The Intentional Sales Funnel

Intentional sales funnel

I frequently encounter B2B startups who are struggling with scaling up their sales motion. Not that surprising, eh? We know sales is hard!

What is surprising is that many of these companies have grown past $1M ARR and seem to already have all of the right pieces in place. We’re talking… a CRM with sales stages, pipeline review meetings, stage-based forecasting, and documented processes and expectations for their reps. Yet their sales motion feels weirdly unreliable.

When I dig in with the founder (or head of sales) I usually end up suggesting that they look much more closely at what’s really happening at each stage in their sales funnel. It’s not that they have the “wrong” stages in the funnel. The problem is the disconnect between the meaning of each stage versus what the reps are actually saying and doing. They are not executing on an intentional sales funnel. As an example…

Discovery meetings are for… product demos?

Most B2B sales motions have a concept of a Discovery Meeting early on in the sales funnel. At a basic level the point of this meeting is for the rep to 1) determine if and how the prospect can be sold to, and 2) obtain buy-in from the prospect to engage in the sales process.

But what often happens in reality at the Discovery stage? Reps are allowed to make a loose judgement call on when to switch into pitching the product. This usually means that reps run through a few high-level questions (as required by process) and then find any excuse to show the product demo. Repeat this across hundreds of opportunities and a half dozen reps and what do you get? A pipeline chock full of opportunities that exit the Discovery stage at wildly different levels of qualification and buyer interest. No wonder it’s hard to scale that sales motion!

Here’s what I tend to suggest:

  1. Take a step back and get crystal clear about the intent of each stage in your funnel.
  2. Implement mechanisms to help reps stay disciplined and focused on delivering outcomes aligned with the intent of each stage.
  3. Operate with my favorite sales process litmus test in mind (more on that below).

1) Stages of an intentional sales funnel

When I have this conversation with a founder I usually end up walking through a conceptual model of how I thought about the the sales funnel at my company. This isn’t exactly how we named or set up our sales stages in Salesforce. Rather, when I look I back, this is how I would describe the design of our sales process. I find that this conceptual model is generic enough to make sense for any B2B company and works for other types of sales too.

One key thing to notice below: the intent of each stage below is simple and to the point. A lot of sales process docs I’ve seen are seemingly well-written but the sales stages are described in long bullet lists of what the rep should be asking or trying to accomplish. I think that’s where things go off the tracks. While it’s important to support the rep with process details and talking points, you must ensure they remain laser-focused on the big picture intent of each stage.

Stage 0: Establish curiosity

Here I am referring to sales activities that precede opportunity creation, such as outbound calls.

Intent: Create enough curiosity in the prospect that they are willing to take time to hear the actual sales pitch.

What to include: Discussion around the problems the prospect might be facing, social proof of helping other similar organizations, and (optionally) lightweight discovery-like questioning to qualify the prospect.

What to avoid: Talking about product features and pricing, and anything else that resembles the full-on sales pitch. The only thing to sell the prospect at this stage is a sales meeting on their calendar.

Stage 1: Sell the problem

This stage in the intentional sales funnel comprises of the first real sales meeting with the prospect — which in B2B sales is typically the Discovery Meeting. In my opinion what happens at this stage has the potential to make or break the entire sale. In fact, I considered writing this entire blog post just about getting reps to execute really well at this one stage in the funnel.

Intent: Level set with the prospect on the existence and severity of the problem they are facing, and determine how you can best work with the prospect to help them solve it.

What to include: In-depth discussion about the problem the prospect is facing, your company’s expertise and knowledge related to the problem space, and how you can appropriately coordinate with the prospect to explore a solution.

What to avoid: A product demo prior to having a substantive understanding of the prospect’s pain, and without first getting explicit buy-in from the prospect to explore solutions with you. That last part is key. A prospect acknowledging their desire to spend more time with you is drastically better than throwing a sales pitch at them and then hoping that they’ll show up again for another meeting.

Stage 2: Agree on the solution

Once you have a shared understanding of the problem the prospect is facing, and alignment on working together to explore a solution, NOW it’s time to bring out the product.

Intent: Demonstrate how your solution can help the prospect easily/effectively/affordably address the problem they are facing, and get them to agree that your solution is the most appropriate solution for them.

What to include: The full-on sales pitch including the product demo, pricing, and purchasing process.

What to avoid: A one-size-fits-all sales pitch that you might deliver verbatim to another prospect. If you followed through on the intent of Stage 1 then you should be able to deliver and position the pitch in a way that is personalized and highly tuned to what will drive the prospect to take action.

Stage 3 (if needed): Ensure internal buy-in

If you are working directly with a single decision maker this stage might not be necessary. In our case, we sold to government agencies and the decision to purchase almost always required consensus amongst multiple stakeholders. To get to this stage it is imperative that your key contact is already fully on-board.

Intent: Support your key contact in driving internal consensus around purchasing your solution.

What to include: Whatever can best arm your key contact with creating internal buy-in with the decision makers. Ideally you would insert yourself in these discussion so that you can help drive the sale directly. Otherwise, if providing materials to support your key contact in doing their own internal selling, these materials should be personalized based on the discussions you’ve had with your key contact, while also positioned appropriately for the roles of the other stakeholders.

What to avoid: Continuing to sell and (risk over selling) your key contact, and doing anything that introduces new complexity for your key contact.

Stage 4: Complete deal logistics

The keyword here is logistics. At this point, the actual “selling” should be done. What stands in the way of closing the deal might be a legal contract, IT or security assessment, or some other procurement-related checklist item.

Intent: Help the prospect buy your solution as quickly and as easily as possible.

What to include: Information and materials that simplify and/or avoid logistics. If you notice common hang-ups across the pipeline, re-design this part of your process to try to avoid them. In our case of dealing with the hurdles of government procurement, we iteratively revised our pricing, terms of service, and sign up process to help most of our customers refrain putting out RFPs and even avoid having to formally sign a contract with us.

2) Helping intention become reality

Alright, an intentional sales funnel might look nice on paper, but how do you actually change day-to-day rep behavior to stay true to the intent of each stage?

Training, monitoring, and 1:1 coaching are always part of the equation. I’m also a huge fan of using the CRM and other tools to help validate and enforce desired behaviors. One example is how we approached the Discovery meeting (i.e. Sell the Problem) stage at my company: we added a section in the CRM called “Discovery Outcomes” containing five questions. In essence these five questions required the rep to regurgitate their understanding of the pain-points faced by the prospect (as explicitly stated by the prospect) as well as the rep’s initial understanding of what it might take to sell the prospect. Doesn’t that sound more aligned to the intent of a Discovery Meeting than doing a product demo?

In 1:1s, call review meetings, and pipeline review meetings, sales managers could then use this information to determine if a rep was conducting effective Discovery meetings — and if not, work with the rep to improve execution at that critical stage in the funnel.

3) Operating with a litmus test

Finally, how do you assess if your sales process is well-designed and being followed in a disciplined and consistent manner?

At any moment, you should be able to take the opportunity pipeline from one rep and hand it to another rep on the same team, with the new rep having everything they need to effectively carry forward each opportunity from the stage it is currently in.

-Anil’s fave sales process litmus test

This litmus test encompasses a lot of things including the design of your intentional sales funnel, how well reps are adhering to process, and the quality of documentation in the CRM. And while flipping pipelines willy nilly from rep-to-rep might sound like a pipe dream (pun intended), let’s take it back to the intent of this post: the closer your sales process gets to passing this litmus test, the more likely you can scale it.