by Patrick Thorp - February 28, 2020

Funnel, Flywheel or Bowtie? by Patrick Thorp

Imagine a shop that sold each of the items listed in the title of this article! Uttering a request for these items in one breath would encourage a look of disbelief from the assistant, forgiven for assuming his involvement in a comedy sketch! They may seem arbitrary with no clear relationship but in the following few words, I shall attempt to outline that they are more closely aligned than you think.

At Sales for Startups we are lucky to have worked with and gotten seriously lasting results for over 50 B2B tech companies and a question we come across a lot as trusted consultants is,  “what one thing can I do, what one activity is going to make the difference? What’s the silver bullet?” Perhaps, I am over-simplifying this, assuming Founders to be this naive to think it is attributed to just one action, but you would be surprised.

We help Seed to Series C funded B2B tech companies and within these different stages of funding brings its own unique set of challenges. However, the common denominator of “what one activity could be done” is to get more leads! This clamour achieves consensus from the ranks drawn to the idea that if a company generates more “quality” leads, more can be inputted into the pipeline and then the revenue goals will be hit, so go fill that funnel, salespeople; go sell more to more people! The point being that this one activity is not necessarily going to create lasting change and embed different behaviours.

My view is that for too long we have subscribed to the view of the sales activities being viewed as a funnel, often drawn out as a funnel on a whiteboard or a print out. I think this limits a business view, obfuscating an area one really does not want to be myopic about. Let me explain why.

The sales funnel is a concept we are all familiar with. We know what a funnel looks like, we can picture it and perhaps have been in contact with one for whatever reason. There are even sales technologies that have the word funnel in them, so this traditional view has many followers. However, to consider your sales process as a funnel, is limiting.

It suggests that as soon as the one activity of entering leads in the top stops, then naturally, results/closed deals dry up pretty quick because there is not a stream of leads being entered (Sales would immediately turn to Marketing in this instance asking for more, always more). If you do end up with nothing coming in at the front end, there are no accounts to grow and revenue stalls.

It also doesn’t allow you to consider what to do with those customers that are through the funnel and have converted. What happens to them? Do we leave them out to dry until we have to renegotiate the contract with them 10.5 months into their 12 month minimum, begging for them to resign even though they have had no contact for all this time? Surely, there is a better way?

This view has been iterated and metamorphosed into the concept of the bowtie. Imagine a bowtie and to help there is an image below. As you look at it, Marketing is on the left hand side, with a wide reach, Sales are at the centre, and Customer Success on the right hand side. Marketing are responsible for awareness and filling the (in this instance, horizontal) hopper; Sales are responsible for Revenue which occurs at the middle of the bowtie with Customer Success being responsible for Growth and Retention at the other side of the bowtie (for further reading on this, consider Dave McClure’s work, Pirate Metrics).

So, all revenue generating departments have their own place with Marketing, Sales and Customer Success all working in symbiosis to enhance revenue. This addresses the issue with the funnel in terms of what happens to a prospect once they convert because there is a clear switch in responsibility from Sales to Customer Success.

However, and similar to the funnel depiction, a limitation is the static nature of a bowtie; it is not dynamic. When new opportunities are not placed at the front end, the back end dries up pretty quickly and revenue remains static because one activity (lead generation) was not properly administered.  
Therefore what is the answer? Since our inception, we have been contrarian by nature, challenging the norms, going on record to claim that the old way of consultancy is broken, in terms of paying for time. Therefore, I shall suggest and introduce to you viewing your pipeline as a flywheel. Acknowledgement must go to Jim Collins’ seminal text Good to Great where he eloquently outlines the concept of a flywheel but in short, a flywheel is a heavy object that through inertia resists moving.

However, it does eventually start and if you are to believe Newton’s 3rd law, every action will have an equal and opposite reaction, the flywheel eventually starts turning through consistency ,relentless effort and activity by building momentum until breakthrough and beyond. Once the flywheel is turning, these actions speed up the flywheel until its own centrifugal force takes over. If we appropriate this to sales, it demonstrates that it is not just one activity (i.e we need more leads and then all of our problems will be over) that defines the success of a company.

It is all of the activities surrounding every stage of the process and the buying journey that creates success. Once the wheel is turning, it is small nudges that keep it turning (this can be iterations on the wider business process) and if you were to ask a Founder at a company where this concept was fully embedded, what one action did they incorporate to achieve this, they would be hard pushed to put their finger on this one silver bullet, because there isn’t one.

As you can see in the above picture, customers are the focal point when a business adopts a flywheel approach and in B2B sales, this is where the customer should be – at the centre of every action. This adoption of change starts with a mindset shift to “ what do I [as the salesperson] need to do to help the buyer in their journey”. In the whole process, each step is to be a sales person focussed action with a buyer focussed outcome, to achieve a fully buyer centric sales process.

With this mind, with the flywheel approach, the customer is never out of loop, sequence, campaign or other such similar activity. They are always being looked after by specific departments dependent on where they are in the buying cycle, with the different departments orbiting around them, not the other way round. In contrast to this, when a customer signs and comes out the other end of a funnel, they need to be placed back into the top of the funnel which may sound simple but all too often, these businesses can fall through the cracks. I am not suggesting that this cannot be done, but at Sales for Startups we always try to achieve a closed feedback loop between Customer Success and Sales which I argue can be more fully achieved with a flywheel than a funnel.

If you have found the funnel or bowtie a bit static, and are looking for a dynamic alternative, consider the flywheel. Consistency of actions, validation that these are the right actions and execution of these in the right order are what makes real change. It is tough to get your flywheel turning in the first instance, I cannot suggest that this is not the case. However, once it does start turning, you will soon be in a position where only gentle nudges will continue its turn, ensuring constant forward motion and ultimately, business success.

Sales for Startups is a boutique consultancy based in London who help technical founders of B2B SaaS companies funded between Seed and Series C, rapidly enhance their revenue and optimise their operations through proven systems.

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