An Alternative to the Sales Funnel

Sales FunnelI understand the whole sales funnel approach. It has some merit, actually. Reach as many people as you can, bring them through a process whereby their interest is (hopefully) increased, and hope that some percentage of those who start at the top of the funnel end up converting at the bottom into sales transactions.

The whole foundation of the funnel approach is a numbers and sifting game. I get it.

But it’s not the only way to think about conversion-to-customer, and perhaps for consultants and small businesses who provide expertise and services (not transactional products), it may not be the best way. Those of us who are niche players really don’t need – perhaps cannot handle – large numbers of prospects and clients. We can afford to be hyper-focused. And we need efficiency in our promotion process.

Think about this alternative – a more linear, less vertical (funnel) approach for those that are going deeper than a simple transaction:

Referral –> Validating materials –> In-person Discovery –> Client conversion

> As we all know, a professional referral is THE most powerful way to gain new business. So why should that not be front-and-center in our growth plan, as opposed to mass reach? A great referral is a sale already 2/3-made.

> Pretty much everyone has internet access now, so we need to be “findable” after referral through a validating on-line footprint. A convincing LinkedIn profile (focusing on the expertise you’re truly selling) and a website/blog that has a clear message with strong case studies will encourage the referred prospect  to see that you are, indeed, a valid potential provider. Compare that to some “pitch” web page trying to push you down another level of the funnel.

> While meeting with one of my Clarity Therapy clients last week, it was clear that if she got (personally) in front of a client for an hour, it would be game-over. That one-on-one contact doing in-depth discovery would clearly demonstrate her expertise, and show how her skills were a fit. As a consultant, she would only be able to work with a handful of clients anyway. Why make it a numbers game?

> I’ve done these discovery sessions with some prospective clients and at the end, have simply been asked, “OK, what’s next?” No need to even close. The combination of referral, convincing materials, and personal contact brought about conversion, sometimes in less than a week’s time.

If you need a handful of clients, must you sift through a boatload of prospects? Not necessarily.

I’m not saying the Sales Funnel approach is invalid, it may well be the best way to sell into a mass market. But many of us aren’t mass market providers, so perhaps we can afford to shed the “numbers game” thinking.

I know this linear approach outlined above works for me. You?

Further reading (Amazon affiliate links):

The Referral Engine by John Jantsch (building a business on the power of referrals)

The Invisible Sale by Tom Martin (discusses the sales funnel in the digital age)


  1. Steve,

    Couldn’t agree more — but would probably place more weight on the “validating materials” section. Even after referral… the prospect will likely remain invisible to you, preferring to check you out online to see if they feel reaching out is appropriate.

    I also think there is merit to doing away with a “funnel” opting instead for a “radar” as in sonar — approach. Put those thoughts here >>

  2. In my opinion, the “Sales Funnel” is one of those “Half Baked” ideas that has been handed down through “Traditional Sales Wisdom”. Through the years it’s been copied and repeated without question, but in the real world it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A funnel is not an accurate metaphor for what happens in lead generation and qualifying…not even close. It might get a little more realistic if the funnel walls were lined with holes…

  3. Steve, if you can think of a better visual than funnel, I would be so happy. I am so tired of the image. It is about relationships, right? Not being squished into a funnel.

    What I would add to your commentary is that “70% of the sales process is completed before anyone picks up the phone.” (Siruis Decisions, 2012 study) People do so much research before consideration. Your comment about being findable is critical.

    Nice post.

    Marti Konstant

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