We all love the concept of a sales funnel. Maybe that's because it makes selling seem so easy. Your potential buyer shows some interest in your product or service and--whoosh!--they're spiraling inevitably toward that glorious state of sold.

Except, as much as we love that image, we also know that's not really how it goes. Leads appear and disappear for any number of reasons, both early and late into their supposed funneling.

"The classic sales funnel model is quite accurate, but only if you expect the funnel to be seriously leaky," consultant Peter Sandeen (@Peter_Sandeen) writes for KissMetrics.com. He proposes a new way of thinking about the sales process--one that's especially relevant in the era of e-commerce.

"The most useful model, I believe, is the conversion path that consists of all the steps people take before buying," Sandeen writes. "Instead of a funnel, leads start at the beginning of a road that leads to buying. All along the road, they can drop off, get lost, or start moving backward. So, make it easy--almost inevitable--to keep [people] moving toward buying."

With this in mind, use your web analytics to figure out where on the conversion path your leads are falling off before the sale, Sandeen suggests. For instance, you may find that, after using a free trial of your service, those trial users simply aren't converting into buyers at the rate you'd expect.

To keep your prospects headed toward a purchase, he advises, "build a bridge from the free trial to the paid subscription by scheduling one-on-one calls with trial users close to the end of their trials. During those calls, you could offer users a discounted price if they signed up right then. In other words, you'd be making it much easier to take the step from the free trial to the paid subscription."

The design team at inbound marketer HubSpot operates with something like Sandeen's conversion path in mind. Josh Porter, HubSpot's UX director, told Build that his team has identified three user moments on the company's website where conversion rates spike: downloading a white paper, clicking through to a pricing page, and calling the company. When a user does any of those things, Porter (@Bokardo) knows HubSpot has a white-hot lead.

Porter tells Build that, although analytics can help you optimize your conversion process, the old mantra of "lies, damn lies, and statistics" also rings true at times. "A person who really thinks they want your product will sit on your website for days but not end up purchasing. They'll tell you they want it, they just need one more thing to happen--like getting funding, convincing their manager, etc. These people are disqualified pretty quickly by sales folks, but from an analytics point of view, they look amazing."