Episode 139: Turning the Funnel Sideways – Carman Pirie

Predictable Prospecting
Episode 139: Turning the Funnel Sideways - Carman Pirie
00:00 / 00:00

Is the funnel model fundamentally flawed? If so, how do salespeople approach that problem in a new and different way? Today’s guest will help explain why it may be helpful to think about the funnel in a different way.

Carman Pirie is the Co-Founder of Kula Partners, which is currently handling mostly manufacturing clients. Carman is working on turning the funnel sideways – but what does that mean? Listen in to find out, as Carman discusses why he’s excited about his work, how to get companies to think in a way that emphasizes personalization, and how to get past resistance to sales’ involvement in building campaigns. 

Episode Highlights:

  • Why Carman got excited about the work that he does
  • How Carman is turning the funnel sideways
  • Carman’s process for starting conversations
  • How to get companies to think in a more personalized way
  • How to get past resistance to letting sales build campaigns
  • What changes in marketing when dealing with a smaller number of accounts
  • Starting the engagement process
  • Direct mail segmentation
  • How firms get started with Kula Partners


Carman Pirie

Kula Partners


Marylou: Hey everybody, it’s Marylou Tyler. We’re going to do our best today to eliminate what we’re hearing as background noise next to my house in California. There are some hammering going on just in time for this podcast, but we’re going to persevere and I want you guys to meet Carman Pirie. One thing that he just said to me while we were getting ready for this podcast was, “The funnel is fundamentally flawed.” The thinking about the funnel is fundamentally flawed, and you know what? I 100% agree with him.

I want him to come on the show today and talk to us about the funnel, about the way we think about the funnel because let’s face it, predictable revenue spoil everybody in thinking there’s this ubiquitous number of leads out there that we can weave through, segment, and get down to the 8-10 great opportunities per month, but in reality, not everybody has that many list records to actually work on.

Carman is the co founder of Kula Partners. He primarily works with manufacturing companies, but that doesn’t matter because what matters is, he’s working with companies that have a finite number of accounts. Either they’re growing their base with new products or existing products, or they are doing some net new, but by no means is that the main breadwinner for the company. Carman, welcome to the podcast.

Carman: Marylou, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Marylou: Let’s start with the funnel. Let’s start with what gets you so excited about the work that you do and granted in B2B manufacturing. I want the audience to not turn off their heads now on sale as well as manufacturing. No. What it is all about is trying to get a finite number of clients,  either net new business or existing business that’s growing the base. What got you focused on this part of that whole scenario in the sales process?

Carman: So for the listeners, no need to turn off at the notion of manufacturing. I’m really talking here about complex B2B sales scenarios which frankly, I have a lot of similarities even to smaller professional services organizations. I say that as somebody who does sales for an agency of course. I see more similarities than differences.

I guess what I’m on about this is that, I feel like as you mentioned in the intro that this funnel thinking is predicated on a number of tactics and activities at the top of funnel that are intended to drive the people further down the funnel by a BANT qualification, et cetera, to MQL, SQL and beyond, and the base assumption in all of that is that the top of the funnel is unlimited.

For a good number of the clients that I work with, that’s just not the reality. They may have 20 or 30 clients or customer story that buy from them currently and a good year is adding four or five. If you’re in that scenario, chances are you should be able to define a list of 200 organizations or so that you need to be talking to, not 2000, not 200,000.

In some ways, I feel like the promise of scale that comes with digital marketing, it is somewhat out of whack with the business reality of a lot of people. I would say that’s the same for my own agency as an example, or a marketing agency focused on helping manufacturers transform their sales and marketing apparatus. That right there is a fairly finite universe of people that we can serve. We don’t have to be able to define who that is, not just spray and pray with proper SEO.

Marylou: Right. These service industries, a lot of my clients that have long sales cycles, even sports, I do some work in the sports area, where they’re trying to get the luxury box seats filled, those are a finite number of people that can fill those seats. It’s anything that you think, “Wow, I can’t sell to everybody, I can only sell to a segment.”  Segmenting is actually the way the world nowadays, because with all of the new legislation for email conversations and things, GDPR being one example, we have to be more segmented in our approach, more personalized in our approach. What you’re talking about with us today is all about the process of doing that, and how to set that.

One thing you said in the intro, before we got on live was, that you’re turning the funnel sideways, can you help us understand what that means?

Carman: If you could imagine just tilting that funnel, just tilt it left so that funnel now looks like an arrow pointing right, and then tack on an arrow pointing left on the other side of that and make it into a diamond. in some ways that’s the buying journey that we ought to be imagining our universe of prospects on. It starts with the human that we can identify at the front end of that. The diamond drives that point home in my view that it starts at one person, not at a limitless number of hundreds of thousands.

If you think about it, most of those prospects in these complex B2B scenarios are moving from a point in their lives where they don’t perhaps even know that they need what it is you sell. They moved from there through needs discovery, initial research, etcetera, and then they get to a point where they’re actually going to make some purchase decision. They engage their internal stakeholders, and procurement and whatnot. Then they begin to move down that convergence side of the diamond, down to what we traditionally think of is that funnel. That’s when they become visible to sales, if you will, the procurement, the RFP’s been sent out, request for information, or what have you, have been distributed, they’ve taken some sales meetings, but when we look at when that prospect is actually most open to influence, when can we most introduce opportunity for greater margin, enhanced value, et cetera? How can we frame the discussion and when are they most open to that? It’s in that point when they actually don’t even know that they need what it is we sell.

That’s at the point when they’re invisible to our sales organizations if we’re thinking about BANT. It just strikes me as this really contradictory thing, where we have our best people engaged in conversations that are actually, in some ways, at least open to influence.

Marylou: Right. What is a typical process, or planning, or assessment for us to be able to start these conversations almost like stealthy conversations with people and reaching them in their head, where they’re at in their head. How we go about that? Where do we start?

Carman: If we start from the point of view of, “We don’t need an unlimited number of prospects. We don’t have an unlimited number of prospects, but what we need are 100 to 300, or what have you, relationships that we need to build, and then at some point, those people become open to considering what it is we sell.” If we think about it that way, then it changes a lot of how we might approach it from a marketing and sales combined approach. How do we get sales people more involved in some of that marketing function that’s more and more up funnel—if you think of it in a traditional sense, but moving down the diamond in the model that I’ve tried to introduce here—how do we get sales people engaged in dialogue with our prospects at a point when they perhaps don’t even know that they need what it is we sell? There’s some great examples of how to do that.

Frankly were on one right now. Podcasts are a great way to do that. You can connect with prospects and get them on to a podcast and develop a relationship with them in the lead up to having them on your show. Frankly, transition that in to a sales relationship 6–12 months down the road. You can get introduced to them in a way through creating marketing with them. It doesn’t have to be a podcast, of course. I know that there’s lots of different ways to do content networking. But it’s funny, we rarely see sales people particularly engaged in that. In large organizations that I work with, manufacturing organizations, they’re just quite resistant to doing, it sounds like the purview of the marketing department, if it’s the purview of anyone.

Marylou: Right, I was going to say that some of it is culturally within the company itself saying, “No, that’s a marketing function and you shall not cross over into doing that,” which is a disservice sometimes, because a lot of times the sales people become almost experts in a certain area of the field, whatever they’re selling, so they have the ability to write blog posts, to do webinars, maybe under the guidance of marketing, but actually to deliver them outside of marketing. A lot of what you’re talking about would actually be beneficial for those folks who are trying to get these and woo these early clients and potential clients into that funnel.

That’s the problem, marketing is built in so many companies to cast a wide net. It’s hard to get them to think individualized or personalized or hyper personalized.

Carman: And it’s running counter to the fact that buyers, especially for my clients, in this B2B space are becoming more and more technical. They’re demanding sales people to be more technical, and the sales people that are rising to that challenge can really benefit from their enhanced technical knowledge if they can actually meet with prospects on that level earlier in the process by the content networking that we talked about before.

I believe it was actually on one of your earlier shows, you interviewed Tony Hughes and he mentioned the stat that 75% of the deals are won by the organization that first provided education or insight into the problem.

Marylou: Yes.

Carman: Not to sleight marketers, but marketers are often less capable of providing that level of education and insight into a highly technical situation. Very often, the sales organization would be better suited. We need to break down those barriers between them and begin to think of this is more continuous whole. If we want a seamless customer experience from the earliest stage of prospect identification, all the way through to customer delight, if we want that to be seamless, we need to take the seams out of organizations, too.

Marylou: Yeah, it’s just so hard sometimes. If you think I’m sitting here listening to this, it’s like marketing doesn’t want to let go. It will be very difficult for us to even to a pilot project in some companies to say, “Hey, let’s help the sales folks build the campaign. High touch campaign, personalized in nature, outside of the marketing umbrella.” It’s an uphill battle. I’ve been doing this now for 30 some odd years and there’s a lot of resistance, especially in the larger companies, to be that nimble, to allow sales used some of the traditionally chartered marketing activities. How do you get around that?

Carman: The first thing you do is embrace what you just said and say, “The good news is, if it was really easy, everybody would be doing it, and then there would be less advantage for us getting it right,”  so I guess there’s some positive inherent in that. I guess what I hear from the marketers that I work with every day is a pretty healthy appetite for collaboration with the sales organization, a thirst for it in some way.

Marylou: I’m not seeing that, but that’s just my world.

Carman: Yeah, I have actually found in the podcast that we have, we interview manufacturing marketers every week and there have been times when I admit that I’ve tried to characterize the marketing and sales relationship as being more hostile than it actually was in reality. The guest called me on it. I’ve been called on it enough now that I believe them. Hopefully, you start to see it soon, too, Marylou.

Marylou: I don’t know. I am very pessimistic about that because that’s one of the biggest problems that I see is the alignment of marketing and sales, and the willingness to let go, even if it’s just a small subset. There’s always a common denominator here and that we’re all trying to get net new business and a lot more revenue, but there are some just lines being drawn—not all companies, but quite a few—where you have product marketing people who are responsible for the marketing of the product itself, then you have corporate marketing people, who are responsible for the corporate communications. Then there’s that marketing message, the brand distinction, brand essence, and that’s where if there’s a heavy emphasis on brand, it’s difficult to get things done and approved so that sales can go and do something.

I’ve seen it so much that I’m actually hopeful and optimistic now after hearing you say that marketers are not saying that. That’s great, but people listening in the audience are rolling their eyes right now saying, “Yeah, that sounds great on paper but…”

Carman: Yeah. Well, your point around when it starts to impact brand, does that mean sales can get a free license to go off and do what they want? I don’t think that that’s really probably what we’re hoping for here, but I guess, once marketing became at least partially responsible for lead generation, it changed in some way fundamentally the relationship between marketing and sales. A lot of organizations count themselves for a while, just in that dialogue between basically sales and the leads that marketing are sending them back and forth right.

I guess, I’ve noticed in the folks that I speak with that there’s quite an interest in moving beyond that, that traditional dialogue is dying off. I’m not happy to be proven wrong, but if your listeners want to prove me wrong, they can.

Marylou: Well, it could be too, you’re focused on certain industries and certain industries might be more open to it than others. That’s also another way to look at this. I primarily work in healthcare a lot. I do a little bit of manufacturing. I do services and, all in all for the most part, there’s a willingness to listen and willingness to maybe plan, but execution, they want control primarily at the whole process.

That makes it difficult for even doing such simple things as riding what I call a sales conversation canvas, which is the actual touches, the actual sales conversations that we put inside of a sequence, a multi-touch, multi-channel sequence, but the way I like to approach it is, “Look marketing, you’re in charge of the assets for sure and what we’ll do is we’ll create what we think is a nice one page wireframe to include with this conversation, but we want you obviously to approve it. Make sure it’s got the right profile and the right… whatever the fonts are, and making sure on branding perspective that we’re not running solo on that.”

That seems to work best, but what happens is, if we rely 100% on marketing to write some of that copy for us, we have a different side of things, we’re in a persuasive conversation on the sale side, we’re not in an attraction conversation necessarily all the time. If we get marketing to do our emails, it’s very much attraction-based and sometimes that hurts our conversion rates.

Carman: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. The people writing sale sequences, things of that sort, need to have had actual contact with the enemy before. They need to have sold something. It’s not something that can be done academically. In fact, when you read a script that’s been written by a marketer that’s never sold anything, it’s obvious.

There’s a danger in creating the separation anywhere along the line there, we have to find a way through this because if marketing is creating the bigger chunks of content or whatever that are being referenced within or maybe links to within those sales, emails, or what have you, right there, so often is the point of disconnect. You go from a sales conversation that’s focused on a prospect’s actual requirements to sometimes a marketing conversation that seems like somebody had their head up throughout the entire time. Marketing can be better when they bring sales to the party and vice-versa.

It’s funny because most marketers I talked to would suggest that sales has more power in their organization. Depending on what side of this debate you’re on, you may have different perceptions, color, shaping our points of view here.

Marylou: Yeah, and the beauty of what we’re talking about right now is that your cracking the code in your world. You’re able to bring the marketing and sales people together. The way that you described the task at hand, the pursuit plan that you’re coming up with, because there’s a limited number of accounts by definition, screams for marketing and sales department. In that context, that’s why you’re probably having a lot of success.

A lot of times though, we’re working with clients who have the 2000 records and that they also have the 200. It’s very difficult for us to spin those different plates is what I’m saying. I’m very encouraged by the fact that perhaps all this time, we’ve been presenting the problem incorrectly, but the challenge, and that is that you don’t have a standard problem. You’re on a sideways diet.

Carman: Precisely. If you think about how marketing comes to the table and says how they’ve been doing in the last quarter and they talk about things that they’re top level organic search traffic and things of that sort. We have the technology now to know, “Yeah, great. What is our digital presence doing in terms of how many people has it attracted from our top 200 target accounts? What is our conversion rate down through this fictitious funnel that we’re talking about people that are actually within our target cohort versus people just showing up at our site for whatever reason?”

I we can begin to take those marketing metrics and later on that target account focus in so many of these instances, it can be a really nice point of bringing together the two functions. It can be a real point of them coalescing I think.

Marylou: Right, and then you apply the magic that you’ve come up with and say, “Look, this is the scenario. This is the sales conversation canvass to utilize as a recipe for this particular segmented part of the market.” Those small number of accounts are what I call jump accounts. I saw that from one of my clients. When they call, we jump. When they bat an eyelash, we jump because we want them as clients. Those guys are treated very differently. We do require more of a handshake, an alignment, a camaraderie which we work in sales in order to get the conversation started, and to question through gently the pipeline to the point of opportunity we’ve done.

Carman: Yeah, and the extent that we can be successful in engaging people earlier in that process and doing so using the joint forces of marketing and sales, then we can get to a place where we’re shaping the purchase process before it happens. Then we can extract more value. It is not just whether or not we close business, but it’s how profitable is a business that we close.

It happens that the procurement process is standardized without any influence and then you’re just playing the same game as everyone else in that funnel thinking. The real carrot at the end of all of this is if we can bring together the skill sets, we can actually get into the process earlier. We can overcome the typical failure to position in these kinds of large purchase scenarios. We can overcome the failure so often to frame the purchase process, and to control it.

Marylou: In your experience then, Carman, the traditional ‘warm up the chill’ campaigns that marketing does for, let’s just call it the tier two accounts, or tier three accounts which are the rest of the world—not the […], the other guys—what changes when we’re working with a smaller number of accounts? I know I’m asking you to be more generalized, but you mentioned something like podcast.

Are there other types of activities that lend themselves for these finite number of accounts? More often than not, knowing that we have different industries, different verticals, different sales cycles, but the traditional way would be to blast out an email sequence that warmed up the chill. What have you seen in your world that adds more credibility to the actual conversion of these folks and getting them to think about, “Wow, I never thought about that,” or, “Gee, how did they do that?” or, “Wow, I should spend some time with these people because they’re saying some stuff that wasn’t even on my radar.” What are those things that you recommend?

Carman: I would say the Forrest Gump moment. When you have a finite group that you can sell to, those same organizations are often very heavily invested in trade shows. That’s where they find the finite people that they talk to. Basically, just thinking about your mark in this way and who you’re selling to this way, you can surround those trade show environments in a much more sophisticated way than what most people are doing now.

Whether that’s just LinkedIn, paid social advertising targeted towards those organizations that are attending that trade show, and promoting content in advance of it, promoting your presence there, et cetera, we can just get a lot more focused on where most people are spending their dollars.

Marylou: Yeah. The other thing that I’ve done with the trade show in line is to pre-invite them, if we can, to do a workshop of some sort, like a webinar but a seminar kind of thing that’s free. We’re trying to get butts and feet so we engage people. If we can get a list of the attendees, or if we have a list last year and reach out to the companies.

Again, we have our target list so we should be able to target those people in that list, ask them if they’re going to that trade show, “Hey, great. We’re doing a workshop on this topic. We know that you have been interested in something like this. Would you want us to reserve a seat for you?” and that gets people to start the engagement process so that the folks that are there know they’re coming, have some unique characteristics of their offering that they want to demonstrate, and then more importantly, can start engaging in that face-to-face conversation which is fabulous to get people engaged and wanting to know more about what we do.

Carman: Absolutely. Of course, if you have the actual attendee list, that can become a lot easier. When you don’t have that, you just simply know the organizations that are likely to be there that you want to be telling to, you can work backwards from that as well.

Another missed opportunity tactically that is just so obvious is that every trade show is based geographically. It actually has a place where it’s happening. You can target mobile advertising within a kilometer or a mile radius from that location. You can be getting conference attendees that are just like checking the weather on their phone, or looking for local restaurants or whatever at lunch, but you can be warming them up that way as well, and doing so in a very targeted and very low cost manner.

Marylou: Yeah, this is great.

Carman: The only brand halo.

Marylou: Right. What other things besides trade shows have you seen and worked on? How about direct mail? Has that come back to this type of segmentation?

Carman: Absolutely. We really try to help people think about these more complex processes as also being multi touch point in terms of the hierarchy of their organization. One of the other areas that’s underutilized in our space is that many manufactures, mid-sized manufacturers, are still family owned, maybe 5-6 generations on. The businesses that they typically try to sell to oftentimes can be family owned as well, as an example.

It can be a great point of connectivity at the executive level of these organizations that can help grease the skids of any future sales conversation, but it’s almost never leveraged that we can actually have our senior, our president, our owner actually connect with this person on the basis that we’re both fifth generation family business owners. Of course, they want to engage in that conversation. It’s something that we share with so few other people. Anytime I’ve uncovered that parallel in a target account list and suggest that somebody do that as a way in, they’re almost always shocked.

Marylou: Definitely. I remember asking the CEO to write a letter. This is for a food company that was […] Midwest. We did a split test of handwriting it versus the director of marketing writing it. We overwhelmingly got a higher response rate because people related to the fact that first of all, if we decide to write a letter—we did an email campaign actually—but it’s almost in the form of a letter of introduction and it was very successful, asking him to do that versus the director of marketing doing that.

Another question about this whole manufacturing vertical, I wonder if you also had this experience. The tenure of the sales executive. How long have you guys and gals been in the role of the companies that you service on average?

Carman: Way longer than the marketing folks. It’s not uncommon to see 40-year veterans. I’ve got to say, one of the things that fascinated me as I’ve gotten deeper in my work with manufacturers is that, it seems odd, but marketers almost seem like they’re hungrier than the sales folks sometimes. Once they’ve been around for 30-40 years, the sales folks are farming the pre-existing accounts and any sense of hunting has long since…

Marylou: Left the building.

Carman: Yeah. Sometimes these younger marketers that are hip to bring new leads to the table are almost yelling into the ether. It’s been a surprise, but also the tenure of the sales organization can lead to some challenges in changing it and making it more digitally savvy as an example, but at the same time, almost every organization that I worked with has at least a portion of it that can be worked with. They’re not all 40-year vets.

Marylou: Right. It’s interesting because in the last couple of years I’ve been asked to speak at conventions and conferences in industries that average 10 years or 20 plus years as a sales rep. It is frustrating for me because of the fact that I’m 61, that they’re not willing to adopt or just listen to a new way of doing things as they have their rolodex, and they have their way of doing business, and this whole thought of all of our systems, and leveraging technology to help with the conversation is just something they will not do. Because there’s more of them than me, it’s very difficult to convince.

What we do is we tried like you said, take the younger guys who might be not at book yet and still need to do some planting of seeds and get them excited about what we’re doing and then hopefully, it’ll propagate through. By no means can we go in and say, “This is what we’re going to do now everybody,” because it just doesn’t work that way. It’s been very frustrating for someone like me who is all about getting everybody in the hunting mode and it’s […]. I like the fact that you ebb and flow and pick the battle where you can, and eventually, they’ll probably get through to those people who really need it and […].

Carman: An old agency veteran friend of mine once told me to stock that bootcamp counsel and to know demand. Was that ever true when trying to get an older salesperson who doesn’t want to change, change.

But I must say, I have found some success in some of the sales enablement technologies. When they hear that, “Don’t worry about the CRM right now. Don’t worry about tracking your activity or what have you,”, but this is a way that you can know if your prospect opened the email and is looking at your proposal. Sometimes, that type of very simple functionality can deliver a lot of benefits and is enough of an intrigue to get them playing ball.

Marylou: Carman, if anyone ever find out exactly […] about is because this is a mysterious part of the […], it seems that cultural personalities are a big part of finessing through this, and frankly, I’m a passive person so sometimes it’s difficult. If someone’s listening to this and is like, “You know what? This does sound like our firm,” how do we get started with you? What we do first?

Carman: How do you get started with Kula Partners?

Marylou: Yeah, just going down the path of figuring this out and first of all, do we have those 20-40 accounts, 200 accounts, or whatever it is? How do we get to that point? What do we need to change in our sequences, our messaging, our sales conversations. Where do we get started with someone like you and your knowledge in figuring out if this is a good fit for us?

Carman: I guess there could be a lot of different starting points. Maybe I won’t answer the question as directly as you might like, but in some ways, what I find most of my prospects and clients, the shift that they undertake is shifting from this organization-centric mindset in their marketing and sales function and really fundamentally transforming it to a more human-centered process.

They’re taking a more human-centered design approach in how they build out their marketing and sales function. Start from extrapolating from those target client profiles and knowing the organizations that we serve, and then unpack that into the actual personas and the actual people. Know who is our lead economic buyer, then make up of that buying committee, and then begin to build our overall marketing and sales framework around that.

That process from there then tends to unfold from a point of view of creating a digital foundation for that to be launched from, be that a website beyond that digital trade show presence, et cetera. Even things like your factory towards how you transform all of those things to make them more centered on the actual people that we’re selling to, not talking in this bland organizational speak about superior quality, great service, and amazing people in these broad generalities. The way that gets started is it starts by getting grounded and who we’re actually building for, and on abstracting that as much as possible.

Marylou: What I like to do is look at simple quadrant and across the X axis, the horizontal, I have existing and new. Across the Y axis, I have existing and new, and then I put clients on the X axis, I put cards on the Y axis, now I have four quadrants. If I’m selling to existing clients with existing products, that’s my base. Those are the people that I want to continue to have long lifetime value with, and my conversation is going to be very different than the quadrant right next to it which is new clients with existing products.

Those clients need a little bit different conversations. If you think about it like that with new and existing products, new and existing clients, and you have four quadrants, find out where you’re at, and where most do your business is coming from.

That will also help you do what Carman is saying, unpacked from that quadrant, “Okay, these accounts are my jump accounts. In those job jump accounts, these are the types of people with whom I’m going to have conversation initially, or maybe follow up conversations with,” and as Carman said, you’ve got to change your whole attitude of approach to these people. From what he even said, […] towards. Who would have thought of that right? But it makes perfect sense. Look at all the touch points that you have relating to that buyer profile and change it accordingly for that particular quadrant.

It’s not everybody, it’s just the people who reside in the quadrant that you’re trying to bring more revenue in. You’re going to have multiple funnels and some are going to look like Carman’s diamonds, and some are going to look like the regular funnel, but it’s not one size fits all. That’s one of the biggest mistakes people make. They try to push everybody down the same funnel and it just isn’t like that. Carman, thank you so much for your time today. I apologize for the next door neighbor hammering, but we got through it.

Carman: Marylou, it’s been interesting. It sounded like you were in a tunnel a time or two, but with any luck at all, the audio folks will do their magic, and it would be fantastic.

Marylou: Yes.

Carman: Thank you for having me on the show today.

Marylou: Wonderful. I’ll put it in the show notes everybody, Carman’s contact information, LinkedIn, et cetera, and his website. He’s the cofounder Kula Partners. There’s a lot of stuff on his website that you can check out independently of the podcast. Thanks again, Carman. I appreciate your time.

Carman: Thanks a lot, Marylou.