Occasionally there are conversations I have that stick in my mind for years and years. One of those such conversations was when I met up for lunch with a former-BBC and Microsoft colleague Mark a few years ago.

“It’s not a sales funnel,” said Mark. “It’s a sales sieve.”

Mark explained that whilst sales teams (particularly, those using sales software like CRM systems) tend to think about how a sales process works in a linear way, as either a pipeline or a funnel.

It’s a flawed metaphor. The problem is that everything going into a funnel or a pipeline comes out the other end. It’s both linear and complete (well, unless a British water company owns the pipeline, in which case it will be full of leaks).

If you want a metaphor to explain what is going on within a process of selling, you need something that explains a winnowing away of things to leave what is important or valuable. Mark suggested a sieve, but in hindsight we often use sieves to filter out the stuff we don’t want. Lumps and weevils.

So maybe we should think about finding new opportunities more like panning for gold. A methodical, non-linear exercise. A time when you are focused on how you spot value, not just how you ensure that things get from A to B.

Metaphors are incredibly important. They are more than just flowery language, used to inspire or bamboozle. They are the way we think.

Here’s an example. Do you know what a Pomelo is? If not, then if I tell you that it is citrus maxima, the largest citrus fruit from the family Rutaceae, then it’s very unlikely you feel any better informed.

However if I tell you it’s like a big, thick-skinned grapefruit you are there much quicker. It’s a very close metaphor from Pomelo to Grapefruit, but if you don’t like grapefruit you’ve probably already made a judgement that you don’t like pomelo.

The pipeline or funnel metaphors raise expectations. They make people make subconscious assumptions about a definite linear flow. They make it feel like an opportunity not turning into work be a failure.

Panning for gold, though… If you spot something that glimmers then sure, it’s disappointing when it turns out to be another lump of quartz. But it’s to be expected. And just because a pile of stuff is in your pan, you don’t immediately assume that any of it is necessarily valuable, and you’re much more acutely aware to spot that that is.

So who’s up for building a CRM system that allows you to pan rather than pipeline?

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