Article | 13 min read

What is a sales funnel? Strategies on how to create one

A sales funnel is critical for understanding the path to purchase. Learn how it works and how to build one so you can increase conversions.

By Donny Kelwig, Contributing Writer

Published June 11, 2021
Last updated September 7, 2022

The concept of sales funnels can feel misleading. A real funnel is designed to catch and condense everything you put into it, but not every prospect that enters the top of your sales funnel will come out the other end a customer. There’s bound to be some spillage along the way.

However, that doesn’t mean you should settle for a slow drip of conversions. With the right approach, your business can generate more leads at the top of the funnel and more deals at the bottom.

In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn what a sales funnel is, the process and theory behind sales funnels, and how you can build your own using examples.

What is a sales funnel?

Sales funnels are sales and marketing tools used to illustrate the steps of the customer journey. Think of a sales funnel as a visual roadmap that shows exactly where a prospect is in the buying process at any given time.

Why is the sales funnel so important?

A sales funnel is important because it allows you to understand what potential customers are feeling and thinking as they move along the path to purchase. Knowing where prospects are in their journey gives you the insight you need to identify the best marketing strategies. As a result, conversion rates and sales will increase over time.

Good sales funnels guide prospects toward a purchase by capturing their attention, nurturing their interest, and ultimately closing the deal. When all goes well, sales funnels also set you up for good reviews and repeat customers.

What are the stages of a sales funnel?

The sales process can be broken down into a general structure of top, middle, and bottom. The top of the funnel is where the customer journey begins, ideally before a buyer even thinks about becoming a customer. Creating brand awareness is always the first step in any typical sales funnel—this is why you need a sales plan for getting on a buyer’s radar.

Stage 1: Awareness

Stage 1: Awareness, person smiling

The awareness stage is the point where the buyer first starts to notice a brand. For businesses with full-funnel tracking, it’s also where the company starts to notice the buyer.

In this stage, the potential customer explores a company’s services, reads product descriptions, and does competitor research along the way. They aren’t interested in anything specific yet; they’re simply seeking out a solution.

Marketers can capture the attention of prospects through their lead generation process. There are several channels that companies can use for their sales funnel strategy, including:

  • Blogs
    Publishing blog posts that are relevant to your customer base is a great way to gain attention. Create content focused on the core topics you want your brand to embody, and optimize it to rank for related keywords. Make sure the articles are engaging and easy to share on social media, too. You should include a call to action (CTA) near the beginning and at the end of each article, as some visitors won’t read the entire post.
  • Email

    There are two types of email marketing campaigns: outbound and inbound. Outbound marketing involves sending emails to buyers who have not initiated contact with your brand. These unsolicited messages typically don’t perform well, but there are ways to increase open rates for “cold emails” as well as free email templates you can follow.

    Meanwhile, inbound email marketing involves sending messages to prospects who have shown some interest in your brand and have voluntarily shared their email address. Perhaps they accessed gated content or signed up for a newsletter. These types of prospects tend to be more receptive and are often easier to target.

  • Web

    Don’t forget that your brand’s website also functions as a lead generation channel. Potential buyers are apt to look at pricing pages, product descriptions, customer testimonials, and other sections of your site. Make sure every page includes a simple and direct CTA, such as a “Sign up for a free trial,” “Book a meeting,” or “Talk to sales” button.

  • Social media

    Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have become multipurpose tools for many companies. They enable businesses to gauge public perception, promote their brands through social proof, and provide quick and easy customer service.

    Paid social media tactics can play a big role in your lead generation efforts. You can pay to use cookies to track people who visit your website, then focus on those prospects with promotional tweets and posts on their social media feeds. This type of customized marketing is more cost-effective than paying to promote one post to a large, indiscriminate group of consumers.

    Of course, there are also ways to spread the word on social media without spending a dime. For example, employees often share their company’s blog posts on LinkedIn to generate awareness and interest within their networks.

No matter which channel you choose, it’s important to tailor the content to the buyer personas you’re hoping to convert. You don’t want to lose a prospect’s attention by sharing information that they won’t find relevant. Studying the characteristics and habits of your customer base can help you define your ideal prospect. Then, once a consumer starts to show interest in what you have to offer, they turn into a pursuable lead.

Stage 2: Interest

Stage 2: Interest, two people looking at a computer

When a lead is in the interest stage, they’re done looking around—they’re now looking into specifics. They’ll compare different products, learn more about the brands, and begin to imagine what each product can do for them.

Potential customers are often not set on a particular company by this point, but they have started to focus on one or two products that can solve their problems. This is where sales teams will start using prospecting tools, sales prospecting, and lead scoring. They’ll look at which buyers they need to focus on and which ones they can leave on the back-burner.

Once prospects show more interest, they go on to the next stage in the customer journey. Moving buyers from the top to the middle is a delicate and often lengthy process. Businesses need to repeatedly demonstrate their value just to earn a prospect’s consideration (let alone their business).

Stage 3: Decision

Stage 3: Decision, person holding laptop

When a prospect enters the decision stage of the sales funnel, it means they’re ready to make a purchase. They may still be considering a few options, but they’re prepared to buy. In the decision stage, it’s crucial to distinguish your brand and give the potential customer compelling reasons to choose you.

Could you offer free shipping? A discount code? A bonus product? These sorts of tangible benefits heavily influence buyers when choosing one company over another. It’s also important to emphasize what sets your product or service apart—and what makes your company special—in your marketing materials. Make sure you have an FAQ section on your website, too.

Seemingly small things can make all the difference as you guide prospects toward the bottom of the funnel. You’re approaching the moment when an interested buyer runs the risk of getting cold feet or going with another company—try to seal the deal at this stage.

Stage 4: Action

Stage 4: Action, handshake

Even if a deal seems inevitable, sales reps must continue nudging a prospect through the final funnel stages. Easing up on a prospective customer toward the bottom can cost you a win that’s been the culmination of a lot of people’s hard work. Instead, usher your potential buyers across the finish line by using the ASK process:

  • Align priorities. Show your prospect that you fully understand their pain points, and reiterate how you can solve them.
  • Secure a commitment. Remind them of what they stand to gain, ask sales questions, and offer to address any lingering concerns.
  • Keep the relationship alive. Even if the prospect ultimately says no, be sure to follow up with them at a future date. They may come around if their situation changes down the road. If not, they might offer valuable insight into how you can improve the customer experience for future clients.

If you actively engage your prospects, you increase the chances of conversion and the likelihood of establishing a fruitful, long-lasting relationship. In some cases, those relationships and the referrals that come from them can be even more profitable than the initial deal.

Choosing the right CTA is also crucial at this stage. Using information you’ve gleaned from your prospect, reiterate what your product has to offer, show them how it can solve their problems, and give them a reason to make a purchase as soon as possible. This will remind them why they were interested in the first place and boost your conversion rate for this stage.

For many B2B, SaaS, and subscription-based businesses, the sales process doesn’t end with the purchase. Once a prospect becomes a customer, the sales rep turns their focus toward retention. Reps need to keep in touch with clients to make sure they’re still satisfied and to identify potential upsell opportunities.

Unlock a measurable sales pipeline

This free guide examines three vital steps to establish a measurable sales pipeline that drives repeatable, predictable sales growth.

How to create an effective sales funnel for your business

Create an effective sales funnel, coach with clipboard

Creating a sales funnel is an extensive process. It’s going to take research and effort to determine what methods will work best for your company, your sales reps, and your buyers. But by starting from the top and making your way to the bottom of the funnel, you can develop a seamless sales process that will allow you to retain more customers than you would without a comprehensive structure.

Here are some good strategies to follow when building a sales funnel.

1. Analyze

To develop a smooth sales funnel, you need insights into consumer behavior. The more you know about your sales data and the clients who have historically purchased and used your products, the more successfully you can target your marketing and upper-funnel strategies. Sales reports can help you refine your buyer personas and create content that appeals to high-value prospects.

2. Capture the customer’s attention

The sales funnel begins before a potential customer is even aware they need your product or service. Writing informative blog posts, running targeted ads, and developing a significant social media presence are great ways to attract consumers. Using dynamic infographics, videos, and brand-specific language can help you stand out and draw customers in.

3. Build a landing page

Once a buyer is interested in your product or service, you need to make sure they reach a robust landing page with all the information they need to proceed down the funnel. This page should have details about your product, describe who you are as a company, and highlight what sets you apart from your competitors. Include an engaging CTA that tells the consumer exactly what to do next.

Your developers should also insert a simple online form where prospects can enter their personal information. Collecting email addresses allows you to stay in touch and make future offers that might compel prospects to buy later if they’re not ready just yet.

4. Nurture

Now that potential customers have found you and developed an interest in what you have to offer, it’s time to nurture that interest. Prospecting emails can be effective, especially if they include new offers or discounts. One to two emails a week is usually plenty to keep a customer on the hook but not irritated by too many messages. This will help you build a strong sales pipeline and improve sales velocity, too.

You can also use cross-selling to create compelling offers for consumers. For instance, “If you buy these two products together, you’ll get a discount on both!” These types of incentives can help push a prospect to buy and encourage them to buy more than they initially planned. Coupling complementary products may even create a better user experience for the customer. It’s a win-win strategy.

5. Stay in touch

After you make a sale, don’t forget about the customer. Send regular follow-up emails and offers to improve retention and sales engagement. Loyal customers are important assets to a company. Not only do they keep revenue coming in, but they also generate positive discourse about your business online and/or by word of mouth.

6. Use the right software

You can enhance every stage of your sales funnel process with sales technology and automated sales funnel tools. A software sales engagement platform like Zendesk Sell, for example, enables you to automatically capture and score sales leads, schedule and personalize email campaigns, and document all prospect and customer interactions.

Zendesk Sell also helps you guide and track potential buyers as they graduate from leads to paying customers. It even provides funnel reports and valuable pipeline metrics so you can measure and refine your process over time.

Sales funnel examples

B2B sales

Say there’s a SaaS business that sells a marketing automation platform. This company wants to attract and retain more customers through a streamlined sales pipeline process. It starts by displaying several Facebook ads to its target audience.

  • Awareness stage: The targeted ads appear to potential customers who are interested in relevant subjects while they’re scrolling through their Facebook feed. The ad is designed to draw their attention—and it does. The prospect becomes aware of the company, and after seeing several ads in a short time frame, they finally click on one. Just like that, this prospect is in the funnel.
  • Interest stage: After interacting with one of the ads, a prospect is redirected to a landing page with an option to sign up for an email list. If the prospect subscribes, they’ll receive free introductory guides on how they can use marketing automation for their own business. They download these guides and move further down the funnel.
  • Decision stage: Once they’ve signed up for the email nurture flow and received a few free resources, the prospect is offered a free trial of the automation platform. Sales reps will reach out to the prospect in hopes of converting them into a paying customer.
  • Action stage: The sales reps are successful, and the customer buys the solution. The sales reps also follow up to ensure a good customer experience, and the buyer makes repeat purchases. This is the bottom of the funnel.

B2C sales

Now, let’s map out a B2C sales example. Imagine a company that sells mountain bikes. It starts a campaign by purchasing ads targeting outdoorsy Facebook groups.

  • Awareness stage: The ads capture customers’ attention and guide them to a landing page, where they become aware of the company and its great products. On the landing page, there’s an offer for a 10-percent discount when a person signs up for the email list.
  • Interest stage: The company then sends a nurture email. Perhaps it describes what sets the bikes apart, or it offers a deal on complementary products like water bottles or helmets.
  • Decision stage: Customers are now incentivized to make a purchase.
  • Action stage: Online orders are placed! The company follows up with a customer satisfaction survey, which makes the customer feel heard and valued (and likely to buy again).

As you can see, the process is very similar for both types of businesses—there’s no need to overcomplicate it. The biggest differences are in the length of the sales cycle and the level of sales rep involvement.

Whether you’re a B2B or B2C company, effective sales funnels ensure you find and keep happy customers throughout the sales journey. Request a demo of Zendesk Sell today to patch up the cracks in your sales funnel.

Unlock a measurable sales pipeline

This free guide examines three vital steps to establish a measurable sales pipeline that drives repeatable, predictable sales growth.

Unlock a measurable sales pipeline

This free guide examines three vital steps to establish a measurable sales pipeline that drives repeatable, predictable sales growth.

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