B2B sales is a complex job – there are often many different moving parts associated with a sales opportunity, including the customer, and the various stakeholders involved; the opportunity itself, and the potential investments and rewards it represents to the customer and the supplier; the specific requirements which need to be satisfied; the solution that is offered; the contracting process – and so on.
Keeping track of all these different moving parts, in any coherent kind of fashion, is not easy, especially as they: a) can move independently of one another; b) do not always progress in a simple linear way; and c) are often outside of our direct control. Multiply that by everything that’s in your pipeline and you have a challenge on your hands. The greater the complexity of your opportunity (or set of opportunities in your pipeline) the greater the chances of missing some key aspect or piece of information, leading to increased risk (of losing deals), and therefore decreased reliability of your forecast.
Visualisation is a powerful way to manage complexity, utilising that part of the human brain that can process and make sense of large amounts of data quickly, and to help communicate complex ideas with others. Kanban boards have become a popular and effective way of working, especially with teams adopting lean and agile ways of working. Think white boards, divided into vertical lanes or columns, with cards or sticky notes representing the work, usually flowing left to right. Since the early 2000s their usage has grown in IT and other areas of business, helping to plan and track work, visualize the status of work, and aid collaboration among teams.
So how can Kanban boards help sales teams? In this post we’ll look at three effective uses of Kanban for sales: visualising pipeline status; planning and tracking sales activities; and tracking opportunity status.
The Pipeline Board
How it works:
This board represents our complete pipeline of current opportunities. Each stage in the sales cycle is represented by a column on the board. These stages are the same ones that you will find in your CRM system, and should be named in the same way. The cards on the board represent your opportunities, and they move left to right through the sales cycle.
How this helps sales:
The pipeline board provides a clear picture of the health of the overall pipeline, highlighting where there are potential gaps (need to prospect), too much work in progress (need to prioritise), or blockages in the pipeline that may indicate an issue with the sales process itself.
The board helps us understand where each opportunity is in the overall sales cycle, what’s about to close and which opportunities require urgent focus and attention. In a team environment, the board is a great collaboration tool, helping to ensure the team is aligned on the right priorities and understands the big picture. We can also use the board to highlight issues, risks or opportunities that are blocked.
- Review the board on a regular basis, e.g. weekly, both with the team, for planning next actions, and with sales leaders for forecasting purposes
- Provide clear definitions of each stage in the process, so you are not relying on guesswork or casual, subjective interpretations of an opportunity’s true state (see later section in this post for solutions to that).
The Activity Board
How it works:
This is a simple board that can be used by individuals, or the whole team, to plan and track the activities that are required to move an opportunity forward. The board structure is straightforward – the three columns represent the state of activities: To Do, Doing and Done. The cards represent activities. New activity cards are created in the To Do column and move left to right through the board as work on them starts and is eventually completed.
How this helps sales:
The activity board affords an overview of all the work that is planned, in flight, or completed – so nothing important gets missed. It provides a simple way of prioritising activities, ensuring the important and urgent stuff gets done in a timely manner.
It also encourages teamwork and collaboration, by helping to get the whole team (by which I mean the team who are involved in and working on the opportunity together) on the same page – so everyone understands what needs to be done, by whom, and by when, in order to win.
If you’re looking for a more agile, iterative, way of working, then the activity board is for you – providing a simple way for the team to prioritise activities for the next iteration, then focus on getting them to the Done column within that iteration – small achievable wins that will move your deal forwards.
This approach does not constrain the team at all, and allows them the freedom to decide on the strategy, tactics and activities which will add maximum value to the sales cycle, and maximum value to the customer – doing the right things at the right time to advance the opportunity.
- Review the board with the team regularly, ideally each day – a 15 minute daily huddle (or “daily stand-up”) around the board is a great way to review what’s been completed, focus the team on the important stuff that needs to get done today, and request and offer help where needed
- Remember that you’re trying to create a sense of flow across the boards – so that work is getting completed at a steady rate – limiting Work in Progress (WIP), i.e. the amount of cards in the Doing column, will help achieve this (remember: “Stop Starting and Start Finishing”)
- Extend the board to the left with an additional column for ideas or tasks that are not yet prioritised for action, then move them into To Do once the team has agreed they are required and will add value
- Use a digital board if the team doesn’t have the luxury of co-location – if you’re using a digital board, ensure it can filter it on: a specific opportunity, so you can review all activities associated with that; or a specific individual, so you can focus in on everything that person is doing.
The Status Board
How it works:
The Status Board looks similar to the Activity Board in that it has 3 columns, To Do, Doing & Done – but that’s where the similarity ends. It also has several horizontal “swim lanes”, one for each aspect of an opportunity (Opportunity, Customer, Requirements, Solution, Contract, Strategy and Team) with each aspect being independently assessed. The cards represent the maturity of each aspect and are moved to Done by completing the checks on each card. The checks represent outcomes relevant to each aspect of the opportunity.
How this helps sales:
The status board provides the sales team with an accurate and complete view of opportunity status by ensuring that all aspects of an opportunity are considered, and by assessing each aspect objectively using the checklists. This enables more accurate forecasting, by removing subjective assessment and focusing on outcomes.
The sales process guidance encapsulated in the checklists also ensures that important things are not missed in the heat of the moment – things that might otherwise derail your opportunity if overlooked. Any gaps (in knowledge or outcomes) are immediately transparent, thereby highlighting risks and providing a means to manage them.
Using this approach to assess the true state of an opportunity supports a lean-agile way of working, the checklists and maturity levels providing the team with granular, achievable outcomes that can be completed with the duration of a short iteration.
This highly flexible sales process allows the team to sell the way their customer wants to buy, by not mandating any particular stages, steps or activities at any particular time. If you do need to align status to an over-arching sales lifecycle (e.g. the one that’s used in your CRM system, and the one that appears on your Pipeline Board) for reporting purposes, then the aspects, maturity levels and checklists can be used to provide rigorous definitions for each stage on that lifecycle, again removing subjectivity and helping to increase the accuracy of sales reporting and forecasting.
- As with the activity board above, review the board with the team regularly, ideally every one to four weeks – set objectives for the next iteration based on maturity level you need to achieve for each aspect of the opportunity, for example: move Opportunity to Quantified, Customer to Engaged, and Requirements to Complete
- Right-size your process by using as many of the aspects as you feel are warranted by the opportunity being assessed – the larger and more complex the opportunity, the more rigour and therefore the more aspects you may need – smaller opportunities will require less process overhead and therefore less aspects
- Allow the team to decide when a card is complete – ideally when all the checks are completed, but if the team feels it’s done, then it’s done – uncompleted checks will represent known risks which the team may choose to accept
- Agree within your organisation, how sales stages, and forecasting categories, are defined in terms of the maturity levels of the different aspects – use these definitions to drive activity on your pipeline board, and hardwire these definitions into your CRM system.
Kanban boards are a highly visual approach that support a collaborative way of working for a sales team. Visualisation enables people to share information more quickly and easily, reducing misunderstandings, and surfacing risks and issues early.
- The Pipeline Board provides an overall view of our sales process and pipeline health, helping the team to prioritise on the right opportunities, recognise blockers and risks, and identify improvements to the process
- The Activity Board provides a simple way for the team to collaborate and co-ordinate activities, and supports lean, agile and iterative ways of working
- The Status Board gives us an objective understanding of the true status of each opportunity, drives strategy and next steps, and supports accurate forecasting.
Want to start visualising to improve your collaboration, bring greater agility to your sales team, and get more opportunities over the line? Check out www.essentialsalesprocess.com: a Kanban, card, and checklist-based sales process built on lean and agile principles.