How to Build a Sales Pipeline: 4 Steps for Startups and Small Businesses

If you’re at a small company or start-up, the idea of building a robust sales pipeline may sound daunting.

But once you understand the structural needs and stages of a sales pipeline, you can build your own with ease.

What Are the Stages of a Sales Pipeline?

  1. Lead Generation
  2. Lead Nurturing
  3. Lead Qualification
  4. Sales Qualification
  5. Close the Deal
  6. Post-Sale Follow Up

The process is that straightforward, so don’t be intimidated by the highly sophisticated and advanced processes large companies use in their pipeline structure. Just follow these simple steps and build your own.

How To Build A Sales Pipeline

If you are thinking, “Account-Based Marketing – yeah, sounds great. But I’m also doing the job of demand generation and customer marketing and product marketing, and sales development for my new business … without enough tools or time to do it all!” Here’s the good news!

In spite of your small company size, you have access to information about your sales prospects that, even five years ago, wasn’t available to new, smaller companies.

The broad availability of data is truly democratizing growth – and as a small startup, the trick is knowing how to use it. You need to get your sales and marketing engine running quickly, efficiently, and without the budget and manpower of some of the larger companies in your space.

Read on for four simple steps that will help you build a pipeline, regardless of your company size – wherever you are in your growth journey.

4 Steps to Building a Sales Pipeline

1. Identify and narrow down your target buyers.

Who is your target customer? If your answer is either “I don’t know” or “everyone,” stop right there!

Even if you do have a total addressable market that could theoretically include “everyone”, you will never get off the ground if you’re trying to sell and market to the entire world.

You might think: “But I don’t have an operations team to help me build a model to focus on my target market. And, I don’t even have enough customers yet to know who my best customers are.”

No problem. Let’s assume you have just 10 customers. Believe it or not, that’s more than enough to start to narrow down your target audience. Begin by asking yourself what those customers have in common. There’s almost always a common denominator. Look for a pattern related to any of the following data points:

  • Industry
  • Company size
  • Geographic location
  • Funding history, or important company updates like a new CIO or a recent acquisition

It won’t take an advanced regression model to discover that you did your biggest deals with Financial Services companies who recently hired a new CTO! From there, you have the information you need to start building your pipeline strategy.

Remember: this is just a starting place. You’ll come back and tackle the broader target markets down the road. But first, let’s build a great group of target prospects based on the customers you’ve already had success with.

2. Build a targeted list of your most viable prospects.

Let’s say you’ve identified your first, most viable target segment as Financial Services companies with a new CTO, because 3 of your first 10 customers had those details in common.

Now it’s time to find potential buyers that look like those companies. This example means that you are gathering two out of the three primary types of prospect data: Fit data, intent data, and opportunity data.

Chart describing difference between fit, intent, and opportunity data.

“Fit” data refers to firmographic and demographic information. On the company level, this includes data points like industry and company size and location; on the individual level, this includes contact information and job title. This type of data is basic, but critical. For example, if a prospect works in a role where they don’t have the authority to sign a check, asale will never happen – even if all the other pieces are there. In the example above, the company’s industry – financial services – is fit data.

The example also touches opportunity data – a newly hired CTO – which indicate favorable conditions, and the right time for sales outreach. Opportunity alerts often take the form of funding events, hiring events, new initiatives, and CXO moves – which indicate investments (i.e., sales).

With a list in hand of viable prospects from companies that you KNOW are a great fit for your product, it‘s time to start structuring your outreach strategy.

3. Develop relevant messaging and content for the prospects in your pipeline.

One of the most effective ways to create a message that your targeted buyers will listen to is through brand storytelling. But to go even further, we recommend you allow your target buyers’ peers – your current customers – tell the story.

So start with a simple case study and testimonial from one of your lookalike customers, highlighting why your product created value for them. Be specific about the characteristics that make them similar to your target buyer. From there, here are a few ideas of what to do with this piece of content:

  • Publish a case study on your website
  • Create a PDF of the case study for sales collateral
  • Shoot a 30-second video with your customer/s
  • Write several blogs that speak directly to your target buyers’ needs
  • Create 1 – 2 whitepapers, research reports, videos, or ebooks that put a unique spin on your story. (More on this in the next section)

One last thing: Make sure your team on the front lines knows how to tell these customer stories. The more you can put your value story front and center – before your product features – the more likely you are to really connect with your prospects.

4. Test a variety of demand generation tactics.

Now it’s time to put down the pen to paper and grow the pipeline. We always recommend a mix of both inbound and outbound demand generation tactics, as long as you’re careful not to spread your resources too thin.

Demand Generation for a Startup

  • Build a clear, simple website optimized for your target buyer’s needs and wants. Make it easy for them to contact you for more information. A strong website is key for your long-term growth – and buyers expect it – but don’t expect it to return an influx of inbound leads right away. This will take a little time.
  • Invest in paid advertising for your top 3-5 keywords. Focus on those keywords that are most often searched by your target buyer when looking for a solution like yours. Paid advertising on search engines and social channels will build brand awareness and drive a quicker influx of inbound leads.
  • Build an outbound prospecting sequence of emails, phone calls, direct mailers, and social engagement for your target accounts. We recommend a minimum of 10 touchpoints (20 touchpoints is better!) in that sequence, personalized based on the target buyer’s company and role.
  • Invest in a basic content syndication service that allows you to push your content (blogs, whitepapers, videos, etc.) to an audience you have clearly defined. When those targeted potential customers download your placed content across a variety of websites, they are sent directly to you as leads. You control the budget you want to spend here and only pay for leads that fit your criteria.
  • Host 1 – 2 private events with key influencers or partners in your industry to expand your reach. Invite a mix of customers and prospects, and structure the event to educate them and provide best practices on a topic that keeps them up at night. The event and topic should not focus on your own product. This will give you an opportunity to build personal relationships, without blowing out your budget on high-ticket events and trade shows.

After trying a variety of tactics, you’re likely to figure out which ones are most effective for your business. Invest more in the tactics that work until you’ve found a successful formula for your business.

Key Takeaways on Building a Sales Pipeline

Build this playbook for your first target buyer segment, document everything, and then you’ll be able to replicate and tailor the approach as you target second, third, and fourth segments and expand your viable addressable market.

Don’t be fooled, though: none of this has an easy button. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of all new businesses don’t survive past five years. Those that do survive do the hard tasks – but they don’t overcomplicate them:

  • Build a great product that meets a market need and that people are willing to pay for.
  • Know your customer inside and out.
  • Create a story that connects with that market.
  • Engage your target buyers through a variety of highly relevant and personalized methods – again, and again, and again.

Businesses who can do this are growth bound: They start small, and they know the next stop on their path to the goal – whatever that goal may be.

To learn more about how ZoomInfo can dramatically scale and improve all aspects of your go-to-market strategy, contact our sales team today. We offer the most intelligent B2B contact database on the market.