The Funnel Isn’t a Funnel: Embracing the Way Businesses Buy and the Changing Role of B2B Sales

clickdimensionsFor most B2B companies, the sales process and funnel has not changed much in the past few decades. Sure, there is a bit more sophistication around the top of the funnel with web visitors, marketing capture leads, marketing qualified leads and sales accepted leads — but the funnel still represents a linear path through a set of stages. While the funnel may not have changed, the way B2B companies actually buy has changed and today’s most effective B2B companies have revised their sales approach to match the actual process that today’s buyers follow to make a purchasing decision.

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Historically, salespeople introduced their company to potential customers with in-person meetings and phone calls. They would qualify leads, showcase their solution, provide follow-up and attempt to close a deal when the time was right — a seller-driven process. The entire sales funnel had a beginning, a middle and an end. It was linear. Binary.

Imagine a caveman with a big pile of coconuts. He’d crack each one open, and see if there was a sale inside. No sale? Throw it in one pile. Sale? Throw it in the other.

A lot of the operations that organizations put into place around the sales funnel are legacy from that time; they exist because sellers were in control of the information and could drive the buying process to suit their compensation plan. Sales managers drive their teams to hit quotas of new sales, reps get paid when deals close. Salespeople don’t waste their time with deals that won’t close — at least in this compensation period. All of it is built to construct short-term movement towards the closing of a deal. Why should a rep worry about a deal that might close next year? Who knows what the comp plan or territories might look like then? It is important to understand the impact of sales compensation on how companies organize their processes around a linear approach.

There is little thought or effort put into shaping a potential customer before they become a lead, and little effort given after they’ve converted to a customer.

But the digital era has fundamentally changed B2B sales in three fundamental ways:

  1. Sellers no longer have a monopoly on information. Buyers have almost unlimited access to more content to help them discover their pains, define their needs and research alternatives.
  2. Buyers have more competitive alternatives. Using digital technologies, competitors can reach buyers regardless of geographic location and hour of day. Buyers no longer are beholden to the seller’s appointment schedule; they can do their buying work whenever and wherever they want.
  3. Prospects are harder to reach. Cold calls don’t work. People don’t want to be interrupted, they don’t want to be sold and they are hard to engage. We know prospects are online, but it requires skills to find prospects who browse anonymously in a universe of websites and content. Buyers also are wary of all the spin. They put more weight on authentic customer reviews and trusted members of their social networks.

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From the sales team’s perspective, hope persists for potential customers to move quickly through the sales funnel. They still want to crack the coconut open and see if there will be a sale inside. But this attitude doesn’t align with how people today behave online. It ignores an important period of time during which potential customers observe and gather information.

Today’s first touchpoint with a prospect shows up in an analytics dashboard. It is a plus one on a page view count, an anonymous cookie or a click-through attached to a consumer email. They are visitors who bounced off the page and headed for another website. Often, they thought for a moment about a solution to their business problem and then did nothing for a month — or six. None of their actions move them into a sales funnel or qualify them as a lead under the current model. But their consideration of the business offering is actively taking root.

As they move closer to the traditional sales funnel, a potential customer researches social channels, seeks out other buyer experiences, reads reviews or gets a handle on pricing. Whatever actions they take, it involves collecting far more information about the business up front, long before they even fill out a form or contact a sales representative.

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The way we behave online in advance of a sale is fundamentally different than how we behaved in the offline world: now, the experiences of all of the prior coconuts — the sales and the non-sales alike — can help shape whether the next coconut will have a sale inside of it. The funnel is no longer linear, it’s not short and it’s not binary. The funnel isn’t even a funnel anymore. It’s an ecosystem.

To see this ecosystem thrive, we must rethink how we view sales, to better align it with the world outside of the sales office. We need to create fertile soil. Customers who have already purchased are more important than ever before. Sales representatives are still a necessary part of a B2B purchase, but they now exist to unite digital and human experiences by creating a coherent conversation and customer journey and driving a reputation for excellence that precedes customer contact with the brand. All of which is made easier by technology to orchestrate the full customer lifecycle.

Above all else, it’s important to cut down on the noise. There are a lot of companies out there that have not developed a clear voice about what their product is and whose problem they solve. Before the internet, a good salesman could help you overcome that problem. But now, if your value proposition doesn’t define your place in the market, and if your customer experience isn’t exemplary, potential buyers are one Google search away from a competitor who can deliver.

These changes are fundamental, and they are not temporary. The same forces of commercial gravity that created old-school sales departments and sales funnels are at work again, driving organizations to make better and more seamless digital experiences for potential customers.

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