The New B2B: Beyond the Sales Funnel

The B2B purchase process has changed. Learn how sellers can retain control of the purchase decision journey.

Do you remember the purchase process for a TV in 1995, the pre-Search era? What did consumers do, but jump into the car and head to the nearest Best Buy or Circuit City. They didn’t need to understand the latest brands or features. They might ask a few friends, but before very long, the consumer would go to the nearest store, where only then could he/she narrow the choices – with the help of a sales rep.

Back in 1995, the game started and ended inside “The Sales Funnel.” As soon as the customer “could have been convinced of the need for a product,” brand impressions would gather deep in the shadowy realm of the subconscious. Amalgams of overheard chatter, commercials, and previous shopping experiences would churn until the impulse to buy was finally, consciously realized. Those brands that marketers worked so hard to implant, the prized “evoked set” would bloom. From there, it was a straight sprint to the finish, as the small set of contenders was gradually narrowed down to 1, resulting in the final purchase.

NEW BREED OF B2B BUYERS

But this cookie-cutter approach to marketing and sales entails severe vulnerabilities in an IT-enabled world – particularly in the initial stages. Now, consumers tend to research the product themselves. This trend has affected B2B too. CEB estimates that 57% of the purchase process is complete before the average B2B buyer engages a supplier.

According to “The Sales Funnel,” the seller wheedles down the set of potential buyers. Those prospects that are not a good fit for the company, or who will go with a competitor are filtered out, and the end result is a set of winners. It is called a funnel because the number of optionsdwindles as the consumer eliminates options. But sellers no longer have the same degree of control. Terms of engagement are defined by the customer, and new contenders can enter somewhere in that large unknown 57% before the initial sales call.

Buyers are actively searching for objective information before they engage with a company. Questions might range from “What does the market look like, as a whole?” to “What are some examples of firms that have purchased and installed the product I am considering?” The search is also more likely to cross channels, not only in terms of device, but also span search engines, social media, webinars, blogs, and brick & mortar stores. Understanding and controlling all of these channels is unfeasible for most, if not all, companies. The best a company can do is let the buyer choose the platform.

McKinsey Quarterly dubbed this very different interactivity between businesses and customers: “The consumer decision journey.” As the name implies, the periodical (and many others) note that the power dynamic has shifted. This side of 2000, if we assume a competitive market, buyers drive the sales process. Buyers ask the questions, and marketers need to make the answers available.

Marketers have learned how to play ball in this 57% unknown territory – whether they rely on Twitter, Google, The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, on Gartner, or a privately commissioned survey/study. But has sales learned how to play in the 43%?

CAN BUSINESSES HOLD POWER IN BUYER-DRIVEN TRANSACTIONS?

Inherent in the name, “consumer decision journey,” is the implication that buyers have more power now. Without doubt, buyers are changing how companies sell; buyers decide when to engage, and in many cases, they choose the terms. But it is equally possible that the digital tools now available are retaking the hilltop by anticipating needs and price points.

Only instead of pricey advertising slots, marketers are using a rich combination of modern tools to synchronize efforts between Marketing, Service, and Sales and create personalized, data-driven offers that customers cannot refuse. Sure, the game is different; the rules have changed; but in a competitive market, advantage and disadvantage is created by a company’s ability to adapt.

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