Why it's time to ditch marketing funnels and sales pipelines
Despite all the changes in the marketing and sales landscapes, the two disciplines are still dominated by one concept - the funnel or pipeline. Is it time to replace them with a deep understanding of buyer journeys?
My premise is a simple one. Seeking to align marketing and sales has no validity and little benefit: it is the wrong goal.
I have read a great deal in the past few months suggesting that alignment of marketing and sales is a hot topic; a challenge that brings significant benefits for companies that master it. This is not a new phenomenon: back in 2010, Forrester research shows that only 8% of B2B companies surveyed say they have ‘tight alignment’ between sales and marketing.
The benefits of alignment are clear according to MathMarketing. Companies with strong alignment of sales and marketing find:
- A 67% higher probability that marketing-generated leads will close.
- 108% better lead acceptance.
- A 209% stronger contribution to revenue from marketing-generated leads.
Sirius Decisions report that B2B organisations with tightly aligned sales and marketing operations achieved 24% faster three- year revenue growth, and 27% faster three-year profit growth.
And in 2013, Aberdeen Group’s comparison of best in class companies showed those that align sales and marketing suggests that in Best-in-Class companies:
- 85% of marketing leads passed to sales are 'actioned' compared with 27% for average companies and 5% for laggards.
- Marketing’s contribution to the pipeline increases 22% YOY with only 7% increases for industry average performers and a miserly 1% for laggards.
- Marketing contribution to revenue rose 18% YOY compared with 6% for industry average and 0 for laggards.
Which CEO would not want results like that? Which begs the question - why do so many companies still struggle to get two critical parts of a company’s revenue engine working in concert?
I think there is a simple answer: deep rooted legacy thinking.
Everyone seems to agree that selling has changed; that buyers undertake much of the process themselves before ever contacting a sales person or even letting a supplier know they are interested. We are told that buying is now a team exercise with a host of reviews, team discussions and re-scoping exercises as the buyer’s knowledge grows. The result is a buying process that is iterative, not linear: a many-to-many relationship not one-to-one and based on value outcomes for the buyer, not just features and cost.
Despite all these generally accepted changes, marketing and sales is still dominated by one concept - the funnel or pipeline. The vast majority of companies still track names; leads; marketing qualified leads (MQLs); sales qualified leads (SQLs); opportunities and wins. This focus drives experts to advise us to agree on target buyers, a shared definition of leads and the metrics used to track conversion. We are told to map campaigns, content and sales strategies to these stages in the name of personalised engagement.
The problem with all this is buyers never see themselves in this way. They are focused on their decision and what it means for the company, their colleagues and their personal reputation. If they have stages, they bear no relation to MQL, SQL or Opportunity! And herein lies the problem. Companies are trying to track the progress of deals, not the people behind the deals and they using a framework and perspective that has no relationship to what they are trying to do; i.e. persuade them that they have a need that the products and services.
There is an answer: replace funnels with a deep understanding of buyer journeys as the basis for managing the customer acquisition process.
MathMarketing research shows that companies that “adopt the language of the buyer (“gap acknowledged”, “need agreed”, etc.) enjoy a further 28% lift in MQL closure rates and another 7% for SQLs over those who use their own sales stages.” The benefit accrues not from a simple renaming exercise but from the research and thinking required to identify the details of the buyer process.
If done properly (i.e. not a tick-in-the-box exercise), the research should identify:
- The roles involved in the buying process (all of them).
- The decision making process each role goes through.
- The outcomes they are seeking to achieve at each step of their decision making process, including how they feel about suppliers.
- The sources of information they value most.
Note that all these questions are about what the prospective customer does, not what the company does because until you know the former, any attempt to design the latter is, at best sub-optimal and more likely just plain wrong.
A note of caution: do not assume that your people know the answers to these questions. Experience shows that all too often what companies say potential customers want and what they actually want are quite different. Errors and omissions at this stage will amplify poor performance.
This deep understanding of buyer behaviour forms the basis for the design of the marketing and sales process. It informs what is required to support and progress the buyer through their journey, including:
- Nurture campaigns.
- Content strategy.
- Sales tools design.
- Sales messaging.
- Influencer strategy.
- Marketing and sales metrics, including feedback.
The tools and expertise for this already exists - it is the basis of customer journey mapping and experience design. In fact, one of the advantages of this approach is a seamless link into journey-based customer experience; an approach being adopted by a growing number of companies. If research is to be believed, chief marketing officers are set to take on increased responsibility for customer experience.
Starting in their own backyard is a great foundation for taking on this broader customer engagement role.
Is this shift from funnels and pipelines to buyer journeys just semantics? For those that just change the labels; yes. For those that do it in anger it is another important step on the journey to a truly customer-focused organisation.