[PMC Weekly Consulting Insight] Popcorn and toothpaste

Philip Morgan

Is selling your services more like popping popcorn or pushing toothpaste through a tube?

Hey, it's Philip, and I'm back with the last installment of a short series on the idea of CRMs. Not a how-to article on CRMs, but one on the thinking behind them.

No regular buying process

There are several reasons why a linear sales pipeline -- or even a choice between multiple linear pipelines -- doesn't fit how my business works. The first is that my clients have no regular, standardized buying process for what I sell.

The easiest way to conceive of a regular buying process is to think about a business that has a procurement function. This is a highly professionalized function that has processes, expertise, and performance metrics oriented around buying stuff. If you're ever dealing with procurement, it's because your client has (or believes they have) a regular buying process for what you sell.

I find that if you're selling consulting that facilitates change or innovation, then what you sell doesn't fit into a regular buying process. Your change/innovation consulting services are sufficiently exotic to your clients that they can't fit into their standard process for procuring services.

Your services may not fit a client's regular buying process. And in turn, they may not fit into a pipeline model very well at all.

I think popcorn is a better model for how these sales work. Your leads are all kernels of popcorn in a pan, exposed to the "heat" of your marketing. Some combination of that marketing heat and other factors cause a kernel to pop, resulting in a sales conversation.

Could you have known ahead of time which kernel would pop? Nope! What value would there be in that knowledge anyway? We know that if we apply the right level of heat for the right amount of time to a pan containing oil and popcorn kernels and we stir it enough, we're going to get delicious popcorn. Who cares which kernel pops first, third, or fiftieth?

High importance, low urgency (until it's not)

I think a lot about how where your clients might place your services on an Eisenhower matrix:

Services on the Important row are easiest to sell, or at least easiest to sell at a premium price. But services in quadrant A are hands down the easiest of all to sell because they combine importance and urgency. I have to believe that the cost structure of running a hospital emergency room is not the only reason those services are priced high relative to other medical services. I think it also has something to do with the combination of importance and urgency creating latitude for premium pricing. Rush pricing for client work is predicated on the same combination of factors.

You don't get to decide where your services land in the Eisenhower matrix; your clients do. You can try to use marketing to shift your clients perception of your services from one quadrant to another, but marketing's ability to create shifts like these is quite limited compared to reality's ability.

My clients see my services -- and other change/innovation consulting services -- as important but not urgent. Until, that is, they become urgent for reasons outside my control.

No amount of sales pipeline-ing can cause my services to become urgent for a client. No amount of willpower or "persuasion" on my part can cause my services to become urgent for a client.

Again, it's like popcorn. I'm doing my part by applying the right amount of heat and stirring to the pan, but factors unique to each kernel of popcorn (moisture level, etc.) determine when that kernel pops. If you're doing change/innovation consulting, these are examples of the kinds of factors that could cause a lead to "pop" and become a prospective client:

  • A competitor company gets some press for rolling out a new product. This triggers fear or anger in your lead and they say some version of "screw it, we need to act now" and reach out to you.
  • Your lead reaches some sort of breaking point and decides the pain of change is less than the pain of the status quo.
  • Your lead is new to a job where the expectation is that they'll drive some kind of change.

I think you get the picture. There's some triggering event that causes your lead -- who already viewed your services as important -- to also view them as urgent.

A CRM pipeline feature might be useful once a lead "pops" and becomes a qualified prospect, but before that point the pipeline feature isn't very useful.

Simple sale

Most of my services are a simple sale because the service is packaged and priced beforehand in a standardized way, so the sales conversation is usually not about creating a totally custom engagement for that prospective client, but instead checking for fit between the prospect and my well-defined service. After 30 to 60 minutes on a call, most prospects have enough information to decide if my services are right for them. This is another factor that makes my sales more like popping popcorn than like pushing toothpaste through a tube. The state change from lead to prospect to client is quite fast in most cases.

The complete opposite could be true of your business. You could frequently face a lengthy, complex sales process. Some of your prospects might have significantly larger potential value than others, meaning you have reason to prioritize them over the less valuable ones. Despite differing deal values, your sales process might look roughly similar across multiple clients. This is the pushing toothpaste through a tube sales model. In this case, using a CRM where the model of a pipeline is a central part of the CRM might make a lot of sense.

Weird CRM

Quick recap: three aspects of my sales process made CRMs that heavily use a pipeline model not ideal for my business:

  1. No regular buying process
  2. High importance, low urgency
  3. Short, simple sale

If you're thinking about starting to use a CRM, do consider how your typical sale works, and think about those three aspects of your sales process: Does it fit into a regular buying process? Where do your clients place your services on the Eisenhower matrix, and what implications for your sales process does that have? Is your sale short and simple, or lengthy and complex?

Most CRMs are designed for a somewhat lengthy but regular/standardized buying process, and if that's not how your services are sold, then those CRMs are going to be a poor fit. They'll feel clunky and over-featured. You'll be fighting them each time you use them.

This kind of thinking led me to Affinity, a CRM meant for VC/PE investors and commercial real estate agents. Here's a link to the product: https://www.affinity.co. That link, since I'm too lazy to monetize every drop out of my email list, is not an affiliate link (none of the links in my emails are affiliate links. See aforementioned laziness).

Affinity is a "weird" CRM for a consultant to use! It does have a pipeline feature but, critically, the product is not totally oriented around this feature. In Affinity, a pipeline is not a first-tier part of the data model.

Instead, Affinity is built around the assumption that your network is kernels of popcorn in a pan that you are "heating" through regular communication and looking for opportunities to join nodes of the network into mutually profitable deals.

I find this freeing. I can focus on my prospects' needs rather than trying to fit them into a standard buying process that doesn't really fit their reality. I can very easily spin up what Affinity calls lists to respond to known or emergent needs in my audience.

For example, I have 4 lists set up in Affinity, organized around the 4 main issues I help my clients with:

  • Seeking to specialize
  • Learning to generate leads
  • Seeking to cultivate deep expertise
  • Seeking to commercialize IP

As I become aware that people in my network are working on one or more of those issues, I'll add them to that Affinity list. And I'm starting to apply additional effort to helping the folks on each of those lists.

One of the ways I'm doing that is the free quarterly roundtables I invited y'all to a few weeks ago. Because I'm bootstrapping these roundtables, I invited folks on my Affinity lists and this entire email list, but once I've gotten this system up and running, I'll be able to fill those roundtables just from inviting folks on the Affinity lists.

Each quarter, I'll create 4 e-book "anthologies" of the best emails from my paid email list and send the relevant e-book to everyone on those Affinity lists.

This could be done with other CRMs for sure. But there's something about how Affinity is designed that makes this kind of focused "heating" of the "kernels" in my network easy to set up and execute. This is applying marketing "heat" in a more targeted way.

Lest this read like an advertisement for Affinity, I'll close by saying: choose tools that fit your business. Don't use Pipedrive or Copper or Salesforce or Affinity or whatever simply because it's what "everybody else" seems to be using. Understand how your services are best sold, then pick a CRM that fits that approach.

If you sell change/innovation services, it's especially likely you'll be poorly served by conventional CRMs with their elevation of the pipeline model to first-tier data model. Good luck finding an alternative! Despite the CRM category being incredibly, incredibly crowded (ex: PieSync currently supports 66 CRMs, G2Crowd has 381 entries in their CRM category, and Producthunt has 1,769 entries for CRM web apps), there aren't a ton of non-pipeline-oriented CRMs out there.

Happy Wednesday,


Here's what's been happening on my paid Daily Consulting Insights email list:

@TODO: Subscribe button