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Forgetting the Funnel

As you move away from database selling to data-based selling, you need to convince your boss, team, and company to adopt one more big mental change. They need to forget everything they’ve ever learned or believed about sales funnels. The idea that your prospect is moving through predefined stages of the sales process is antiquated. For non-sales executives, let me explain the traditional sales funnel.

While the individual stages of the sales funnel varies by company and industry, most will share a common set of core stages.

The first stage is Prospecting, where the goal is to locate possible customers. Second stage is Contact. The third stage is Need Assessment, where the salesperson attempts to qualify the sales potential of each prospect. The fourth stage is Proposal, where the salesperson presents the product or solution for sale. The fifth stage is Overcoming Objections, where the salesperson listens to a prospect’s concerns and then attempts to overcome those concerns. And the sixth stage is Contract Signed, where the prospect agrees to purchase the salesperson’s product or service.

Have you ever stopped to think about the sales funnel? Why did the sales industry pick a funnel? Why is it that sales looks at selling from a funnel point of view?

It’s because traditional selling approaches all start the same way: soliciting and documenting the visible but unqualified prospect. The traditional sales funnel process in Figure 2-1 is precipitated on the idea that you’re going to start with a big group of unqualified leads. Then through a series of marketing events, calls, mailers, and so on, you whittle down that list to a much smaller set of qualified leads. It also assumes that the first time you become aware of a prospect, that they will need you to move them through the various standard stages of the funnel.

Figure 2-1

Figure 2-1 The traditional sales funnel

When you have the qualified leads group, the law of numbers further reduces your list. The law of numbers states that you won’t successfully close sales with all your qualified leads. Some percentage of those leads won’t buy from you because of any number of factors, such as price, timing, or maybe the fact that your solution isn’t actually the best solution for their particular pain point.

Thus, after all this eventual subtraction, we are left with a funnel-shaped database built on the belief that buyers move in a linear progression through it. At the top is a large group of unqualified prospects that we have added to our database. In the middle is a smaller group of qualified leads. At the bottom, the smallest point of the funnel, are the precious few who end up purchasing something from us. In fact, most sales management databases such as ACT! and SalesForce even have a standard Sales Funnel Report built in that segments all your leads based on where they fall on that linear progression of buying stages.

But what if you set aside the funnel approach? Instead of seeing your selling process as a funnel to be filled at the top with unqualified prospects, picture it as a radar screen that is constantly pinging the world around you and identifying qualified prospects worthy of being added to your database. But unlike with the traditional funnel, prospects enter and exit your sales radar constantly. Furthermore, the entrance and exit points change and do not always follow a strict linear path.

Let me help you visualize this by sharing my company’s sales radar in Figure 2.2. Obviously, this isn’t our actual radar, but a fictitious representation for clarification purposes only.

Figure 2-2

Figure 2-2 The sales radar

The biggest change to notice is that the radar is set up on a horizontal versus vertical axis. The second-biggest change is that the radar view plots prospects on three axes instead of one. Every prospect’s place on the radar factors in three key data points.

First, we plot a prospect’s position based on what type of information they are consuming on their most recent website visit or visits. In the case of Figure 2-2, I’ve associated each section with a major content area we cover on our Converse Digital website.

Second, we factor in what we know about that contact. In the outer ring, we know we have a contact that has consumed a piece of information, but that contact hasn’t provided any identifiable information; they are still Unidentified. If the contact downloads something or subscribes to our blog or newsletter, they move into the second ring—Identified. Now that we have identified the contact we can track the contact’s movements on our site. After being identified, if the contact consumes a particular amount of content or maybe performs a specific grouping of actions, the contact moves to the next circle and is designated a Qualified Prospect. Eventually, either the contact reaches out via a contact form or we reach out after a certain content/action threshold is met, and the contact becomes a Sales Contact.

Third, we calculate the total number of pieces of content the prospect has consumed since first identifying themselves by downloading something from our site or registering for something. That is indicated by the size of the contact’s “blip” on the radar.

The key difference between the sales radar and the sales funnel is that, in the radar view, a new prospect can move methodically through the levels of the radar or can just show up in one of the inner levels. For instance, if you visited my website and, on your first visit, you downloaded a white paper, your “blip” would show up on the Identified Awareness ring even though it was your first time on my site. Conversely, other people might regularly come to my site but never download or subscribe; thus, they remain in the outmost ring of Unidentified Awareness. We talk more about using the sales radar to plan your content and digital marketing in Section 2.

Ten years ago, this approach wouldn’t have been doable. Remember, the sales funnel process was developed because it worked. The reason it worked is that information wasn’t as accessible as it is today. Thus, buyers actually needed salespeople to educate them about possible purchase options and solutions. The salesperson thus controlled those interactions and the information-sharing model.

But today, with all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips and accessible at broadband speeds, buyers no longer have to rely on salespeople to educate themselves. The spread of always-on Internet connections, smartphones, and tablet computers is powering a critical shift in how humans buy things. From simple purchases for personal use to complex business purchases, buyers today are self-educating. And this self-education trend creates the invisible funnel.

To sell to prospects inside the invisible funnel, an organization needs to place significant efforts behind content creation and dissemination. By creating more content that prospects can find in more places, radar-oriented selling organizations create more opportunities for prospects to intersect with the company and its products or services. This then leads to the Propinquity Effect, which I talk about in Chapter 7.

So in your new data-based system, the top of the visible sales funnel is much smaller and the funnel itself is thicker. If done correctly, data-based selling leads to shorter sales cycles because you’re starting with qualified prospects that are already well down the traditional sales funnel process before they’ve even talked to you.

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