We’re already into the last quarter of 2012. If you’re in a complex sales environment with lengthy decision-making processes, this year’s final revenue number is probably going to depend on how effectively you can close the opportunities that are already visible to you in your funnel.

But what about next year? What could and should you be doing today to lay the foundations for a stronger sales funnel in 2013? I’d like to suggest 3 simple, effective steps that you can take right now to ensure that you enter 2013 (and maybe even finish 2012) in great shape.

Stop wasting time targeting companies that are never likely to become customers and leak your funnel

Let’s start at the top of the funnel. There’s no point wasting energy and resources targeting companies that are never likely to become customers. But before you can do this, you need to ensure that sales and marketing jointly agree what an ideal prospect would look like.

You’ve simply got to get this written down. There is no alternative. If it isn’t documented, you have no agreement. And please don’t restrict your thinking to the boring old (and increasingly irrelevant) demographics of size, sector and location. Your ideal prospects are increasingly defined by the way they are structured, the way they behave, and the situations they are facing.

If you don’t believe this, I’m going to suggest that you simply haven’t looked hard enough. Take the first step by getting sales and marketing together to document their shared agreement about the common characteristics of your ideal prospects in each of the markets you serve.

Make sure you distinguish between interesting, important and urgent issues

Traditional solution selling teaches you to uncover problems. But it says very little about the need to distinguish between interesting, important and urgent issues, or about how to elevate either interesting or important issues into important ones.

Simply put, interesting needs get you considered, important needs get you evaluated, but only urgent needs get you bought. Sales people waste an incredible amount of time chasing opportunities that will never turn into sales because there is no urgency.

Many also waste a huge amount of resources (often those of other people in their company) chasing issues that another vendor has got a demonstrably better solution for. Just because an opportunity has a pulse doesn’t mean it’s worth chasing.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you shouldn’t be marketing to interesting or important needs just to get the conversation going. But you need to equip your sales people – early on – to work out if there is a path to identifying an urgent issue that you can solve better than any other option available to the prospect.

Time to get your smartest sales and marketing heads together again. What are the key issues in your markets, and which are most likely to result in a buying decision?

Redefine your funnel around the buying decision process

How do you define your sales funnel today? What are the key stages, and – even more important – what are the key milestones or gates that an opportunity has to pass through before it can be promoted to the next level.

If your stages are largely or exclusively based on sales activity, it’s another opportunity to think again. Monitoring sales activity has been repeatedly shown to be a woefully inaccurate method of determining the true state of an opportunity.

Many of my clients have already turned to measuring and monitoring their pipelines on the basis of where the buyer is in their decision making process, and have defined milestones that are based on observable evidence of the true state of the buying journey.

It’s harder to do than using sales activity, but way, way more accurate when it comes to projecting if and when an opportunity is likely to close. If you’re still tracking sales activity-related stages, it’s yet another signal that you need to get your smartest sales and marketing folks together again.

What are they key stages that your prospects typically go through in their search for a solution, and what are the key milestones? It might look something like:

  • Something changes
  • Acknowledgement of an issue
  • Agree the need to change if an affordable solution can be found
  • Identification of decision making group (whether formal or informal)
  • Definition of decision criteria and process
  • Selection of preferred option
  • Submission of finally negotiated proposal for internal approval
  • Decision to proceed

Customer validation

Even if you think you’ve understood your ideal customer profiles, their interesting, important and urgent issues, and the key phases they go through when making buying decisions, it’s still only a working hypothesis. You need to test your understanding in conversation with a representative cross-section of customers.

But if you validate and then apply these 3 steps, you’ll go a long way towards identifying attracting, engaging, qualifying and converting more of the right sort of prospects in 2013.

One last thought

If improving your funnel is a key priority for the coming year, align.me’s Executive Director, Brett Bonser, will chair the panel discussion on Alignment and present his insights into bridging the alignment gap between Marketing and Sales at the FUNNEL conference this November in Sydney.

FUNNEL 2012 will feature speakers from IBM, Optus, Oracle and SalesForce, who will deliver presentations and panel discussions for four different B2B areas – Planning, Attracting, Engaging and Aligning. For more information, view the event’s agenda on https://www.cometofunnel.com.au/agenda/

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Bob Apollo is the Managing Partner of Inflexion-Point, and an accredited align.me Funnel Coach. To read more of his insights, go to theInflexion-Point blog.