Selling exists to enable buying.
If you’re about to click away, bear with me another minute as I elaborate. I know I just said something that seems obvious, but in my experience, many salespeople (and their organizations) forget this. In fact, I’d say it’s a major reason pipelines stall.
In order to close a sale, salespeople need to enable people to buy. What that really means is enabling them to decide yes.
But that’s not such an easy task because decision-making is very taxing. In fact, studies show that a person’s biochemistry when making a decision is the same as when they’re fleeing danger.
As salespeople, we are often laser-focused on our objective, so we forget that decisions are so difficult. One of the things we teach at Imagine is that closing a sale is not truly about managing a sales process or enabling a buying process. It’s about managing a decision process.
Fundamentally, when a deal is stalled, what you're seeing is indecision.
The readers who also listen to The RevOps Show podcast know that I recently interviewed Matt Dixon, the co-author of The Challenger Sale and a new book called The Jolt Effect, which is all about indecision. The authors studied thousands of sales interactions and documented that 40-60 percent of buying processes end with no decision and no action. Of those sales that end with no action, roughly 60 percent are due to indecision.
That conversation got me thinking about stalled pipelines. In my experience, there are five main mistakes that stall sales, so I thought it would be helpful to list them out and explain how I handle each situation.
The five major mistakes that stall pipelines are:
1. Denial that deals are already dead
Sometimes, sales aren’t stalled; they’re dead in the water. That’s when it’s time to get realistic. There are a number of reasons that salespeople don't keep deals up to date. One major reason is metrics like 3x or 5x pipeline, which means that if a salesperson’s target is a million dollars, then their pipeline needs to have $3-5 million in it. In my experience, this type of metric encourages salespeople to keep zombie deals in the pipeline.
Solution: One of the things we do with clients—which is one of the ways that we discovered this phenomenon, is to do a detailed win-rate analysis. (I explain more in this webinar and this course.) We take a look at the performance of deals that are still live deals over deals lost over a period of time. We look at it through the lens of the number of opportunities, dollar value, and the age. In the vast majority of pipelines, the typical win-rate analysis shows the age of deals won is twice the average age of deals lost. If you think about it, the reverse should be true—or at least, your average days for deals lost should be lower than your average age for deals won. Now, there's a legit reason that might not be the case, but theoretically, salespeople should be weeding out low-fit opportunities. To do that, your company should develop a sales process. (You can read more about how to do that in this blog.)
At Imagine, we look at it through these lenses:
Exit criteria - These are the key elements that lead to someone saying yes and buying from you.
Decision criteria - These determine how close buyers are to making a decision and can weed out deals that aren’t just stalled. One of the main factors that we use is whether the seller can articulate the business case. What we find is a lot of “zombie” deals really have no strong business case.
Timing protocols - These are based on certain activities and motions, which could be the age of the deal, the time since the last meaningful conversation, or a stress test to be sure that non-viable deals get weeded out.
As a side note, all is not lost if a deal is a closed loss. When I’m tactically coaching sales reps and they have zombie deals, I tell them to treat it like it's a new opportunity and create a new decision process. Experience shows me that it’s better to approach them like a new prospect.
2. The belief that selling is a single motion, not a cycle
Buyers and sellers have radically different perspectives on time. Put simply, buyers buy on their time. For sellers, every day feels like a week, but for buyers, every week feels like a day.
Salespeople need to remember that sometimes, prospects are genuinely engaged, but they are simply too busy to move forward at that moment. It’s easy for salespeople to forget that prospects could have more pressing issues.
That’s why sellers need to remember that a problem is not as urgent as a crisis. A good salesperson solves a problem, but the prospect might be dealing with a crisis that takes priority.
One of the worst things that can happen is that sellers try to change the buyer’s timeline. When a seller is trying to move faster than a buyer, especially in the earlier stages of a sales process, it triggers resistance and reluctance. This leads to the buyer pushing away because their “reptilian brain” senses danger. Metaphorically, the leaves are rustling while they're trying to drink some water. Something that feels bad is going on and they can’t identify it; when that danger sets in, the best thing to try to do is push it off is stall, stall, stall.
Solution: First, a salesperson must understand the customer and their world. This sale is not the only thing on their plate; in fact, it’s probably one of the less important things. So if you don't understand the context, you're always gonna feel like you're behind. The second thing is to realize that selling is not just one single motion.
There’s a saying in sales that time kills all deals—and that's both true and not true. What’s true is that once the decision process is triggered and prospects go into decision mode, there’s no question that time kills all deals. But in other stages, especially in larger, more complex sales, deals lurch forward and then stop, move again, and then stop—because buyers are balancing a lot of things on their plates.
When a salesperson realizes that selling is not just a single forward motion, the health of the pipeline improves.
If you’d like to read more about how to identify four distinct stages or phases of a sale—and how they all operate with their own rhythm and timing—you can read more in our blog about designing sales processes.
3. Not pulling back when appropriate
If a prospect tells a salesperson that they’re going to be crunched for time because they’ll be preparing for a big show in 30 days, many salespeople mistakenly think that means a decision is coming before the show. Remember those rustling leaves by the water hole I mentioned at the beginning? That misinterpretation could endanger a sale that would be safe if the salesperson just waited until after the show.
Solution: Understand that “down periods” give salespeople time for strategy and blue work. In other words, a better use of the salesperson’s time would be figuring out a plan, timing, when to initiate, and more. After all, more pressing matters will occur with some degree of frequency. It’s not unusual for buyers to be intensely focused and then get distracted over and over again in the course of a complex sale.
Your sales will stall. The real question is what are you doing to adjust? Unfortunately, there’s no universal solution. Your method of adjusting will depend on the situation, because it’s very contextual. That’s where strategy comes in.
By the way, this is also the point where marketing and sales should better orchestrate. Far too often, once sales is involved, marketing takes a complete and total backseat—and this is the perfect place where marketing-driven tactics can maintain awareness and engagement and can often provide education. This moment is often a great time to expand your constituency within a company.
4. Refusal to ask “Is the problem big enough?”
There's a very common tendency in the world of sales to mistake receptivity or interest with engagement. That’s because far too many sellers and marketers spend far too much time trying to convince people that their solution is better or even needed. Interest alone does not sell a product or service. There needs to be a problem.
If there’s no problem, the salesperson or marketing will fruitlessly spend far too much time trying to convince people that our solution is necessary or even better. This leads to a lot of “fake” deals in your pipeline.
Solution: The most powerful question that a sales rep should be asking—and asking early in the process—is “Is the problem big enough?” If the answer is yes, then all salespeople need to ensure the prospect is aware of the size and the consequence of the problem, and then they don't have to motivate anybody to do anything. If the problem isn’t big enough, that sale will clog up the pipeline.
5. Ignoring “ghosts”
Ghosts are any issue that can’t be clearly identified. There's just something going on because the pattern of behavior isn't right. The prospects are saying all the right things, and everything looks and sounds right—but something is off.
This can be due to many things ranging from behind-the-scenes cost pressures, an impending resignation/job switch, or reluctance to say a competitor won the deal. Sometimes, even the prospect isn’t sure what’s going on, but they just aren’t moving forward.
Solution: If something feels off, a salesperson should always ask what’s wrong. If a relationship is established the right way, which means being open, direct, and not overselling, then just approach it directly and ask politely. For example: “Hey, I hope you don’t mind my asking, but something feels off. Whatever it is, it’s okay, but please help me understand.”
In my decades of selling, I’ve found that if you don’t play games with buyers, the less likely it is that buyers will play games with you. As a result, you know, one of the things that I like to do in a sale—and I don't always do it formally—is establish rules of engagement. One rule is that I pledge to be clear and transparent with my prospect. I'll put my cards on the table and I’ll ask the prospect to do the same. Per the previous point, if the seller says, “Hey, you know what? I am stuck and I can't talk right now. Can you check in in 90 days?” I need to respect that and just need to leave the seller alone for 90 days.
The danger when you're dealing with ghosts is that there's a tendency to create conspiracy theories, which inevitably causes people to take the wrong action in the wrong way. I love Brene Brown’s definition of a conspiracy theory: It's when you use select data points to draw a bigger conclusion. Instead of spending your time creating elaborate theories, just ask politely and respect the answer you’re given.
If you address all five of these mistakes, your pipeline’s health should improve significantly.
The overall lesson: for more predictable results and better allocation of resources, salespeople shouldn’t treat a closed loss as a judgment. A closed loss doesn't mean you lose; it just means the prospect didn’t buy and this opportunity ended. It's part of the game.
I think Matt Dixon on The RevOps Show really nailed it when he said that once purchase intent is established, customers no longer care about succeeding; their true concern is not failing.
The reason deals are stalling is that salespeople are spending all their time talking about how great things are going to be, while the prospect is thinking about where things can go wrong.
Fundamentally, decision reluctance is the fear of the future and the fear of the unknown. That occurs when salespeople skip steps in the decision-making process. Nine times out of ten, when I autopsy a stalled decision, I find that significant steps were skipped or taken out of turn. Usually, the deal went much farther and faster than it should have and didn't establish a strong basis.
That's why you must have a defined sales process with clearly articulated stages of your pipeline—not because your salespeople don't know what to do without it, but because the discipline of every situation is different and, without this, you can't really identify how things need to be done. Note that it’s not just what things need to be done, but how they need to be done and when, so that you can avoid roadblocks.
With all this in place, your outcomes are bound to become more predictable and your salespeople will begin to recognize the difference between a closed and stalled deal. Happy selling!