I can still remember the powerful inspiration I gained from my first reading of Hugh Macfarlane’s “The Leaky Funnel” – the 2003 book that first drew the B2B sales and marketing community’s attention to the concept of the buyer’s journey.
Hugh was the one of the first people to clearly articulate a practical and effective framework for systematically identifying and addressing our customer’s problems rather than simply promoting our products, services or so-called “solutions”.
The strategy clearly works. So why is it, nearly a decade-and-a-half later, that so many B2B sales and marketing organisations still think in terms of driving a sales process (assuming they actually have one), rather than facilitating their prospect’s buying decision process?
Could one of the reasons be that most CRM vendors (including, shamefully, the market leaders) still default to using sales-stage based language in their out-of-the-box labels for the key stages in the opportunity pipeline? If it is an excuse, it’s a remarkably weak one – this only takes a few moments to change.
Of course, it’s not a technology problem – it’s a mindset problem. Most sales leaders, and many sales people, still see their world through the lens of a sales process. Please don’t take this the wrong way – having a defined sales process is way better than having no process at all.
It’s just that our efforts would be that much more effective if we based our selling activities around a deep appreciation of how our prospects actually make buying decisions, and if we believe that our most important role as a salesperson is to help facilitate our prospective customer’s buying decision process.
FACILITATING THE BUYING DECISION PROCESS
Of course, that requires that we break away from a conventional sales mindset. It requires that we develop a crystal-clear view of which organisations and which roles represent our best targets, and which issues represent our best opportunity to deliver uniquely relevant value to these customers.
It requires that we carefully monitor our prospective customers’ current situations, and that we identify the catalysts and trigger events that cause them to become dissatisfied with the status quo. It requires that we base our opportunity management around the key stages in our prospect’s buying journey.
And – of course – it requires that we are disciplined about targeting the opportunities we can win, and qualifying out the opportunities that are either never likely to do anything, or unlikely to buy anything from us.
I’ll acknowledge that no two customers end up behaving in precisely the same way (at least at the detailed level), and that the typical buying journey can vary according to the type of market and the nature and value of the problem and the potential cost of the solution.
Having said that, I believe that we can recognise clear patterns in the typical buying decision process for relatively high-value, complex B2B products and services – the sort of considered purchases that involve multiple stakeholders and can often result, after lengthy consideration, in a decision to stick with the status quo.
A TYPICAL BUYING JOURNEY
If that reflects the commercial environment that you typically find yourself playing in, I’d like to propose the following framework as a relatively reliable initial approach to managing your opportunity pipeline from the buyer’s perspective:
PHASE 0: UNCONCERNED
This is probably the situation most of your potential customers are in, most of the time. They are going about their business, addressing their priority issues, and keeping in touch with what’s going on in their industries, markets and functions. It’s just that the issues you happen to be really good at addressing are not currently on their radar – until and unless something happens to disturb their status quo.
The catalyst for change could be an external trend – or an internal challenge or opportunity – or a combination of the two. It might even be that you have been smart enough to draw the issue to their attention. But whatever the reason, something has clearly changed, and they are now ready to actively explore the issue…
PHASE 1: EXPLORING
Your prospective customer has now recognised that they may have a challenge they need to deal with, or an opportunity they need to take advantage of. Either way, they have concluded that they need to explore the issue, and that they need to both investigate the issue and identify potential solutions.
If and when (and only when) their initial investigations confirm that there is a clear cost of inaction and a compelling reason to act, your prospective customer is now ready to advance their buying journey to the next stage…
PHASE 2: DEFINING
Your prospective customer has concluded that there is a compelling reason to act, and has satisfied themselves that credible solutions are available. Now, their attention turns to defining their vision of a solution and agreeing what their decision criteria should be, what their decision process should look like, and who they need to involve.
It is essential that your sales people are actively engaged with the prospective customer during this critical phase. Once the prospect has established their vision of a solution, identified the options they ought to shortlist and how they will decide what to do, they are ready to move to the next stage…
PHASE 3: CHOOSING
Your prospective customer is now embarked on a serious evaluation of the solution options they have chosen to shortlist. It would be dangerous to assume that all the options under consideration are obvious competitors – they may be considering doing it themselves or entertaining the idea of a radically different approach.
The inevitable stakeholder disagreements need to be resolved, and once the decision team has narrowed their options down to one or a handful of acceptable solutions, and assuming they still believe that there is a compelling reason to act, they may now be ready to move to the next stage…
PHASE 4: VALIDATING
If the proposed purchase is of any significant value, it would be rare if your prospective customer did not have some concerns that they must resolve before they are able to move forward. These might be about the price or the contractual terms – or (more seriously) they may have reservations about doing business with your organisation.
They may want to talk to existing customers, or learn more about what will actually happen after the sale. Until and unless these concerns and reservations are addressed to their full satisfaction, it is unlikely that they will be prepared to move forward to the final stage…
PHASE 5: CONFIRMING
If the purchase is of any significant value, it is likely that it will have to be formally approved by a higher authority. At this point, your competition has shifted from alternative options to alternative projects, and there remains a real and tangible risk that they will decide to allocate their scarce resources to another completely different initiative.
Only if your project clears this final hurdle, will you finally be in a position to receive the order you have been hoping for (and may have already confidently been forecasting for some long-overdue date)…
Finally, let's not forget that the buying journey isn't over when the customer places an order on us. It's only over when the problem they set out to address has been successfully resolved, and they are happy with our "solution".
THE DYNAMICS OF BUYING
At any point, your prospect can (and frequently will) pause their buying decision process, revert to a previous phase, reassess their priorities or defer or abandon the journey altogether.
At any point, a new stakeholder may enter the decision-making process. Or a new requirement may emerge. Or a new priority may consume the prospect’s attention and divert their resources.
It should be obvious that there will always be plenty of reasons that are genuinely outside of our control that can affect your prospect’s buying journey.
THE CHOICES OPEN TO US
But it’s equally obvious that many of the reasons buying decisions get delayed or abandoned are entirely within our ability to influence. At every stage in the prospect’s buying decision journey, we face choices:
- We can choose to understand or ignore the decision dynamics
- We can choose to apply the strategies and tactics that have been proven to advance the buying journey, or we can ignore them
- We can cling to the false hope that a recent change has not upset the buying process, or we can acknowledge and address it
- We can hope that a weak champion will somehow miraculously bring their colleagues with them or we can seek a stronger sponsor
- We can cling to a poorly qualified deal that by any rational analysis is going nowhere or we can redirect our energies towards more promising opportunities
- Or we can blithely pursue our traditional sales process without proper regard for the prospect’s actual situation or priorities
We can move forwards with our customer, or we can fail without them. We can make the compromises that are often necessary to achieve mutual success, or we can pursue our short-term selfish interests.
We can continue to regard what we do as driving a sales process and we can cling on to out-dated bullshit concepts like “always be closing”.
Or we can embrace the realities of the modern buying environment and seek to understand, facilitate and embrace our prospect’s buying process.
I think you can guess which way I’ll be voting…
If you’d like to have a chat at any time about implementing buying-process-centric thinking in your own organisation, please drop me a line or book a call.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales and the founder of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, home of the Value Selling System®. Following a successful career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and corporates, Bob now works with a growing client base of tech-based B2B-focused high-growth businesses, enabling them to systematically establish their distinctive business value in every customer interaction.