Category Archives: Pipeline

Using This/Next/All-Quarter Analysis To Understand Your Pipeline

This is the third in a three-post series focused on forecasting and pipeline.  Part I examined triangulation forecasts to improve forecast accuracy and enable better conversations about the forecast.  After a review of pipeline management fundamentals, part II discussed the use of to-go pipeline coverage to provide clarity on how your pipeline is evolving across the weeks of the quarter.  In this, part III, we’ll introduce what I call this/next/all-quarter pipeline analysis as a way of looking at the entire pipeline that is superior to annual or rolling four-quarter pipeline analysis.

Let’s start by unveiling the last block on the sheet we’ve been using the previous two posts.  Here’s the whole thing:

You’ll see two new sections added:  next-quarter pipeline and all-quarters [1] pipeline.  Here’s what we can do when we see all three of them, taken together:

  • We can see slips.  For example, in week 3 while this-quarter pipeline dropped by $3,275K, next-quarter pipeline increased by $2,000K and all-quarters only dropped by $500K.  While there are many moving parts [2], this says to me that pipeline is likely sloshing around between quarters and not being lost.
  • We can see losses.  Similarly, when this-quarter drops, next-quarter is flat, and all-quarters drop, we are probably looking at deals lost from the pipeline [3].
  • We can see wins.  When you add a row at the bottom with quarter-to-date booked new ARR, if that increases, this-quarter pipeline decreases, next-quarter pipeline stays flat, and all-quarters pipeline decreases, we are likely looking at the best way of reducing pipeline:  by winning deals!
  • We can see how we’re building next-quarter’s pipeline.  This keeps us focused on what matters [4].  If you start every quarter with 3.0x coverage you will be fine in the long run without the risk of a tantalizing four-quarter rolling pipeline where overall coverage looks sufficient, but all the closeable deals are always two to four quarters out [5].

Tantalus and his pipeline where all the closeable deals are always two quarters out

  • We can develop a sense how next-quarter pipeline coverage develops over time and get better at forecasting day-1 next-quarter pipeline coverage, which I believe marketing should habitually do [6].
  • We can look at whether we have enough total pipeline to keep our salesreps busy by not just looking at the total dollar volume, but the total count of oppties.  I think this is the simplest and most intuitive way to answer that question.  Typically 15 to 20 all-quarters oppties is the maximum any salesrep can possibly juggle.
  • Finally, there’s nowhere to hide.  Companies that only examine annual or rolling four-quarter pipeline inadvertently turn their 5+ quarter pipeline into a dumping ground full of fake deals, losses positioned as slips, long-term rolling hairballs [7], and oppties used for account squatting.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this three-part series on forecasting and pipeline.  The spreadsheet used in the examples is available here.

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Notes

[1] Apologies for inconsistences in calling this all-quarter vs. all-quarters pipeline.  I may fix it at some point, but first things first.  Ditto for the inconsistency on this-quarter vs. current-quarter.

[2] You can and should have your salesops leader do the deeper analysis of inflows (including new pipegen) and outflows, but I love the first-order simplicity of saying, “this-quarter dropped by $800K, next-quarter increased by $800K and all-quarters was flat, ergo we are probably sloshing” or “this-quarter dropped by $1M, next-quarter was flat, and all-quarters dropped by $1M, so we probably lost $1M worth of deals.”

[3] Lost here in the broad sense meaning deal lost or no decision (aka, derail).  In the former case, someone else wins the deal; in the latter case, no one does.

[4] How do you make 32 quarters in row?  One at a time.

[5] Tantalus was a figure in Greek mythology, famous for his punishment:  standing for eternity in a pool of water below a fruit tree where each time he ducked to drink the water it would recede and each time he reached for a fruit it was just beyond his grasp.

[6] Even though most companies have four different pipeline sources (marketing/inbound, SDR/outbound, sales/outbound, and partners), marketing should, by default, consider themselves the quarterback of the pipeline as they are usually the majority pipeline source and the most able to take corrective actions.

[7] By my definition a normal rolling hairball always sits in this quarter’s pipeline and slips one quarter every quarter.  A long-term rolling hairball is thus one that sits just beyond your pipeline opportunity scrutiny window (e.g., 5 quarters out) and slips one quarter every quarter.

 

Using To-Go Coverage to Better Understand Pipeline and Improve Forecasting

This is the second in a three-part series focused on forecasting and pipeline.  In part I, we examined triangulation forecasts with a detailed example.  In this, part II, we’ll discuss to-go pipeline coverage, specifically using it in conjunction with what we covered in part I.  In part III, we’ll look at this/next/all-quarter pipeline analysis as a simple way to see what’s happening overall with your pipeline.

Pipeline coverage is a simple enough notion:  take the pipeline in play and divide it by the target and get a coverage ratio.  Most folks say it should be around 3.0, which isn’t a bad rule of thumb.

Before diving in further, let’s quickly remind ourselves of the definition of pipeline:

Pipeline for a period is the sum of the value of all opportunities with a close date in that period.

This begs questions around definitions for opportunity, value, and close date which I won’t review here, but you can find discussed here.  The most common mistakes I see thinking about the pipeline are:

  • Turning 3.0x into a self-fulfilling prophecy by bludgeoning reps until they have 3.0x coverage, instead of using coverage as an unmanaged indicator
  • Not periodically scrubbing the pipeline according to a defined process and rules, deluding yourself into thinking “we’re always scrubbing the pipeline” (which usually means you never are).
  • Applying hidden filters to the pipeline, such as “oh, sorry, when we say pipeline around here we mean stage-4+ pipeline.”  Thus executives often don’t even understand what they’re analyzing and upstream stages turn into pipeline landfills full of junk opportunities that are left unmanaged.
  • Pausing sales hiring until the pipeline builds, effectively confusing cause and effect in how the pipeline gets built [1].
  • Creating opportunities with placeholder values that pollute the pipeline with fake news [1A], instead of creating them with $0 value until a salesrep socializes price with the customer [2].
  • Conflating milestone-based and cohort-based conversion rates in analyzing the pipeline.
  • Doing analysis primarily on either an annual or rolling four-quarter pipeline, instead of focusing first on this-quarter and next-quarter pipeline.
  • Judging the size of the all-quarter pipeline by looking at dollar value instead of opportunity count and the distribution of oppties across reps [2A].

In this post, I’ll discuss another common mistake, which is not analyzing pipeline on a to-go basis within a quarter.

The idea is simple:

  • Many folks run around thinking, “we need 3.0x pipeline coverage at all times!”  This is ambiguous and begs the questions “of what?” and “when?” [3]
  • With a bit more rigor you can get people thinking, “we need to start the quarter with 3.0x pipeline coverage” which is not a bad rule of thumb.
  • With even a bit more rigor that you can get people thinking, “at all times during the quarter I’d like to have 3.0x coverage of what I have left to sell to hit plan.” [4]

And that is the concept of to-go pipeline coverage [5].  Let’s look at the spreadsheet in the prior post with a new to-go coverage block and see what else we can glean.

Looking at this, I observe:

  • We started this quarter with $12,500 in pipeline and a pretty healthy 3.2x coverage ratio.
  • We started last quarter in a tighter position at 2.8x and we are running behind plan on the year [6].
  • We have been bleeding off pipeline faster than we have been closing business.  To-go coverage has dropped from 3.2x to 2.2x during the first 9 weeks of the quarter.  Not good.  [7]
  • I can easily reverse engineer that we’ve sold only $750K in New ARR to date [8], which is also not good.
  • There was a big drop in the pipeline in week 3 which makes me start to wonder what the gray shading means.

The gray shading is there to remind us that sales management is supposed to scrub the pipeline in weeks 2, 5, and 8 so that the pipeline data presented in weeks 3, 6, and 9 is scrubbed.  The benefits of this are:

  • It eliminates the “always scrubbing means never scrubbing” problem.
  • It draws a deadline for how long sales has to clean up after the end of a quarter:  the end of week 2.  That’s enough time to close out the quarter, take a few days rest, and then get back at it.
  • It provides a basis for snapshotting analytics.  Because pipeline conversion rates vary by week things can get confusing fast.  Thus, to keep it simple I base a lot of my pipeline metrics on week 3 snapshots (e.g., week 3 pipeline conversion rate) [9]
  • It provides an easy way to see if the scrub was actually done.  If the pipeline is flat in weeks 3, 6, and 9, I’m wondering if anyone is scrubbing anything.
  • It lets you see how dirty things got.  In this example, things were pretty dirty:  we bled off $3,275K in pipeline during the week 2 scrub which I would not be happy about.

Thus far, while this quarter is not looking good for SaaSCo, I can’t tell what happened to all that pipeline and what that means for the future.  That’s the subject of the last post in this three-part series.

A link to the spreadsheet I used in the example is here.

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Notes

[1]  In enterprise SaaS at least, you should look at it the other way around:  you don’t build pipeline and then hire reps to sell it, you hire reps and then they build the pipeline, as the linked post discusses.

[1A]  The same is true of close dates.  For example, if you create opportunities with a close date that is 18+ months out, they can always be moved into the more current pipeline.  If you create them 9 months out and automatically assign a $150K value to each, you can end up with a lot air (or fake news/data) in your pipeline.

[2]  For benchmarking purposes, this creates the need for “implied pipeline” which replaces the $0 with a segment-appropriate average sales price (ASP) as most people tend to create oppties with placeholder values.  I’d rather see the “real” pipeline and then inflate it to “implied pipeline” — plus it’s hard to know if $150K is assigned to an oppty as a placeholder that hasn’t been changed or if that’s the real value assigned by the salesrep.

[2A] If you create oppties with a placeholder value then dollar pipeline is a proxy for the oppty count, but a far less intuitive one — e.g., how much dollar volume of pipeline can a rep handle?  Dunno.  How many oppties can they work on effectively at one time?  Maybe 15-20, tops.

[3] “Of what” meaning of what number?  If you’re looking at all-quarters pipeline you may have oppties that are 4, 6, or 8+ quarters out (depending on your rules) and you most certainly don’t have an operating plan number that you’re trying to cover, nor is coverage even meaningful so far in advance.  “When” means when in the quarter?  3.0x plan coverage makes sense on day 1; it makes no sense on day 50.

[4] As it turns out, 3.0x to-go coverage is likely an excessively high bar as you get further into the quarter.  For example, by week 12, the only deals still forecast within the quarter should be very high quality.  So the rule of thumb is always 3.0x, but you can and should watch how it evolves at your firm as you get close to quarter’s end.

[5]  In times when the forecast is materially different from the plan, separating the concepts of to-go to forecast and to-go to plan can be useful.  But, by default, to-go should mean to-go to plan.

[6] I know this from the extra columns presented in the screenshot from the same sheet in the previous post.  We started this quarter at 96% of the ARR plan and while the never explicitly lists our prior-quarter plan performance, it seems a safe guess.

[7]  If to-go coverage increases, we are closing business faster than we are losing it.  If to-go coverage decreases we are “losing” (broadly defined as slip, lost, no decision) business faster than we are closing it.  If the ratio remains constant we are closing business at the same ratio as we started the quarter at.

[8]  A good sheet will list this explicitly, but you can calculate it pretty fast.  If you have a pipeline of $7,000, a plan of $3,900, and coverage of 2.2x then:  7,000/2.2 (rounded) = 3,150 to go, with a plan of 3,900 means you have sold 750.

[9] An important metric that can be used as an additional triangulation forecast and is New ARR / Week 3 Pipeline.

 

What a Pipeline Coverage Target of >3x Says To Me

I’m working with a lot of different companies these days and one of the perennial topics is pipeline.

One pattern I’m seeing is CROs increasingly saying that they need more than the proverbial 3x pipeline coverage ratio to hit their numbers [2] [3].  I’m hearing 3.5x, 4x, or even 5x.  Heck — and I’m not exaggerating here — I even met one company that said they needed 100x.  Proof that once you start down the >3x slippery slope that you can slide all the way into patent absurdity.

Here’s what I think when a company tells me they need >3x pipeline coverage [4]:

  • The pipeline isn’t scrubbed.  If you can’t convert 33% of your week 3 pipeline, you likely have a pipeline that’s full of junk opportunities (oppties). Rough math, if 1/3rd slips or derails [5] [6] and you go 50-50 on the remaining 2/3rds, you convert 33%.
  • You lose too much.  If you need 5x pipeline coverage because you convert only 20% of it, maybe the problem isn’t lack of pipeline but lack of winning [7].  Perhaps you are better off investing in sales training, improved messaging, win/loss research, and competitive analysis than simply generating more pipeline, only to have it leak out of the funnel.
  • The pipeline is of low quality.  If the pipeline is scrubbed and your deal execution is good, then perhaps the problem is the quality of pipeline itself.  Maybe you’re better off rethinking your ideal customer profile and/or better targeting your marketing programs than simply generating more bad pipeline [8].
  • Sales is more powerful than marketing.  By (usually arbitrarily) setting an unusually high bar on required coverage, sales tees up lack-of-pipeline as an excuse for missing numbers.  Since marketing is commonly the majority pipeline source, this often puts the problem squarely on the back of marketing.
  • There’s no nurture program.  Particularly when you’re looking at annual pipeline (which I generally don’t recommend), if you’re looking three or four quarters out, you’ll often find “fake opportunities” that aren’t actually sales opportunities, but are really just attractive prospects who said they might start an evaluation later.  Are these valid sales opportunities?  No.  Should they be in the pipeline?  No.  Do they warrant special treatment?  Yes.   That should ideally be accomplished by a sophisticated nurture program. But lacking that, reps can and should nurture accounts.  But they shouldn’t use the opportunity management system to do so; it creates “rolling hairballs” in the pipeline.
  • Salesreps are squatting.  The less altruistic interpretation of fake long-term oppties is squatting.  In this case, a rep does not create a fake Q+3 opportunity as a self-reminder to nurture, but instead to stake a claim on the account to protect against its loss in a territory reorganization [9].   In reality, this is simply a sub-case of the first bullet (the pipeline isn’t scrubbed), but I break it out both to highlight it as a frequent problem and to emphasize that pipeline scrubbing shouldn’t just mean this- and next-quarter pipeline, but all-quarter pipeline as well [10].

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Notes

[1] e.g., from marketing, sales, SDRs, alliances.  I haven’t yet blogged on this, and I really need to.  It’s on the list!

[2] Pipeline coverage is ARR pipeline divided by the new ARR target.  For example, if your new ARR target for a given quarter is $3,000K and you have $9,000K in that-quarter pipeline covering it, then you have a 3x pipeline coverage ratio.  My primary coverage metric is snapshotted in week 3, so week 3 pipeline coverage of 3x implies a 33% week three pipeline conversion rate.

[3] Note that it’s often useful to segment pipeline coverage.  For example, new logo pipeline tends to convert at a lower rate (and require higher coverage) than expansion pipeline which often converts at a rate near or even over 100% (as the reps sometimes don’t enter the oppties until the close date — an atrocious habit!)  So when you’re looking at aggregate pipeline coverage, as I often do, you must remember that it works best when the mix of pipeline by segment and the conversion rate of each segment is relatively stable.  The more that’s not true, the more you must do segmented pipeline analysis.

[4] See note 2.  Note also the ambiguity in simply saying “pipeline coverage” as I’m not sure when you snapshotted it (it’s constantly changing) or what time period it’s covering.  Hence, my tendency is to say “week 3 current-quarter pipeline coverage” in order to be precise.  In this case, I’m being a little vague on purpose because that’s how most folks express it to me.

[5] In my parlance, slip means the close date changes and derail means the project was cancelled (or delayed outside your valid opportunity timeframe).  In a win, we win; in a loss, someone else wins; in a derail, no one wins.  Note that — pet peeve alert — not making the short list is not a derail, but a loss to as-yet-known (so don’t require losses to fill in a single competitor and ensure missed-short-list is a possible lost-to selection).

[6] Where sales management should be scrubbing the close date as well as other fields like stage, forecast category, and value.

[7] To paraphrase James Mason in The Verdict, salesreps “aren’t paid to do their best, they’re paid to win.”  Not just to have a 33% odds of winning a deal with a three-vendor short list.  If we’re really good we’re winning half or more of those.

[8] The nuance here is that sales did accept the pipeline so it’s presumably objectively always above some quality standard.  The reality is that pipeline acceptance bar is not fixed but floating and the more / better quality oppties a rep has the higher the acceptance bar.  And conversely:  even junk oppties look great to a starving rep who’s being flogged by their manager to increase their pipeline.  This is one reason why clear written definitions are so important:  the bar will always float around somewhat, but you can get some control with clear definitions.

[9] In such cases, companies will often “grandfather” the oppty into the rep’s new territory even if it ordinarily would not have been included.

[10] Which it all too often doesn’t.

What To Do When You Need Pipeline in a Hurry

It’s that time of year, I suppose.  You’ve hopefully approved your 2021 operating plan by now — even if you’re on an increasingly popular 1/31 fiscal year end.  You’ve signed up for some big numbers to meet your aggressive goals (and fund those aggressive spending plans).  And now you might well be thinking one thing:

“Oh shit, we need some pipeline.  Fast.”

To really help you — in the long-term — we’ll need to have a stern talking to about driver-based planning, sales capacity models (particularly if you’re upside-down [1] on sales capacity), inverted funnel models to calculate the demandgen budget, and time-based closed rates to forecast conversion from your existing pipeline (and, I’ve increasingly seen, conversion from to-be-generated pipeline [2]).

And we’ll also need to review the seven words Mike Moritz said to me when I started as CEO of MarkLogic:  “make a plan that you can beat.”

But, I hear you thinking:  that all sounds great and I’m sure I should do it one day — but right now I have a problem.  I need some pipeline, fast.

Got it.  So here are three high-level things you need to do:

  1. Declare general quarters — all hands to battle stations.  You should never waste a good crisis, so call an all-hands meeting, start it with this audio file, and tell everyone you want them working on the problem.  You want zero complacency [3] or fatalism:  we don’t need people cueing the quartet to play Nearer My God To Thee [3a] when there are still lots of things we can do to affect the outcome.
  2. Focus on winning the opportunities you can win.  You think you need pipeline, but what you actually need is the new ARR that comes from it.  Let’s not forget that.  In math terms, we’re going to need high to record-high conversion of the opportunities (oppties) that are in the pipeline today.  So let’s put sales and executive management attention on identifying the winnable oppties and fighting like never before to win them — including potentially re-assigning your best oppties to your best reps [4].
  3. Focus on finding new opportunities that move fast.  Remember that nine-month sales cycle is an average; some opportunities close a lot faster.  Expansion oppties tend to move a lot faster than new logo oppties.  SMB oppties tend to move faster than enterprise ones.  Get salesops to figure out which ones move faster for you — remember you don’t need just any pipeline, you need fast-moving (and high-converting) pipeline.

In addition, if you’re not doing it already, you need marketing to start forecasting next-quarter’s day-one pipeline as of about week 3 of the current quarter, so we can increase our lead time on finding out about these problems next time.

Now, let’s dive a bit deeper into ways to accelerate existing pipeline and how to generate new, fast-moving pipeline when you need some more.

Pipeline Acceleration Tactics
Here is a list of common pipeline patterns and how you can use them and/or workaround them to accelerate your pipeline.

  • Expansion pipeline moves faster than new logo pipeline.  So have AEs, CSMs, or SDRs contact existing customers to discuss expansion opportunities.
  • It’s easier to accelerate planned expansions than create new ones.  Look at out-quarter expansion pipeline and have AEs reach out to customers to discuss moving them forward and/or offering incentives to do so.
  • Partner-sourced pipeline usually moves faster than marketing- or sales-sourced pipeline.  It also typically closes at a higher rate.  Now is a great time to sit down with partners to review opportunities and see what can be accelerated and what incentives you can offer them to help out.
  • Proofs of concept (POCs) stall oppties in the pipeline.  To remove them from your sales cycle try to substitute highly relevant customer references as alternative proof.  It’s a win/win:  you get your deal faster and the customer gets the benefits of your system faster.  Alternatively, reduce the customer’s need for up-front proof by offering a back-end guarantee [5].  Either way, we might be able to cut 90+ days out of your sales cycle.
  • Reheated, old pipeline often moves faster than new.  I’ve often quipped that the best patch in the company is the no-decision pile [6].  Now is a great time to have AEs and SDRs call up no-decision oppties.  “So, whatever happened with that evaluation you were doing?”  Hey, while we’re at it, let’s call up lost oppties as well.  “So, did you end up buying from Badco?  How’d that work out?”  Both types of reheated oppties have the potential to move faster than net new ones.
  • SDRs can delay entry into the pipeline.  We love our SDRs and they’re great for funnel optimization when times are good.  But when times are tough, selectively cut them out of the loop [7].  For example, make a rule that says for accounts of size X (or on list Y), when we get a contact with title Z, pass them directly to the salesrep.  Not only might you accelerate pipeline entry by a week or two, but the AE will likely do a better job in discovery.
  • Legal can stall you out on the two-yard line.  Get your legal team involved in your red zone offense by creating a fast-turn version of your contract that contains only your minimum required terms.  Then inform the customer that you’re giving them toned-down paperwork and incent them to turn quickly with you on signing it [8].

Techniques to Generate New, Fast-Moving Pipeline
When nothing other than net new pipeline will do, then here are some things you can do:

  • Run marketing campaigns to find existing evaluations.  If you can’t make your own party, then why not sneak into someone else’s?  Run a webinar entitled, “How to Evaluate a Blah” or “Five Things to Look for in a Blah.”  Record and transcribe it to get draft 1 of an e-book you can use as a gated asset.
  • Use search advertising to find existing evaluations.  Buy competitive search terms (brand names), evaluation-related search terms (“how to evaluate”), comparison search terms (e.g., “Gong vs. Chorus,” “Oracle alternatives”), or late-funnel search terms (e.g., “Clari pricing”).
  • Look for warm accounts, not just warm contacts.  Sometimes you can see more if you step back a bit.  Instead of looking at the lead/contact level, do an analysis of which accounts have high levels of activity across all their contacts.  That might be a good clue there’s an evaluation happening or starting.
  • Buy intent data. Several vendors — including 6Sense, Bombora, Demandbase, G2, TechTarget, and Zoominfo — look for data that signals companies are investigating given product categories.  Let someone else do the company-finding for you and then market to (and/or SDR outbound call) them.
  • Buy meetings.  While I’ve always heard mixed reviews about appointment-setting firms, I also know they’re a go-to resource when you’re in trouble — particularly if you’re bottlenecked up-funnel in marketing or SDRs.  Consider a service like Televerde or By Appointment Only.  While these vendors started out in appointment-setting, both have broadened into more full-service demand generation that can help you in many ways.
  • Stalk old customers in new jobs.  Applications like UserGems let you track customers as they change jobs.  What could be faster than selling an existing happy customer when they’re in a new position?  It won’t hit every time (e.g., if they already have and are happy with another system), but they’re certainly leads that can turn into fast-moving pipeline.  You can do roughly the same thing yourself manually with LinkedIn Sales Navigator.
  • Do LinkedIn targeted advertising.   I’m always surprised how many colleagues say LinkedIn doesn’t work that well despite its superior targeting abilities.  Perhaps that’s like anglers saying the “fishing is OK” regardless of  the action.  If you know who to target and think that target can move fast, then go for it.
  • Call blitzes.  Remember we said to never waste a good crisis.  It’s a great time to set up dedicated call blitzes to prospects or existing customers.  Just make sure we know who’s blitzing whom so the same person doesn’t get hit by an AE, an SDR, and a CSM all at once.
  • Contests and prizes.  Finally, why not make it fun?!  Nothing gets the sales blood flowing like competition and incentives.

Hopefully these ideas stimulated some thoughts to help you get the pipeline you need.  And, even more hopefully, realize that we should build many of these now-crisis activities as healthy habits going forward.

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Notes
[1] Meaning that your plan number is larger than your sales productivity capacity.  An undesirable, but certainly not unheard of, situation.

[2] As I’m increasingly seeing time-based closed rates used, something to my surprise.  I’d really created the technique for short- to mid-term gap analysis.  I generally make an marketing budget purely off an inverted funnel model.  But that said, using time-based closed rates by pipeline source would be more accurate.

[3] If for no other reason to avoid the common fallacious complacency of “well, with a nine-month sales cycle, if we’re short of pipeline now there’s nothing we can do, so let’s just accept that we’re going to hit the iceberg.

[3a] While I make light of it in the post, it’s actually both an amazing and touching story.  “Sometime around 2:10 a.m. as the Titanic began settling more quickly into the icy North Altantic, the sounds of ragtime, familiar dance tunes and popular waltzes that had floated reassuringly across her decks suddenly stopped as Bandmaster Wallace Hartley tapped his bow against his violin. Hartley and his musicians, all wearing their lifebelts now, were standing back at the base of the second funnel, on the roof of the First Class Lounge, where they had been playing for the better part of an hour. There were a few moments of silence, then the solemn strains of the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” began drifting across the water. It was with a perhaps unintended irony that Hartley chose a hymn that pleaded for the mercy of the Almighty, as the ultimate material conceit of the Edwardian Age, the ship that “God Himself couldn’t sink,” foundered beneath his feet.”  Hartley concluded in saying, “Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.”

[4] Most compensation plans allow midstream territory changes and while moving oppties from bad reps to good reps cuts against the grain for most sales managers, well, we are in an emergency, andd we all know that the odds of an oppty closing are highly related to who’s working on it.  Perhaps soften the sting by uplifting and then splitting the quota.  Or just fire the bad rep.  But win the deal.

[5] Introduce a 90- or 120-day acceptance clause.  This will likely have accounting and/or bookings policy ramifications, but we are in an emergency.  Better to hit your target with a few customers on acceptance (especially if you’re sure you can deliver against the criteria) than to miss.

[6] That is, the oppties that were marked by their owners as neither won nor lost, but no decision.  Sometimes also called derailed oppties.  If you have discipline about reason codes you can find the right ones even faster.

[7] Perhaps using the freed-up time to prospect within the installed base, if your CSMs are not salesy.  Or doing longer-shot outbound into named accounts.

[8] I’m a little dusty legally, but the ultimate form of this was a clickwrap which, in a pinch, was sometimes used (with the consent of the customer) to work around the customer’s oft-bottlenecked legal department and get a baseline agreement in place that can later be revised or replaced.

Why Every Startup Needs an Inverted Demand Generation Funnel, Part III

In part I of this three-part series I introduced the idea of an inverted funnel whereby marketing can derive a required demand generation budget using the sales target and historical conversion rates.  In order to focus on the funnel itself, I made the simplifying assumption that the company’s new ARR target was constant each quarter. 

In part II, I made things more realistic both by quarterizing the model (with increasing quarterly targets) and accounting for the phase lag between opportunity generation and closing that’s more commonly known as “the sales cycle.”  We modeled that phase lag using the average sales cycle length.  For example, if your average sales cycle is 90 days, then opportunities generated in 1Q19 will be modeled  as closing in 2Q19 [1].

There are two things I dislike about this approach:

  • Using the average sales cycle loses information contained in the underlying distribution.  While deals on average may close in 90 days, some deals close in 30 while others may close in 180. 
  • Focusing only on the average often leads marketing to a sense of helplessness. I can’t count the number of times I have heard, “well, it’s week 2 and the pipeline’s light but with a 90-day sales cycle there is nothing we can do to help.”  That’s wrong.  Some deals close more quickly than others (e.g., upsell) so what can we do to find more of them, fast [2].

As a reminder, time-based close rates come from doing a cohort analysis where we take opportunities created in a given quarter and then track not only what percentage of them eventually close, but when they close, by quarter after their creation. 

This allows us to calculate average close rates for opportunities in different periods (e.g., in-quarter, in 2 quarters, or cumulative within 3 quarters) as well an overall (in this case, six-quarter) close rate, i.e., the cumulative sum.  In this example, you can see an overall close rate of 18.7% meaning that, on average, within 6 quarters we close 18.7% of the opportunities that sales accepts.  This is well within what I consider the standard range of 15 to 22%.

Previously, I argued this technique can be quite useful for forecasting; it can also be quite useful in planning.  At the risk of over-engineering, let’s use the concept of time-based close rates  to build an inverted funnel for our 2020 marketing demand generation plan.

To walk through the model, we start with our sales targets and average sales price (ASP) assumptions in order to calculate how many closed opportunities we will need per quarter.  We then drop to the opportunity sourcing section where we use historical opportunity generation and historical time-based close rates to estimate how many closed opportunities we can expect from the existing (and aging) pipeline that we have already generated.  Then we can plug our opportunity generation targets from our demand generation plan into the model (i.e., the orange cells).  The model then calculates a surplus or (gap) between the number of closed opportunities we need and those the model predicts. 

I didn’t do it in the spreadsheet, but to turn that opportunity creation gap into ARR dollars just multiply by the ASP.  For example, in 2Q20 this model says we are 1.1 opportunities short, and thus we’d forecast coming in $137.5K (1.1 * $125K) short of the new ARR plan number.  This helps you figure out if you have the right opportunity generation plan, not just overall, but with respect to timing and historical close rates.

When you discover a gap there are lots of ways to fix it.  For example, in the above model, while we are generating enough opportunities in the early part of the year to largely achieve those targets, we are not generating enough opportunities to support the big uptick in 4Q20.  The model shows us coming in 10.8 opportunities short in 4Q20 – i.e., anticipating a new ARR shortfall of more than $1.3M.  That’s not good enough.  In order to achieve the 4Q20 target we are going to need to generate more opportunities earlier in the year.

I played with the drivers above to do just that, generating an extra 275 opportunities across the year generating surpluses in 1Q20 and 3Q20 that more than offset the small gaps in 2Q20 and 4Q20.  If everything happened exactly according to the model we’d get ahead of plan and 1Q20 and 3Q20 and then fall back to it in 2Q20 and 4Q20 though, in reality, the company would likely backlog deals in some way [3] if it found itself ahead of plan nearing the end of one quarter with a slightly light pipeline the next. 

In concluding this three-part series, I should be clear that while I often refer to “the funnel” as if it’s the only one in the company, most companies don’t have just one inverted funnel.   The VP of Americas marketing will be building and managing one funnel that may look quite different from the VP of EMEA marketing.  Within the Americas, the VP may need to break sales into two funnels:  one for inside/corporate sales (with faster cycles and smaller ASPs) and one for field sales with slower sales cycles, higher ASPS, and often higher close rates.  In large companies, General Managers of product lines (e.g., the Service Cloud GM at Salesforce) will need to manage their own product-specific inverted funnel that cuts across geographies and channels. There’s a funnel for every key sales target in a company and they need to manage them all.

You can download the spreadsheet used in this post, here.

Notes

[1] Most would argue there are two phase lags: the one from new lead to opportunity and the one from opportunity (SQL) creation to close. The latter is the sales cycle.

[2] As another example, inside sales deals tend to close faster than field sales deals.

[3] Doing this could range from taking (e.g., co-signing) the deal one day late to, if policy allows, refusing to accept the order to, if policy enables, taking payment terms that require pushing the deal one quarter back.  The only thing you don’t want to is to have the customer fail to sign the contract because you never know if your sponsor quits (or gets fired) on the first day of the next quarter.  If a deal is on the table, take it.  Work with sales and finance management to figure out how to book it.

The Evolution of Software Marketing: Hey Marketing, Go Get [This]!

As loyal readers know, I’m a reductionist, always trying to find the shortest, simplest way of saying things even if some degree of precision gets lost in the process and even if things end up more subtle than they initially appear.

For example, my marketing mission statement of “makes sales easier” is sometimes misinterpreted as relegating marketing to a purely tactical role, when it actually encompasses far more than that.  Yes, marketing can make sales easier through tactical means like lead generation and sales support, but marketing can also makes sales easier through more leveraged means such as competitive analysis and sales enablement or even more leveraged means such as influencer relations and solutions development or the most leveraged means of picking which markets the company competes in and (with product management) designing products to be easily salable within them.

“Make sales easier” does not just mean lead generation and tactical sales support.

So, in this reductionist spirit, I thought I’d do a historical review of the evolution of enterprise software marketing by looking at its top objective during the thirty-odd years (or should I say thirty odd years) of my career, cast through a fill-in-the-blank lens of, “Hey Marketing, go get [this].”

Hey Marketing, Go Get Leads

In the old days, leads were the focus.  They were tracked on paper and the goal was a big a pile as possible.  These were the days of tradeshow models and free beer:  do anything to get people come by the booth – regardless of whether they have any interest in or ability to buy the software.  Students, consultants, who cares?  Run their card and throw them in the pile.  We’ll celebrate the depth of the pile at the end of the show.

Hey Marketing, Go Get Qualified Leads

Then somebody figured out that all those students and consultants and self-employed people who worked at companies way outside the company’s target customer size range and couldn’t actually buy our software.  So the focus changed to get qualified leads.  Qualified first basically meant not unqualified:

  • It couldn’t be garbage, illegible, or duplicate
  • It couldn’t be self-employed, students, or consultants
  • It couldn’t be other people who clearly can’t buy the software (e.g., in the wrong country, at too small a company, in a non-applicable industry)

Then people realized that not all not-unqualified leads were the same. 

Enter lead scoring.  The first systems were manual and arbitrarily defined:  e.g., let’s give 10 points for target companies, 10 points for a VP title, and 15 points if they checked buying-within-6-months on the lead form.  Later systems got considerably more sophisticated adding both firmographic and behavioral criteria (e.g., downloaded the Evaluation Guide).  They’d even have decay functions where downloading a white paper got you 10 points, but you’d lose a point every week since if there you had no further activity. 

The problem was, of course, that no one ever did any regressions to see if A leads actually were more likely to close than B leads and so on.  At one company I ran, our single largest customer was initially scored a D lead because the contact downloaded a white paper using his Yahoo email address.  Given such stories and a general lack of faith in the scoring system, operationally nobody ever treated an A lead differently from a D lead – they’d all get “6×6’ed” (6 emails and 6 calls) anyway by the sales development reps (SDRs).  If the score didn’t differentiate the likelihood of closing and the SDR process was score-invariant, what good was scoring? The answer: not much.

Hey Marketing, Go Get Pipeline

Since it was seemingly too hard to figure out what a qualified lead was, the emphasis shifted.  Instead of “go get leads” it became, “go get pipeline.”  After all, regardless of score, the only leads we care about are those that turn into pipeline.  So, go get that.

Marketing shifted emphasis from leads to pipeline as salesforce automation (SFA) systems were increasingly in place that made pipeline easier to track.  The problem was that nobody put really good gates on what it took to get into the pipeline.  Worse yet, incentives backfired as SDRs, who were at the time almost always mapped directly to quota-carrying reps (QCRs), were paid incentives when leads were accepted as opportunities.  “Heck,” thinks the QCR, “I’ll scratch my SDR’s back in order to make sure he/she keeps scratching mine:  I’ll accept a bunch of unqualified opportunities, my SDR will get paid a $200 bonus on each, and in a few months I’ll just mark them no decision.  No harm, no foul. “Except the pipeline ends up full of junk and the 3x self-fulfilling pipeline coverage prophecy is developed.  Unless you have 3x coverage, your sales manager will beat you up, so go get 3x coverage regardless of whether it’s real or not.  So QCRs stuff bad opportunities into the pipeline which in turn converts at a lower rate which in turn increases the coverage goal – i.e., “heck, we’re only converting pipeline at 25%, so now we need 4x coverage!”  And so on.

At one point in my career I actually met a company with 100x pipeline coverage and 1% conversion rates. 

Hey Marketing, Go Get Qualified Opportunities (SQLs)

Enter the sales qualified lead (SQL). Companies realize they need to put real emphasis on someone, somewhere in the process defining what’s real and what not.  That someone ends up the QCR and it’s now their job to qualify opportunities as they are passed over and only accept those that both look real and meet documented criteria.  Management is now focused on SQLs.  SQL-based metrics, such as cost-per-SQL or SQL-to-close-rate, are created and benchmarked.  QCRs can no longer just accept everything and no-decision it later and, in fact, there’s less incentive to anyway as SDRs are no longer basically working for the QCRs, but instead for “the process” and they’re increasingly reporting into marketing to boot.  Yes, SDRs will be paid on SQLs accepted by sales, but sales is going to be held highly accountable for what happens to the SQLs they accept. 

Hey Marketing, Go Get Qualified Opportunities Efficiently

At this point we’ve got marketing focused on SQL generation and we’ve built a metrics-driven inbound SDR team to process all leads. We’ve eliminated the cracks between sales and marketing and, if we’re good, we’ve got metrics and reporting in place such that we can easily see if leads or opportunities are getting stuck in the pipeline. Operationally, we’re tight.

But are we efficient? This is also the era of SaaS metrics and companies are increasingly focused not just on growth, but growth efficiency.  Customer acquisition cost (CAC) becomes a key industry metric which puts pressure on both sales and marketing to improve efficiency.  Sales responds by staffing up sales enablement and sales productivity functions. Marketing responds with attribution as a way to try and measure the relative effectiveness of different campaigns.

Until now, campaign efficiency tended to be measured a last-touch attribution basis. So when marketers tried to calculate the effectiveness of various marketing campaigns, they’d get a list of closed deals, and allocate the resultant sales to campaigns by looking at the last thing someone did before buying. The predictable result: down-funnel campaigns and tools got all of the credit and up-funnel campaigns (e.g., advertising) got none.

People pretty quickly realized this was a flawed way to look at things so, happily, marketers didn’t shoot the propellers off their marketing planes by immediately stopping all top-of-funnel activity. Instead, they kept trying to find better means of attribution.

Attribution systems, like Bizible, came along which tried to capture the full richness of enterprise sales. That meant modeling many different contacts over a long period of time interacting with the company via various mechanisms and campaigns. In some ways attribution became like search: it wasn’t whether you got the one right answer, it was whether search engine A helped you find relevant documents better than search engine B. Right was kind of out the question. I feel the same way about attribution. Some folks feel it doesn’t work at all. My instinct is that there is no “right” answer but with a good attribution system you can do better at assessing relative campaign efficiency than you can with the alternatives (e.g., first- or last-touch attribution).

After all, it’s called the marketing mix for a reason.

Hey Marketing, Go Get Qualified Opportunities That Close

After the quixotic dalliance with campaign efficiency, sales got marketing focused back on what mattered most to them. Sales knew that while the bar for becoming a SQL was now standardized, that not all SQLs that cleared it were created equal. Some SQLs closed bigger, faster, and at higher rates than others. So, hey marketing, figure out which ones those are and go get more like them.

Thus was born the ideal customer profile (ICP). In seed-stage startups the ICP is something the founders imagine — based on the product and target market they have in mind, here’s who we should sell to. In growth-stage startups, say $10M in ARR and up, it’s no longer about vision, it’s about math.

Companies in this size range should have enough data to be able to say “who are our most successful customers” and “what do they have in common.” This involves doing a regression between various attributes of customers (e.g., vertical industry, size, number of employees, related systems, contract size, …) and some success criteria. I’d note that choosing the success criteria to regress against is harder than meetings the eye: when we say we find to find prospects most like our successful customers, how are we defining success?

  • Where we closed a big deal? (But what if it came at really high cost?)
  • Where we closed a deal quickly? (But what if they never implemented?)
  • Where they implemented successfully? (But what if they didn’t renew?)
  • Where they renewed once? (But what if they didn’t renew because of uncontrollable factor such as being acquired?)
  • Where they gave us a high NPS score? (But what if, despite that, they didn’t renew?)

The Devil really is in the detail here. I’ll dig deeper into this and other ICP-related issues one day in a subsequent post. Meantime, TOPO has some great posts that you can read.

Once you determine what an ideal customer looks like, you can then build a target list of them and enter into the world of account-based marketing (ABM).

Hey Marketing, Go Get Opportunities that Turn into Customers Who Renew

While sales may be focused simply on opportunities that close bigger and faster than the rest, what the company actually wants is happy customers (to spread positive word of mouth) who renew. Sales is typically compensated on new orders, but the company builds value by building its ARR base. A $100M ARR company with a CAC ratio of 1.5 and churn rate of 20% needs to spend $30M on sales and marketing just to refill the $20M lost to churn. (I love to multiply dollar-churn by the CAC ratio to figure out the real cost of churn.)

What the company wants is customers who don’t churn, i.e., those that have a high lifetime value (LTV). So marketing should orient its ICP (i.e., define success in terms of) not just likelihood to {close, close big, close fast} but around likelihood to renew, and potentially not just once. Defining different success criteria may well produce a different ICP.

Hey Marketing, Go Get Opportunities that Turn into Customers Who Expand

In the end, the company doesn’t just want customers who renew, even if for a long time. To really the build the value of the ARR base, the company wants customers who (1) are relatively easily won (win rate) and relatively quickly (average sales cycle) sold, (2) who not only renew multiple times, but who (3) expand their contracts over time.

Enter net dollar expansion rate (NDER), the metric that is quickly replacing churn and LTV, particularly with public SaaS companies. In my upcoming SaaStr 2020 talk, Churn is Dead, Love Live Net Dollar Expansion Rate, I’ll go into why this happening and why companies should increasingly focus on this metric when it comes to thinking about the long-term value of their ARR base.

In reality, the ultimate ICP is built around customers who meet the three above criteria: we can sell them fairly easily, they renew, and they expand. That’s what marketing needs to go get!

Why Every Startup Needs an Inverted Demand Generation Funnel, Part II

In the previous post, I introduced the idea of an inverted demand generation (demandgen) funnel which we can use to calculate a marketing demandgen budget based given a sales target, an average sales price (ASP), and a set of conversion rates along the funnel. This is a handy tool, isn’t hard to make, and will force you into the very good habit of measuring (and presumably improving) a set of conversion rates along your demand funnel.

In the previous post, as a simplifying assumption, we assumed a steady-state situation where a company had a $2M new ARR target every quarter. The steady-state assumption allowed us to ignore two very real factors that we are going to address today:

  • Time. There are two phase-lags along the funnel. MQLs might take a quarter to turn into SALs and SALs might take two quarters to turn into closed deals. So any MQL we generate now won’t likely become a closed deal until 3 quarters from now.
  • Growth. No SaaS company wants to operate at steady state; sales targets go up every year. Thus if we generate only enough MQLs to hit this-quarter’s target we will invariably come up short because those MQLs are working to support a (presumably larger) target 3 quarters in the future.

In order to solve these problems we will start with the inverted funnel model from the previous post and do three things:

  • Quarter-ize it. Instead of just showing one steady-state quarter (or a single year), we are going to stretch the model out across quarters.
  • Phase shift it. If SALs take two quarters to close and MQLs take 1 quarter to become SALS we will reflect this in the model, by saying 4Q20 deals need come from SALs generated in 2Q20 which in turn come from MQLs generated in 1Q20.
  • Extend it. Because of the three-quarter phase shift, the vast majority of the MQLs we’ll be generating 2020 are actually to support 2021 business, so we need to extend the model in 2021 (with a growth assumption) in order to determine how big of a business we need to support.

Here’s what the model looks like when you do this:

You can see that this model generates a varying demandgen budget based on the future sales targets and if you play with the drivers, you can see the impact of growth. At 50% new ARR growth, we need a $1.47M demandgen budget in 2020, at 0% we’d need $1.09M, and at 100% we’d need $1.85M.

Rather than walk through the phase-shifting with words, let me activate Excel’s trace-precedents feature so you can see how things flow:

With these corrections, we have transformed the inverted funnel into a pretty realistic tool for modeling MQL requirements of the company’s future growth plan.

Other Considerations

In reality, your business may consist of multiple funnels with different assumption sets.

  • Partner-sourced deals are likely to have smaller deal sizes (due to margin given to the channel) but faster conversion timeframes and higher conversion rates. (Because we will learn about deals later in the cycle, hear only about the good ones, and the partner may expedite the evaluation process.)
  • Upsell business will almost certainly have smaller deal sizes, faster conversion timeframes, and much higher conversion rates than business to entirely new customers.
  • Corporate (or inside) sales is likely to have a materially different funnel from enterprise sales. Using a single funnel that averages the two might work, provided your mix isn’t changing, but it is likely to leave corporate sales starving for opportunities (since they do much smaller deals, they need many more opportunities).

How many of these funnels you need is up to you. Because the model is particularly sensitive to deal size (given a constant set of conversion rates) I would say that if a certain type of business has a very different ASP from the main business, then it likely needs its own funnel. So instead of building one funnel that averages everything across your company, you might be three — e.g.,

  • A new business funnel
  • An upsell funnel
  • A channel funnel

In part III of this series, we’ll discuss how to combine the idea of the inverted funnel with time-based close rates to create an even more accurate model of your demand funnel.

The spreadsheet I made for this series of posts is available here.