On Funnels, Incubators & Out-Of-Context Metaphors


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I’ve been in a running debate with my colleague, Stone Payton, for about a year now regarding the value and continuing applicability of the “funnel” metaphor for B2B sales. Stone emphatically states, “Forget the funnel!” (See this post, especially point #5 and the comments.) I just as emphatically disagree!

And I think I finally understand the nature of our disagreement. He and I think of “funnel” in dramatically different contexts. I’m guessing there’s a whole lotta’ contextual confusion out there. I’m also guessing there’s way too much reliance on over-simplified and/or passé sales process thinking.

First key point… Thinking about people and companies as prospects is obsolete and dangerous. It can do all kinds of short and long term damage to your business relationships. It reinforces a “me-and-my-company-centric” focus. (Do I really need to convince anyone that an intense customer-centric focus is critical?) Thinking in terms of “prospects” also leads to thinking about moving human beings through a funnel; rejecting some, keeping others. That’s nuts!

Move opportunities through your funnel, not prospects.

This leads to the second key point; consideration of a few realities of context for 21st century business. Today’s sales pro needs to think in terms of Accounts, Contacts and Opportunities. An Account is defined as an organization that might, maybe someday have a need for what I’m selling. A Contact is a person, a human being who works for that organization and potentially has some role in the decision process for buying or not buying your stuff. An Opportunity is the potential for you and your company to deliver a very specifically defined value or set of values to the Account and (at least some of) the Contacts within.

(Note the symbols in the diagram. For any account, a rep will have from zero to many contacts and from zero to many opportunities. Over time, the number of contacts should grow. The number and size of opportunities will fluctuate over time.)

Accounts and Contacts are forever. Put them into your “incubator.”

Relationships and credibility with Accounts and Contacts are hard to establish and hard, not to mention time-consuming, to maintain. They must be nurtured with a long term mind-set. Think about it this way… Career time spans are really stretching out and usually involve multiple employers. Flush a “prospect” out of your funnel today, and that same human being at the same or a different account, might just flush you into oblivion ten or twenty or thirty or even forty years from now.

Opportunities, on the other hand, are dramatically different in three ways:

  • They’re things, not people (Think of Tony Soprano saying, “It’s not personal. It’s business.”)
  • They have a finite, relatively short life span
  • They have an “expiration date” (…calculated based on the typical sell cycle for your products and services)

I’ll take it even further. An opportunity should have a pre-defined “expiration date” for each stage of the funnel portion of your sales process. You want a “leaky funnel!” One that “leaks” in a controlled fashion according to your rules.

The core responsibility of a sales rep is to identify value-producing opportunities for each of his or her accounts and contacts. LOTS of value-producing opportunities. Some will be losers. Those loser opportunities must be flushed out of the funnel quickly. Otherwise you’ll waste your contacts’ time and annoy the daylights out of them. If you don’t even have an opportunity funnel defined, how can you possibly keep yourself from wasting their time by repeatedly pushing loser ideas at them? And damaging the hard-earned relationships you’re nurturing?

Conversely, the “winner” opportunities must be defined, sold to all stakeholders and implemented ASAP! Without a defined sales process, i.e., opportunity funnel, how on earth could anyone possibly do that efficiently and effectively? By winging it???

So am I right? Or is Stone right? What do you think of the funnel metaphor?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Todd Youngblood
Todd Youngblood is passionate about sales productivity. His 3+ year career in Executive Management, Sales, Marketing and Consulting has focused on selling more, better, cheaper and faster. He established The YPS Group, Inc. in 1999 based on his years of experience in Sales Process Engineering – that is, combining creativity and discipline in the design, implementation and use of work processes for highly effective sales teams.


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