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Why this age-old concept needs to go. Now!

By Andre Greco

How many times have we heard sales leaders use the phrase “fill your funnel”? I can’t count the number of times in the last 35 years that this concept has been discussed, printed, trained on, and even promoted in sales books. Back in 2014 when I was responsible for a team of nine regional sales leaders and 135 salespeople, I “banned” the use of, training of, and utter thought of this phrase.

For those who have not heard the phrase “fill the funnel”, let me explain. This ludicrous concept that is still taught to salespeople today, claims that the more opportunities that one puts into the top of the funnel, the more sales that will drop out of the bottom of the funnel. I guess gravity, combined with PSI can drive sales success! Interesting. False. Absurd.

To add insult to the injuries being inflicted upon salespeople today, some senior sales leaders use “the funnel” as a predictor of revenue, for creating annual sales quotas, adjusting commission plans, and even for product forecasting. I’d hate to be one of these leaders as they stand in front of ownership with their PowerPoint slide showing a graphic of a full funnel but having the inability to explain why this funnel did not achieve the year-over-year growth revenue and margin goals. Ouch!

Here’s the worst part of this whole crazy funnel idea. Someone in their infinite wisdom, as they walked door to door 100 years ago selling vacuum cleaners, decided it would be a good idea to apply actual data to the funnel, so it could be used by the aforementioned sales leaders, as a tool to measure their sales organizations. My guess is that the thinking went something like this…………”I knock on 100 doors per day. 50 of these doors are answered. 25 of these folks who answered the door let me in to do a demo of my vacuum cleaner. Out of the 25 folks who see my floor cleaning marvel, 5 of them buy one. My success rate is 5%. So, if I knock on 200 doors per day, I will sell 10 vacuum cleaners every day. I will double my income, get promoted, buy the company, and fire my current boss”! Obviously, this example is a bit simplistic, but the same thought process is being used by sales professionals (as mandated by their bosses) every single day. As recent as 3 years ago, I had a company Division President, during one of those waste of time “Town hall” all hands on deck calls, tell the entire sales team how easy their job was because it is all math. This individual continued by explaining that if a sales quota is $1.5M per year, and the average salesperson in the organization has a 33% close ratio, all the salespeople needed to do was create $4.5M in quotes, and they would hit their number for the year. Yes, this is a true story. No, this individual does not work for the company any longer.

So, what is fundamentally wrong with the “fill the funnel” strategy? Two things; 1) Inexperienced sales managers mistake filling the funnel with sales activity. They look at a salesperson’s pipeline, apply the math as described above, and only focus on those salespeople who are not meeting the necessary pipeline multiplier requirements. Then the “coaching” begins. This coaching is typically a conversation in which the sales manager tells the salesperson that they need to fill up that funnel with opportunities or they won’t hit their number. So, what does the salesperson do? They instantly become professional proposal writers versus professional salespeople. (One of the easiest ways for a customer to get rid of a salesperson is to ask for a proposal. But this is a topic for another day.) And the hamster wheel continues to roll! I, on the other hand, view the concept of filling the funnel as busy work that can easily be manipulated by a salesperson. Granted, this practice of proposal creation “creativity” will not go on long, but it can certainly help a salesperson survive the dreaded PIP for at least 6 months. 2) Who cares about opportunities in a pipeline?! I have never, in 35 years, seen a sales compensation package that pays out a commission or bonus based on pipeline or opportunities. In the real world, a salesperson earns a commission on booked business or collected revenue. Why all of the focus on pipeline, filling the funnel, and using the funnel as the be-all-end-all sales metric? Because it is easy! Sales leaders need only open the CRM and check the pipeline numbers to ensure their team has sufficient opportunities. This helps them sleep at night. From my perspective, this kind of management would give me nightmares. Why wouldn’t a sales leader invest the time to really know their salespeople, help them create a pre-call plan, or leave the comfort of their home office to attend a sales call with a team member when all they need to do is look at the sales funnel? But wait, what happens when the salesperson is not hitting their number? Well, that’s easy too. The sales leader simply states that the salesperson cannot close, is a bad hire, and needs to be replaced.

Just because every sales company uses the funnel “methodology” does not mean that you need to use it too. So, what is the alternative to the funnel? Possibly the strainer? (Sorry, couldn’t resist) Forget the kitchen accessories altogether and let’s focus on what will truly drive sales.

  1. Change your mindset and focus on hit rate. If a salesperson is closing 75% they need fewer overall opportunities than if they are closing 25%.  
  2. Coach instead of train – Training is fine but it is also an event. Coaching is on-going, personal, 1 to 1, and consistent.
  3. Focus on ROIT – Help your sales team understand how return on invested time (ROIT) should be their most important developmental area. Sales training great Tom Hopkins had a mantra that I still use today. “I must do the most productive thing possible at every given moment”. Don’t get me wrong “the most productive thing” may be sleep, exercise, family time, fishing, etc. I am certainly not advocating that salespeople need to work 24/7/365 to be successful as that is a recipe for burnout, and ultimately worse.
  4. It’s OK to walk away – Salespeople hate to walk away from an opportunity even if their gut tells them that it will never close. They hate to walk away from a customer who has not purchased anything in the last 3 years. Why? Because any time you walk away, your pipeline funnel decreases, and that will make the boss mad. So, they keep the opportunity in the CRM, change the possible close date every month to the following month, continue to send e-mails, and in the process waste a lot of precious time that could be spent finding a new opportunity or a new customer. Let your team understand that it is OK to “weed out” their pipeline and walk away from time wasters.
  5. Qualify, qualify, qualify – As I wrote above, many customers have found that the best way to get rid of a salesperson is by asking for a quote. As soon as the salesperson hears that golden word “quote” they feel success and accomplishment. They jump in the car from the customer’s office and drive 90 MPH back to their office, flip open the laptop, and start quoting! The opportunity is not qualified, but who cares? It’s a quote they can put in the funnel and the boss will be overjoyed. It is critical that salespeople are coached on how to qualify, re-qualify, and over-qualify an opportunity. It goes back to ROIT. If an opportunity does meet the qualification standards, kill it! Immediately, if not sooner.
  6. Use a PRSP – A predictable, repeatable, sales process. Even if your CRM does not have an embedded sales process, as a sales manager, you need to create one for your team. A sales process is defined as a series of repeatable steps a sales team takes to move a prospect from an early-stage lead to a closed customer. But it’s really more than that. A sales process promotes consistency, a common vocabulary, factored pipeline management, and early and often qualification. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Salespeople need to understand each step in the process, and more importantly, what information and actions need to be accomplished before an opportunity can move to the next step. Using a sales process saves time, creates a valuable pipeline, and increases hit rate.

I’ve had some fun writing this and picking on the funnel, but in all seriousness, the entire concept is silly, and fake, creates unattainable expectations, and in some extreme situations costs good people their jobs. Sales is an ever-changing profession. Products, marketing, tools, AI, social media, etc. have all changed how we sell today. But at the core, the profession of sales is consistency, discipline, attitude, and most of all relationships. None of these four attributes will ever be found in the funnel. Let your people sell, coach them to be excellent, and you will see revenues increasing.

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