Why I don’t use sales funnels

You won’t have gone far in the world of digital marketing before running into the concepts of sales and marketing funnels. And as I work with email marketing and CRMs you might be surprised that I don’t talk in terms of funnels. In this post I’ll explain why.

The sales funnel is a model for taking a customer from the point where they are barely aware of your product or service to making the sale. The idea is that as they become more interested in what you have to offer they move down the funnel. It’s narrower at the bottom because not everyone who was initially interested will go on to buy.

So why I don’t use the terms ‘sales funnel’ or ‘marketing funnel’?

It doesn’t work like that any more

Back in the days when marketing was in one direction – a business put an advert in a newspaper, customers gave them a call and then bought the product –  the sales funnel was perfectly fine. But these days we all educate ourselves using the Internet and social media before we approach the business. Once we’ve bought we can become fans of that product or if we have a bad experience we’ll spread the word about that instead. It’s no longer a linear, one-way process.

If you don’t believe me take a look at this post from ten years ago. Or check out this post ‘The sales funnel is dead – now what?‘ from the Drive The Network blog. Even Hubspot, a suite of tools that businesses use to build funnels is moving away from the funnel model (see this blog post), saying that the linear approach is no longer cutting it.

Maybe people don’t want to be funnelled anyway?

Ever felt like you’re being sent through a series of hoops designed to extract money for you without ever actually making contact with a human being? Me too. It doesn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy and – more importantly – happy to get my credit card out next time.

There’s nothing inherently manipulative about a funnel, and it’s perfectly possible to give people value and treat them with respect as they pass through one. It’s just that funnels have often been used to extract as much money from people as possible, so I don’t feel all that positive about them.

It’s really vague

‘Funnel’ is such a vague term now in the world of micro-businesses. If you Google ‘sales funnel’ you’ll get funnel diagrams labelled with different words like:

  • awareness > interest> evaluation > commitment >sale
  • or, attention > interest > desire >action
  • or you’ll find some experts flip their funnels upside down
  • or many other different combinations
  • or there’s a product funnel where customers start off buying a cheap item such as a book before moving on to more expensive courses and finally one-to-one coaching.
  • or some experts mix in other related concepts such as sales pipelines.

You’ll also find mindbogglingly complicated flowcharts showing tons of products, up sells and down sells. These can work if you have the skill and data to use them, but they aren’t for beginners.

At its most simple a funnel can be something like this:

  1. Someone likes a blog post of yours and thinks you might be able to help them
  2. They drop you an email
  3. You arrange a phone call and have a chat with them
  4. You send them a quote or proposal
  5. They pay you and you start work

If you don’t have a huge amount of marketing experience and a big mailing list this simple ‘funnel’ is likely to be the most effective one. No fancy funnel is needed.

With each expert 100% convinced they have the foolproof funnel for taking someone from suspect to prospect to lead to client, it’s no wonder we get confused.

So what’s replaced the funnel?

So instead of a funnel we now have a customer journey. As you’d expect there are variations on this theme, but we’ve switched from a linear funnel to a more circular journey. For example:

  1. The customer considers a number of brands or suppliers
  2. They eliminate some brands/suppliers from the list
  3. The customer selects a brand/supplier and buys
  4. The customer then has a set of expectations that will inform their next purchase
  5. These expectations inspire loyalty and recommendations (assuming they have a good experience)
  6. The customer buys again (repeat from number 3)

According to Edward Bass in this post ‘Up to 70% of the potential customer’s journey can be completed before a business is even aware of their existence’.  This means that, rather than squeezing customers down a funnel we’ve constructed, we need to provide them with content so they can educate themselves (and ideally refer you to their friends), then build and maintain a relationship with them, both before and after the initial sale.

Tip: Email marketing is a very good way of doing this.

To me, supporting a customer on a journey feels much more positive than pushing them down a funnel.

By the way, this doesn’t mean that automation is a bad thing. If automation is done in an appropriate way it frees up precious time for you to focus on what’s most important to you and your clients. It means your business can be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which is great for your clients, too.

How do you feel about sales funnels?

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