Realigning sales funnel assumptions

LIsa Vitale marketing GuruRealigning sales funnel assumptions

Is it time to discard the traditional sales funnel?

A newly published Harvard Business Review article, “What Salespeople Need to Know About the New B2B Landscape,[i]” by Harvard lecturer Frank V. Cespedes and Gartner research VP Tiffani Bova provides some good fodder to those who think it’s time to shake up longstanding assumptions about the B2B sales process.

“For a century, buying has been framed in terms of moving a prospect from Awareness to Interest to Desire to Action (AIDA). The AIDA model and its variants are the basis for sales funnels at many B2B firms,” write Cespedes and Bova.

That funnel is supposed to measure and manage leads through qualification through to sale. But, they say, Gartner research indicates a new reality: “Rather than moving sequentially through a funnel, buyers actually work through four parallel streams to make a purchase decision.” Those four streams are exploration, evaluation, engagement and experience. The key to effective selling in this new era is understanding where in these four streams customers are and how to interact with them appropriately in that context.

That sounds like we now need to manage four funnels, rather than one, but it still doesn’t sound radically different than the traditional model. And, in fact, say Cespedes and Bova, the sales force is more important than ever, social media notwithstanding.

“Don’t believe the hype,” they write. “Sales people have not been replaced by digital, and providing relevant solutions remains key in most B2B buying scenarios.”

Noting that B2B buyers have to justify their decisions to others within their organizations, “you are naïve or spending too much time on your smartphone if you believe that a combination of economics, solution identification, product application, risk management, and political journey through the buyer’s organization is now handled predominately online in most buying scenarios and without knowledgeable and savvy sales help.”

What has changed, they point out, is the nature of reference selling: “In the past, a buyer might ask for references and that seller would cite a few satisfied customers. But through the web, customers connect with each other and get unedited versions of others’ experience through review sites such as bazaarvoice and PowerReviews, and they gain access to thousands of people at other companies who can share experiences and options through community sites such as SAP Developer Network and Marketo Marketing Nation.”

Also important, they add, are events, white papers and seller websites, all of which traditionally are the province of marketing and which are ratcheting up the traditional tension between that department and sales. Digital content, they say, makes selling organizations more visible and transparent to buyers, which disrupts the traditional inside-out funnel.

FunnelMany sellers will need to reconfigure selling processes according to the four streams, but Cespedes and Bova say that marketers and sales should not think we’re nearing the end of solution sales. “But it should be the end of glib generalizations about sales and selling, which remain complex, changing, and people-dependent activities in most B2B markets,” they say somewhat cheekily.


My take on this article is that it’s a well-thought our analysis of current trends in the B2B sales process, with a very important admonition not to get distracted by the hype and buzz over new marketing tools and theories. As they point out, “aligning buying and selling is a process, not a one-shot deal.”