In years gone by, the sales process was simple. We all learned about the so-called sales funnel: at the top, at the widest point of the ‘funnel’, was ‘awareness’. It’s at this stage where the prospect stumbles across your website or finds it through Google or an advert or a social media post or some other source. The main body of the funnel accounted for ‘interest’ and ‘decision’. Now that the prospect is actively seeking a solution for his or her problem, you engage him or her with your content. At the ‘decision’ stage, the prospect is deciding whether or not your offer is his or her solution. This is when he or she scrutinises the various packages you offer and you show what you offer that others don’t, whether that be reliability or flexibility or cheaper price or something else. Finally, we reached ‘action’, at which point the prospect finalises the deal, signs the contract or clicks the button.
But that’s no longer the case. Ad-blocking software saves users from ever seeing your business. Price comparison websites and social media reviews take power out of your hands. Inaccuracies and errors (and dishonesty) are exposed instantly. In the digital era and with the death of industrial advertising, fewer people are accidentally coming across your business. The sales funnel now resembles something more like a boiler or tank (or a snake after a large meal––we’ll let you choose your favourite analogy), with a narrow entry point, a narrow exit point and a large middle. Those who enter the sales ‘boiler’ may have been actively looking for whatever it is you’re selling, or may have arrived thanks to peer referrals, online communities or social media. The prospect might choose to make a purchase at any point once in the ‘body’ of the boiler and so keeping him or her interested, and ensuring a good customer experience, is essential.
Of course, marketers have lamented the coming demise of the sales funnel for some years now, but that’s not to say that things have become worse for businesses: they’re simply different. Those prospects entering the buying process are fewer, but they’re more focused, in part because they’re likely looking for what you’re selling and in part because data allows you to cater more to their wants and needs. Both Hurricane Media MD Jon Mowat and Nick Watt of Digital Doughnut say that delivering a good customer experience through varied, relevant and useful content has become key in keeping customers interested so that they make the purchase. Thought leadership content, Watt says, will ensure the prospect stays engaged with your business; Mowat suggests that video will inspire the sort of emotional connection which might just prompt the customer to pull the trigger, so to speak, and buy the product.
Not everyone agrees that the sales funnel is dead. Mark Ritson at Marketing Week, for one, argues that the sales funnel still exists; what’s changed is the consumer’s ability to recognise the steps in the process when she buys something. After all, Ritson says, the sales funnel only charts the customer’s journey, not the tactical attempts of brands to influence it. And he adds that since its conception in 1898, the sales funnel has stubbornly withstood the perceived attempts of television, direct mail, telemarketing and numerous other inventions to influence it. Ritson is in the minority, but that’s not to say he’s alone. Mark Bonchek and Cara France, writing for the Harvard Business Review, are more conservative in their assessment, which is that the funnel can no longer be relied upon.Perhaps there’s another perspective: that the sales funnel isn’t dead, as Ritson claims, but that the sales boiler also exists, and the two sit alongside one another. Take a competitive and reasonably expensive product such as a coffee machine, for instance. The prospect knows that she wants one, but she isn’t sure which model to buy and so she reads reviews and looks at price comparison websites and, eventually, she chooses one. This customer journey is more suited to the boiler than the funnel. But now consider an original or exclusive product with few (if any) real rivals. An advert on Facebook or a sponsored article on a news site might alert the prospect to the product, and that prospect might decide it would solve a problem he was having. And then, he would take the ‘traditional’ customer journey, represented by the sales funnel, and buy the product.
Whichever camp you fall into, the important thing to note is that the process of marketing and selling has changed dramatically. If you don’t want to fall away from the competition, you need more than ever to deliver a personable, emotive and, most importantly perhaps, memorable customer experience.