Making The Sale

The Pipeline Mentality

The art of selling has co-opted the science of customer engagement

by John Graham

Mr. Graham is a principal with GrahamComm. He is a marketing and sales strategist-consultant and business writer, and publishes a free monthly eNewsletter, “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales.” Connect with him by e-mail:, or visit

Today, the customer story is simple. Loyalty ranges from temporary to non-existent . Mining the Internet is second nature, relying on smartphone apps to cut through the clutter. With an endless array of channels available, engaging customers can be an exercise in futility.

Surprisingly, the current situation hasn’t changed much, particularly for those in sales, who have always asked, “Whom can I talk to today?” The search for prospective customers is just as illusive as it has always been. In spite of all the changes, the prospect problem remains the same.

A different approach: a pipeline view

To get beyond the barriers that keep us from engaging customers and avoid always asking the “Whom can I talk to today?” question, what’s needed is “a pipeline mentality”.

The process is one of ‘customer creation’, of filling the pipeline with potential business while taking care of the new that flows from the pipe. Instead of spending valuable time and using limited resources on constantly looking for new business, a more prudent approach is to create a ‘pipeline mentality’ process that produces business.

Building the pipeline

Here are the elements of implementing a pipeline strategy:

1. View prospects as ‘customers­in-the-making’
Although it contradicts traditional sales strategies, looking at prospects as ‘a potential sale’ distorts the selling process. Although most salespeople are quick to say that they are solution-oriented and want to help customers, their behavior betrays their words.

It’s easy to spot the salesperson with one objective in mind: to make the sale. Everything is aimed at achieving that one goal. Prospects quickly sense the true mission and go on the defensive, either rejecting the salesperson or backing away from making a decision.

To think of prospects as customers-in-the-making is more effective, whether they buy today or a year from now. The goal is to bring them into your orbit in such a way that they will not go elsewhere. This is what allows selling to focus intensely on the customer.

2. Make prospect identification an ongoing commitment
It’s actually counter-intuitive to put making a sale ahead of creating a customer. The goal of prospecting should be to identify those who fit a company’s customer profile and who, when properly cultivated, hold a potential for becoming buyers.

The most difficult task for most businesses is making prospect identification an ongoing task. The life force of sales is a pipeline that’s filled with prospects that have discovered the value of doing business with you, who recognize that there’s value in partnering with you, and who have discovered all this before becoming customers.

Most prospect identification efforts produce minimal results because they lack constant attention. They’re viewed as temporary ‘activity’ rather than as the lifeblood of the organization, the source of new business for the years ahead.

3. Segment prospects to focus on individual needs
Even after decades of discussion, few companies recognize the value of segmenting their databases and toss everyone in a couple of buckets, failing to drill down for personal preferences, lifestyle nuances, sales and demographic data.

It’s actually counter-intuitive to put 'making a sale' ahead of 'creating a customer'

Although this is the ‘age of the individual customer’, the implications are largely ignored by most businesses. ‘Boiler plate’ proposals are deadly, and emails are often nothing more than not-so-thinly-disguised ads. All of which creates a negative impression.

4. Implement prospect cultivation tactics
There’s only one way to cultivate prospects successfully — and it’s not how a salesperson wants to go about it. Customers set their own buying schedules and they’re not about to abandon their priorities to fit a salesperson’s needs. They don’t want to be ‘bothered’ with multiple emails or repeated telephone calls.

They’re not moved by attempts to arrange a meeting or by someone saying, ”I’m reaching out to you to gather information.” But when the prospect is ready to buy, those who come to mind have the opportunity to make the sale. Staying in front of prospects regularly with helpful information builds the platform of success.

5. Be the resource for prospects
The most effective way to convince a customer to buy from you is to make yourself invaluable. What you sell may help a customer become more successful, but what you know solves customer problems. There are those who are reluctant to share their knowledge, fearing that prospects will take what they want and never bother to become buyers. While there’s always the chance this can happen, it’s worth it in order to demonstrate a company’s competence and expertise.

The best way for prospects to become aligned with a company is for them to discover the depths of your expertise and the extent of your knowledge. This is the value-added that makes a significant difference.

6. Help customers be more successful
If partnering has any value as a concept, it’s to be found in helping prospects and customers meet business challenges. Just selling them the right product or service isn’t nearly enough today to build a lasting bond. Almost any ‘vendor’ can do that.

Going beyond the expected is today’s challenge. A supplier of bakery mixes and fillings discovered that its customers were asking for help in developing marketing strategies and tactics for retailing their products. It then dawned on management that even high quality and innovative products were not enough. Their customers we’re looking to them for ways to increase sales. Meeting this need was the first step toward selling more mixes and fillings.

7. Take the lead
While playing it cautious may seem prudent, it’s leadership that captures the attention of prospects. There’s a lot any business can learn from Subway, for example. The focus on ‘fresh,’ flavor and ‘foot-long’ low cost specials hits what young and older adults want today.

But when it comes to pace-setting in customer service Amazon is the winner, not just in its broad range of products, but by having customers answer questions, rate products, sending reminders, making personalized suggestions, keeping them informed and offering free shipping, easy returns, and incredibly fast deliveries. All of this sends the message that Amazon cares about customers.

A results-based approach

Because results are what count, wasting time chasing possible sales, following up on less-than-serious prospects and preparing dead-end proposals doesn’t make sense.

Spending time trying to find customers — those who fit your profile of buyers — is a futile waste of time and resources. What’s required is a strategy that fills the customer pipeline with prospects that can be nurtured so that there is a steady flow of new business from those who know and understand company’s capabilities. What’s needed is a ‘pipeline mentality’.