Rethinking the Sales Funnel – Part 1

Stages in a Basic Sales and Marketing Funnel

“Oh, here we go again” I hear you say. “Someone else reinventing the wheel!”

And why not? This particular wheel has been turning since 1924, when the funnel model was first associated with the AIDA concept. The pneumatic tyre was first used on cars in 1895 but I guarantee they bore no resemblance to the steel radial ply, synthetic rubber, treaded beauties you fit to your alloy rims today!

Whilst the funnel is a convenient way to visualise the sales process, it’s not a very accurate one. The term gives the impression of a linear flow from one end to the other, under the force of gravity, with very little other input and the only output at the bottom. You know it doesn’t happen like that!

A Sales History Lesson

Early selling was based on one-way persuasion techniques and primarily focused on influencing the other person (customer) to adopt an opinion or to take action in the direction which favoured the influencer (salesperson), irrespective of whether this was in the genuine best interest of the other person. Potentially, anyone could be a customer.

The salesperson was the conduit through which all information flowed to the customer. Limited information could be dealt out as they saw fit and as best suited their needs.

It was accepted that ‘sales is a numbers game’ and large numbers of potential customers would be whittled down to produce a much smaller number of paying customers. The Sales Funnel model suited this inward-looking, linear (dare we say, selfish) way of selling products and services.

The process of selling has changed, driven largely by the changes in buyer behaviour and the ready access to information courtesy of the internet. The way we map that sales process also needs to change to reflect more accurately the reality being faced by salespeople every day.

As a result, modern selling should focus more on helping the customer to understand and interpret the market-wide information they have gathered about product, service, price, value, quality, reliability, reputation, track-record and credibility for any supplier. Crucially, the modern salesperson acts as teacher, guide, mentor and enabler, even using their knowledge to identify areas in which the customers didn’t even know they had a need or an opportunity.

A New Sales Process Roadmap

When I’m out walking in the Brecon Beacons or on the North York Moors I carry the relevant Ordnance Survey map (and a compass) with me and I always orient it with the ground. I can see at a glance if I am where I should be, the direction in which I need to travel and what obstacles I am likely to encounter.

Does the classic sales funnel offer the same level of confidence? If your prospect strays from the linear path between lead and order do you know where he is? (Apart from ‘out of the funnel’ that is.) Without a compass, how do you steer them back on to the correct path?

Let’s take our leaky sales funnel, turn it upside down and change the shape. Rather than treat qualification as something we do at the ‘top of the funnel’ we’ll add a qualification step between each stage so now we have something looking like this:

A new way to represent the sales funnel

A ‘suspect’ is anyone in your target market who might buy your offering. For example, we state clearly that we work with companies in the science, engineering and technology sectors. That’s a lot of companies! Some of these will never become our customers so it makes sense to weed out the least likely ones as early as possible to avoid wasting time and money on them. Remember, we are looking to generate maximum yield for minimum cost at each stage.

Your first qualification process should score suspects against your ideal customer profiles. For example, within the science, engineering and technology sectors you might say “UK companies which are not part of a larger, overseas, group, which have up to 100 employees or annual revenues of up to £50 million, who sell B2B services and products both domestically and internationally.” Any company which doesn’t meet these criteria is discarded as not suitable to enter your sales process. Those which do meet the criteria then pass into the first stage; prospecting/lead generation in this example.

Each stage will have its own set of internal and external qualifying criteria. Internal criteria are the things that you need to see happen, external are those which the prospective customer needs to see happen.

There are five possible outcomes for any given qualification:

  1. No movement. The qualifying criteria have not been fully met but things are still active within acceptable time limits. You need to do some more work!

  2. Advance to the next level of the process. Success! And another step nearer to an order.

  3. Move to a nurturing stage. The prospect is still interested but not within acceptable time limits. No problem, just keep up the regular contact and supply of valuable and useful information.

  4. Fall back down to a lower stage of the process. Don’t despair! This may not be an issue with anything you have or haven’t done. Priorities change all the time within any company and it may just be that something urgent has come up. Of course, it may be that you have misunderstood the situation or the prospect has held back information. Examine everything you have done to get to this stage and fill in any gaps.

  5. Drop out of the process altogether. If this is going to happen, you want it to take place as early as possible within the process. If it happens later, you have the double whammy of having spent a lot of time without reward AND it’s been preventing you from working on other opportunities that could have resulted in a better outcome.

In Rethinking the Sales Funnel – Part 2, we’ll dive a little deeper into why this is a better model for mapping the 21st Century sales process.

(This post is based on an article first published by Neil Fletcher on LinkedIn. You can find the original article here.)

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