Business Dev/Sales

Make Your Pipeline Part of Your Accountability Process

lightbulb and notepad to reflect Business Development Pipeline Reviews

Business development today looks different than it did just two months ago. The way you meet with a prospect is different. The services you thought a client was interested in have changed. Your approach needs to be even more helpful and advisory than ever before.

While your business development activity has stalled, it will increase as businesses, including your current clients, take their work out to bid in the next year to look for potential savings. That’s why a pipeline is more important than ever before. You need to ensure every opportunity is pursued at the highest level to protect — and hopefully grow — current revenue.

Your firm’s pipeline is how you keep track of that potential new revenue. Combined with pipeline reviews, you can successfully hold people accountable to contribute to top-line growth. Here’s how it can work:

Start with a Sales Goal

When it comes to the amount of current firm revenue you should have on your pipeline, it depends on a number of factors like the firm’s growth goal, win rate, and how long an opportunity stays on the pipeline, to name a few. But an overall rule of thumb is that is should be at least 10 percent of current firm revenue. This isn’t radical growth, but should allow for some modest growth. If you desire to be a rapidly growing firm, that number should be at least double that amount.

With the overall initial goal in mind, break it down by office or niche/segment team depending on how your firm tracks revenue. Go a step further and take those amounts down to a partner/practitioner level. These individual numbers should be built into partner accountability plans or partner compensation to incentivize and reward performance.

You can’t expect people to strive for something without knowing what that something is. And they cannot be held accountable to an arbitrary goal. Use actual numbers that can be measured.

Develop a Pipeline Report

A pipeline is a “report” of the opportunities in your firm that someone is actively pursuing. You can define active any way you want, but if something has been on there with no activity for 90 days, is it really active? That’s when your pipeline moves from leads being actively pursued to a wish list of people you’d like to work with.

Now, pipeline data can be tracked in client relationship management (CRM) or another type of pipeline software, or it can be a simple Excel document. You need to collect basic information on the lead like name, company, industry, service need and estimated revenue, as well as information on the pursuit and the pursuit team including sales stage, who is leading the opportunity, who is helping in the pursuit, current provider and where the lead came from. However, the key to accountability comes from the following:

  • What is the most recent activity taken and when was that done? To ensure regular action is taken, you’ll be able to see how long it’s been since you’ve been in contact. When action hasn’t been taken for a while, you can move this to an inactive part of your pipeline and bring it back when someone is ready to pursue it again. Or it can be removed completely if the opportunity is “dead” and isn’t going to happen soon (e.g., not going out to bid, halt to building expansion, no new CFO, etc.)
  • What will you do next and when will that occur? This is the heart of accountability. You’re trying to sell next steps (as complex sales are a multi-touch process) so you need to have people agree to do something by a date, and then you can measure if they did or did not accomplish it. And when they do, set the next action step.
  • When was the lead added to the pipeline? This allows you to see how long it takes to eventually get to an answer. It also provides insight into the overall time invested and if the lead looks more like a wish than an opportunity.

Often times the pipeline gets bogged down in opportunities that aren’t moving. Consider using color coding to call out old leads and to highlight missed due dates. Color coding also helps to highlight new opportunities and activity…the things that make pipelines exciting.

Have Pipeline Review Meetings

Gathering the leads being pursued in one place is only the first step of the process. Pipeline review and management is how you drive accountability. The following outlines a pipeline review process:

  • Set a standard pipeline review call. This should be 30 minutes every two weeks. It can be in-person if you’re all in one office or by phone/video if you’re not. Add it to everyone’s calendar and don’t move it. The repetition and stability reinforce how important the pipeline process is to your firm’s growth strategy. Ensure team members know that participation is mandatory. Here is a sample pipeline report that you can use for your pipeline meetings.
  • Name a pipeline leader. This is the person who will run the calls and hold people accountable. This has to be someone the participants on the call are beholden to, so that’s typically the managing partner or another firm leader. Marketing and business development executives can step in to cover in someone’s absence, but typically don’t work over the long-term since most are not in a position to impact partner action.
  • Assign each lead a stage. All leads on the pipeline should be assigned to a stage that directly ties into your firm’s uniform sales process. Your firm should have a defined sales process and all those involved in sales should be trained on it. When you are able to talk the same sales lingo and understand what a “qualified lead” is as defined by your sales process, it becomes easier to help guide people to a close. 
  • Require next steps. The pipeline leader needs to quickly run down the status of all leads. This is where the color coding comes in handy as you can easily identify those past due items and new opportunities. While it’s important that we know what has been done so others on the call can provide tips and advice to help increase the odds of winning, you have to focus on what will be done next and by when. Then make sure to follow-up on the next call to ensure it was. When people know they will be called out and asked about what they agreed to do, they are more likely to do it.
  • Use variety. Many firms that have been doing pipeline review meetings for years begin to look for variety as pipeline meetings and calls tend to feel stale. Consider mixing up what you review or how you review it. Maybe the focus of your next call is on the leads of a specific office or niche/segment team. Or you focus on older leads. The more leads you have in the pipeline, the less likely you are to recount each one on each call, so variety comes in quite handy to ensure nothing is falling through the cracks either.
  • Limit content to sales. The focus of the call should be on reviewing sales opportunities. It’s not the place to share firm announcements and talk software issues. There are some firms that allot a small amount of time for cross selling identification. As long as topics like that don’t diminish the next step reporting, they can be beneficial since they are designed to add new opportunities to the pipeline.

Marketing and business developers should be part of these calls and share insights back with the pipeline leaders. Are you pursuing the right type of leads (targets, fees, etc.)? Is the quality and quantity of touches correct? Are the right players on the pursuit team? Are there trends in a geography or with a competitor you should capitalize on? Sharing this information and working together to find ways to strengthen what you are doing should lead to additional accountability in the future.

Don’t Forget Win/Loss Reviews

It seems as if most leads are lost due to price. Or, at least, that’s what practitioners say the issue was. Most often price is not the issue and you have to dig deeper into the pursuit to uncover the real issue. Loss reviews, conducted by the pipeline leader in conjunction with marketing and business development, can be a great way to learn about what you did right and wrong. They are not done to penalize anyone for action taken or not, rather, they are done to be learning opportunities. Perhaps you didn’t uncover a vital piece of information, missed the fact that the CFO had a relationship with another firm bidding or didn’t see how they really needed someone to advise them at a higher level than proposed. The key is what you could have done differently, with the benefit of hindsight, to have better positioned your proposal for a win. This information can be used in future pursuits and it helps hold people accountable to your uniform sales process.

There are things to learn from your wins, too. Be sure to spend time talking about what went well and what contributed to your success so you can replicate it.

Accountability in Sales Matters

If you are going to see the performance and success you desire in your top-line revenue growth, you need to make accountability part of your sales process and culture. And accountability needs to be separate from penalization or you’ll have disgruntled and non-compliant team members. Accountability should be a positive. It’s how you drive the desired action to receive the sales goals desired. It’s where you need to focus to get your team working better together toward a common goal and how you have happier and more productive sales efforts. As bidding opportunities are sure to heat up, now is the time to put a pipeline process in place.

About Katie Tolin

Katie Tolin is the president and chief growth guide at CPA Growth Guides. She’s a former in-house marketer having spent time at regional, super-regional and national accounting firms. Today she helps CPA firms drive top-line revenue and profitability through data-driven marketing strategies. She’s a past president of AAM, a former marketer of the year and was inducted into the Accounting Marketing Hall of Fame.

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