Many salespeople confuse the establishment of a pipeline with establishing a pipe dream. I don’t mean to be harsh with this statement. We are all naturally optimistic and, sometimes, this optimism gets us into sales trouble – specifically, when we confuse a prospect who is willing to talk to you with a prospect who has a set of needs that can be satisfied by you and your company. These needs must be expressed in terms of some level of discomfort that the prospect is currently experiencing.

When you have the ability to help your customer achieve a permanent improvement in one or more circumstances within his or her business, then your pipeline is indeed a list of potential new deals. Following are some questions that I suggest you examine for each opportunity in your current pipeline. If you can’t answer these questions, then you don’t have a pipeline but, rather, a pipe dream.

Is there an opportunity?
No, seriously. Are you working with an organization that has a real opportunity to address real needs, and will they do it in the timeframe that makes sense for you? Do they recognize that improving or remedying the situation will have a tremendous impact on their business? Are you talking to all of the people who have the ability to authorize a release of funds, changing processes, changing vendors, etc.? If not, you may not have an opportunity.

Can you compete?
Sometimes, circumstances are such that competing for the opportunity is not feasible. Would you need a level of sales support that cannot be provided due to scheduling or other conflicts within your organization? Or, is the opportunity of such a magnitude that your organization cannot handle it by itself?

There are many issues that can impact an organization’s ability to compete. You need to clearly understand all those issues as they apply to your organization, as well as to the potential opportunity you are reviewing. In the event you cannot compete, you should withdraw the opportunity from your pipeline.

Do you want this customer?
Should you win the opportunity, will it be a situation that significantly advances your goals and your organization’s goals? If not, you need to reconsider this pursuing this opportunity.

Once closed, will the opportunity be profitable?
One of the quickest ways to go out of business or to encounter sales burnout is by pursuing deals that are unprofitable. Not only do you incur the cost of pursuing the deal (hard dollars and time), but you also have the heartache of waking up one morning with a new customer who is not capable of providing your organization with the level of profit that you require.

Or, on the other side of that coin, you have closed a deal that requires far more support than you and your organization is prepared to deliver. In that sense, you have worked hard to lose money and, now that you have lost some money, your relationship with this customer will continue to cost you money. Obviously, this is not the way you want to go.

A very sharp and, indeed, a cynical eye applied to each opportunity going into your pipeline will keep some of these problems out of your life. Make sure that you screen all opportunities going into your pipeline against this standard.

In summary, being skeptical about opportunities is a very valuable strategy for sales organizations. Only work with those opportunities that will work with you in the form and fashion with which you and your organization are best prepared to work. I have nicknamed this process “building a funny-shaped door” to keep all undesirable opportunities out of your pipeline.

There are certain circumstances (size, shape, distance, purchasing decisions, etc.) that comprise your funny-shaped door. Know what the components are of your description of an ideal opportunity. Don’t change the shape of your “door” to allow unproductive or unprofitable opportunities into the pipeline.

By adhering very closely to the funny-shaped door rule, you will prohibit bad opportunities from getting into the pipeline and will give yourself more time to pursue good opportunities. You will eliminate one of the major causes of sales burnout and sales stress. Pay attention to who gets into the pipeline and you will never have to suffer the frustrations created from realizing that you have only a pipe dream rather than a pipeline.

Gil Cargill has spent the past 27 years as a consultant, speaker and trainer helping thousands of businesses achieve dramatic and permanent improvements in sales productivity. He can be reached at gil@gilcargill.com. Visit www.gilcargill.com for more information.