Accelerating funnel growth is a top priority for most B2B leaders. In fact, a recent survey by Forrester Research,* Inc. found that 81% of global B2B marketing decision makers measure the effectiveness of their marketing programs based on revenue impact. In other words, marketers realize that they can’t just focus on brand awareness or cost per impression. Marketers are expected to deliver revenue, plain and simple. For many, this means doubling down on their existing funnels.

However, increasingly more sales and marketing leaders are choosing to leave the funnel behind, and instead view their customers in the context of a journey.

Abandoning the funnel isn’t easy, especially when departments, legacy systems, and data sets are misaligned. Let’s explore why this is the case and how your company can take steps toward a journey-first mentality.

Why the funnel is so enticing

There’s no question that the funnel is still a common concept in business. How did this come to be? What makes the funnel so attractive to business leaders?

Here are a few possible explanations.

Funnels are easily understood

Sales and marketing leaders aren’t paid to maintain the status quo. Rather, they are expected to develop innovative strategies for maximizing revenue and profitability. With this in mind, it’s understandable why the funnel became such an important element of many sales and marketing playbooks. Marketing to tens of thousands of potential customers is daunting, and the funnel offers a relatively convenient way to categorize an otherwise unmanageable list of people.

Funnel groupings seem nice and tidy

Although the specific stages of each funnel will vary between organizations, the basic concept remains the same. When a new lead becomes aware of your brand, he is said to be at the top of the funnel. As he progresses toward a purchase, the lead theoretically passes through several sequential stages. The very bottom of the funnel represents a sale.

From the company’s perspective, the funnel can seem very helpful for forecasting demand, allocating marketing resources, implementing promotional campaigns, budgeting for fulfillment and capacity, and countless other important processes.

Some customers actually make it through the funnel

It’s true that some customers progress through the buying process exactly as you would hope. They learn about your brand through paid advertising or organic search, download some whitepapers, ask for a demo, and then send their purchase order.

That being said, customers who follow your desired path to purchase are the exception, rather than a rule in today’s landscape.

Why funnel vision overlooks the customer

Funnels tend to have self-serving motivations. Of course, companies should seek to understand how customers interact prior to purchase, which is what a funnel attempts to represent. Unfortunately, in today’s world of social media, review sites, mobile phones, private browsers, and retargeted ads, categorizing a typical customer into any one particular stage of the funnel is increasingly complex, if not impossible.

Why are funnels increasingly unreliable in today’s economy? Here are a few reasons I’ve witnessed firsthand as a consultant.

Funnels aren’t actually nice and tidy

The funnel concept presupposes that leads advance from one defined stage to the next, inching ever closer to an eventual sale.

The problem with this line of thinking is twofold. First, as any marketer will tell you, it’s practically impossible to know (for sure) where any lead is at in today’s buying cycle. Web analytic systems typically report anonymous or semi-anonymous data, making it difficult to know where the leads in your CRM actually came from. As a deal transitions from marketing to sales, the process becomes even more complex as additional stakeholders and decision makers get added into the mix.

Second, the funnel seems to completely ignore those leads who do make a purchase. By its nature, a funnel only has two openings (the top and the bottom); yet, leads who fail to buy don’t exit through either point. It seems that lost leads exit through some type of “funnel osmosis,” creating a significant amount of guesswork for your CRM administrator. Should a disengaged lead be marked as lost? If so, when? The funnel mentality struggles to answer these questions, creating additional inaccuracies in your funnel’s metrics.

Department-specific funnels trump the larger funnel

Unless your organization is very strategic about sales and marketing alignment, there’s a good chance that informal mini-funnels will develop and trump your company’s overall funnel. For example, let’s assume that your acquisition funnel places customers in one of four primary (and somewhat generic) phases:

  • Top of funnel: people recently acquainted with your brand
  • Mid-funnel: people who have given you some type of contact information
  • Bottom of funnel: people who have expressed interest in your product
  • Sale: people who are ready to buy

These categories are so generic that your sales and marketing teams have to create their own department-specific funnels to perform their day-to-day tasks. For example, your sales team might have its own funnel that groups prospective customers as follows:

  • Uncontacted marketing leads
  • Qualified sales leads
  • Negotiation
  • Contracts
  • Close-won

In this situation, the sales team comes to rely on the marketing team’s funnel for leads, and the marketing team comes to rely on the sales team’s funnel to keep their jobs. Trouble is, each funnel operates independently from the other, causing internal confusion and experiential gaps for the most important stakeholder – the customer.

Getting caught up in funnel misalignment is not an enjoyable experience. A few years ago I was shopping for a new(er) vehicle. After considerable research, I identified a dealership that advertised an amazing price on my preferred model. Prior to making the 45-minute drive, I called to confirm that they still had several in inventory. Their marketing funnel worked like clockwork, but, sadly, it was all an illusion. After arriving, the sales representative informed me that they had already sold all of specially priced vehicles. I felt duped and never went back to that car dealership. I also made sure to share my experience with everyone I knew. So often, like in this case, the cost of internal misalignment extends beyond the loss of one immediate sale.

Post-transactional interactions are often an afterthought

Perhaps one of the most glaring issues with funnel vision is that it completely ignores what happens after the sale is made. Assuming even a flawless funnel experience, the reality is that the customer drops out the bottom into an empty void.

Granted, many organizations have well-structured customer support programs that ensure a seamless transition. But do these programs fully capitalize on customer lifetime value? Do they keep the customer informed of new products or services that solve their latest challenges? Or, do they simply keep customers adequately satisfied until a better solution comes along? Outside of the context of a customer journey, it’s hard to know for sure.

Overcoming “funnel vision”

Don’t feel too overwhelmed if your company seems hopelessly stuck in funnel vision. Remember, overcoming funnel vision is a continuous process that requires an internal cultural shift. The good news is that there are steps you can take to accelerate change.

Learn from your existing funnel

Completely abandoning your funnel on day one is not a prudent decision. After all, it has taken years to develop into its current form and could serve as an excellent springboard for the journey map that you’ll soon develop. Despite your funnel’s flaws, it most likely contains valuable details about pre-sale interactions, common deal progression patterns, and key terminology that is highly relevant for understanding the customer journey.

Gather input from your teams

Ask your sales reps, marketing team, and success team to anonymously share their feedback about the customer lifecycle. What is working from an acquisition standpoint? What processes are broken? At what stage do most leads drop? Which systems need to be streamlined?

Don’t be surprised if you hear comments like this:

  • “The lead handoff process is broken between marketing and sales.”
  • “Sales doesn’t follow up quickly enough with web leads.”
  • “Leads from social media are not ready to buy our products.”
  • “Small accounts seem more likely to request support.”
  • “Customer success feels left out of the planning process.”
  • “There’s a disconnect between our CRM, marketing automation system, and support ticketing app.”

What is the purpose of this exercise? For starters, there’s a high certainty that the feedback will validate what you already know. That is, the funnel isn’t an effective way to structure your customer management process. In addition, you may discover key insights about how prospective and existing customers interact, where they interact, and why. All of this information is vital for pivoting to a customer journey focus.

Simplify your data structure

It’s hard to move toward a customer journey focus when all your relationship and interaction data is spread across dozens of disconnected systems. Although you may not be able to completely eliminate certain data silos, you can begin to simplify your data structure.

Take a fresh look at the systems that staff use to collect customer information and determine whether or not they’re actually necessary. For example, does your CRM offer built-in email marketing functionality? If so, consider eliminating one system and simplify around a single source of truth. Or, at least try integrating the two systems to achieve a more accurate representation of each customer’s journey.

Also, it’s important to periodically reevaluate the data that makes it into your systems. Do you really need thirty custom fields for lead records? Is this information helping you, or is it just adding unnecessary clutter and complexity to your system integrations?

Start aligning around the journey

As we’ve already established, shifting to a journey mentality isn’t an overnight process. An effective transition starts with proactive alignment at every level of the company, including at the operational level. Although change can be slow to take root, you can help accelerate change by framing customer conversations in the context of a journey (rather than continuing to perpetuate funnel vision).

Citing independent, third-party data (such as this report from Forrester Research) can help awaken others to the validity of the customer journey. Also, find creative ways to leverage your own firsthand analytics, such as customer churn trends and conversion rate data. Such metrics can bolster your advocacy of the customer journey concept, serve as an effective benchmark for goal setting, and help you track the impact of a “journey-first” approach.

Get visibility into your customer’s journey

I hope you’re enjoying this multi-part series about the customer journey. My next post will dive deeper into the customer journey and explore potential impacts to your business — both in terms of day-to-day operations and revenue performance.

Read part one of the series: What does customer journey mean?

*Take L2RM To The Next Level With A Pivot – From The Funnel To Your Customer, Forrester Research, Inc., December 18, 2018