The Buying Funnel

As marketing and sales professionals, we often talk about the sales funnel, especially in the business-to-business world, where a sale can take months or years to go from inquiry to culmination.  The sales funnel typically starts with initial contact with the prospect, proceeds through qualification, validation of need, possible solutions, proposal and closing the sale.  There are many versions of the funnel, but these are the fundamental stages.

What I find backwards about most sales funnels is that they do not usually synch with the buying funnel, especially in the early phases of the funnel.  With big-ticket items, buyers typically look at many options in terms of the type of products or services that will meet their needs.  Once they determine the best type of product or service, they consider a variety of companies that could provide that product or service.  So, in the early phases of the buying funnel, the buyer has a large number of companies under consideration.  This does not synch with the sales funnel approach because the sales person is qualifying the buyer before the buyer even knows what he/she wants, let alone which vendors to consider.

Add to this the complexity of team buying, which has become more prevalent in recent years, and you can see how the sales funnel approach can be misaligned.  Studies show that the higher the price of the solution and the more critical the impact on the company’s long-term profitability and survival, the more likely the buying decision will be made by a team.  The team buying approach also means more planning and coordinating for the prospect.

With all the emphasis on “client centric” these days you would think that more companies would focus on the buying funnel approach.  Yes, it takes more work because there might be a number of possible buying scenarios versus one sales funnel.  But by understanding the prospect’s buying funnel, you can determine when and how it is most appropriate to interact with the prospect.  In fact, asking about the company’s buying process might get the prospect thinking about the process.  If the prospect has not already thought about the buying process, you may be able to influence the process.  If the prospect already has a process, you will earn points for being sensitive to their needs.  Either way, you will be perceived less as a sales person trying to push your alternative and more as a partner able to support the prospect.  It demonstrates the type of partnership you will have after the ink on the contract dries.

Thinking about the buying funnel does not mean you have to abandon the sales funnel.  By understanding the buying funnel for the individual prospect, you can overlay a traditional sales funnel and determine when is the best time to implement a specific sales action.  Rather than rushing the process according to your time line (trying to close the deal as quickly as possible), you are customizing the sales process to the prospect.

I just talked to one of my clients about this.  They have a consulting engagement with one plant of a large manufacturing company and their internal champion is planning to discuss the company’s consulting services with other plants within the company.  One of the partners of the consulting firm is getting a little impatient because he feels the consulting firm should be in the initial discussions with the other plants.  But looking at the situation with a buying funnel perspective it is clear the consulting firm will get opportunities when the time is right.  The internal champion is assessing each plant’s need for the consulting services, and will bring in my client when the need is determined and the plant leadership is ready to move forward with discussions.  He is guiding the buying process and my client is adapting its selling process accordingly.


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