How To Build a Sales Pipeline: The Step-By-Step Guide

man on laptop building sales pipeline

There’s an old saying in sales that “pipeline saves lives.” 

So it’s not surprising that everyone at an organization’s go-to-market team is responsible for building a strong sales pipeline

It can be a struggle though. 

Finding the right prospects and nurturing those relationships can be broken down into a step-by-step process. 

Key takeaways

  • There’s a difference between your sales pipeline, sales process, and sales funnel. We break them all down. 
  • From prospecting to post-purchase, we explain each stage of the sales pipeline as well as key challenges + technologies for each one. 
  • A step-by-step guide to putting together your own sales pipeline. 

Here’s how to build a sales pipeline and why it matters.

What is a sales pipeline?

A sales pipeline is a series of stages, often represented visually. It’s built around a prospect’s experiences as they get closer to becoming a customer. This helps sales reps better understand what a potential buyer needs and when.

Let’s say the sales pipeline really is like a road. That would mean you need two perspectives:

What processes are required to build the road? Where does it begin and end? Does it need ongoing maintenance and repairs?

How does it feel to use this road? Are there bumps, potholes or other frustrations that might make a driver turn around? Why did the customer turn onto the road in the first place and what do they hope to find at the end?

Simply put, a sales pipeline empowers your sales team with the information they need to engage more empathetically based on what stage a prospect is in.

Sales pipeline vs. sales process

You might think the sales process is a similar concept, and you’d be partially right. The difference is that a sales process is focused on your internal team and the steps, decisions and procedures involved in closing deals. A sales pipeline, on the other hand, encompasses the sales team and prospect perspectives in one ecosystem. You can think of it as the quality and conversion rates of the important touch points along the way that roles like marketing, BDRs, and sales reps use to drive customers forward, It may be helpful to think of a sales process as part of a sales pipeline.

Sales pipeline vs. sales funnel

Another similar concept is the sales funnel — but once again, this term isn’t synonymous with “sales pipeline.” The former is more about numbers, while the latter is about experiences and interactions.

Imagine the shape of a funnel: It’s wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. This describes the dwindling number of prospects as they make their way toward sales and deals. Meanwhile, a pipeline is straight and horizontal. It keeps track of experiences leading to a sale, not necessarily the number of prospects taking part.

For best results, it helps to put these two together. Here’s how they help inform one another and your sales activity:

Here are the steps a prospect takes to become a customer and which interactions happen at which stage. 

Here’s where some prospects abandon the pipeline and who goes on to become a customer.

Stages of a sales pipeline

A sales pipeline generally has seven stages:

  1. Prospecting
  2. Lead qualification
  3. Demo/meeting
  4. Proposal
  5. Negotiation/Commitment
  6. Win
  7. Post-purchase

Each stage involves different experiences, needs, and goals for both the prospect and your sales team. While you could combine or eliminate some of these stages — for example, a particularly qualified lead might want a proposal as part of your initial meeting — it’s wise to keep this standard pattern in mind. Why?

  • It helps space out interactions to keep your sales activity from feeling pushy or spammy.
  • It gives your sales reps a more organized structure for what to say and when to say it.
  • It enables granular visibility into successful messaging, revenue forecasting, churn rate predictability, the effectiveness of sales enablement content, and more.

The seven stages of a sales pipeline

Building a sales pipeline means taking disparate experiences and uniting them based on how they progress through the customer journey. If you want to learn how to build a sales pipeline, look no further than these seven stages and the tech, roles, and processes that make them possible:

Stage 1: Prospecting

Much like lead generation, this first stage is about building familiarity and creating interest. Your goal is to reach people who may be interested in your brand, product or service.

Top challenges

For many companies, prospecting feels like starting at zero. Common struggles include:

  • Getting a prospect’s attention.
  • Receiving substantial responses.
  • Lack of appropriate skills or training for the prospecting phase.
  • Managing the number of prospects.

Key tech

The best technology for this stage depends on your approach. Common examples include social media and email platforms, but you might also want:

  • Sales prospecting tools
  • Live chats
    Self-service options that automatically capture and flag noteworthy interactions

Important roles

Depending on the nature of your prospecting activity, your sales reps might not be involved yet. Instead, your social media team, email marketers, content writers, and other experts may be doing the heavy lifting. Other approaches, such as cold calls and events, may require sales team input.

Vital processes

At the prospecting stage, the most important thing a sales rep can do is communicate — whether with other teams (such as marketing) or directly with potential customers. It’s equally important to keep track of key data, flag skill or information gaps, and create tentative plans for promising prospects.

Stage 2: Lead qualification

Much like lead generation, this first stage is about building familiarity and creating interest. Your goal is to reach people who may be interested in your brand, product or service.

Top challenges

At this point, you might notice stumbling blocks such as:

  • Too many low-quality or disinterested leads — a problem that drains resources and indicates flaws in the prospecting phase.
  • The wrong skills or approaches may indicate that your team is too sales-driven this early in the pipeline.
  • Lack of integration makes it difficult to qualify leads from various channels.
  • Disjointed processes result in delays, which can let a potentially high-quality lead go cold.

Key tech

At this stage, you’ll want to start relying on your customer relationship management (CRM) software. You’ll also need lead enrichment tools, call tracking and analytics, various chatting options, and more.

Important roles

Just as lead generation can be a team effort, lead qualification might require work from both marketing and sales teams. This all depends on your processes — and for best results, it should depend on the lead, too. Respond to prospects based on the approach that first sparked their interest; that way, you build relationships and leverage personalization early on.

Vital processes

Lead management is key during this phase. Your sales reps need to know which leads have been qualified and which haven’t. There also needs to be a clear, cross-departmental understanding of what “qualified” means so reps can take appropriate next steps.

Stage 3: Demo/meeting

Prospecting and lead qualification set the stage; the demo or meeting phase is your sales team’s opportunity to start the show. This is where you’ll have your first formal interaction with a prospect, and the stakes are a little higher on both sides because there’s proven interest. In many ways, it’s like a first date.

Top challenges

At this point, your sales team might note challenges including:

  • Difficulty getting a prospect to agree to a meeting.
  • Trouble scheduling or sudden silence from prospects after indicating they want to meet.
  • Lack of skills and tools necessary to properly manage a demo, ask the right questions, and get the right information.
  • Inability to address certain problems, requests, or customer concerns due to gaps in training.

Key tech

Video conferencing, screen sharing and transcription tools are among the most important solutions for the demo/meeting stage. You’ll also want call tracking and analytics software to help you learn more about how your sales team handles these opportunities and where your training or enablement content can be improved. Sales enablement platforms come in handy, too.

Important roles

Your sales team is front and center. They should stay in contact with anyone involved in prospecting and lead qualification, however — because if someone made a promise during those phases, your sales reps need to follow through. This is also a great time for sales leaders and coaches to take an active role in addressing skills gaps, training new hires, recording best practices, and gathering key data for sales forecasting.

Vital processes

The most important tasks in the demo/meeting phase include:

  • Preparing questions and talking points.
  • Sharpening time management skills.
  • Ensuring sales enablement and demo content are readily accessible.
  • Sending agendas ahead of time.
  • Researching the individual/s who will be present at the meeting.

Stage 4: Proposal

If everything else goes well, this is the stage where a sales rep gets to put your offerings on full display. A proposal should always be customized to meet the potential customer’s needs as discussed in all the previous phases. It’s not just proof of what you can do; it’s proof that you listen as well.

Top challenges

During the proposal, sales reps may struggle with:

  • Poorly managing the tone, coming across as either too modest or too overconfident.
  • Providing too much information or not enough.
  • Failing to refer to pain points or topics mentioned in previous interactions.
  • Not getting the right information from cross-departmental teams.

Key tech

Sales proposal software is particularly effective at this point, as is sales enablement software and any communication or conferencing platform you’ve already been using. Sales reps need to keep track of the promises they’re making so other team members know how to follow through.

Important roles

While your sales team is still taking the lead in this part of the process, they might need input from legal, product, or service experts. If there are any special offerings or discounts, a sales manager or other leader might need to give the green light, too.

Vital processes

Drafting and checking the proposal is perhaps the most important step your teams will take at this point. Verbiage needs to be clear and concise without making any guarantees you can’t deliver upon; there also generally needs to be some acknowledgment of:

  • Price points
  • Delivery or due dates
  • Contract terms if relevant
  • Expectations on both sides

Stage 5: Negotiation

This stage is highly variable and depends on your prospect, sales team, relationship management and plenty of other factors. If negotiation is necessary, remember that it’s a built-in part of the sales process and is a stepping-stone to commitment.

Top challenges

At this point, challenges may include:

  • A prospect continually changing their request.
  • Seemingly endless negotiations due to a lack of sales rep comfort or skills.
  • Unclear next steps.

Key tech

Most of the tech required for negotiation and commitment is related to strong communication. That means email platforms, CRM tools, and video conferencing solutions should all be top priorities.

Important roles

If your sales rep needs an extra push to get a prospect over the line, they might call in help from a leader or manager to help with negotiations. You may also need particular people in a meeting depending on the nature of the commitment or contract.

Vital processes

Consistent communication should be at the heart of this sales pipeline stage. However, capturing sales rep habits and data is equally important, as this is an opportunity to record best practices, make targeted improvements and keep track of any offers or promises.

Stage 6: Win!

When your sales reps close deals, there’s plenty to do — such as informing other departments about upcoming work. It’s also key to reflect on the processes, decisions and sales activity that made this possible.

Stage 7: Post-purchase

Winning deals doesn’t mean your reps can sit back and relax. They still need to build relationships in the post-purchase phase, which can involve everything from answering questions to up- and cross-selling.

Top challenges

After a purchase, sales teams might struggle with:

  • Staying in contact with customers.
  • Responding effectively to questions or requests that may fall outside the sales team’s expertise.
  • Navigating negative feedback or reviews.

Key tech

CRM software is perhaps most important during this stage, as it helps keep track of a customer’s purchase history and what that means for the ongoing relationship. Sales enablement material should become product or service support material at this point, but sales reps should still know how to access and share it with customers.

Important roles

Now that the deal is complete, some sales reps might take a back seat while others — such as the product and shipping teams — take over. However, customers may still see the sales team as their main point of contact, so this is far from the end of the story.

Vital processes

The key to succeeding in post-purchase relationships is to provide what the customer needs, whether that’s answers, support, exchanges or refunds, additional products, or just an opportunity to offer feedback.

Putting it all together: Building a strong sales pipeline

Once you have all the individual pieces figured out, you’ll need to unite them in a cohesive sales pipeline. Follow these steps to get started:

Outline each step

Think of your sales pipeline as a roadmap and outline every “stop” a prospect will make before they reach their destination, which is a purchase or deal with your company. Think about what a potential buyer needs at each stop and how your sales team can deliver without pushing the prospect too quickly (or letting them lose interest).

Prepare your technology

Every stage of a sales pipeline relies on intuitive, integrated technology. Get rid of single-function tools where possible and use platforms that unite:

  • Sales enablement
  • Conversation intelligence
  • Sales content
  • Sales onboarding and training
  • Sales coaching
  • Performance measurements
  • Revenue forecasting

Create your sales enablement strategy

Sales enablement strategy planning helps you make use of all the moving parts in a sales pipeline. When you can analyze key data, better understand sales reps’ needs and make targeted improvements, your prospects and your pipeline will benefit. You’ll also have the information you need to define different stages of the sales process and how this impacts your reps.

Prepare for the future

Ensure that your sales team approaches each stage of the sales pipeline as a springboard to the next level. If they get too caught up in one area or task, they might lose out on their next big sales opportunity. Often, this means providing the training, enablement material, and ongoing support they need to adapt to changing market conditions and anticipate customer demand.

Update as necessary

Part of building a sales pipeline is reviewing your current stages, habits, and processes to find more effective paths forward. Use call recording and analytics, CRM tools, deal health insights, and other key data to establish best practices, then get to work on sharing those changes with your teams.

Get the sales pipeline support you need

If you’re still wondering how to build a sales pipeline and what to do once it’s completed, you aren’t alone. Sales pipeline management requires skills, technology, and insight that don’t just appear out of thin air.

That’s why many businesses turn to a platform like Mindtickle’s revenue productivity platform that’s so much more. From sales enablement and training to analytics, dashboards, conversation intelligence, and more, this is your single home for all things sales.

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Want to see how Mindtickle helps organizations train their sellers to build strong pipeline quarter after quarter? 

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This post was originally published in May 2023 and was updated in March 2024.