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For nearly any type of business, generating consistent sales takes far more effort than merely advertising and waiting for customers to appear at your doorstep.

An effective sales pipeline — the path a potential customer follows from lead to sale— requires careful planning and an organized effort, says Barbara Findlay Schenck, a small-business strategist and the author of “Small Business Marketing Kit for Dummies.”

Here’s how to construct a sales pipeline that delivers results.

Define Your Ideal Prospect

Schenck says too many businesses panic about not generating enough leads when they haven’t even properly identified the customer they’re trying to attract. “They’re generating lots of people who are never going to buy from them,” she says.

Gaining large numbers of leads should not be the objective; gaining qualified leads should be. Keep in mind that the only person who is a real prospect for your product or service is someone who is able to and wants to buy from your business.

“If you’re selling vodka, 13-year-olds aren’t your prospect,” Schenck says. “If you’re selling enterprise software, you need companies of a certain size that aren’t already committed to an enterprise solution.”

To determine the profile of your ideal prospect, Schenck suggests taking a close look at your best customer. Explore how you reached that customer in the first place. If it’s a business-to-business transaction, give special attention to what level of the business you negotiated with to make the sale. For example, if your connection to your best customer is a CTO, then a CTO is probably your ideal prospect.

Studying this information, Schenck says, should help you develop an ideal prospect profile that explains who the customer is, where the customer is and how the customer buys.

Develop an Action Plan

Getting qualified leads in the pipeline is still not the end game; moving them through the pipeline to the point of sale is much more important.

To do this, you need to calculate how many leads you must generate in order to get the number of sales you’re aiming for, Schenck says. For example, if one out of 10 prospects becomes a sale and 10 sales is the goal, you’ll need at least 100 qualified leads for your pipeline.

Understanding how many leads you need to generate helps determine what interest-generating process to use. It could be advertising, social media marketing or attending a networking event, depending on your company’s needs.

Plan to Spend Time on Prospects

Impulse purchases almost never happen unless you’re selling something very low-risk, Schenck says. That means you’re likely going to have to spend some time with prospects to generate a level of trust before you make a sale.

Customers have to move from awareness to interest to desire to action. Your sales pipeline should include deliberate actions to move prospects through these steps.

For example, advertising and social media marketing can raise awareness of your product among large groups of people. Awareness leads to inquiry, Schenck says, which is when your business should determine what level of interest a prospect has. You may need to take direct steps to inspire more interest, which could include demonstrations, testimonials or providing more information.

“If they’re more interested, then you want to move right up to desire with an offer,” she says. “If they need to be funneled and given more information, you should have multiple levels of information you can give them.”

Carefully Manage Your Leads

Schenck says a common mistake, particularly among small businesses, is that they often fail to capture enough information about leads. “People spend all this money to get a lead and they let it languish,” she says.

The solution, she says, is to establish a detailed and organized lead management system that captures information about inquiries from prospects. The system should also classify the leads based on their interest level, timing urgency, purchase ability and purchase authority.

“Can they make the purchase or are we going to have to give them information to take to committees?” Schenck says.

Be sure to record how prospects found your business in the first place; this information will let you know which interest-generating techniques are working.

Get Out of the Way

Schenck says that even when prospects are moved successfully through the pipeline, small businesses can still muck up a sale by failing to get out of the way for the all-important final step: the purchase.

She says sometimes companies have been working prospects for so long that they keep talking and selling and don’t read classic buying signals, such as asking for a price or contract information. “As soon as there are buying signals, let them buy,” she says.

Stephen Loy