layout of what your business has done in the past, what it is doing right now, and what it needs to do to reach your goals in the future. "Tracking is key to replicating success or avoiding past mistakes," Kirwan says. This is especially important for SMBs, which often lack the financial depth to bounce back from critical missteps. "Creating an end-to-end pipeline makes your client or customer process easy to replicate, predictable for the clients, and it protects you from making mistakes," she adds.

From an operational perspective, implementing a holistic end-to-end management process for your customer pipeline ensures a seamless process from lead generation to sales engagement to close, says Shawn Naggiar, chief revenue officer at Act-On Software, a marketing automation platform. "Understanding the pipeline in this detail enables sales management to quickly spot aberrations in deal flow, attribute those aberrations to the appropriate activity or issue, and take corrective action," he says. The key activities to monitor include raw lead generation, the flow of leads through the qualification process, transition from qualified lead to sales opportunity, and, finally, the closing of deals.

End-to-end pipeline management starts with budgeting, length of sales cycle and assignment of decision-making responsibilities, and these are generally closely tied to the lead generation and qualification processes. "Because all three normally complement one another, companies should not approach them in silos, but think about the potential impact each has on the overall strategy," says Toan Dinh, director of solutions and marketing at DisclosureNet, a developer of software that makes public disclosure documents accessible and searchable.

Some form of measurement-metrics and/or benchmarks-should be introduced early on, says Jon Ferrara, CEO of Nimble, a customer relationship management solution that leverages social media. "For example, for each visitor to your website, how many will sign up or buy a product? From these metrics, you know how many visitors you need on average to generate an order," he explains.

Incentives should be part of the pipeline management process because they can be effective performance drivers, but they should be planned and managed in a collaborative way. "Incentives are much more meaningful to those receiving them if they've had input on what those incentives are," Dinh says. However, Michael Harbron, sales and marketing director of SEOhaus, an internet marketing agency, warns against the risk of "cheapening" your products or services with indiscriminate discounting. "Incentives are fine, but they should be offered in the form of advice or information," he says.

The final pieces of the puzzle are measuring results and continuous process improvement, with the efficacy of the latter highly dependent on the integrity of the former. "More detailed measurement of the sales process inevitably results in better and earlier qualification of opportunities and shorter sales process time," Ferrara says. Key stakeholders in marketing and sales must use those measurements to engineer more streamlined sales and marketing operations and swifter movement through the customer pipeline, Naggiar adds.

Learn more:

  • Google Analytics, free tools for measuring advertising ROI and other pipeline performance metrics.
  • Website Magazine, a free quarterly online magazine on digital strategies to raise awareness, drive business, and close sales.