Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Book excerpt: The new B2B sales funnel is actually a pinball machine

Today we’re beginning a book excerpt series of Lisa Shepherd’s important new book on B2B success The Radical Sales Shift. In this excerpt, learn how the new sales funnel and pipeline is better reworked as a pinball machine.

Many companies are finding that their traditional approach to generating revenue – namely through their sales team – isn’t working as well as it used to. The processes they’ve used in the past are generating weaker results each year, and many of the structures, tools, and frameworks they’ve been using are now misaligned with how buyers buy.

The reason for this is the New Buyer. The way the New Buyer buys is having a radical impact on how well B2B companies generate revenue. The impact is felt in many ways, and B2B companies who change how they sell are able to grow their revenues and profits rather than watch them flatline.

There are three ways that B2B companies are changing their revenue-generation activities to match how the New Buyer buys:

  1. the new Pipeline – The “sales funnel” is less accurate in depicting the buying and selling process today; now the buying process is more like a pinball
  2. a new Sales approach – Salespeople need to up their game to be valuable to the New
  3. the growing role of Marketing – Because half the buying process is done before a buyer talks to anyone in sales, marketing has to fulfill activities at the front end of the buying

Let’s look at these changes one by one.

The New Pipeline

Sales organizations have used the funnel to represent the buying process for decades. It was introduced in 1898 by Elias St. Elmo Lewis. It’s now widely accepted, and just about everyone in sales has used the funnel with some variation in its phases. Here are some variations on the funnel:


In the traditional funnel, customers enter at the top and progress in a linear direction towards the bottom, which denotes a purchase. There’s a conversion rate at each stage of the funnel, i.e. some customers will transition to the next stage of the funnel, and some won’t. Forecasting is done on the basis of the company knowing its conversion rates and calculating the amount of potential and likely business at each stage of the funnel.

But as the research has shown, the traditional funnel isn’t an accurate reflection of the buying process now. Customers pursue a more circular purchasing journey now and can just as easily bounce from one stage to the next, go back to an earlier stage, and then go straight to purchase.

Due to this seemingly erratic purchasing journey, I think the new B2B buying process is better depicted as a pinball machine.

Imagine a typical pinball machine. The balls enter from one side and must navigate a variety of bumpers and gates to reach the goal at the top of the playing surface. At a few places there are gutters that, when the ball enters them, cause the ball to fall back to the starting point – or out of the game entirely.


In the pinball analogy of the purchasing process, the lead generation activities represent the entrance to the board, and the gates, bumpers, and obstacles on the surface represent sales and marketing tactics – everything from factory tours to webinars to free trials. And the goal at the top is when the prospect becomes a customer. The prospect in this analogy is the ball.

Sellers can attract balls to the board through their marketing and they can control where the gates and bumpers are placed. They can’t, however, control how each ball will react to the gates and bumpers.

Sellers will recognize the new reality of the sales process in the pinball analogy. For example, imagine a ball that enters the playing surface and, based on its initial trajectory, looks like it will head straight for the goal – but instead, it hits a particular gate and goes in the opposite direction of what the seller expected.

The Radical Sales Shift by Lisa Shepherd
The Radical Sales Shift by Lisa Shepherd

Conversely, every once in a while, a ball will hit a certain gate and go right into the goal. Other times, it will enter the board, hit a dozen paddles and then drop to the gutter unexpectedly. That’s how purchasing is these days.

Once in a while, a buyer will come in and make a purchase within one or two conversations. In other situations it feels like there’s progress towards the goal, and then something happens. The prospect hits a wall or their momentum changes for a reason unknown to the seller, and the deal is lost.

Sometimes there are 18 steps between a ball entering the playing surface and it going through the goal, and sometimes there are three.

Despite the variety of interactions that balls have with the playing surface, the pinball machine is not random. Its gates and bumpers, and the movement of the ball on the playing surface, are governed by the laws of physics. The reason it can seem random is because there are many variables affecting every game – the size and density of the ball, its trajectory, and the angle at which it hits gates and paddles. Taken together, there’s too much happening for it to be easily understood.

‘The gates and bumpers send prospects towards the goal’

But in the pinball analogy, the seller can control one thing: the set-up of the playing surface. The seller can create the gates and paddles (sales and marketing tactics) and where they’re located. This means that, with careful attention, the seller can place gates and paddles in locations where they are most effective in sending the ball towards the goal.

I like the pinball analogy for depicting the buying process because it illustrates the seemingly random nature of the process – when in fact, there is science behind the machine and how it works.

I also like the pinball analogy because it conveys that sellers can control the touches and interactions (gates and bumpers) that buyers will experience, even if they can’t control how buyers will react. But over time, if sellers are diligent in measuring and monitoring, they can identify which gates and bumpers send prospects towards the goal, and put more of those in place.

Next month, we’ll look at more important takeaways from Lisa Shepherd’s B2B marketing book The Radical Sales Shift. Copyright 2015. 

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons


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Lisa Shepherd
Lisa Shepherd
Lisa Shepherd is the author of two books on B2B marketing (The Radical Sales Shift and Market Smart). She is founder of The Mezzanine Group , a B2B marketing company based in Toronto that has worked with over 200 B2B companies in the last decade. Lisa is a frequent public speaker on B2B marketing strategy and execution and was the youngest female CEO to appear on the Profit 100.


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