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The sales funnel is dead. Long live the sales ‘nail’!

The image of a ‘funnel’ has traditionally been used to describe the ideal sales pipeline. 

However, the concept of a funnel is deeply flawed. Why? 

Well, it drives completely the wrong behaviour in salespeople. Baked into the model is the assumption that having a load of opportunities in your pipeline that are never going to close is something to aspire to. How can that be right? How can expecting to lose, let’s say 75% of our opportunities be a good thing? That suggests that it’s okay to either be bad at selling, or that it’s ok to waste time on ‘opportunities’ that were never actually opportunities. Neither of those options are good.

For these reasons, the sales funnel is dead (or should be).

Enter the sales ‘nail’. The concept of a pipeline shaped more like a nail was something that I heard recently on a great webinar- it was either Matt Dixon,  Anthony Iannarino or Todd Caponi that used it. I love it. A pipeline shaped more like a nail suggests that we have far fewer opportunities at the top of the funnel, but that a greater proportion of them go all the way through to convert. Why’s this better?

Firstly, it means that salespeople can be more efficient with their time. Rather than wasting time on ‘opportunities’ that were doomed from the start, they can optimise the sales experience they deliver to a smaller number of real opportunities. Secondly, it makes forecasting much easier- and that’s a great thing for everyone from sales person through to the C Suite.

So, how do we move from the sales funnel to the sales nail?

Part of this is on salespeople and part of it is on leadership.

For salespeople, this is about qualification. They need to focus on qualifying out as well as qualifying in, and that needs to be done throughout the entire sales process- not just at the start. They also need to consider what qualification really means, because it’s more than simply identifying a decision-maker with budget. With 54% of opportunities moving to ‘closed lost’ due to client indecision, effective qualification today is more nuanced and should take into account the customer’s readiness to buy and their readiness to decide on vendor. According to Ebsta & Pavillion’s recent State of the industry overview, only 15% of opportunities were fully qualified last year with just 5% of companies using a more advanced approach that scores the seller’s confidence in a comprehensive set of qualifying criteria. 

Leadership needs to change too. If they tell their sales team that they want to see 3x coverage in the top of the pipeline, then that’s what they’ll get. All that will do though, is inflate a meaningless number and dilute the sales team’s efforts. Leaders need to embrace the idea of a nail shaped pipeline. Its a paradigm shift for sure, and It will probably require some bravery at the next board meeting. But really, what is the point of continually feeding, maintaining and reporting on a pipeline that is largely nonsense?

In truth, the sales funnel will be around for a long time, however, the best sales teams and leaders are already moving towards the sales nail. These early adopters will continue to pull ahead. 

Long live the nail!


Written by Paul Cruise, Head of Sales Performance