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So the Nature of the B2B Buyer Is Changing? So What?: Understanding the New Sales Funnel Via Meg Heuer of SiriusDecisions

by: Adam Needles (@IBMforMarketing)
25 September 2009

Yesterday I published a piece on my personal blog, Propelling Brands, that tackled an important area of inquiry: It's clear that B2B marketing is rapidly evolving; more recently, the dialogue has shifted to re-framing this evolution around what is a changing nature of the B2B buyer. This is a given. "But where is the hard data that this evolution is really occurring?" I asked. "We're changing how we go to market -- and there is plenty of data pointing to shifting spending by marketers -- but how do we know that our shifted spending will better align with B2B buyers' shifting needs and preferences?"

The Propelling Brands piece thus presented a 'bread basket' of proof points from recent data and research findings by firms including Enquiro, Forrester, MarketingSherpa and SiriusDecisions and really supported the thesis of how B2B marketing is changing. The major points of synthesis are that B2B buyers:

> Are increasingly turning to online sources, earlier in their process, to research purchases before ever calling a 'live' sales rep

> Are increasingly leveraging social media -- especially peer communication, such as Twitter, blogs, etc. -- in the information collection phase of the buying process

> Are pursuing their buying process more 'massively multi-channel' than ever before; however, channel weightings and their sequence vary by the phase of the buying process

> Manifest themselves more than ever as a complex, savvy 'buying unit,' rather than simply as a single decision-maker

But what are the implications for B2B marketers of this changing environment?

My post today will dig into implications and leverage insights from a leading analyst who has been closely following the changing B2B marketing dynamic.

So What?

If you are a regular reader of the Demand Generation blog here, you know this dialogue thread has been the focus of several of my past blog posts. Most recently, I've talked about implications for managing your marketing content, improving the continuity of buyer dialogue and aligning sales and marketing. And in my piece on managing marketing content, I tackled the issue of emerging gaps in how B2B sales and marketing organizations align with buyers today.

But what we have not tackled is a re-framing of the underlying way B2B sales and marketing teams view how they manage their work: The sales funnel. And the need to re-examine the sales funnel became very apparent as I was reviewing some research from SiriusDecisions, "So Long, Sales Cycle." This brief asks a critical question: "If today's customers want salespeople to collaborate with them, why is the foundation of most sales activities still designed to sell at them?" Great question.

So I had a call yesterday with Megan Heuer, Research Director with SiriusDecisions (who, as a note, I'm excited to say will be joining us this Fall for B2B Marketing University) to get her deeper perspectives into how we must re-conceptualize the sales funnel.

A New Sales Funnel

Heuer believes in the death of the traditional sales funnel ... or at least she believes B2B sales and marketing professionals should realize why this artificial construct does not lead to improved engagement with a B2B buyer. "It's an upside-down buying process," she asserts.

She advocates for a concept of a new sales funnel that is focused around the buyer's processes: "[I]f you are not understanding how your buyer buys, your sales funnel will always be out of sync," explains Heuer. "The sales funnel is what the buyer wants it to be [not how B2B sales or marketing teams operationally conceptualize it]. Within a given space, you're going to see some commonalities and preferences, but if you're not doing your work to put yourself in your buyer's shoes your sales and marketing will be out of sync. It will be based on no information."

It's Not a Funnel; It's a Buying Cycle!

Heuer believes that this idea of focusing on the buyer stands in contrast to how we often think about the sales funnel today. Our current view tends to be defined by a linear flow of leads that assume a constant movement of pushing a prospect until he/she converts, coupled with constant engagement with a given B2B vendor's sales team ... even though that increasingly is not reality.

Customers are increasingly empowered to engage on their own terms and to dis-enage/re-engage with a B2B vendor when it is most convenient. "Following a buying cycle means a buyer can pop in and out whenever they want," says Heuer. "It's moving from a focus on what I need from you, to what you need from me, and by the way, you'll tell me when you're good and ready."

That's why Heuer and her team at SiriusDecisions have re-framed the funnel in terms of aligning sales and marketing processes to the buying cycle, and they advocate for planning and strategy to be built around supporting buyers' needs depending on which stage they are at in the cycle and being responsive, rather than thinking in terms of the traditional funnel. The chart below from the "So Long, Sales Cycle" brief (used with permission) is their conceptualization of this emerging buying cycle:


There are Many Buyers

Another major insight from Heuer -- which aligns with my Propelling Brands blog piece and the data presented there -- is this idea that the information-empowered buyer also is shifting towards an ever-increasingly 'complex, savvy 'buying unit,' rather than simply as a single decision-maker.' There's not one buyer' there's an integrated team that is evaluating a B2B purchase, and their approach, information and integration are becoming more sophisticated than ever before.

"[Y]ou must understand all of the roles in the process," explains Heuer. "It's not just about one person. A lot of people can help or hurt your case. [If you don't know who they are and where they fit in] you can't play that role."

She also points to "[t]he huge role that word of mouth plays [within buying organizations]. If you don't have enough feelers out to know who your advocates and detractors are, then there's a whole list of problems you'll have and you won't know what hit you, and they're not going to tell you. And your sales person won't know." This is an interesting insight when you consider that so much dialogue within the marketplace is often focused on 'inter-organization' word of mouth, versus the type of 'intra-organization' word of mouth Heuer is highlighting.

Repositioning B2B Marketing -- Managing Buyer Dialogue

So if we believe the nature of the B2B buyer is changing and we think in terms of aligning to the buyer's cycle, rather than driving a sales funnel, what are the implications for B2B marketing organizations?

Heuer believes there are strong implications and opportunities for marketing to help focus the process. "Marketing may actually be in that position to take that bigger picture view," she says. And that comes down to helping B2B vendor companies better understand and engage with B2B buyers, while ensuring continuity of this engagement at all stages of the buying process.

She particularly believes B2B marketers must be positioned further and further upstream than ever before -- engaging with B2B buyers as they begin to move through their evaluation process. "At this early stage, it's really, how do I become part of the dialogue?" explains Heuer. And this is different than the traditional view of 'lead generation.'

"Let's look at stages 1 to 3 [in the chart above]. If you said how can we more effectively plan? We need to understand where our buyers go to be informed, and the general problems that seem to be prevalent," explains Heuer. "The status quo of what's the world that they live in. What are their trusted sources and advisors? "

"Buyers are still very much in control in looking at a variety of sources," explains Heuer. A critical upstream activity is engaging with buyers -- on their terms -- so that you are "... part of the universe of knowledgeable advisors they know and trust, and knowing how to get into that game."

"There is too much independent information available in framing the problem, framing the solution and framing the possible options. Marketing has the greatest influence in making sure that you're part of helping [buyers] understand there is a problem."

Once a marketer has better helped his/her company better engage with a buyer, it's then incumbent on the B2B marketer to make sure there is continuity downstream and that the sales team is fully informed and fully ready to pick up at the point when a buyer chooses to engage in a direct conversation around purchasing a solution.

Repositioning B2B Sales -- Translating Buyer Dialogue Intro a Saleable Solution

B2B buyers are engaging sales teams later and later in the process. "The sales function doesn't get involved until they're further along in the sales process," explains Heuer. What does that mean for sales? Well, if conceptualized around the buying process model as presented above, it has clear implications for next steps and engagement by the sales team.

"At the beginning it's just making sure you're in the conversation," says Heuer. "When sales take over it's can I solve their individual problem."

Marketing has to engage in the dialogue, frame the problem and make sure you're part of the consideration set. "Once they've gotten to the short list, that is where the selling solution comes into play."

And it's more critical than ever before for sales teams to be highly-prepared going into a discussion around a potential solution. This is where marketing must make sure that the sales team is well-supplied with insights from the upstream dialogue and sales must be ready to translate that dialogue into a saleable solution.

Sales professionals have a very tight window to get it right in this new environment. "It is definitely the fact that buyers are reluctant to take that step," says Heuer. So a sales team member must be ready to hit a home run with less margin of error than ever before when they finally engage with the buyer.

What are your reactions to responding to the changing nature of the B2B buyer? How is your organization adapting the sales funnel to respond to the shift from seller to buyer power? How can we better align sales and marketing against the buying cycle in the current 'brave new world' of B2B marketing?


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