Who Really Drives the Funnel: Sales or Marketing?

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Change is the only true constant in business, but there is another thing that is unlikely to go away anytime soon: the debate between salespeople and marketers over who actually drives their company’s sales funnel.

Talk to a salesperson, and you’ll get one answer. Talk to a marketer, and you’re likely to get another.

But Bob Apollo, founder and CEO of UK-based B2B sales and marketing consultancy Inflexion-Point and one of OpenView’s Top 25 Sales Influencers for 2012, has an alternative perspective. In fact, in a roundtable discussion at an eConsultancy event recently, Apollo suggested that neither sales nor marketing should claim to own the sales funnel outright.

They own it with the customer.

“In other words,” Apollo explains, “the way we ought to be measuring progress through the funnel is not just in terms of what sales or marketing do, but what we observe the customer doing.”

3 Steps to Building a Customer-Centric Sales Funnel

All too often, however, sales funnels are primarily driven by marketing-related metrics and analytics, or by the actions performed by the sales team. While that information is valuable, Apollo says it does not paint a full picture of the buyer’s true journey. “The only way to truly understand where buyers are in the sales process is to model our funnels around the buyer decision process,” Apollo says.

In a recent conversation with OpenView, Apollo explained that expansion-stage B2B software companies can do that by following these three simple tips:

1) Stop Looking at Your Funnel as a One-way Street

While it’s much more convenient to organize a sales funnel into specific stages that follow a linear progression, Apollo says that the reality is that buyers may move up, down, or out of the funnel several times throughout the sales process. If you’re not paying close enough attention to buyer behavior and motivation, then you may end up assigning a prospect to a stage that they aren’t ready for, or have already left.

To be more effective, Apollo says expansion-stage companies should re-thinking the stages that they use to measure progress through the funnel. Instead of having each stage defined by what sales or marketing have done to move a prospect along a sales process, they should instead think about the stages the prospective buyer needs to go through to finalize their buying decision.

2) Merge Your Sales Stages with Your Buyer’s Stages

For example, one of the stages in many B2B sales funnels is sales proposal “delivered”. Once that stage has been completed, salespeople tend to naturally advance their prospects to the next stage in the funnel, often without considering whether the buyer is really ready to move forwards.

Apollo says the best funnels are those that combine sales activity and qualification criteria with a deep understanding of what the customer is actually thinking or doing. “If one of your stages is associated with the delivery of a sales proposal, then you shouldn’t move a prospect down the funnel until the prospect has reacted to your proposal and confirmed that they are ready to move to the next stage,” Apollo explains. “Otherwise, you are making assumptions that are likely to be premature.”

3) Conduct a Content Audit

Unless your sales funnel has always been couched in customer-centric terms, it’s likely that your sales content was never explicitly designed with specific buying criteria in mind. Conducting a content audit to examine which pieces of content are truly valuable to your customers at specific stages in the decision process can help you weed out the fluff that has little impact.

“We encourage our clients to think of three interlocking elements,” Apollo says.

  • What are the key elements in our sales process?
  • What are the key elements in our prospects’ buying decision process?
  • What are the key deliverables that are most relevant to each stage in the buying process?

“Prospects typically have different information needs at different stages,” he explains, “the content they consume can give you a better handle on where they are likely to be in their buying process, and what else you can deliver to help them move down the funnel.”

Is Your Sales Funnel Customer-Centric?

Apollo stresses that creating a customer-centric sales funnel is not necessarily about abandoning traditional sales and marketing metrics in favor of buyer behavior analytics. In fact, the most effective sales funnels are a combination of both.

“You don’t want to rely wholly on the buyer to dictate the flow of your sales funnel,” Apollo says. “But you should certainly be observing what they are actually doing and factoring that into how you react.”

Do you agree neither sales nor marketing truly own the funnel? What are the pros and cons of being more customer-centric?

  • After going through bunch of startups and seeing what works and doesn’t work, I have become a believer in putting Sales, Marketing, AND Customer Success (Service) under leadership of Chief Revenue Officer. If you remove the typical finger-pointing between Sales and Marketing (with associated VP of Sales and Marketing churn) plus get those teams close to Customer Success, you are much more likely to have more effective and profitable organization.

    • Magnus Jern

      Agreed but I would rather call the role CCO (Chief Commercial Officer). Revenue Officer sounds like the tax guy from inland revenue in the UK.

  • The whole point is, sales and marketing should work together. No one really owns which is whatever, both department is different but they should look at the same goal.

  • Clever point! track customers in the sales funnel through their information consumption pattern. Also answers the strategic question – to provide all info for decision making vs only necessary and sufficent info for the need. But then that already tilts the scales in favour of Marketing.

  • Focusing on customer-centric experiences throughout the sales cycle will also help build your professional brand as a trusted adviser and yield more referral business in the long run.