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Have you ever viewed a world map where South is up?   It’s a useful frame of reference, since our Eurocentric view of North as “up” and South as “down” is really just an arbitrary one (a sphere has no top or bottom – nor left or right for that matter).upsidedown map

Perspective affects our perceptions – and I’ve found that looking at familiar objects in a new light can be an enlightening and useful exercise.

I tried this recently with the traditional sales funnel.

Take a look at the funnel below. What do you see?  What questions come to mind?

For most entrepreneurs, the top of the funnel represents the world-at-large.  It’s unfiltered; it’s not segmented.  In a traditional funnel, the mouth at the top is wide open for attracting both suspecting and unsuspecting potential customers (aka suspects) into the sales process.  Marketing’s job is to find and lure live bodies into the top, while sales is responsible for to pushing ‘em through.

funnel1Sales people see the need for marketing to create tools to move prospective customers through the funnel.  But, to them, the funnel mostly represents a numbers game: They’ll look at their quota, estimate the conversion rates based on past experience and calculate the number of potential customers/suspects needed to meet their numbers.

Marketers take those numbers, open up their toolkit and choose the programs they feel are most likely to get the number of suspects they need to satisfy sales.

Marketing needs to gather a significant number of bodies to convert the few that might actually need the product.  And sales needs to sell the fabled ice to the Eskimos.   The methods vary – advertising, PR, trade shows, purchased mailing lists. Every time, though, you can almost hear the money rushing out the door.

Part of the reason for that is because traditional sales and marketing processes are focused on “pure execution” rather than learning. Failure to close deals is an execution problem, often dealt with by replacing those who are responsible for that execution – even when what’s being sold may be a new product or service meeting new customers.

In order to succeed, the product, business model, pricing, distribution, etc., all need to match up with the needs and buying processes of the customer.  Repeating what worked in the past doesn’t guarantee it will work again.

But what if we turn the funnel upside down?

funnel2As a marketing person, instead of looking at a gaping mouth of unknowns, consider that you have a referenceable customer in front of you.  Rather than asking yourself what tools you need to deploy to reach thousands of prospects, figure out who that referenceable customer is – and why they’re willing to serve as a reference.

Continue this line of inquiry all the way through to the widening end of the funnel.

“What convinced the customer to pull the trigger and buy the product?”

“What did he pay and why was he willing to pay that?”

“Why does he trust this company?”

“How did he choose to evaluate the product in his environment?”

“Why did he choose this particular product from this company?”

“How did the company reach him?  What tools did they use and where was he when they found him”

Your best guesses serve as your initial roadmap.  Now your job is to find that one customer.  Use any method you can to find an individual or organization who needs your product and is willing to pay for it.

While you’re probably ready to take money from just about anyone, find someone who actively uses the product to solve a real problem – and who will act as a reference for you.

This will help you figure out how accurate your roadmap is. And while it may be too early to make drastic changes based on just one customer, you can update your methods with the lessons you have learned.

Once you have your first win, go find another one – and continue this “manual” selling until you have a firm roadmap.  Then, and only then, you’ll be ready hire people to help you execute it.

Brant Cooper is an independent consultant specializing in marketing and product management.

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