Should you share your Invisible Pipeline?

The ‘Invisible Pipeline’ video led to a very pertinent question from Cedrick @ Microsoft — “how do you more effectively document these opps without prematurely bringing unnecessary attention to them?”.

Before answering the question, a small detour.

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There are three issues at stake here -

1) Time commitment (aka waste)

The time/energy spent in documenting the IP (Invisible Pipeline) activity. IP is usually 4x-6x of what will one day enter the visible pipeline (VP). There’s simply no time to document so much when only a fifth might become real.

2) Extra pressure to close

The risk of premature attention from management and the attendant pressure to fast-forward certain deals when not much is known about them.

3) Uncertainty

In most CRMs, you can’t even enter an opp without picking a close date. What most sellers do in real life when confronted with uncertainty around close date/value is they put the lead/opp in the IP instead of the VP. (I did that during most of my sales career too).

From management’s viewpoint the issues at stake are -

  1. Are sellers doing enough prospecting to fill the future pipeline or are they just focused on closing deals already in the pipeline?
  2. Are sellers working hard on what’s in the pipeline and how are they spreading energy across all the opps/accounts that matter?

Since most field sellers are not usually in the same office location as the manager, the space-time gap between the two sides is significant. This gap is less acute for inside sales teams but pretty significant for field sales teams.

Underlying all this is the fact that everyone including the CEO has a boss, and Sales Management needs to show their VPs if revenue goals will be attained or not.

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I recommend breaking the problem into two parts which then help with metrics and measurement as well.

1 — Separate prospecting (lead gen) from Nurturing

It’s extremely important to prospect (contact new accounts or new people at existing accounts). A simple (numeric) metric can measure and report this for both sides. We use what we call an NNP (net-new prospecting) indicator that answers how much NNP is happening every week/month.

I truly believe that if management can see that enough prospecting is happening it reduces their Valium consumption. CRMs are too cumbersome to enter/measure this so automation is the key.

2 — Decouple progress at accounts with active opps vs those that don’t have an official one yet

This is already happening everywhere (hence, the term IP) so the challenge to address is how to document/report this without extra work and inviting scrutiny. A metric that autonomously captures and reflects account engagement independent of an opp in CRM addresses this. In its simplest form the most important question is how deeply (and if) you are engaged?

Framing progress in terms of Engagement instead of the traditional opp lens in CRM is the trick. Read more about the framing effect here. Since CRMs aren’t set-up to view the world this way and management needs something tangible beyond just talking, it has been a headache for both sides. It doesn’t have to be that way and there already are companies that are solving the problem with this pragmatic mindset.

Conclusion

IP (Invisible Pipeline) is big and significant. Sellers need help with the IP but can only share it if it doesn’t create more work and scrutiny. Simple metrics like the above can be measured automatically without any manual labor. These metrics can offer both sides (+ Marketing) something meaningful to work on/with. As many of my friends and former colleagues know, I left Microsoft to work on solving some of this with SalesTing :)

Great sales leaders understand that the goal is helping sellers exceed quota in a predictable manner. It’s better to acknowledge the existence of the IP, agree to some automatic, painless metrics and focus energy on real progress instead of asking for the un-achievable (and unreasonable) task of having everything entered as an opp in CRM.

In another post I’ll share what one of my smart managers did to “see” the IP without forcing the team to make opps out of thin air and enter them in CRM.