How Sales Stages Impact Your Go-to-Market Strategy

Sales pipeline stages are vital to properly define to set realistic go-to-market goals and achieve them. Here’s how these stages impact your GTM plans…

Sales Stages & Go-to-Market Strategy

If our go-to-market (GTM) strategy is a house, then our sales pipeline stages are the frame—the structure holding everything up. Poor structure means your house crumbles—as does your GTM strategy.

It’s a little crazy to think that nearly 130 years ago the basis for all modern buyer’s journey frameworks was created. In 1898, Elias St. Elmo Lewis defined the awareness, interest, desire, and action (AIDA) model. These are the stages a buyer advances through as they discover your solutions and evaluate how they could address their challenges or meet a need.

AIDA informed everything from HubSpot’s now famous inbound methodology (attract, engage, delight) to the emergence of product-led growth models that focus on delivering value with product-to-human versus human-to-human interaction. Prospects still discover, learn, and decide.

Why does this matter? Because the definition of your sales pipeline stages must align with your GTM strategy, model, and plan. A good GTM strategy connects target markets and ideal customer profiles to a plan for an efficient buyer’s journey—all while aligning revenue teams against common objectives and the key metrics that will act as leading indicators of success.

The key to alignment is ensuring your sales pipeline stages reflect the buyer’s journey from the buyer’s perspective. This isn’t a new concept, but it is amazing how many organizations still define sales stages based on their internal process—misaligning their marketing and sales team with your buyer from the very start. If you take nothing else from this article, never base sales stages on internal steps rather than on how buyers discover your solution and evaluate fit. GTM Strategy & Model ChartWithin your stage definition exists your sales process. This is where the internally focused prescriptive (buyer-oriented) actions for your marketing and sales teams live.

Sales Stages vs. Sales Process vs. Sales Pipeline

Sales stages, sales pipeline, and sales process are connected but distinct concepts. Often the terms are used interchangeably, but it’s important to understand the difference when considering how each impact your GTM strategy.


Sales Stages

Sales Process
Sales Pipeline


The stages buyers advance through. These stages are essential across traditional funnel definitions, flywheel models, and linear, non-linear, multi-channel, self-directed, or sales-assisted buyer’s journeys.

Defines and sets expectations of marketing and sales outlining the steps, internal actions, and buyer interactions that take place within each sales stage. It encompasses the entire end-to-end buyer’s journey and the responsibilities of the GTM team.

The representation of opportunities in your pipeline at a given point in time and their categorization within your buyer-centric sales stages.

Use in Practice

Each stage should contain expected buyer behaviors and interactions in addition to stage-by-stage entry and exit criteria that will become the foundation of your sales process.

Sales stages align teams on the buyer’s journey while sales process ensures each team and individual understands their role in progressing a buyer from interested party to customer to advocate.

The pipeline is the data source for the KPIs, leading indicators, and associated pipeline metrics that are used for forecasting, evaluation of pipeline health, and efficacy of your sales process and team.

Sales stages represent buyer progression through the sales cycle, the sales pipeline provides an overview of all opportunities or deals at different stages at a given point in time, and the sales process outlines the actions and responsibilities of marketing and sales for converting leads. Think of it this way: Sales stages are your map to get from origin to destination, sales processes are the stops you will make on your trip, and sales pipelines are the number of cars on the road.


Sales Pipeline Stage Definition Impact on GTM Strategy

Well-defined customer-centric sales stages help to focus GTM strategy and provide the basis for how organizations measure the assumptions made in the GTM plan. Poor sales stage definition makes it difficult to accurately forecast and track performance. Sales stages define how you intended to acquire customers, but solid definitions of stages go beyond alignment with buyer behavior. They include the metrics and performance expectations that translate into leading indicators that are used as targets.

Tracked against your performance, those targets will provide greater confidence in hitting your number. Even more, when a target is missed, it provides guidance as to where you should concentrate efforts to get back on track.

Breaking down how we think about sales stages into specific data elements gives us the ability to better design our sales process, establish relevant reporting, set realistic goals and targets, and ultimately drive confidence in achieving our number. These become the basis for leading indicators of success. Here are four elements to consider:


Conversion Rates



Why it matters...

For subscription, SaaS, and professional services businesses timing is everything. The revenue from a lost week or month is gone forever. Accurate projections are critical and velocity becomes a true leading indicator of success.

Benchmarking and tracking conversion rates highlights opportunities for optimization. Ultimately it tells you the effectiveness of your GTM strategy at advancing buyer’s through their journey to paying customers.

Lead and activity volume is directly impacted by conversion rates. Lower conversion rates drive required lead volume up, meaning you will have to produce more leads to achieve your goal. Conversely, optimized conversion rates create efficiency in the buyer journey and ultimately save your organization time and money.

Value is where cost and benefit converge, and it starts at the top of the funnel. When it takes months just to recover the cost of acquiring a customer, effective GTM modeling, planning, and execution becomes a critical competence.


Equally important is closing those sales; it impacts everything. Sales need to weed out poor fits early before they absorb resources. Marketing needs to keep them out of the funnel in the first place. Customer success needs to close the loop on which customers get the most value and why customers churn.

What to track...

Segmented by channel, geography, market, customer segment, etc.:

  • Time to generate awareness (impressions and visits)
  • Time to qualified lead (MQLs)
  • Time to high intent prospect (SQLs)
  • Time to win

Segmented by channel, geography, market, customer segment, etc.:

  • Conversions by stage
  • Click through rates
  • Website / Page conversions
  • Content conversion

Segmented by channel, geography, market, customer segment, etc.:

  • Impressions
  • Website Visits
  • Categorized & qualified leads (high vs. low intent)
  • Opportunity count
  • Activity measures / activities per stage: touches, calls, meetings, demos
  • Wins & losses

Segmented by channel, geography, market, customer segment, etc.:

  • Offering price
  • Average opportunity value
  • Average contract value
  • Renewal & churn rates

Bring it all together with targets for key metrics:

  • Customer acquisition cost (CAC)

  • CAC payback

  • Customer lifetime value (CLV)


  • Monthly recurring revenue (MRR)

  • Net revenue retention

  • Target sales pipeline

If you have historical data, start by pulling basic data points from your sales and marketing tools that define how, when, and why a buyer advances from one stage to the next. If you lack historical data, start with industry benchmarks for similar customer acquisition journeys.


#1: Velocity: The speed at which buyers make decisions and advance through sales stages.

By understanding the duration of stage-to-stage progression you can establish the optimal timing for advancing a prospect through the customer journey—from top-of-funnel through each stage.

This is foundational to establishing time-based targets for performance. Additionally, this shows marketing and sales teams how to serve up the right information to help accelerate the journey.


Take the sales pipeline, for example. Reviewing the pipeline stage duration for each deal or opportunity provides visibility into the health of your pipeline. If the pipeline is full of deals with stage durations exceeding your history or benchmarks, you know that something is broken either in your sales process or in the prospects your marketing teams are filling the funnel with.

Velocity gives insight into the speed of demand generation, the effectiveness of conversion programs and content, the timing to establishing qualified leads and opportunities, and how long it takes to close a deal and provide value to your customer.

Figure above: Velocity - How long it takes your average buyer to progress through the customer journey.


#2 Conversion Rates: At what rate do leads advance through their journey?

Conversion rates tell the story of how prospects are advancing through your stages and the effectiveness of your marketing and sales process within each stage. 


Customer Journey or Funnel Indicating Lead Source.

Your GTM plan will include the marketing campaigns, content, and sales motions that will be leveraged to generate interest and convert that interest into qualified leads and paying customers. Interrogate this data to understand where there are “leaks” in your customer journey. What stages and conversion rates can we impact through a change in how we are interacting with the buyer based upon the goals they are trying to achieve within a stage? This is where an aligned buyer journey  and sales pipeline stage definition can inform opportunities for improvement. When aligned, you know what the goal of your buyer is within a specific sales stage and therefore can optimize engagement, content, and messaging to improve conversions.

Imagine that three months into the execution of your GTM plan you see velocity increase in your early pipeline stages, but conversion rates in later stages begin to decline. With a data-driven GTM plan and targets, you can react quickly and determine why. Are you filling the funnel with the wrong persona and not adequately qualifying leads, or do you have a sales process issue in later stages? Pinpointing issues and root cause shifts from searching for a needle in a haystack to guided discovery of how your execution and performance differs from the assumptions you made in your GTM strategy and plan—allowing you to adjust and respond to changes with greater speed and confidence.

#3 Volume: How many leads advance through your stages?

Increasing lead volume while simultaneously increasing conversion rates is the holy grail for marketing and sales. But focusing on lead volume alone can lead to unscalable approaches and wasteful spending. Focusing on efficiency or conversion alone can lead to missed growth opportunities. Success requires both.

Because we know our velocity and conversion rates, we can project not only target volume (lead count) but also when those targets need to be achieved to meet our bookings, MRR, or ARR goals.

Top of Funnel

Middle of Funnel

Wins Over Time




Our lead quantities at the top of the funnel provide us with visibility into when marketing needs to produce leads and what quarterly goal those leads will support. This information is used to plan campaigns, paid media spending, and more. 

Lead quantities at the middle of the funnel, or first sales stage, tell us how much volume our sales team needs to be prepared to address, how much will come from marketing, and how much we will need to be produced through sales outbound motions.

All of these quantities align to our monthly and quarterly bookings, ARR, and MRR goals. We now have complete visibility into our targets that will drive how we plan the execution of our GTM strategy.

Visibility into lead volume will inform the required investment, the most effective approach to demand generation, and the number of headcount and resources necessary to handle the volume of leads flowing through the customer journey. This combination of volume and buyer expectations will help identify the most efficient means to advance leads from stage to stage.

#4 Value: What is each lead, opportunity, and win worth? And how much does it cost?

So, not only does leveraging the combination of velocity, conversion rates, and volume facilitate your GTM planning, but it also establishes the benchmarks to measure actual performance against. The data tells the story of how your organization will be successful with quantifiable metrics and detail.

How do we translate this data into elements we can use to align teams, establish leading indicators of success, and evaluate the assumptions in our GTM plan?

With time-phased lead volumes, we can solidify a target for the sales pipeline we need to carry in each month by stage to support the achievement of time-phased bookings or revenue goals. Use these values to track against actual sales pipeline numbers as a leading indicator.


Comparing bookings goal by month (top chart) and target sales pipeline by the quarterly goal it supports (bottom chart).

With an understanding of velocity, conversion, volume, and value we can establish a timeline for when GTM work needs to be accomplished. Taking it a step further we can project the activity required per period. How many leads per month? How many meetings, demos, or trials per week? Then we can evaluate whether we have the resources (money, headcount, programs) to generate the required demand, then consume and convert the leads produced. Even more, when segmented by geography, channel, or offering we can refine our sales process in a targeted manner.


GTM timeline indicating when work needs to be accomplished segmented by geography.

Finally, does our plan enable acquiring customers in an efficient manner? How much does it cost to acquire an enterprise customer versus a small business? Are we matching our spending with our revenue in the most optimal manner? All these questions are answered when we have a GTM strategy, model, and plan that considers how we acquire customers, the cost of acquiring those customers, and the revenue and bookings we generate in return.



Combine this visibility with insight into key target metrics and we can move forward with confidence that our plan supports our goals before we generate our first lead.

Outcome-Oriented GTM Strategy & Plan: The Benefits & Impact of an Integrated Approach

When we bring these elements together and execute a bottom-up approach to establishing our GTM plan, expectations become clear and responsibilities, actions, and tasks are supported by real numbers and targets. Tying this to the definition of our sales stages is critical so we have a map for our buyer journey that these insights rely upon.

Leveraging a quantified data-driven GTM model gives us real targets to determine the required investment in acquiring customers. It is the basis for our GTM plans, campaigns, sales motions, and processes—essentially every activity that will be executed in support of achieving our revenue goals. When we break our goals down by channel, geography, market, or customer segment we get this same visibility into targets across those elements so that distinct approaches can be planned for each.

We create alignment between marketing, sales, finance, executive leadership, and our channel teams. Our plans become the source for leading indicators of successful execution well in advance of winning or losing a deal. When operating in unison, it’s a magical thing.

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