Author Archives: Andrew Rudin

Time to Re-Think Your Company’s Sales Compensation Plan

Years ago, a recruiter for an IT company asked me for details about my earnings history in a prior sales role. Although many hiring managers make the same request, hers went further. She wanted copies of my past three years of W-2’s. “It’s part of our interview process,” she told me. “We need earnings proof so that we can propose an appropriate base salary and commission for this job.”

I asked her for the rationale. “Because we might end up providing significantly more overall comp than you were making before. If we paid you 15% over your earlier income, that would be tantamount to a raise,” she told me. “We don’t think we should be doing that.”

I pressed her on this point. “What if the pay I received at my previous job was inequitable. Are you telling me that the compensation I earn for one job should ratchet down my income for future jobs?”

At this point, you might figure that my interview process did not progress past this conversation. You’re right. But the outcome was mutually beneficial. As much as I chafed over this wrongheaded pay policy, I was irked by what the recruiter made clear through her request, but failed to say directly: “By joining our sales team, you’ll make a middling income as a pawn in a cost center. If that vision is appealing, you’ve come to the right place! . . .” Honest disclosure would have saved everyone some time.

This company’s pay practice was misguided. Fortunately, I never encountered it before – or since. In addition to turning off qualified job candidates, it’s hard to imagine how this plan could have been administered. Various compensation levels for sales reps contingent on what they were previously earning would make a payroll administrator gnash their teeth, and clamor for reassignment to a different department.

In a way, I felt sorry for this hiring manager. She was transparent in her effort to sidestep a vexing challenge for organizations: how to assign value to the contribution a sales role provides to the company, and what is fair remuneration when someone is successful at it. Hard stop: A person’s income at a different company has no bearing on either.

There are many things that companies ask salespeople to do, but ultimately, they are paid for delivering a result that is difficult  for most people to produce: in the face of uncertainty, persuading a person – or persons – to make a specific decision, and succeeding again, and again, and again. If that’s not valuable to a company, I don’t know what is.

According to sales consultancy The Alexander Group,  a well-structured sales pay plan includes the following elements:

  1. Definition of eligibility. This is especially important if there are multiple plans used to pay different categories of sales personnel (e.g. inside sales and outside sales).
  2. Target total compensation, including the intended pay curve for lower producers, those at the middle or median, and those at the top.
  3. Ratio of fixed compensation (salary) to variable compensation (commission, incentives, and bonuses).
  4. Upside leverage that, when achieved, skews compensation toward the higher end of the pay scale.
  5. Objective measures and metrics that are (or will be) used to calculate fixed and variable pay.
  6. Performance and payout period for how long a company will pay for attaining a goal, milestone, or target, and the timeframe between achievement and payout.
  7. Commission rates and calculations for deriving variable pay.
  8. Quotas and targets.
  9. Accounting policies regarding revenue recognition, and company policies on payouts for revenue booking, territory splits, account registration, and channel sales.
  10. Special incentives and rewards (monetary and non-monetary)

Unfortunately, simply having these elements does not ensure success. To be strategically effective, pay plans must have other characteristics:

Dynamic. Companies quickly found that the Covid-19 pandemic upended their pay plans. “Two Alexander Group surveys on sales compensation/quotas (March 30 and April 20, 2020) revealed that more than 80% of the companies were implementing pay protection methods to replace some or all lost target incentives for sellers. The most popular methods include pay guarantees (percent of target earnings), quota adjustments and formula changes.”

Reviewed regularly. At least annually or semi-annually.

Cohere with other management, talent, and retention tools. For example, to reduce sales force churn, a software company converting from selling one-time licenses to a SaaS model must make congruent changes to its pay plan.

Fit the job. Companies that have multiple sales roles, such as inside, outside, and retail sales should consider maintaining different plans for different roles.

Simple, transparent, and easy-to-understand. At an IT hardware manufacturer where I worked, the VP of Sales proclaimed his objective was to “fit the commission plan onto the back of a business card.” He never got there, but it was a worthy goal.

Centrally administered. When payroll activities are distributed, the opportunities for foul play and unfairness are magnified.

Process for appeal and resolution. Even the best pay plans contain ambiguities, creating the need for judgement. Companies should have an internal process available to employees to document, adjudicate, and resolve pay disputes.

Risk informed. All pay plans carry the risks of unintended consequences. Companies must understand the potential and mitigate conflicts-of-interest before policies are enacted.

Ethical. Above all, a pay plan must never sacrifice stakeholder safety. A top-level question to ask: “Could this plan or policy hurt our customers, employees, suppliers, contractors, channel partners or investors?” And if the answer is “yes” or “maybe”, don’t do it.

Sales pay has an important influence on growing revenue. By thinking of it as a vital instrument for sales strategy and execution, and not as a pesky cost to be squished into the budget, you will make better decisions.

On My Honor as a Salesperson. A New Look at Why Sales Ethics Matter

Which risk poses the greatest threat to a company’s market value – Pandemics and natural disasters? Terrorism? Product defects? Patent infringement? Theft of intellectual property? Lack of moral boundaries?

If you answered anything but the last choice, think again. The decimation of market value at Tyco, Worldcom, and Enron – three of the most prominent ethical meltdowns of our time – illustrates what can occur when a company lacks ethical footing. According to Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, the cumulative decline in market capitalization resulting from fraud at these three companies was $136 billion.

The financial impact of Covid-19 on the global stock market may never be fully known. But one thing stands out: unlike most risks, companies have ultimate control over their moral conduct.

Many corporate scandals are hatched in the executive suite and metastasize into the organization. The sales operation is a fecund spot for seeding schemes because it is directly connected with the most watched measurement a company maintains and shares: revenue.

Sales is also the linchpin for the trust between a company and its customers. For example, the Wells Fargo consumer credit card scandal was the consequence of stock-price bonus incentives granted to then-CEO John Stumpf and a cadre of senior executives. To enrich themselves, they usurped customer trust and exploited employees by encumbering them with onerous performance quotas, and followed through by browbeating them into hitting targets that would be attractive to investment analysts. The rationale was that when thresholds were met, analysts would make buy recommendations for Wells Fargo stock, elevating its price. The scheme worked for a while before the business media uncovered the story. In the end, Stumpf was fired over the scandal and his bonuses clawed back or terminated.

Bad ethics can take root elsewhere in the hierarchy. When governance and audit controls are ineffective, they can easily spread, infecting employees, suppliers, channel partners, and customers. In 1998, ethical violations at Prudential Insurance Company’s sales organization became so pervasive that the company’s management eventually estimated its liability from the pending class-action lawsuit at $2 billion. Among the voluminous courtroom testimony from the case was this statement from a Prudential sales rep: “Your judgment gets clouded out in the field when you are pressured to sell, sell, sell.” More than two decades later, sales reps face the same difficulty.

How can harm from unethical behavior be prevented? First, accept that no company is immune from facing ethical dilemmas, and second, understand that there are no guarantees that ethical decisions will somehow prevail. This is especially true for companies proclaiming themselves “customer-focused” or “customer-centric.”

Companies must purposefully and actively reduce the opportunities for unethical behavior to enter an organization. Taking key steps such as developing and communicating a corporate code of conduct, modeling ethical behavior in the C-Suite, implementing strong governance and accountability, and making it safe for employees to speak up without fear of retaliation are vital. Importantly, companies must take prompt and decisive action when incidents are reported.

Still, when it comes to acknowledging the possibility of malfeasance in their organization, many senior executives are dismissive. I often hear, “that type of thing could never happen here,” quickly followed by “we don’t hire those kinds of people,” as if “those kinds of people” are easy to spot in the interview. In fact, in companies large and small in any industry, the potential for making unethical choices always exists. If the risks aren’t acknowledged, understood, and managed, stakeholder harm becomes not only probable, but certain.

One “sales-driven” company I worked for felt immune to ethical risks, and their hubris cost them more than $1 million from a scam that began with one rogue sales employee, “Travis Doe.” Travis was a reseller account manager. He was tall, charismatic, confident. He was good at golf. At sales meetings, Travis could always be found in the center of a group of colleagues, sharing a bawdy new joke, or regaling them with something useful he learned over his long career in computer sales.

Travis’s compensation plan earned him a comfortable six-figure income. But he figured out a way to augment that. Travis began his scheme with a transaction my employer made routine: he established a new reseller account. In this case, Travis gave this one a bogus name, bogus address, and bogus line-of-business. Bogus everything. He even anointed himself CEO – a move that came back to haunt him.

The cleverness of Travis’s scheme came from the fact that resellers received 40% discounts for all IT hardware. When customers and prospects sent requests for quotes or placed orders, Travis circumvented them to his bogus company. In this way, Travis pocketed a healthy margin on every order his bogus company processed. There’s more. In addition to that revenue stream, my employer also paid Travis commission on his “reseller’s” sales because, of course, the bogus company was in Travis’s portfolio.

It took an alert order administrator who spotted a part number anomaly to unravel Travis’s scheme. When she called the “reseller” to explain the problem, she was told, “Our president, Travis Doe, will call you back.” The order administrator reported Travis, and he was quietly fired about a week later.

Travis’s scheme created only losers. A characteristic common to all ethical breakdowns. If Travis’s immediate boss knew about his dishonesty, why didn’t he stop him? If he didn’t know, what excuse could he offer for being ignorant about a scam happening in his own office? You know it’s a bad day when any answer you provide isn’t a good one.

In their desire to move on, many executives at the company looked no further than blaming Travis. “You’re always going to have a ‘bad apple,’ or two,” senior managers somberly told me. A convenient rationalization, but very misleading. Other people, from the CEO down, were culpable. Sales Administration allowed account managers to establish reseller accounts without any oversight. Internal audit didn’t see a glaring opportunity for fraud in the order entry process. Contracts administration had no vetting rigor beyond “can you fog a mirror?” Flush with sales orders, the company blithely looked askance despite ongoing grumbling from staff that large dollar orders were routinely being processed through a “reseller” whose qualifications were murky, at best.

This incident happened before social media platforms became ubiquitous. The total direct cost from Travis’s scheme totaled more than $1 million. But that’s without adding the incalculable cost of broken morale and corroded trust. The company issued no press releases or public explanations. No trade journal carried the story. The cost of this scam got paved flatter than a pancake into company’s Income Statement.

Any discussion of ethics involves drawing boundaries. But drawing boundaries for sales ethics is much easier said than done:

“I’ll sell an early version of my software that isn’t fully tested, but I won’t sell anything that I know doesn’t work.”

“I won’t bring up the fact that I’m missing a key feature, but I won’t lie about its absence.”

“At the end of the quarter, I will commit resources I don’t control so I can win the sale, but I won’t promise my prospective customer anything I know cannot be delivered.”

“I won’t overcharge anyone, but I won’t sell at the lowest possible price, either.”

“I’ll look out for my client’s best interests but only if doing so doesn’t jeopardize my business.”

As author David Quammen writes in Wild Thoughts From Wild Places, “Not every crisp line represents a triumph of ethical clarity.” An individual’s ethical interpretations are rarely constant. Rather, they’re a combination of of a person’s current emotions, situation, values, experience, logic and personality. What makes a practice ethical or not can be difficult to define.

This is why evaluating what’s ethical, what’s the right thing to do, or how to get the right thing done requires having conversations about dilemmas. Unfortunately, that idea is heretic in many sales cultures today, where perceiving things as black or white is often considered a badge of honor. “Never lie!” and “A half-truth is the same as a lie,” were among the opinions readers posted when I asked about resolving ethical dilemmas on LinkedIn sales forum. The problem is, judging actions as “right” and “wrong” discourages conversations about ethics in the first place. Most situations business development professionals encounter are not that clear.

Mitigating ethical risk is a vexing challenge for organizations – particularly those with global operations – because ethical standards must first be defined, documented, communicated and followed. In addition, companies must remember that their employees don’t enter the workplace a tabula rasa. Corporate expectations for ethical conduct will always be interpreted through an individual’s awareness of his or her own values.  Even then, we can only be protected when people have the motivation and resolve to act accordingly.

Companies should embrace ethical dilemmas by fostering a culture for open, candid discussion about them. That means  encouraging salespeople and marketing personnel to identify issues, confront them, and take action before they spiral out of control.

Malfeasance thrives in the eye of the perfect storm 1) high financial incentives for fraud, 2) lax audit controls and governance, and 3) non-integrated processes. We need a tocsin to sound in the boardroom and executive suite. Ethical lapses can destroy the best business plans, corporate and personal reputations, and brand integrity. There are too many opportunistic Travises in the world, and too much value at risk, to ignore the warning signs

Feeling Morally Queasy at Work? Tips for Voicing Your Values

I’d like to encircle the workplace with yellow safety tape. Long ribbons of it. “Caution! Do not enter!” That would give others an inkling of the dangers lurking within. I’m not talking about back pain, eyestrain, and paper cuts. I’m talking exploitation, harassment, and passive aggression.

I’d use safety tape to protect people from the risks that threaten their personal values. Since 1943, Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter has inspired workers with her power, ebullience, and obvious self-reliance. Today she’d be tweeting #metoo.

In an uncertain world, we can count on one thing: our personal values will be challenged in the workplace. They will be challenged by what we witness, experience, and are asked to do. Mine have, many times.

Concern over this problem was revealed in a 2001-2002 Aspen Institute  survey conducted on a group of MBA students. “When asked whether they expected they would have to make business decisions that conflicted with their personal values during their careers, half the respondents in 2002 (and more than half in 2001) believed they would. The vast majority of respondents both years reported it would be ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that they would experience this as stressful,” according to Professor Mary Gentile, author of a book, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right.

Predictably, that issue spreads risks across the organization like foul air propelled by the wind. “In 2001, over half of respondents said their response to such a conflict would be to look for another job; in 2002 that number declined to 35 percent, still a significant number.”

Nearly two decades on, the Aspen Institute findings corroborate what I see today: employees are under-prepared for responding when their values are challenged at work. Most business schools don’t teach techniques or approaches, and the few that do present choices through a moral lens that defines or prescribes right and wrong. That turns people off.

Professional development in sales and marketing is no better. Aside from the ambiguous demand, “put customers at the center of everything you do,” practitioners ignore the issue altogether. “Don’t lie. Ever.” Huzzzzahh! Easy to say at the sales kickoff. Looks nifty on PowerPoint. But Job #1 for business developers is customer persuasion. Such admonishments are flimsy, and don’t penetrate the thorny dilemmas employees routinely encounter, like choosing between pressuring customers to buy and keeping their jobs another quarter.

During my career, I have repeatedly contrived rationalizations and reasons for not speaking up when my values have been confronted. I’ve learned I’m far from alone. As we endeavor to preserve a self-image of high integrity, we have cultivated a parallel talent for sweeping concerns and better judgement under the carpet.

Not that business development culture would have it any other way. Put aside that creative mantra for a moment. In my experience, marketing and sales organizations are hives for conformity and group think: “Quit giving excuses!” “I want to know how you are going to sell, not why you can’t!” “We’re not a problems focused group, we’re a solutions oriented group.” “You’re either on the team, or you’re not.” There’s a theme to these edicts: check your personal values at the door before you begin work. Little wonder so many marketing and sales professionals find it nauseating to rock the organizational boat.

Instead of thinking, “well, I’ve already slipped on that ethical slope, so I guess I’ll just continue the slide,” recognizing past imperfections in ethical decision making frees us to move in better directions. There’s nothing to be gained beating ourselves up over workplace decisions that we’d rather re-do. Wearing egg has never been fashionable, but as a practical matter, you can’t hold a conversation about ethical choices if the person leading the discussion cops an attitude of finger-wagging judgment. And I’ve yet to meet a colleague, client, or direct report who doesn’t wear symbolic egg.

Which values challenges do business developers experience?

Pressure from management:

  • “You must not share information with [Customer X] about this defect, because it will delay their purchase.”
  • “We won’t offer [Customer X] the lower market price because it will cause us to miss our revenue target. They’ll never know.”
  • “We can give our customers verbal commitments not to raise their prices, but that information must not be explicit in our contracts.”
  • “When you prospect a C-Level executive for the first time, always make it seem that you’ve had an earlier conversation with them.”
  • “This product has high potential for misuse, but it’s too important to our profits not to aggressively promote it.”

Pressure from prospects:

  • “We haven’t made a purchase decision yet, but if you can promise a better price, I will share [Competitor X’s] proprietary proposal.”
  • “I’m willing to award your company the order, but I need a personal favor . . .”
  • “We need your developers to modify the quality algorithm so the defect rate we report to the government appears lower.”

Since 2014, dozens of companies have been inducted into the Annual Sales Ethics Hall of Shame. Theranos, Wells Fargo, VW, Takada, and Purdue Pharmaceutical became notorious because their business strategies became deeply infected with nefarious intent.

In September, 2018, Theranos announced it was formally “dissolving”, which suggests its downfall was less ugly than it was. Its two senior executives, founder Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani, were indicted the same year, charged with engaging in schemes to defraud investors, doctors and patients. Takata filed for bankruptcy. Wells Fargo got spanked with onerous restrictions on its asset growth. And VW, well, I’ll never buy a car from a company that gleefully sacrificed my respiratory system to pad their profits.

For all these companies, the proximate cause for their bad fortune wasn’t a cliché risk like rabid competition. It wasn’t warp-speed market disruption. It wasn’t onerous government regulation or economic chaos. Instead, it was unchecked greed.

Opining greed in the C-Suite won’t make it go away. Nor will moaning about high pressure sales tactics. After all, sales forces are predominantly paid on revenue production, and as we know with incentive compensation, the goal is to get what you pay for.

Instead, risk mitigation for corporate malfeasance begins at the grass roots. Employees who are prepared and equipped to voice their values provide the most effective way to stem corporate misbehavior. Put another way, we have met the responsible party, and it is each of us. Time to take the bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground.

Some tips for voicing your values:

  1. Know what your values are. Write them down – it doesn’t need to be a long or complicated list. Own them. This is essential, because they are yours, and that makes them unassailable.
  2. Believe that your values deserve to be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an intern or board chair.
  3. Prepare yourself for situations where you know you will need to draw the line. This means anticipating challenges such as the ones described earlier and developing a response ahead of time.
  4. Don’t judge the action of others or presume to understand them. If you assume a manager or colleague has malintent, you will come across that way, and will be less likely to change his or her mind.
  5. Invite conversation about the issue. For example, “This doesn’t work for me. I don’t think it’s right. Do you see it differently? Help me understand.” (reference Giving Voice to Values, page 157).
  6. “Frame choices in ways that align them with broad, widely-shared purpose.” (Giving Voice to Values page 159). It’s easier to redirect a problematic request when you can gain consensus on a larger goal.
  7. Craft a description that focuses on the advantages of your recommendation or role, rather than the disadvantages.
  8. Practice, practice, practice your responses to values challenges. Reflect on your experience and that of others, figure out what you’ve learned, hone your tactics, and practice some more.

“Once we identify the common challenges in our particular line of work, it is especially useful to look for and note any examples of individuals who have effectively voiced and acted on their values in this type of situation,” Professor Gentile writes. Examples are abundant online. It’s also important to familiarize ourselves with common rationales for not resisting. The top four, according to Giving Voice to Values,

 

Expected or standard practice: “Everyone does this, so it’s really standard practice. It’s even expected.”

 Antidote question: “If the practice is accepted, why are there often rules, laws, and policies proscribing it?”

 

Materiality: “the impact of this action is not material. It doesn’t really hurt anyone.”

 Antidote question: “Does the apparent small size of this infraction make it any less fraudulent?”

 

Locus of responsibility: “This is not my responsibility; I’m just following orders here.”

 Antidote question: “Is the issue likely to cause significant harm, and are there few (or no) others able to act to prevent it?”

 

Locus of loyalty: “I know this isn’t quite fair to the customer but I don’t want to hurt my reports/team/boss/company.”

 Antidote question: “Am I being truly loyal to the company if I perform this task/operation/process and it undermines trust and credibility?”

Paraphrasing the immortal words of Glenda, the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, “You’ve always had the power to act on your values, my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself.”

“We are beginning from the position that we want to act.” Professor Gentile writes. “Therefore we are trying to answer the question: “How can we do so most effectively?”

Five Elements that Create Service Stress for Customers

Despite rigorous measurements and sentiment analysis, the number of bad customer experiences that occur every second isn’t known. How many living trees currently populate our planet? We should know these things. For now, I’ll speculate that they are both large numbers, and one is escalating while the other is declining. You know which is which.

Instead, I’ll explore more scrutable questions. Poor customer experiences occur in every industry. Why do some create nary a ruffled feather, while others cause everyone to go bat-poop crazy? Dr. Dao knows what I’m talking about. Is there a “perfect storm” of conditions where a weak spark of customer letdown will ignite an inferno of pain and outrage? Finally, how much repeat vendor ineptitude, crassness, inefficiency and apathy will consumers accept before saying “enough!”

The answers impact the profits for every organization across every industry. Customer service delivery carries uncertainty and risk. Some issues are cheap to mitigate. Clear directional signage for airport car rental return areas are inexpensive but avert headaches for harried travelers arriving late to catch a flight. Others are costly. Rapid product delivery involves capital investment for sophisticated logistics and IT infrastructure.

“Customers expect perfection every time.”  That admonishment has been beaten into our heads for so long, we’ve forgotten to question whether satisfying this alleged truth really matters. We need balance. How about, “don’t waste the company’s money on projects that don’t bring meaningful improvements.”

Not every business can address every CX risk. Fortunately, not every business needs to. Some CX outcomes can be plain-old good, and that’s good enough. I offered to send this article to my trash hauler, but the service manager politely declined. Seems he was busy planning the company’s annual golf outing coming up in May. That was fine with me. I just told him to just make sure he continues to collect my refuse around once a week.

Does this mean that some companies get a pass for providing impeccable customer service, while others are firmly on the hook?

Yes.

There are situations when underserved customers are especially prone to getting wigged out. Companies that understand what they are can avoid squandering resources fixing things that don’t need fixing, and they’re more likely to improve what’s consequential. According to a 2015 Harvard Business Review Article, When the Customer is Stressed by Leonard Berry, Scott Davis, and Jody Wilmet, there are five conditions that portend high levels of customer stress.

Customer stress is elevated when customers face

  • lack of familiarity with the service being delivered
  • lack of control over the performance of the service
  • major consequences if things go wrong
  • complexity that makes the service a black box and gives its provider the upper hand
  • long duration across a series of events

After the authors gleaned these findings, they applied them in the most difficult and demanding context: service delivery for cancer treatment centers. I’ll survive my missed trash pickup. Safety pins can replace dress shirt buttons that my dry cleaner ruins. I’m not offended if the grocery cashier fails to make eye contact, or to thank me for my business. But every cancer patient faces life-changing consequences. Every interaction matters. Adopting a strong customer service ethos and CX risk mitigation is crucial for these organizations.

“The [Bellin] cancer center, which opened in 2008, surpassed its five-year growth and revenue targets in just two years, and nearly 100% of patients (who are regularly surveyed) say they are ‘highly likely’ to recommend its medical and radiation oncology services. Bellin achieved these results in large part by following the four guidelines for succeeding in highly emotional contexts,” according to the article.

The guidelines extend to any service operation that meet the stress conditions:

  1. Identify emotional triggers. The authors suggest using surveys, interviews, focus groups, controlled experiments, and experience mapping. “Open-ended prompts about common frustrations can be particularly revealing: “Describe the worst experience that you or a family member ever had when using this type of service.” “If you were the CEO of this organization for a day and could make just one improvement for customers, what would it be?”
  2. Respond Early to Intense Emotions. That includes preparing customers for what to expect in the sequence of events, and communicating with care. “A valuable exercise is to convene top providers and ask them to identify phrases that needlessly undermine customers’ self-esteem, confidence, or hope. These ‘never phrases’ can be incorporated into training sessions for the purpose of eliminating them.”
  3. Enhance Customer Control. Many companies overlook this important tactic. Post-service call, many customers feel abandoned (except for the instantaneous How did we do? survey). The authors suggest mitigating the problem by offering a mobile application to consolidate content for ancillary service and support needs.
  4. Hire the Right People and Prepare Them for the Role. My most memorable support calls were with agents who were also users of the same product or service. “People who deliver high-emotion services must be able to effectively cope with stress, respectfully communicate with customers, and strengthen customers’ confidence. Thus excellent service organizations view the process of hiring and training employees as crucial to serving customers well.”

Pursuing excellence in service delivery is a potentially worthy goal. But delivering it matters more for some companies than for others.

Revenue Growth: Don’t Let the Funnel Fool Ya!

Sales funnels symbolize a widely-known reality among marketers: s*** happens.

Funnels instantly remind us that interactions between buyers and sellers are fraught with risks – not that we need any reminding. Funnels also represent our fear that we can assiduously attempt to convert a prospect to a customer, but lo, there’s a chance we won’t prevail.

I like funnels because they are easy to understand. Funnels mansplain uncertainty and risk. When you need to justify a pipeline multiplier, or reveal the rationale behind a multi-channel lead generation campaign, simply fire a 2-D trapezoid shape onto the projection screen. Divide the image into equally-spaced horizontal stripes. Use bright colors. Then, dive into funnel taxonomy.  “Raw prospects enter the gauntlet at the top. From there, they undergo a metamorphosis, becoming Leads, then MQL (Marketing Qualified Leads), then SQL (Sales Qualified Leads). Those that emerge will be anointed as Opportunities before moving south, eventually crossing into a hallowed zone marketers call Paying Customers.” My presentation includes a bloated money bag positioned near the funnel’s bottom to drive home the idea. The screen glows even brighter. Warmth envelops the room. This is everyone’s favorite topic.

You already have recognized that my scenario is called The Happy Path. Happy paths, as we know, make people happy. Everything on the slide is linear. Everything is ordinal, with a prominent, single-headed arrow to emphasize the direction of actions, activity, and interest. The partitions between funnel stages are always crisp and distinct. “Questions? . . . No? Great! Let’s move on . . .”

I advance to the next slide to continue my speil when inevitably, someone – often a new hire – lobs a question with the antecedent, “What about . . .” I’m prepared. I press the “back” button, and ask, “Was there a question about the funnel?” Indeed. Many questions, actually. A partial list of ways to complete the interrogative:

. . . Lead qualification and disqualification, changed priorities, low buyer motivation, misaligned or insufficient sales incentives, faulty CRM data, lack of project funding, buyer fear, seller fear, redirected budgets, raised customer expectations, increased ROI hurdles, misunderstood needs, bad assumptions, new assumptions, strategic re-prioritizations, project starts-and-stops, buyer confusion, atrocious sales processes, predatory buying, industrial espionage, new decision hierarchies, flawed business intelligence, process breakdowns, competing internal agendas, technological innovation, tariffs, product recalls, spikes in monetary exchange rates, increases in the cost of capital, mergers and acquisitions, personnel changes, passive aggression, essential conversations that never materialized, relationships gone awry, cruddy demos, software bugs, regulations, external competitive maneuvering, internal competitive maneuvering, and stupid tweets from anyone with access to the company’s “official” Twitter account  . . .”

I don’t consider any of this the Unhappy Path. I call it Life. Here’s the problem: beyond their purpose for symbolizing risk, funnels don’t represent the myriad conditions companies encounter when executing revenue strategy and tactics. These examples obliterate the template funnel’s shape, and shatter that straight North-South arrow into countless, itty-bitty pieces.

For me, the funnel’s most meaningful features are its taper and length. The angle degree at the top should invite concern, interest, and discussion. “Our funnel is wide as a tank container at the top and narrow as a pipette at the bottom, and it takes one year to travel from top to bottom. Perhaps we’ve found the root cause for our cash flow problems.” In practice, few seem interested in dissecting the risks that cause the delta, and how to manage them. A funnel is a funnel. Counter-intuitively, the funnel’s ubiquity as a risk symbol has made us less risk aware.

Time for a fresh look.

Twitter abandoned its egg silhouette in 2017.  Assuming their objective was to render a human-ish image, the replacement – two detached shapes that faintly suggest a human head and shoulders – offers scant improvement. Imagine what we’d be purchasing if design engineers adopted such anonymized forms to use for prototyping. I suppose we’d have a visceral understanding of what daily life was like in the 1700’s. Similarly, how can companies create revenue strategy when using generic funnels as design templates?

Overlooked differences. At best, funnels suggest risk in marketing and sales. But they don’t mirror reality. I love Roadrunner cartoons, but for my safety and that of others, I resist letting them inform my understanding of physics.

Three real-world deviations from the funnel symbol:

  1. Pathway

Prospects enter sales funnels at many different points, not just at the top. Sales funnels are highly porous, and exit points vary, too.

  1. Re-cycling

Not every lead remains permanently outside the funnel. Prospects that have exited the sales or buying process can re-enter.

  1. Effort

Opportunities in sales funnels generally don’t drop from top to bottom on their own. As leads descend through the funnel, effort and costs increase for both sellers and buyers. In fact, if funnels reflected aggregate cost of sales, the model would be exactly flipped – small at the top, and large (or very large) at the bottom.

. . . And two overlooked similarities:

  1. Connectedness

As cash engines, revenue funnels are connected in several ways to the organizations they serve. They are not free-floating in space, as they are often depicted in presentations. Marketers implicitly understand that revenue funnels often receive inbound leads from a messy universe of opportunities, and that revenue flows from the bottom. But marketing funnels are but one component of a large system. They require additional input such as cash, information, talent, and other resources to operate.

  1. Throughput

With physical funnels, smooth material flow from top to bottom signal that the funnel is operating well.  But marketers often defer to a flawed proxy for funnel health: fullness. The problem is, full funnels can also be clogged. Rather than using funnel fullness as portents for cash-flow vitality, marketers should emphasize velocity and throughput as meaningful metrics.

 

General recommendations for funnel management: 

  1. Make sure the funnel opening is as wide as it needs to be, but no wider.
  2. Match the size of the opening at the bottom with the company’s revenue needs. That includes ensuring orders won’t swamp the company’s ability to fill them.
  3. Don’t take the taper for granted! Make sure it aligns with the company’s risk capacity.
  4. For planning purposes, net the funnel’s cash output against the resources required to operate it.
  5. Remember that throughput velocity is as important to consider as overall funnel value.

I’m not declaring funnels dead. Not by a long shot. The marketing and sales profession has long suffered from lack of probabilistic thinking, and funnels offer a symbolically-accurate representation of revenue generation risk.

Put another way, a picture that tells us  s*** happens is worth a thousand words.