The platform you pick to manage your pipeline depends on the size of your business development organization, level of sophistication, and budget. You may also have a strong preference for something that’s custom to you, versus following someone else’s process. You have many options where it comes to tool, that fall into three general categories:
- Simple solutions such as Excel with pivot tables to sort data, or a collaboration platform with fields where everyone can enter opportunity information.
- Commercial-off-the-Shelf (COTS) Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Pipeline solutions requiring customization and adapting your processes to the existing tools.
- Internal custom-built tools designed for your processes that require development and implementation work; they often have better process and workflow definition. You may create your custom solution using a COTS platform.
You need to look at your requirements and preferences closely, to see what features are a must-have vs. a nice to have, and select what option you will select. Let’s discuss some of the considerations that go into making this decision.
A simple solution means a list or a database of opportunities that doesn’t require extensive development work or programming knowledge to set up. It is also relatively low-cost to maintain. It may not offer the capabilities of a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system that integrates with your email, tracks customer interactions, and relates your opportunities to your customers, partners, personnel, and other databases. However, it does offer you enough functionality to know what you have in the hopper and how you could meet your growth goals.
A pivot table in Excel will take you a long way when you are a small business just starting out with your pipeline. An Excel spreadsheet works when it’s just one business development person with less than 50 opportunities to track at any given time. It doesn’t work when many business development personnel are involved in updating the pipeline. When working with Excel it’s easy to accidentally start working from an older version and waste time and effort.
If you have more than two people involved in pipeline development process, you may not be safe with Excel version control. You may want to build a simple pipeline in a database on a collaboration platform such as iMeet Central (www.imeetcentral.com). It is a not a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool, but with the most basic of tailoring skills, you can create a robust pipeline. You could just create a simple database that is centrally located and accessible for others. It includes an ability to attach comments, action items, and files. If you are more sophisticated, you can create custom views, reports, and add workflows. You can attach opportunity documents to the entries, and control the data cleanliness. The advantage of iMeet Central is also that you will have a tool that’s more sophisticated than Google Docs or Dropbox for file management, intranet, company collaboration, project management, and capture and proposal management. This Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is a relatively low-cost solution for a small business.
Of course, you could also use other database tools—just ensure they are centrally located, instead of an Access database living on someone’s computer, that’s lacking regular backups.
If you subscribe to services such as GovWin IQ and BGov, or a slew of other opportunity identification platforms, then you can use their built-in tracker of opportunities, which may satisfy your need for a centralized pipeline, temporarily.
COTS CRM and Pipeline Solutions
SaaS subscription-based solutions for pipeline management are plentiful, and warrant your research into the latest offerings. In this report, we offer the thought process to apply when deciding which option to choose pros and cons of using these solutions.
Here is a checklist with questions you need to ask about the tool that you are choosing:
- How easy is it to tailor to your own processes without paying thousands of dollars for consultants or IT support?
- How easy would it be to add this platform to your suite of tools used for business development?
- Would it integrate well with the tools you are planning on continuing to use?
- Would your staff be open to adopting this tool?
- Is there a setup fee, and how much is it? What does it cover?
- Is the training free or do you have to pay extra? How much training is required vs. how intuitive is the tool?
- Is it just the pipeline/CRM, or is there more?
- What comes with the pipeline platform from the standpoint of managing your entire Business Development lifecycle? For example: Is there functionality to conduct gate and color team reviews?
- Are there workspaces where you could conduct your capture activity to prepare for the RFP issuance?
- What about proposal management functionality?
- Are you happy with the features that these workspaces offer?
- Are there workflows that guide how your BD staff and management interact from the moment you find the opportunity, to the time when you submit the bid, and win or lose the contract?
- Does it offer a capability to generate some documents automatically, such as gate review, capture planning, win probability, bid-no-bid, or any other smart planning functionality?
- Does the CRM functionality (your tool’s ability to track your interactions with the customer automatically) integrate with your email software, such as Outlook?
- Does it download opportunity data and updates automatically from such sources as FedBizOpps, GovWin IQ, BGov, eBuy, or other sources of opportunities you tend to use, or are you required to enter the data manually?
- Does it correlate your opportunities to customers, contacts, partners/teams, personnel used, past performances used?
- Is it geared towards Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity contracts (IDIQ) and Task Order Management, showing to you clearly how certain Task/Delivery/Call Orders are related to a specific Indefinite Delivery Vehicle (IDV)?
- Does it have a Business Intelligence feature, with out-of-the-box business development metrics, views, and pre-built advanced reports?
- Does it come with an app or mobile-ready forms and dashboards, for easy accessibility and interaction?
- Does it allow you to easily zoom into the opportunity to see the detail, and zoom out to view the entire portfolio and its status?
- Does it have a collaboration feature so that your business development staff could interact within the platform?
- Is the user interface quick to respond and user-friendly?
- Does the license cost for the sufficient number of people who would need to access the platform fit into your budget?
- Does the tool have competent and free customer/technical support?
- How quickly would you see the Return on Investment from implementing and using the pipeline?
- What do your peers/competifriends who have been using the pipeline, feel about this solution? Do they like it? How has it changed the way they go about winning business?
The pros of investing into a COTS CRM/Pipeline tool include:
- Already mature functionality
- Faster implementation
- Tool evolves without you having to add money to it
The cons usually include:
- Having to adapt to the tools’ business process, instead of it being adapted to yours
- Sophisticated dashboards look good but require volumes of manual data entry by the team (typically avoided)
- Set up, training, and license costs tend to be higher.
Some of the best-known Pipeline platforms are GovBD that’s based on Salesforce platform, Deltek CRM and Capture Management, and Privia.
Internal Custom-Built Tools
Your last option is to reject the COTS solutions and build something that’s inherently your own. A pipeline that suits your needs, completely. For example, Northrop Grumman, a multibillion-dollar government contracting giant, built a pipeline solution called Workbench that integrates with the BD Intranet portal and ShareCenter site. They have matured this solution over two decades, and it is completely custom for the organization.
All business developers, capture managers, and proposal managers are required to maintain data in Workbench. The motto for the workbench is – “if it wasn’t in Workbench, it didn’t happen” – and Northrop Grumman gives awards for wins. This keeps the data healthy and accurate.
The strength of Workbench as a pipeline tool comes from its ability to give the user customized interfaces based on the type of opportunity they are pursuing, and then layering Northrop Grumman’s opportunity-specific process from that point forward. There is COTS tool that Northrop Grumman has found that can do that. They tried with no success to employ a COTS CRMS solution—and Workbench “crushed” CRMS.
Other tools used in BD are ShareCenter linked to Human Resources information system—proposal professionals have access to every employee’s résumé across the sector. They can find everybody who has taken a particular class, for example. ShareCenter also contains lessons learned databases, program summaries, and program reviews for existing programs. These reviews help the BDers know where the dirty laundry is, so that no one will approach a customer with a tenuous relationship on a project with less than stellar performance and say “Hi, Mr. Customer, we want to sell to you.”
One major feature of Workbench is a BD Dashboard that shows “flash” insight on a daily basis. These overarching views allow senior management to see the total pipeline, strategic operating factors, and revenue projections. The BD leadership can also see the status of priority pursuits, the year-to-date win rates by type of contract, year-to-date awards, acquisitions, and bookings, and also a “one-click” drill down to the next level of data.
The output is a BD dashboard that literally looks like a pipe. It allows for great analysis and data visualization—it enables the management to look at the dashboard at corporate and sector level.
It gives them statistics on win rates, and is indispensable when dealing with 7,500 proposals a Northrop Grumman sector writes on average per year. It helps zoom in to find the problem places. It actually builds a risk square, to see how many deals are in different process phases and the maturity scores. It helps them see where to drill to see losses or risk when opportunities are in the red (falling behind), and then see who the capture managers are. It is a portfolio approach vs. deal-by-deal approach. If the proposal is red in the pre-proposal phase, it will not make it to the next phase. Business Developers’ deals get cut very quickly in the triage process, and if they don’t keep up, they realize that their “precious” deals are no longer in the pipeline.
The pros of a custom solution include having a platform that behaves just the way your organization requires, and:
- Enables all the tools and information to be centralized, with meaningful custom metrics you like to see
- You can start small and simple and mature with your business development processes maturing
- You can tailor the tool to your processes instead of tailoring your processes to the tool (Crawl, Walk, Run)
- You will have your pipeline integrate with and flow across your entire BD, capture, and proposal lifecycle, with your Business Development information centrally managed
- You control configuration and training, and adding new features
The cons are as follows:
- Initial development cost, which is greater than customizing a COTS solution; even if you use platform such as SharePoint, and add Microsoft CRM and Project Server, the development will still carry a six-figure price-tag
- More burden to update/evolve the tool for future maturity (as your own business maturity occurs) instead of following the COTS tools’ maturation cycle
- Learning curve as you figure out your requirements and how you would like things, resulting in some rework and retracing your steps as you figure things out.
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