Building a Customer-Centric Sales Funnel
As a marketer and design thinker, I find myself frequently reconciling two ways of thinking about connecting a brand with its target customer. The first framework is the classic ‘sales funnel’ that most businesses use. The second is the customer journey, which reframes how businesses view their purpose and their relationship with customers.
I often get asked:
- How are they similar and different?
- How do they fit together?
- How can they be used together to achieve business goals?
What I have learned is that by using both frameworks together, a business can achieve its goals without sacrificing what matters to customers. At the heart of any business is the customer—they are the reason your business exists, plain and simple. And yet many businesses find it difficult to be more customer centric.
In this article, we’ll break down the differences between sales funnels and customer journeys, and how to leverage them together for effective growth strategies and experience management, especially for B2B service-based companies.
Demand Generation Checklist
10 steps to growing your service business using a customer-centric approach to demand generation.
The Classic Sales Funnel
The funnel has been used for over a hundred years to describe the ‘hypothetical’ route by which prospects become customers by being ‘sold’ something. It is a familiar model of the business sales process where leads enter at the top and – hopefully – emerge as new customers at the bottom.
The idea and visual was apparently first used in 1904 by Frank Hutchinson Dukesmith, editor of Salesmanship magazine, as a guide for salespeople. His guide included four sequential stages — attention, interest, desire and action, which became the popular sales mnemonic AIDA.
This model has remained prevalent across the business world ever since. My favorite reference to AIDA was in the film, Glengarry Glen Ross – a great example of how much the profession of sales has changed for the good.
The Modern Marketing/Sales Funnel
The classic AIDA funnel only considers customers as initial purchase leads. But what if they want to continue buying? We certainly want them to, since it costs several times more to acquire a customer than it does to keep them.
The modern B2B sales funnel more closely resembles an hourglass, where after a customer is onboarded, would be retained and become a brand advocate (if all goes well).
Most B2B purchases are complex and multi-faced. Sure, online information has made it easier to research and learn about solutions. But at the same time, the number of solution options have multiplied. And, buyers are under increasing pressure to prove the ROI of their business purchases.
Here are the typical steps in a modern marketing / sales funnel that accounts for a more complete view of the process, especially for service-based, relationship intensive businesses.
Goals: Establish brand positioning, prioritize channels target customers most likely use.
This is the moment a prospective customer first discovers your brand, product, offer, etc. This stage is all about presenting a great first impression and story to position your brand memorably in the minds of target customers. It’s also about choosing the right mix of channels (search, social, influencers, PR) where your target customers are mostly likely to be, even if they aren’t ready to buy.
A lot of marketing effort is spent, and unfortunately wasted, at this stage without a good understanding of the target customer. Remember, 99.9% of the people in the world are not interested in what you’re selling. And, even within your target customer set, somewhere between 50% and 90% of them aren’t ready to buy. So, targeting and precision is key in the awareness stage. A great content-driven SEO strategy pays huge dividends at this stage because there is still opportunity to build awareness with people searching online to learn by asking questions. Basically, you want to be a great answer to their ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions.
Goals: Target high-intent prospects, move them from awareness to purchase.
Now it’s time to present some great reasons to consider your brand over the alternatives in the form of a clear and compelling value proposition. Look for opportunities to present your value proposition in the key moments and channels where your target customer is looking for solutions.
Here is where we can learn from Aristotle, who I credit for inventing marketing. Combine ethos (credibility), logos (facts) and perhaps most importantly pathos (emotions) to build a solid foundation of helpful content that positions you as the no-brainer choice. We say no-brainer because people decide what to buy based mostly on feeling, then justify the decision with facts. The decision has to ‘feel’ right.
Here again, a great content-driven SEO strategy pays huge dividends to capture clicks to your website from high intent keyword searches. Once they have discovered and are considering your brand, it’s time to begin nurturing relationships.
Somewhere between awareness and consideration is a great point at which to begin nurturing a relationship with prospective customers. Yes, relationship building starts long before the initial decision to buy. Most companies tend to prioritize their CRM efforts starting at the point of purchase, or maybe right before, i.e., when a hot lead comes in. However, this is a missed opportunity considering the large number of people who aren’t yet aware of your brand, but may still be willing to consider it for future purchases or recommend you to others. Give them plenty of reasons to feel good about your brand, and view you as a trusted, helpful resource.
In the consideration stage is also a great point to begin to qualify and segment prospects, assuming you have established contact with them. Businesses segment prospects in a number of ways, such as by product/service, geography, industry, etc., mostly to match how customers are segmented. However, it is a good idea to also segment your prospects according to their value and where they are in the sales funnel.
This means qualifying your prospects according to fit and readiness. For all your new prospects, segment them by the following two dimensions:
- How good of a fit they are for your business
- How ready are they to buy.
A great way to qualify prospects is to simply ask them the right questions along their path. This can be easily automated using web forms, with responses fed directly into a CRM.
For a B2B service-based business, these questions might look like this:
- What is your biggest challenge with [x]?
- How soon would you like to get started?
- Do you have any questions before getting started?
The questions you ask help your prospects think about their needs and potential solutions. But more importantly, they help you to focus your efforts on the most valuable prospects, and nurture those that aren’t yet ready to move forward.
Goals: Convert prospects, remove friction, make conversion as enjoyable as possible.
Once prospective customers have weighed their options and made a decision, it’s time to act, and ‘convert’ from prospect to customer. The first step is to present a matched offer that is right timed, and right for the target segment. Your offer needs to be at the right price point and bundle the right set of value for your target customer. Perhaps a discount may be in order. Or, a trial. This all depends on your product/service of course. A soft offer of free content might be the first step in converting a higher ticket engagement. The key thing is to have a baseline understanding of what might work based on what you know about your target customer, and what works in your field.
Once your prospect is ready to buy, present a great purchase and on-boarding experience, i.e., the new customer, or welcome experience. For a B2B service company, this includes the proposal and contracting steps. Many service providers look over this step, thinking it’s a done deal – it is not. This is just the beginning of what can be a long-lasting value exchange between you and your customer.
Also, look for ways to remove friction – un-necessary steps and clicks – in your request forms and onboarding and service experience. Add convenience where you can. Online payment and an account portal to complete transactions, share documents and enable easier project management are great examples.
Loyalty and Advocacy
Goals: Repeat business, reduce churn rates, build loyalty
Congratulations! Your new client is on-boarded, and you’ve begun their first engagement. Now, it’s all about providing a great service experience and solving issues that pop-up along the way. When done well, this part of the journey will go a long way toward turning your clients into brand advocates.
With the top parts of your funnel working to generate and convert new business, the emphasis now shifts towards retention and maximizing the value of each relationship.
The value of a customer relationship goes way beyond the transactional value of a contract. It also includes the potential for referrals, and the goodwill generated from testimonials and case studies, and they value those provide in use during the consideration stage of the funnel.
Here is also where you deliver on the promises you make in the upper funnel. Think of your brand as one part promise, two parts performance.
A lot of companies make the mistake of not including the service experience in their idea of a sales funnel. However, this is just the beginning of the customer experience and your return on investment from all the work you’ve put into acquiring a new account.
Don’t allow it all to go to waste by delivering a sub-par service experience. Sure, you never intend to, but that’s not the point. The point is that you have to plan for and have the tools and processes ready to go ahead of time.
First, the integrity and quality of your product/service offering should match (if not exceed) your offers. Second, provide a stellar service experience by responding to customer inquiries and addressing issues, as they come up. You customers will certainly reward you for making their lives easier and reducing their stress.
A Few More Things to Consider About Sales Funnels
Here are few more things you should know about sales funnels.
First, they don’t account for the entire thought (and emotional) process by which a customer will find and hire products that get their jobs done. That process starts long before the sales process defined by the company.
Remember, the following often cited statistics –
At least two-thirds of a B2B buyer’s journey is completed prior to them contacting the company.
80% of business decision-makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles versus an advertisement (Content Marketing Institute)
Second, your customer doesn’t really care about your sales funnel. The sales funnel (sales process) was invented by and for businesses, not for customers.
So, if you prescribe to Peter Drucker’s principle that there is only one purpose of a business, ‘to create and keep a customer’, as we do, then it’s important to understand the limitations of the sales funnel as guiding framework for how businesses design the experiences and relationships they intend to have with their customers.
Which leads us to the customer journey.
The Customer Journey
The customer journey is a more customer-centric way of thinking about the relationship between a business and its customers over time.
The ‘journey’ has always been there; however, digital innovations and an explosion of choice in products and information have significantly evolved the economics of how individuals interact with businesses and institutions.
The huge shift in power from businesses to consumers has also influenced how business and policy makers view the importance of understanding the customer’s point of view.
The customer journey is the most typical path that your customers take as they discover and decide on solutions that solve their needs, as well as the touchpoints they use as they interact with your brand throughout the entire relationship.
Note we said ‘typical’, and not ‘ideal’. This is because a journey is sometimes a function of coping with poor experiences. These instances represent business opportunities for those astute companies that pay attention and fill those gaps through innovation.
Some examples that come to mind include visiting the doctor, buying a car, ordering meals and getting a ride.
The journey is defined from the ‘customer’ point of view, not the business point of view.
One of the biggest differences between customer journeys and sales funnels is perspective. The journey is defined from the ‘customer’ point of view, not the business point of view.
Journeys are personal and specific to the context of the customer, and not as linear as sales processes are.
Consumers and B2B business buyers (most people are both) typically don’t buy products and services in a neat straight line assumed by the sales process. They get distracted, go down multiple paths and loops, and search using a wide variety of longtail inquiries.
They are influenced by the enjoyability and usability of the experience in the moment, and by what others they trust say. Advertising and sales messages don’t have the sway they once did on the nature of our customer journeys.
The journey your customers take may be very different than your sales process ‘assumes’ it might be, or wants it to be. The modern digital customer journey is evolving for many businesses to be less predictable than their sales processes were originally designed for.
This is because customers have so many choices of media and information, and so many ways to learn, long before a sales contact.
And, since the customer is in control during the majority of their journey, their behaviors and decisions are influenced more by their expectations and social proof, vs. advertising and sales pitches.
As with much of the interactions we have businesses, perception can be even more important than reality.
Businesses define their sales funnels usually without input from customers to suite the way in which they operate, which allows for a lot of control and ability to measure and tweak the process.
This works out great, until it doesn’t for your customer. Remember, the customer is a stakeholder in the process too.
Understanding and optimizing your customers’ journey is important because buyers control the majority of their purchase journey leading up to becoming a client, and the business only sees a small part of this.
And, after initial contract, the success of a long-lasting relationship is still largely dependent on the perception and satisfaction of the client, again largely out of business control.
If you focus only on internal process and touchpoints you will be at a competitive disadvantage to companies with a more complete understanding of the overall experience that shapes the decisions and viewpoints of your customer.
How to Combine the Sales Process and Customer Journey
At Bevelroom Consulting, we believe in an approach that works for the business and the customer. Why not balance customer empathy with business goals? Our approach to marketing brings in a healthy dose of design thinking that optimizes for both the customer experience and business outcomes.
At the heart of your business is your customer—they are the reason your business exists. And yet many businesses find it difficult to be more customer centric.
Only 14% of marketers say that customer centricity is a hallmark of their companies, according the CMO Council. The biggest barrier? Company cultures that put more emphasis on product and sales over customer experience.
Understanding and optimizing customer journeys requires a commitment to a more empathetic customer-centric approach to running your business. This requires generating a deeper understanding of the customer context for more personalized experiences and meaningful relationship building.
Journey research (customer research) is a different skillset than sales process development (operational process improvement). A customer journey analysis is best informed through direct input and observation from potential and current customers using research methods including contextual inquiry and open-ended interviews. Focus groups and surveys don’t really get the job done here.
Journey maps usually are not fully utilized because most businesses just don’t know how to reconcile what customers express in conversation with how their internal processes work. As a result, journey mapping sometimes gets a bad rap, because product managers, marketers and sales teams find it difficult to make the jump from a pretty graphic on a wall, to an action plan that actually moves the needle.
Customer journey maps are the tools we use to analyze and communicate the current and future states of the customer journey, and the gaps (business opportunities) in between. A journey map is a visual storyboard of your ideal client’s relationship with your business from their point of view.
It starts with key moments that trigger a need or recognition of a problem to solve, then progresses through engaging with your brand.
If done well, journey mapping can uncover powerful first principle insights into the motivations and attitudes of the people that make up your target market. Those insights can then be used broadly across the business, from overall planning and business model innovation, to product design and marketing strategy, or even operational process improvements.
Commit to Becoming More Customer Centric
The first step is to make an intentional effort to better understand the B2B buyer journey, and to put your customer first and at the center of your business. Brands that are committed to customer-centricity believe – and act as though – they exist to serve and delight customers.
B2B buyer expectations and demands have rapidly evolved in recent years. Your potential clients don’t want to be sold. They want to find answers to their questions easily, immediately and on their terms. They want to be listened to, helped and appreciated. They expect a personalized approach to professional services that caters to their unique needs and challenges.
If you want help boosting your customer IQ, get in touch!
Today’s B2B Buyers Have High Expectation and Pressure to Prove Value
Being customer-centric also means being empathic to your B2B buyer’s challenges. Most B2B purchases are complex and multi-faceted. Sure, online information has made it easier to research and learn about solutions. But at the same time, the number of solution options have multiplied. And buyers are under increasing pressure to prove the ROI of their business purchases.
According to Gartner, the typical B2B buyer makes a series of decisions, many of which can put a lot of pressure on their jobs.
These decisions include:
Problem identification. “We need to do something.”
Solution exploration. “What’s out there to solve our problem?”
Requirements building. “What exactly do we need the purchase to do?”
Validation. “We think we know the right answer, but we need to be sure.”
Today’s B2B Buyers Prefer to Conduct Business Via Digital Channels
According to McKinsey, more than 75% of buyers (and sellers) now prefer digital self-serve and remote transactions over face-to-face interactions. And this trend is accelerating in a post-pandemic world, not just because of safety, but also because of ease and convenience. Self-education, getting answers, placing orders, and scheduling services are all tasks made easier, faster and less expensive through digital tools. Video and live chat available via desktop and mobile device are two standout examples.
Re-think the Sales Process and Customer Engagements
To build a more customer-centric sales process, you may need to change how your sales team relates to customers. A great way to do this is to ask customers questions, and actively listen for opportunities to improve their experiences across the pre- and post-sales process. Use these insights as a starting to strengthen alignment between customer expectations and business objectives in every part of the company. Your sales process can serve as the catalyst for broader improvements that deliver more value.
Customer-centric selling isn’t just about closing a deal. It’s really about guiding prospects through a path to solve problems with expertise, openness and a genuine desire to help. Approach sales conversations as an opportunity to empower a customer to overcome an issue now or into the future, rather than just pushing an immediate deal. Customers will reward your recognition of their challenges and preferences with loyalty and advocacy that boosts long-term relationship value.
Use CRM to Be More Customer Centric
Implementing a customer relationship management (CRM) strategy, process and tool is a powerful way to improve your understanding of customer needs and expectations at the key points along the sales process where the most benefit can be gained. CRM and marketing automation enables the delivery of better experiences and generates real-time signals to optimize interactions. And CRM makes your sales team more efficient, which allows more time to dedicate to experience improvements. By automatically keeping track of customer statuses and interactions, your sales and support teams can jump in and answer questions or even nudge upsells.
The Benefits of a Customer-Centric Marketing Funnel
Being customer centric isn’t just about being nice, it’s also smart business strategy. Research by Deloitte and Touche found that customer-centric companies were 60% more profitable compared to companies that were not.
According to Salesforce, 80% of customers say that the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services. In addition, 95% say that they are more likely to be loyal to a company that they trust.
Accelerated growth and sales velocity.
Better insights about the customer journey leads to more opportunities to answer the right questions earlier and overcome obstacles to conversion.
More efficient use of resources.
Focus sales and marketing efforts on value-added interactions with prospects and customers in their key moments through automation of manual tasks.
Better experiences lead to improved retention and less churn. Building high-touch relationships and continually providing customers with the best resources will endear them to your brand.
Unlock innovation over time.
Understanding the foundational motivations of customer need and behaviors helps to solve current paint points as well as drive product and service innovations over the long term.
Is Your Sales Process Customer Centric?
At Bevelroom Consulting, we believe in an approach that works for the business and the customer. Our approach starts with generating fresh insights into your business and your customers’ journey. We combine several modern marketing practices including — design thinking, data insights, experimentation, growth hacking and smart technology — to help you grow your business.
If you’re an entrepreneur or business owner who’s looking to grow in a more customer-centric way, we’d love to speak with you.