Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of Sales Seminar columns on sales pipelines. Further resources are at Bill Good’s site.

At least half your new business will come from effective pipeline management.

Consider: It normally takes months, in some cases years, from the point of the initial contact to opening the account. The sales pipeline, from a certain point of view is the average length of time it takes to open a new client relationship.

The sales pipeline is a messy, roiling bunch of critters. They’re hot. They’re cold. They greet you on the street but sometimes won’t take your call. To impose some order on this mess, I have divided it into “tracks” and “zones.”

A prospect “track” is a group of prospects who can be treated similarly. You must have tracks if you are doing any kind of serious prospecting. Otherwise, you have to treat all prospects uniquely and figure out what to do in each separate case. There are not enough hours in the day.

A “zone” is one or more tracks united by motion or lack of. At the core of pipeline management is motion. Keep prospects moving; otherwise, the pipeline will fill to overflowing, and prospecting will stop.

Zone 1: Motion

There are four motion tracks in your pipeline. The associated policies are designed to keep them in motion.

Red Cherry: Someone who is interested in your offer, is willing to accept investment literature, and whom you believe to be qualified to act in the near term.

Prospects mostly come into the pipeline as Red Cherries. Your objective is to increase desire and reduce fear to the point they set an appointment. This process is called “lead development.” When someone sets an appointment, they are removed from the Red Cherry track and dropped into your Hot Prospect bucket.

When someone becomes a cherry, send requested info and schedule a day, or preferably a day and time, to follow up. If follow-up date is more than one week away, send info, sometimes by mail, sometime email. If follow-up date is 2-4 weeks away, send something a couple of times a week. If follow-up date is more than a month, they are not Red Cherries. They belong in Delay (see below).

Hot Prospect: This person has set a first appointment. If the appointment is in the next few days, confirm by email. If it is more than a week away, confirm by email today, and send mail confirmation a week before. Send helpful or interesting information once or twice a week. Call the day before to confirm.

Active: This person has completed the first appointment, is considering doing business with you but has not completed your sales process. Ideally, every telephone contact or meeting should be scheduled in advance. Floaters slip away into Delay or Dark. The Active track is a narrow bridge over a pit of fire. Take their hand and walk them over. If there is any period longer than a week that you do not have anything, send something or call at a time they are not likely to be home and leave a pleasant voice message.

Decision: A prospect goes here if he or she has given you a date by which they will make a decision. When someone is right down to the wire and says, “We want to think about it,” I do not recommend you sail into the old tired salesman’s song, “What was it you wanted to think about?” Instead, say something like, “That makes sense. Suppose we reconvene on Tuesday at 10 a.m. Will you have decided yes or no by then?” And sometimes I will suggest, “I want you to take a couple of days and think this over. Can we reconvene by phone on Tuesday, at 10 a.m.?”

This is a short track. Ideally, decision date is no more than a week out.

Zone 2: Sluggish

Delay: Someone can fall into the Delay track from any of the motion tracks. Mr. Prospect says, “We can’t make our appointment next week. Marge and I are going snipe hunting.” The earliest you can reset is three weeks from now.

You will lose some here. You don’t want to appear alarmed but you should feel a little twinge of anxiety. If you have done a good job profiling, you know what they are interested in. I might send something every 7-10 days during the delay. This is not even dripping. This is misting. Of course, when someone goes into Delay, set a next in-person or telephone appointment.

Dark: I dealt with this category in my November Research column, “Your Sales Pipeline’s Dark Side.” Briefly, prospects will no longer accept your calls or respond to your emails. Start with two or three calls, then two or three very short emails. Ultimately, if nothing works, send a “pitch and miss” letter thanking them and saying you’d be happy to help in the future. It is clear from the letter you will not be following up further. They move from Dark to Pitch.

Green: If you are not treating these boys and girls right, you’re losing a substantial chunk of your new business. Someone becomes Green when they say, “We really won’t be able to do anything until we retire.” Or, “We would like to talk to you when Aunt Martha’s estate settles.”

Pitch: Mostly, these are former hot or active prospects. They either told you, “We have decided not to accept your offer,” or they went Dark and you could not pull them out of that darkness. Finally, you move them to the Pitch track.

The only real difference between a Green and a Pitch is that with a Green you have a date by which to call them. A Pitch does not have a date. But they will resurface, sooner or later.

Our strategy for Pitch is very simple. Send them a letter thanking them for their time. And then put them on your drip. Every prospect gets a letter every month. Every prospect gets a phone call at least every 90 days from someone in your office. And then contact them again about 45 days before the events.

But there are some situations, such as Aunt Martha’s estate settling, where you don’t know the date. So you have to estimate how often they should be called so that when that estate comes out of probate, you have already had a couple of appointments and everyone knows what they are going to do.

Zone 3: Exit

While prospecting, you will of course run into “addressee unknown” or “I’m sorry that number has been disconnected.” If there has been no previous contact with that person, I would not waste my time. But if they attended a seminar or have otherwise responded, you might park them in a track Bad Info (see below). You, or preferably a member of your team, will try to find them. But if not, they get moved to Perm Off.

Pit: Someone is not interested or you cannot reach them. They are pits. Eject from the campaign. Do not eject from your database because we know that a list can be reused many times and its response rate may improve over time as you drip

Bad Info: People whose mail is returned, whose phone is disconnected or whose email bounces. If they have previously responded, try to find them. If not, they go to Perm Off.

Perm Off: This is the “dead zone.” It’s really not in your pipeline. It’s the pit where stuff is ejected. It has to be there. You have to be able to get rid of people and not waste time or money on them ever again.

Two categories get dumped here: (1) anyone rude or abusive or someone you just don’t like; and (2) anyone who is GONE—their mail bounced. You moved them first to Bad Info. You cannot find them anywhere.

Policy: Keep them in your database but marked Perm Off or whatever. Down the road if you buy a list and import it, you should be able to flag them as a duplicate. You delete the duplicate. This means you NEVER mail or call that person again.