Is the Sales Funnel Obsolete?

“Youtility is massively useful information, provided for free, that creates long-term trust and kinship between your company and your customers.”—Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is about Help Not Hype by Jay Baer

From my very first days in the insurance industry when I began to learn how to sell insurance products, I was taught the marketing and sales funnel.

The sales funnel was a visual representation of the steps that you needed to lead a prospect through in order to get them to the point where you could close the sale. Once they made a buying decision, you learned how to make them an advocate of your agency. Suspect, prospect, customer, client, advocate—that was the process.

And it worked.

I used the sales funnel—or marketing ladder—to visualize the marketing and sales process. I have been a big fan of this type of thinking. In 1990 when I began to sell commercial insurance as a new producer at an agency in Texas, it was a core part of the marketing process I used to build my book. I believed in it so much that I began using it when I taught agents about marketing campaign management and marketing automation. I even wrote a series of articles for Rough Notes that is still available today.

Many insurance sales trainers continue to rely on the sales and marketing funnel as a key component of their sales process training.

But I suspect sales funnel thinking has been obsolete for a number of years; the industry just hasn’t come to accept and embrace this change. I believe the sales and marketing process has changed more dramatically in the last five years than in the previous 30.

Buying patterns have also changed drastically. The Internet allows consumers to begin their search for product information without us knowing they are a prospect. This change in information access may have broken the sales funnel as we know it. The big question is whether or not a sales funnel is still a viable model for the sales and marketing process.

The sales funnel relies on the theory that someone comes into the top of the funnel and sales fall out the bottom. But is that really true in today’s world? It seems to me that a large percentage of today’s consumers follow an erratic path of engagement with businesses that sometimes results in a purchase.

Jay Baer, in his book Youtility, states that “technology adoption has profoundly altered how consumers interact with information and with businesses.” He goes on to say: “In 2011 the Corporate Executive Board surveyed 1,900 B2B customers to uncover insights about purchasing behavior and found that customers will contact a sales rep only after independently completing 60% of the purchasing decision process.”

As I mentioned above, the first time I was truly responsible for creating sales was in 1990. Back then, the whole sales funnel was controlled by the sales person. You’d cold call somebody and manage the sales process all the way through the funnel. As the sales person, I had all the information the prospect wanted, including pricing and discount options. I controlled the sales process.

If Baer and others are correct—marketing by providing “massively useful information” is now key to helping hidden prospects find you and learn more about you and the products and services you offer. Useful marketing builds trust, and trust fosters relationships.

Today, successful sales is more about self-service marketing than ever before. To find and attract the invisible prospect you need to be able to be very helpful. And your prospect may not start at the top of your sales funnel. By the time you find out they are a prospect for your services they may have already gone through multiple marketing steps. They did the research on their own.

So, if the sales and marketing funnel is obsolete, what analogy works for the sales process today? Is it:

  • A neural network?
    A connection of neurons that work together to form the nervous system.
  • The Web?
    Massively hyperlinked pieces of information. (This is a reason your website is so important in today’s sales environment.)
  • The same funnel but a different progression?
    Customers now dictate how fast they descend to the final purchase decision. They often do so without assistance from your agency, making inbound marketing key.

The sales game has changed a lot. What do you think? Has the sales process fundamentally changed?

Steve Anderson provides information to insurance agents about how they can use technology to increase revenue and/or reduce expenses. He speaks professionally to hundreds of agents each year on the future of technology, the social web, and how insurance agencies can establish their Internet presence.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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