Episode 42: How We Run Our Sales Pipeline at ClearPivot


Hello everybody and welcome back to the Marketing Hero podcast. I'm your host, Chris Strom, and today we're going to be talking about the sales side of things. Marketing and sales are hand in hand, and success or failure in one of those two sides affects the other side too.

The greatest marketing campaign can really be undermined by a bad sales process, as many of you have probably seen yourselves too. So today we're going to walk through how to set up the great sales process using our own ClearPivot sales process as an example.

Sales-Qualified Leads

All right, so we'll get into it here. The first part of the sales process starts, the marketing process oftentimes ends, and the sales process starts with the inbound leads coming in as a result, hopefully of your marketing efforts.

So for us at ClearPivot, the three main ways that leads come in are, one way is submissions on our website forms, another way is meeting booking links, and another way sometimes is phone calls. Usually for us it's meeting booking links and website forms, for some of our clients, they get most of theirs through phone calls, but those are the three-ways that leads come in. And you have to divvy them up a little bit too, not all leads are the same, of course. If someone just signs up for our newsletter or they download an ebook, we just call those top of the funnel leads and we don't do anything with them. But if they fill out a request a consult form, if they fill out a learn more about how we can help you, contact us, or they book a meeting, we classify all of those as sales qualified leads.

And so that brings us to the first step in the sales process, which is processing the sales qualified leads. And it's basically just some quick qualifying on them, so we check if they're just someone trying to sell us something, like a solicitor, or if they're spam. If they're spam or a solicitor, we just delete them. Sometimes people contact us inquiring about employment with us, and that's cool too, we want to meet some great people to hire, but they're not a sales lead, so we take them out of the sales process and we put them in our human resources queue instead. And then if it's a bonafide inquiry, if it's a legitimate sales inquiry, then we proceed to the next step. So we have the contact object in our CRM created by the form submission, we use HubSpot CRM for this. So then from there, we'll make a deal, it's a separate object in HubSpot, we'll make a deal attached to the contact object. And then from there to the end of the sales process, we'll be tracking that deal object in our deal pipeline.

Connect Stage

So the very first stage in our deal pipeline, the stage that all new deals go into is the connect stage. And we call it connect because at the very beginning, the goal is basically just to connect with them, to have our first conversation with them. So if they fill out a form or book a meeting, the next step is to have the meeting with them. So if they book a meeting, the meeting's already booked, we'll send them an email to confirm, tell them we're looking forward to it, but it'll stay in the connect phase until we have the meeting. And then if they just fill out a web form inquiring about our services, then the next step then is for us to actually schedule the meeting. So we will email and call them, say, "Hey, so glad you reached out. Love to talk with you. When's a good time to have a first chat?"

And so the goal there is to get the meeting scheduled. And even after the meeting is scheduled, we leave them in the connect phase until we actually have the meeting, because some people don't show up for the meeting, they forget the meeting or they're double booked or whatever, and so sometimes they're not able to make the meeting. So that deal stays in the connect phase until we actually finish our first meeting with them. And so the first meeting doesn't need to be a long meeting, it's just basically an intro meeting. They tell us a little bit about themselves and their situation, we tell them a little bit about ourselves. And if we want to proceed, usually we need a second meeting that's a little more in depth from there, and we call that the explore meeting.

Explore Stage

So if we have the first call, it goes good, they say, "Yeah, let's have a second call to go deeper into our situation," so then we'll move the deal into the next phase, which is the explore stage. And so we'll get the explore meeting booked, it's usually a little longer, 30 to 60 minutes for the explore stage meeting. And that's basically where we're going deeper into their situation, so we have a whole default discovery questionnaire we go through with clients. If it's for a marketing project, we ask them one set of questions, talking about things like goals and challenges, timeframe, budget, what their strategy has been up until now, and so on. If we're doing CRM and revenue operations project, we have a different set of questions we go through. But basically we call it the explore stage because we're learning their situation, we're doing a kind of deeper discovery on it so that we can make a plan of ClearPivot services that will really be a good fit for them.

So during that process, that's all the explore stage. Sometimes that just takes one meeting, sometimes it might take two meetings or so. Sometimes they might involve other people at that step too, other internal stakeholders. So if that's the case, we'll create contact objects in our HubSpot portal for those other people as well, we'll associate those contacts with the company and deal record too, so that when we look at the deal, we can see all the associated contacts with the deal and we see their associated roles along with that too. And so that whole process is the explore stage of our process.

Awaiting Plan of Action

Then once we feel we've learned enough about their situation to be able to put together a great plan that will address their needs, then we'll tell them, "Okay, great. So the next step is for us to make a plan of action for you now."

It's basically a proposal. And so we'll tell them that's going to be our next step, we'll tell them it'll take a few days for us to put our plan together and then we'll move their deal to the next stage in the pipeline, which is awaiting plan of action. In that phase, we have all the information and then we go and we put together our proposed plan for them, usually involves a overview of their needs and challenges, and then a table blocking out the different activities we're going to recommend doing together, along with time estimates and timeframes and a month by month breakdown of all of that. So that's the plan of action there. And one thing that we always put a lot of focus onto is at the end of our explore stage call, we always try to set the meeting for the plan of action review call before we get off the explore stage call, because that way everyone's there or we can just get the meeting booked right then and there.

Otherwise, if we just end the meeting without getting the next one booked, then you have to chase each other down again to actually get the meeting booked. So it's best to just get the plan of action meeting scheduled at the end of the explore meeting, usually we book it about a week out or so. So that's the awaiting plan of action stage, that stage after we've gotten all the information, and then we're going to go put together our proposal. And then that stage culminates with the actual plan of action meeting, we get on the video call with them and we walk through our plan with them and we look at the budgets and we talk through it, we answer questions. And then after the call, we'll send them the plan of action proposal. It's a link, we use a platform called Coda for publishing our plans of action.

Our plan of action Coda templates are connected to our internal production calendar, so we can sync our service catalog and it works really well. We oftentimes don't send the link before the meeting because we don't want to risk having them click on it and jump to their own conclusions or misunderstand something in it. So a lot of times we will wait until the call to walk them through the plan of action and explain what the different pieces are as we go. And then after the call, we'll send the link to the plan for them to look at, because they usually want to look at it a little bit more and think through it a little bit more, think about things they might want to ask but haven't thought of yet after the call. So we'll send the link to them after the call there. And after we have that meeting and we send them the link to the plan of action, that concludes that stage of the process, awaiting plan of action stage.

Plan Review

And with that, that brings us to the conclusion of the awaiting plan of action stage, and it moves to the next stage here, which is plan review. So we presented the plan to them, we sent them the link for them to look at further on their end, and then the plan review phase is the part where they look at the plan a little deeper and then maybe they and us decide we need to make some modifications to it. Maybe we look at the plan and we say, "We want to add a little bit more of this thing, or we want to skip that thing over here, or actually we don't need this thing." So we take that out or we add something else into it, maybe we adjust the budgets on something, especially on something like any advertising budget included. So this is all part of the plan review phase, where we're basically modifying it as needed, to more closely fit their particular situation.

Also, sometimes they need to present to someone else on their team to get their sign off on it in order to start proceeding, or maybe some other internal approval like that. And so the goal in the plan review stage is for them to give verbal approval of the plan. The goal is for them to say, "Cool, this looks great. I think we have this finalized. We're ready for you to send over the contract." So when they say that, we move it out of plan review and we move it into awaiting contract signature, which is at the next stage.

Awaiting Contract Signature

So then in this stage, we'll go and we will write up the actual contract for them to sign. We used to use Adobe Document Cloud to do our contracts, but nowadays, we use the HubSpot quotes tool to build our contracts.

We set up a couple of different templates that we use. We have one template for time and materials projects, we have another template we use for retainer projects, two different templates for retainers, one template that includes a first month payment, another template that doesn't include, just depending on the arrangements of the contract. So we'll put together the contract and we'll send it over to them. I'll sign the contract on my end, so the only remaining step is for them to sign the contract on their end. And a lot of times our contracts will have a prepayment of some sort in it, if it's a retainer contract, say we're halfway through the month and we're writing up a retainer to start in the following month, we'll also oftentimes include the first month's retainer payment on the actual contract itself. So they can sign the contract and then there's a click to pay button on the contract itself, where they can pay online for the first month retainer payment.

Or if we're doing a time and materials contract, we will often time, actually, we'll always do some sort of project deposit. Say we estimate it's a 50-hour time and materials project, we'll probably do maybe a project deposit of the first 20 hours or so. And so they'll sign the contract, they'll do it electronically on the contract, and then they'll click pay now on the contract, we run it through HubSpot payments. So they put in their credit card info and make the payment, and that's how they process the contract.

Contract Signed, Awaiting Payment

So because we have the prepayment in addition to the contract, we actually have two different deal stages at this point. The first stage is when we're waiting for them to sign it, and then sometimes we don't always need to go through this stage, but sometimes they'll sign the contract, but it'll be another day or two for them to go through the process of making the payment.

Or sometimes people still want to do payments manually. If they need some other payment method or if they're doing ACH, it might take two or three days to process or even, it's kind of rare, but even occasionally we'll still see a couple of mailed checks. And of course that takes as long as the postal service takes it to deliver. So sometimes people will move directly from awaiting contract signature right into a close won, if they sign and pay the contract. Sometimes they sign, but the payment is still pending, then we'll move it to a stage called contract signed, awaiting deal payment. And so that's when they're intending to pay, they already signed the contract, of course, and we're just waiting for the payment to process. So that contract signed, awaiting deal payment stage usually doesn't last that long, it should really only last two days or so. If it goes on longer then that it probably means there's some deeper issue getting in the way other than just payment logistics.

Closed Won

But once they do pay, then like I mentioned, that brings us to the end, that brings us to close won, and that's when we consider the sale officially sold and we can virtually high five each other and celebrate a little bit and then start the new client kickoff process.

Closed Lost

And of course, the opposite of close won is close lost, and that can happen during any point in the sales process. It can happen in connect or explore or awaiting plan of action or plan review, even awaiting contract signature, if something changes on their end, they or us decide it doesn't look like it's the right fit, or the budget just doesn't work, or something else takes a priority, or they choose another partner to work with, so things like that.

If they say, "Sorry, we can't work together," then we'll move the deal to close lost. And when we move it to close lost, we always want to track the lost reason for it. And so we have a dropdown property on our deals to log the most common reasons they're close lost. Sometimes it's budget, could be they chose another partner to work with, could be project is no longer a priority. Sometimes they want to work with software tools that we don't use or sometimes it's just they stop responding for one reason or another. But we want to track those and see systematically what's the reasons we're losing particular sales. I think you can actually learn more from your lost sales than you can from your won sales.

Why We Eliminated "Put On Hold"

And then finally, I'll talk about a stage in our deal process we used to have, but we actually eliminated. We used to have a stage called put on hold, and we used to have that stage because when you're selling to other companies like we do, timing is oftentimes a big factor. Maybe one person wants to do something with you, but some other business need comes up that takes a higher priority, or they have to push it back to their next quarter or their next fiscal year for one reason or another. So timing's a big part of closing business to business deals like ours, and so because of that we thought, well, we should probably have a put on hold stage where we can keep track of these deals, and so we had put on hold for several years actually. But we were talking with some other people just a few weeks ago, and we went back and we reconsidered the put on hold stage.

We went back and we looked at the deals where we had marked them as put on hold. We realized that deal stage really wasn't adding any value to it. A lot of the deals we would mark as put on hold, when we looked back, we thought maybe we should either just leave them in say the explore stage or if they're saying, "Let's talk next quarter or something," we're just as well off marking it as close lost at that point. Rather than just putting the deals in to put on hold with the hopes that they'll close eventually, we looked at the deals in our put on hold and it didn't really bring any use to us having that stage. So we actually just recently eliminated put on hold altogether. So we used to have that, but now we got rid of it and that was why we got rid of it.

Unresponsive Contact Attempts

And that is our full sales process there, from sales qualified leads to connect, explore, awaiting plan of action, plan review, awaiting contract signature, contract signed, awaiting deal payment, and then either a close won or close lost. And I wanted to mention one other process that we do in all of this, it can happen at any point, and that's if the contact goes unresponsive, then we start an unresponsive contact attempt process. So that's where we'll email them or call them and they've been responsive, but then we don't hear back from them, anytime we don't hear back, we'll start the unresponsive contact attempts. We have one of our deal properties as unresponsive contact attempts, and it's a number counter, and if they're not responding, we'll contact them every three to five days or so, we'll make another contact attempt. And each contact attempt will be a combo of a email and a phone call.

So first we'll call them, try to get them on the phone, leave a voicemail. If we contact them, then that's great, we set unresponsive contact attempts back to zero. If we call them, get a voicemail, we'll send an email too. And then we'll increment unresponsive contacted attempts up by one. And that happens a lot just with everyone working at a company is getting pulled in multiple directions at once, and talking with us is usually just one of the responsibilities of the person we're talking to. So a lot of times they'll get distracted by something else and it might take two contact attempts or so for us to get back in touch with them. And so we'll do it up to five contact attempts, and if we reach five unresponsive contact attempts, that's usually probably a month has passed at that point, and if we've contacted them five times with no response, at that point we'll just move the deal to close lost.

And we'll send what we call a breakup email to them just saying, "Hey, I've been trying to reach you. It looks like now's not the right time, but let us know if you ever want to work with us in the future." And so we'll do that up to five times. And we found a lot of people get really worried about being too pushy or they think they're being too nosy, but you really don't have to worry about this. These are people who contacted us, or in your case, these are people who contacted you asking for your help on things. And so they asked to be contacted, and so you really don't need to worry about being pushy since they're the ones who expressed interest in hiring us. So we'll contact them three times, four times, five times. Sometimes we'll use our judgment, if we're feeling it's appropriate, sometimes we'll contact them more than five times. We've really never had cases where someone was talking to us and then went quiet and then got angry at us for contacting them. That really never happens.

What happens instead is we might be on our fourth contact attempt and they finally get back to us, or even on the fifth attempt, and they never say, "Stop bothering me." What they say is, "Oh, thank you for following up. I'm so sorry I fell behind on things." That's what they always say. "Thank you for following up. I'm so sorry. Got distracted, but I'm here now. Yes, I would like to keep talking." So I strongly recommend doing more contact attempts than you might feel you need to. Some people only do one contact attempt, which is completely unacceptable. A lot of people only do two, even two really isn't that good. I really recommend being brave and taking it up to at least five contact attempts, and I think you'll find it brings benefits and you'll save at least a couple of deals that would've slipped through the cracks otherwise.


So that is our ClearPivot sales process. That is how we run everything from the inbound sales qualified leads, all the way up to deal closed. But our core, we're a business to business consulting professional services company really, your sales process might look a little different, but if you are in a similar business to business role or professional services role, your deal pipeline maybe should look similar to ours in a lot of ways. Or even if your products or services are very different, I hope walking through our pipeline at least gives you a point of contrast to help you think through, you listen to how we thought through our sales process and our buyer's journeys, and I hope it gives you some ideas on how to best structure your own sales process. Like I said at the beginning, so many great marketing campaigns can really get derailed or undermined by insufficient sales process, so it's really worth taking the time to put together a great sales process on your own.

So hope this was helpful for you all, and if you have other ways that you'd like to run your sales process, I'd love to hear from you as well about what you do at your company. So just ping us here, you can leave a comment on the show here, or you can contact us on our website, find us on social media, but I'd love to hear what you do for your own sales process.