Sales funnel aligned with the customer’s buying journey
The buying journey funnel is an essential tool for any sales team. The funnel structure is based on the journey the customer follows until they conclude a purchase with the company and helps sales teams align their activities with the customer’s needs at each point in time. Funnel management, also called pipeline management, includes the management of all the business opportunities of a company in the different stages and allows the analysis of the sales potential, closing speed, number of opportunities, success rates, and the likelihood of reaching or exceeding the sales target set for a given period.
Evolution of the sales funnel to the buying journey funnel
Over the past few years, there has been an evolution in the way companies manage sales activities. As the focus shifted to the customer, the funnel had to evolve into a funnel based on the customer’s buying journey. The traditional funnel, based on the sales process, kept the customer in the background. In a buying journey-based funnel, the focus is on the customer’s buying process, thus making sales tailored to the customer’s actual needs.
If the funnel is based on the buying process, it is easier to understand where a customer stands concerning the buying decision:
- Who is involved and what is their role in the buying process?
- Who is more influential? Who has greater authority?
- What is the moment of decision?
- What are the motivations of the people involved?
- How much is available for the purchase?
- What is the criterion for deciding the solution?
In a traditional sales process the stages of the sale are defined, the focus is on the salesperson’s activities, and the milestones of the process are the salesperson’s activities. In a traditional sales process, the stages of the sale are defined, the focus is on the activities of the salespeople, and the milestones of the process are their activities.
In a funnel based on the customer’s buying journey, the customer’s buying stages are defined, the focus is on customer engagement, and there is an awareness that the salespeople’s activities have to be aligned with the customer’s buying process in order to best support them.
What are the objectives of a buying cycle funnel?
The main objectives of implementing a buying cycle funnel are:
- To optimally support the potential customer’s buying journey all the way to the closing stage, while aligning the sales process with the customer’s buying process and setting a standard for each stage of the funnel
- To define the tools to be used at each stage of the customer buying journey so that the approach with the customers is consistent
- To know how each opportunity is progressing, by defining key milestones that check whether a stage of the purchase has been completed, and to act whenever the process takes longer than expected
- To be able to know at any time and with precision what is the capacity of the funnel to close new deals in order to achieve the sales target defined for a given period;
- To provide a known success rate for all regions, territories, teams, and salespeople;
- To have indicators always available that allow you to anticipate problems, act proactively, and continuously improve
- To enhance the ability to train and coach on the customer buying journey and also to provide coaching in a structured way for the continuous improvement of the skills of salespeople and leaders
What is the structure of the buying cycle funnel?
A funnel based on the buying process, is structured in different stages, which correspond to the stages that customers go through during their journey. Example of a funnel structure:
In this phase it is important for the salesperson to get to know the business well and learn what needs and problems there are in the organization. It is required to find someone who has already identified a problem or to help someone else identify a problem/need. Knowing the business and market situation well will help to find and understand the problems better and faster.
These are examples of questions to ask the potential customer at this pre-funnel stage:
- Can you tell me about this system and how it is used?
- How does this part of the business affect this other department?
- Can you tell me about the processes you use and how effective you believe they are?
- Are the current required skills sufficient to succeed in the chosen path?
- What are the short-term goals? What are the key indicators you use to track progress toward these goals? Are these challenging or conservative objectives?
- What kind of obstacles have you identified to achieving your goals?
After understanding the current situation, the vision of a better future should be shown, and some best practices related to the customer’s problem should be shared.
The customer recognizes the problem
At this stage, in which the customer recognizes the problem, it is necessary to learn as much as possible about the need.
Some examples of questions to be asked:
- For how long has the problem been around?
- How has it been evolving?
- Does everyone share the same view with regard to the problem?
- Who does not see the issue as a problem? What is the influence of this person(s) on the organization?
- Has anything been done to try to solve the problem? Was it effective? What is the reason why nothing has been done to try to solve it?
- Who is affected by the problem? And to what extent?
It is also at this stage that the salesperson must realize what the personal gain is in solving the problem while building trust and credibility.
The customer defines the business impact of the problem
The tangible proof that the customer is at this stage, is to hear the customer talking about the dollar value that this problem is costing.
A problem that costs the company money gets attention, and it’s always easier to justify spending time and money on solving it than on problems that cost the company nothing.
The customer must have enough information to justify committing to the investment. One has to know how much the problem is costing the customer.
These are examples of questions to be posed:
- What is the cost of the problem to the business? Is it acceptable? Who in the organization does not find it acceptable?
- What is the way to find out a little more about the problem in order to quantify it?
The goal is to help the customer measure the impact of the problem on the business and thus also learn more about its needs.
The customer secures investment
At this stage, the customers, through the person who is authorized to decide on the investment, must say that they are really considering making a change: “We know there is a problem impacting the business, we realize that solving it involves an investment, and we are willing to make it happen.” In other words, the tangible proof, is to hear the person who can authorize the investment to solve the problem say so.
But sometimes it is not so obvious, or so easy, to reach that person, or to get that information. If the customer has secured financing, but top management wants to know more about the true cost of the problem or consequences of doing nothing, the salesperson should offer to help the company better understand their situation so they can make better decisions regarding what to do.
The salesperson has to be willing to work with the customer’s team to gather the right information and continue to help the customer see what the solution should include.
The next step is to identify the criteria that make up the set of needs and requirements.
The customer defines decision criteria
At this stage, the salesperson must look for evidence of what the customer is looking for, i.e. the specific needs and requirements agreed upon by the customer. It is possible that there is a requirements document that can be shared. There can also be a Request For Proposal (RFP).
If one is entering the sale only at this stage of the game, any of these situations have likely happened:
- Some competitor company helped the customer to write the RFP
- Or, the customer has used their own efforts to determine for themselves what they need and how they will evaluate the solution
Either of these two situations is not a favorable position. The ideal is, whenever possible, to help the customer define the requirements and evaluation criteria.
Example of the approach to follow in case one is just entering the process:
- We appreciate the invitation to submit a proposal so that we can help you achieve your goals. Given that we were not part of the recognition of the problem, its consequences, and the construction of the RFP, it would be important for us to meet with the people who contributed to the RFP, in order to understand what is important to them and why. Would it be possible to schedule a meeting?
If the customer does not allow you to have these meetings, you need to evaluate whether it makes sense to submit a proposal.
The customer evaluates solution alternatives
The tangible proof at this stage, is usually the closing of the RFP process. The focus for the customer is to evaluate what is in front of them, so the way the proposal is delivered is very important.
A proposal is a formal response to a defined set of needs or criteria. Through the proposal, we state how we will respond to the identified needs. A proposal should be seen as another point of dialog between the company and the customer, but it should not be seen as the end of the sale.
You can use the proposal to promote dialog and help the customer get closer to the solution. One should not send a proposal and expect it to be sold on its own. It must be presented and discussed with the customer, and for the proposal to have the right impact, the right people need to be at the proposal presentation.
The customer selects the supplier solution
Tangible proof is usually the customer shutting the door on any meetings and dialogs after the proposal has been delivered and presented.
The customer has seen what he needs to see and now it is up to him to make a decision. In most companies, once this stage is reached there is not much that can be done. The solution has been presented and hopefully, a strong link has been built between the customer’s needs and the solution presented.
At this stage, it is more about what not to do. It is tempting to call, email, and inquire during this period, but it is important to be patient and avoid being too pushy so as not to hinder the customer’s decision process.
Ideally, you have a contact within the company to whom you can turn in order to find out if any decisions have already been made.
At this stage, the customer engages contractually. It is important that this moment arrives to signal the end of the sale.
In certain situations, some follow-up by salespeople is still required, such as ensuring delivery of products or services or other types of tasks, but in reality, the sales closing process ends there.
How to implement the buying cycle funnel?
The main steps of implementing a funnel based on the buying process are:
Vision design and scope
Having a vision for the sales team shows that the company is more than just products and services.
A vision helps to decide:
- the way you will do business
- the necessary skills and training
- the investments in people, processes, and technology, and how to measure the impact all this has on the business
Once the vision is defined, it is easier to set the tangible objectives needed to achieve it.
Selling the team the idea that the buying cycle funnel is the best way to achieve sales goals consistently will make the team more prone to embracing the vision and committing.
Regarding the scope, it is necessary to define which funnels to develop taking into consideration how the business is run (by geography, by business unit, by product, or a combination of these). For some types of companies, there may only be a single funnel.
Many sales teams do not have a defined vision, but most have well-defined sales goals. Usually what fails is the connection between the process and the sales objectives. The buying cycle funnel can be seen as this link between process and goals.
The funnel enables the organization:
- To know at any time of the year what is the probability of achieving the planned goal
- To be capable of changing sales strategies quickly if the funnel is not able to achieve the planned goal
- To know if the business is above the planned goals and to predict if it will be able to meet the demand
- To find out if the funnel is dependent on a few customers and if it is necessary to diversify to lower the risk
Funnel design and creation
A funnel defined by the customer buying process, is the precise description of what should happen in sales activities. The process of drawing the buying journey funnel provides valuable information about the sales approach and environment.
A successful pipeline management starts in the design of the buying cycle. The cycle differs from company to company, both in duration and in the stages that compose it. The longer the buying cycle, the more important it is to have a funnel and to manage it well.
The funnel must be in a specific location, either a physical location or a digital one, such as an Excel file or a CRM . Each salesperson should be able to insert an opportunity into the funnel and update its status at any time autonomously. The funnel must always be available for consultation, and so must the associated indicators.
The CRM platforms facilitate the funnel management process, allowing the data and indicators to be centralized, updated, and always available to all the teams.
Definition of usage and training standards
Implementing a funnel management process means changing paradigms and adopting new habits. The more standardized the process is, the more easily people understand the expectations of how it should be used.
The definition of usage standards involves the selection of funnel indicators and meetings for monitoring them.
Good indicators provide valuable data for analyzing and managing the business. Many traditional sales reports are of limited use for sales management as they are indicators based on the past. To manage the business, it is necessary to have dashboards of the buying journey funnel, with the most important indicators that allow for proactive management, that is, that also look to the future. The indicators should allow us to quickly see the ability of the funnel to reach the defined goal.
Having the indicators set up, it is time to normalize the meetings. It is necessary to have the right dialog around sales opportunities. It is important to have a scheduled time to discuss the prospects in the funnel, analyze where the opportunities are in the customer’s buying process, and create sales strategies to move the opportunities forward to the next stages.
In this step, it is also necessary to define the standards for updating the funnel.
One-to-One meetings implementation
A One-to-One (O2O) meeting is a structured meeting about the funnel and should not last longer than an hour. These meetings should be held at the various levels within the sales team, for example, sales director with each of his team leaders, and team leader with each of his salespeople.
These meetings need:
- To be done through a coaching process, giving the team leader/salesperson another perspective and challenging them to ask the tough questions
- To have an action plan per salesperson and per team leader to track the funnel
- To include a skills development plan per salesperson and per team leader
The objective is for teams to stop being reactive and become proactive, anticipating possible problems and defining strategies to avoid them. Salespeople need to focus where they add value: on selling.
The most important question that the salesperson should ask several times throughout the year is: “What is the current capacity of the funnel to close enough sales to meet the year’s goal?”.
These meetings should be coaching sessions, which are defined as a dialog between the coachee and the coach, in which the latter seeks to help the former find solutions for their growth.
Coaching allows you to develop the link between current performance and expected performance and is a means of developing new ideas and action plans.
In these sessions, it is a mistake to overwhelm salespeople with pages and pages of feedback. Trying to simultaneously train a salesperson in several skills leads them to develop none. You should identify the skill that has the greatest impact on the salesperson’s performance, and customize a coaching plan around developing that skill.
Sales team leaders should use metrics to diagnose which skill to develop.
Funnel effectiveness measurement
A big part of the premise behind achieving world-class funnel skills is to have a sales goal, so it is essential to have that objective in mind. Generally sales targets are annual, so it is likely that during one time of the year there will be two funnels in parallel.
The funnel implementation process is only complete when the effectiveness of the funnel is measured. It is necessary to measure the evolution of indicators over time and understand whether funnel management efforts are paying off and which areas need more attention.
Good funnel metrics require constant updates of opportunities by salespeople, otherwise, the forecast and sales metrics are unreliable.
The funnel metrics should be based on the length of the sales process and the specific closing (conversion) rates that are required to generate sales. Clearing opportunities is important for funnel metrics. If there is rigor in eliminating missed opportunities, the funnel is not overestimated.
Main indicators of the funnel:
- Total Viable Revenue (TVR) = Value of all viable opportunities in the funnel ($)
A sales opportunity becomes viable when it moves into the ” Secure Investment” stage. It is a significant stage in the customer’s buying process. Viable means, sufficiently developed. It means that the customer will most likely buy, from us or from a competitor.
- GAP = Sales Target ($) – Sales Year To Date ($)
- Funnel Factor = TVR / GAP
The ideal value of the funnel factor varies from company to company because it depends on the closing rate of the funnel, i.e., the ability to convert opportunities into sales.
In addition to these indicators, there are others, such as those that measure purchase lead time, conversion rates, etc.
More than a place to register prospects, the buying journey funnel should be a strategic tool for the business because it allows the team to know precisely what is the next step to take in the relationship with a prospect and contributes to the identification and prioritization of customers with greater buying potential. It also facilitates the follow-up of all the company’s prospects, preventing any from being left aside, or not being followed up effectively along the buying journey.
The buying journey funnel allows you to offer the correct information at the right time to the potential customer, increasing your relevance and, consequently, the likelihood of selling more. With a well-managed buying funnel, you can increase the productivity of sales teams, reduce sales cycle lead time, eliminate bottlenecks, continuously improve the process, react proactively, and increase sales.
When the buying cycle funnel is used in association with other techniques such as Value Selling, Waste Elimination approaches, and a good Work Planning method, the gains are staggering.
This article is based on the methodology presented in “The funnel principle” by Mark Sellers.
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