The concept of the buyer's journey has been around for a number of years. Hugh Macfarlane's "The Leaky Funnel" inspired a number of our early sales and marketing alignment assignments, and was one of the first books to suggest shifting attention away from driving the sales process to facilitating the buying process.
More recently, I've been impressed with the work being done by Sirius Decisions, StrategyMix and Marketo - amongst a growing number of others - to think through the implications of this dramatic (and very much needed) change in vendor mindsets.
The Process of B2B Buying
I've concluded that most high-value b2b sales reflect a remarkably consistent evolution in the prospect's mindset - from being satisfied with the status quo, to recognising the need for change, evaluating options, and finally implementing the chosen solution.
The process is rarely simple. The prospect can choose to abandon the journey, put the project on hold, or revisit a previous phase, at any stage in the process. But it's unusual for complex, high-value purchases not to pass through a series of key consideration phases - or to have to navigate a series of decision gates.
Consideration Phases and Decision Gates
The diagram below identifies the common phases and gates. It's worth establishing the distinction between the two, because many sales processes and "out of the box" CRM implementations fail to recognise the differences.
Each successive consideration phase reflects an important step forward in the buying process. It's been repeatedly proven that opportunities with momentum are far more likely to result in a positive buying decision than projects that have been stuck at a given phase for a long time.
These phases are separated by decision gates. Each decision gate represents vital evidence of commitment on the part of the prospect.
To start with, the prospect may be satisfied with their current situation. But then something happens - it could be change within their organisation, or something in the external environment - that forces them to challenge the status quo.
We call these inflexion-points "catalysts for change" but you may also see them referred to as trigger events.
At this point, the organisation is typically focused on assessing the impact of the change - and determining whether it is worth dealing with. If it is, resources are committed to finding a solution.
The Critical Decision
This decision - to commit resources - may be the most critical gate in the process. Someone with decision-making authority must have agreed that the problem needs solving, assigned the appropriate people and committed to making the necessary funds available.
The prospect then typically spends some time establishing criteria. This usually involves both business needs and functional requirements, as well as determining how they will decide if and what to buy. By the end of this phase the prospect will have requested and received proposals from one or more vendors.
Assuming that at least one of these proposals is worthy of consideration, the prospect evaluates their options - including the possibility that they may, after all, choose to do nothing. But if the case for change remains strong, they will select their preferred vendor.
But - as many sales people have learned to their cost - being told you have been selected is no guarantee that the business will follow. The project now faces an investment approval process that will see the proposal competing against a variety of other possible expenditure - or the conclusion that the prospect would be better off keeping the money in the bank.
Only once the order is confirmed can the sale process be regarded as finished - but the process of buying continues, until the solution is implemented and the original issue has been addressed.
Applying the Buyer's Journey
Some B2B buying decision processes are more complex than the one I've set out above, but it's unusual for the process to be simpler for significant high-value purchase decisions.
I'd welcome your feedback - how does the above process align with your experiences? Have you seen the process evolve in the markets you serve? Have you carefully defined the key consideration phases and decision gates in your markets? And how closely have you been able to integrate the buyer's journey into your sales and marketing activities?
In the next article in this series, I'll be examining the implications of the buyer's journey for the sales and marketing process... Until then, good selling!