How to design a B2B sales funnel?
July 14 2022
Ten artykuł przeczytasz w: 23 minut
If you want to sell, your offer needs to reach the audience. It sounds trite but many companies still fail to implement effective measures to build and support sales. In this article, I will show you what a B2B sales funnel looks like, what it is, and what the stages of a sales funnel are. I will also tell you what marketing efforts to make so that the sales process is relationship-based. After all, a B2B sales funnel is about that.
What is a sales funnel?
A B2B (business to business) sales funnel is a tool that reflects the sales process between two companies. It takes the form of a chart showing stages the prospective customers go through before becoming actual, paying customers. These prospective customers are often referred to as prospects. A sales funnel is nothing but a visualisation of the customer journey from the moment a customer sees an advertisement or comes across a company’s offer in another way until they buy the product and return to the company in the future.
The decades-long experience of sales and marketing departments with customer acquisition shows that, although advertising (or any other type of content, we will get to it in a moment) reaches a large number of potentially interested audiences, a much smaller number of people or companies ultimately make purchasing decisions. This is where the name ‘sales funnel’ comes from – many recipients of our message participate initially, only to eventually fall away at some stage of the funnel, narrowing at the bottom. In the end, only a small number of the most interested persons stay and buy.
The idea, of course, is to convert the funnel, i.e. visitors to our brick-and-mortar shop, website or app into paying customers. This is especially true in B2B sales, where the decision path is often prolonged and, in the case of large corporations, can take a year or sometimes even two years. Therefore, the sales process should be geared towards generating leads (sales opportunities) and firmly focused on conversion.
The cooperation of the sales and marketing departments plays a prominent role here. I believe and stress at every opportunity that sales and marketing are the same thing, and people from these two departments should form one organism. Not only to exchange information but to work together – to form one unit in the organisation, to attend the same meetings, to work on common issues, etc. Sure, both groups have slightly different priorities and focus on other aspects of the company. However, the scaling of companies shows that businesses achieve the best results when they are aware of the need to work closely together.
Stages of the B2B sales funnel
The sales funnel can be defined differently and have very different stages. It all depends on the methodology adopted, the vision, the knowledge of the marketing department, the needs of the company in question, etc. However, the following three stages of the funnel are generally accepted: ToFu, MoFu and BoFu. Each serves a different purpose, but we will get to that in a moment. Each has its objectives, channels for reaching prospective customers and sales and marketing tools and formats.
- ToFu, or Top of the Funnel. This is where we attract the attention of prospective customers. The ‘old school’ marketing and sales simply advertised the company here. Meanwhile, customers (both B2B and B2C, i.e. individual customers, private individuals) are not looking for a specific company to buy something. They are looking for a solution to the problem.
And this solution to the problem should become the basis of marketing and sales communication in this part of the funnel. This is where we build company awareness among the public. Since it is the first part of the funnel, the one that everyone falls into, it is necessary to ‘cast the nets’ as wide as possible. Here, marketing activities related to the content, for example, are very important. A content strategy is, therefore, one element that is certainly worth considering.
- MoFu, or Middle of the Funnel. At this stage, we help to raise customer awareness. The fact that your company offers an excellent solution to a problem does not necessarily have to convince a customer to buy it. This is why it is helpful to build a market and situational context. Show the background against which your solution stands out. A well-constructed marketing strategy serves this very purpose.
But beware – do not overly focus on the competition here. A common mistake entrepreneurs make is to directly compare their company and its services to direct market competition. This paradoxically provides the customer with too many arguments. Sometimes your offer will not, at least in their eyes, be that good. One detail can sometimes decide the sale! That is why what I advise in such cases is to build a context. Show that you know the market and your competitors’ products (without naming them!), but at the same time, show that your offer is better. That is all there is to it.
Excessive focus on other market players weakens your position in the eyes of your audience and creates undue confusion. If someone walked into your shop or visited your website, it is not because they want to see a comparison with the competition. They will do it themselves. They want to know why they should buy from you. Here, it is necessary to build both the company’s mission and vision and the organisation’s overall image, i.e. branding.
- BoFu, or Bottom of the Funnel. At this stage, we finalise the sale, so to speak. We offer the customer the final arguments. We show that your solution is the best one. We go low-level with our arguments, showing specifics. Since I am focusing on B2B in this article, it is worth emphasising that arguments such as product performance, product life cycle, access to spare parts, material quality and, indirectly, the price must be included at this point in the funnel.
Why indirectly? Because it is not always worth quoting a price, it is better to do it in a certain context. Secondly, and sometimes even more importantly, it is not worth gambling with the price. What the customer cares about is quality. The price is important, but those who rely on over-optimisation and low prices today will pay double tomorrow. For cleaning up after those from whom they bought cheaply and a second time for a decent product or service.
Building a sales funnel starts with understanding the market
Each stage mentioned above has channels for getting the message across. Each requires a different approach, but each is important. And each one is increasingly demanding. According to Forrester, up to 68% of B2B customers prefer to educate themselves about products. They prefer to do it instead of contacting a seller or supplier. According to Gartner, on the other hand, companies spend only 17% of their time meeting with prospective business associates and suppliers. By contrast, research by CEB (now part of Gartner) shows that as many as seven people make purchasing decisions in companies on average.
What does it mean for you? A huge challenge. It is difficult for everyone to understand your offer well enough in such market conditions and decision-making structures. That is to say, understand it as you wish it to be understood. No information overload, just facts, real benefits and so on. Another problem is that part of this purchasing process takes place without your participation, and you do not have access to it. It is a closed door.
Therefore, the B2B sales funnel should be structured so that all possible arguments are given to the customer in front of these closed doors, and all potential and real concerns are clarified. The idea is that the customer should feel that your company is responding to them at each stage of the funnel. It can be done through content or contact with a company representative.
This is why I keep emphasising that, in my approach, every department in the company should do the selling. Sales should be extended to all company departments, and the human resources department should also play an important role. From the second article linked here, you will learn not only what mistakes HR professionals make most often but also what sales in HR means and why these professionals are now called HR Business Partners. There is a reason for this, which has a tangible impact on the company’s profits.
Sales process and lead generation with content
OK, but how does all this relate to your business? Sure the specifics can be discussed case-by-case, as every industry and indeed every company is different. It is the stages of the funnel that are common to B2B-focused organisations. Therefore, each stage has its channels, as shown in the graphic above.
ToFu – blog articles, social media (SoMe) posts, infographics, film scripts, podcasts, newsletters, e-books
MoFu – educational materials, webinars, market research, industry reports, wide-ranging downloads
BoFu – case studies, industry events, product demos
One thing I always stress at this point is that the decision-makers in the companies you are targeting (the so-called C-level) are very busy. This means they may consume your content in a way that is not quite what you had in mind. A good example is video content, which is often treated as a podcast. Short explainer videos (videos explaining the product), and especially webinars, are simply ‘played in the background’, and the customer just listens to them instead of looking at them as well. During their runtime, they write e-mails to employees, for example.
I talk about it deliberately because it is a good and important part of a marketing strategy to be able to anticipate such things. For this particular aspect, it is worth doing video content, subtitles and blog transcriptions. This way, every customer has the opportunity to consume content in the way that is most comfortable for them. The B2B sales funnel should take such things into account.
One final important point – the format is important, but the purpose counts most. The job of content is to help the customer, not to get stuck in one part of the sales funnel because the theory of marketing, sales and who knows what else says so. No. It is worth juggling themes and formats, adapting them to the current market situation, but above all to the needs of your audience.
Marketing is not an exact science, and what works for one company will not necessarily work for another, and certainly not one to one. These are really rare cases. Secondly, every company’s customers are slightly different, and it is worth listening first and foremost to their feedback rather than to theories. This is why articles like the one you are currently reading are good at some general level. Still, writing a text perfectly suited to every industry, company and target group is impossible. This is where business consultations are helpful and, if that is not enough, ongoing marketing cooperation.
Difference between B2B and B2C sales funnels
Before I go into the difference, I will give you an example of a funnel. It is built on the AIDA model. Here it is:
A – attention. This is where the customer often has the first point of contact with your brand. This could be a LinkedIn post, a Facebook ad, hearing an advert on the radio or a blog article that popped up on Google. Something jas just caught the viewer’s attention. ‘This something’ often happens on LinkedIn; social selling really pays off.
I – interest. Here, the consumer simply clicks on the ad and is taken to the website with the offer in question.
D – desire. At this stage, the prospect has already seen the offer and concluded that they want to make a purchase.
A – action. Here, the consumer completes a contact form on the website, calls the company or places a product in the shopping basket.
Two stages are often added to this classic model:
Review. The customer receives the product and, under suitable conditions and times, uses it, all the while evaluating it.
Loyalty. A satisfied customer is often a regular customer. Once they have reviewed the product they bought and are satisfied with it, they often return and buy more.
This is naturally a simplified model. It is common to both B2B and B2C but does not take into account the specifics of sales and the differences:
- B2B sales have more stages. Often you have to enter a tendering process of some kind, attend business lunches or dinners, go through the steps of bid review and sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).
- B2B sales take longer than B2C sales. This has to do with potentially more stages and, naturally, with the significantly more money at stake. Rarely does a consumer spend hundreds of thousands or millions of zlotys, euros or dollars all at once. This often leads to a multi-stage process of vetting a business partner and a longer time for making the decision itself. This is why marketing activities should be designed, so that prospective customers have confidence in your company at every stage of the sales funnel.
- B2B involves more people in the decision-making process. This creates a natural need to build relationships and trust with more people. This means personalising the approach while maintaining the guidelines of the marketing department (sticking to a pre-constructed message line) and the sales department (if we are already negotiating, we do not go below a specific price).
- More paperwork needs to be prepared in the B2B process. Tender documents, confidentiality agreements, letters of intent, permits, certificates, official documents confirming ownership (of a plot of land, for example) … Sometimes it can be a lot.
Regardless of the above differences, the fundamental and common feature of both funnels is trust. It builds relationships and cements them over time.
How to build a B2B sales funnel?
OK, let us get down to business. Here is a complete path showing what the stages of the sales funnel looks like. And then, there are a few other issues that are often forgotten but are just as important.
Stage 1: Define your target audience. The marketing persona, or ideal customer. The difference in process here between B2B and B2C is that it is worth creating two separate personas:
- the product user (often a manager or specialist)
- the decision-maker who will be deciding on the purchase (owner, president, board member, accountant, digital specialist, etc.)
The best way to do this is by creating a handy list of questions on which to base your persona model. Naturally, due to the variety of specifics, it is challenging to create questions suitable for every company. So here I am just giving an example:
- What problems do your product and offer have to solve?
- What is the end result of the customer’s use of your product and what is it expected to translate into in the company?
- How does your product fit into market trends and the environment, and what makes it different? What do your customers pay attention to here?
- What challenges does your customer face daily, and how will the product help them solve them?
- At what career stage is the customer?
- What expectations do they have of the sales and marketing materials they get?
- How influential is the customer in their organisation, and how can they influence the decision-making processes of the rest of the purchasing decision-makers?
Stage 2: Develop your unique selling point (USP). That you have a good and interesting offer is one thing. That it somehow stands out in the market is another. You have to stand out in some way. Customers have a vast range of companies and offers to choose from. Some are very similar in almost every respect. Why should they choose you?
A unique selling point is the answer. It’s such a lead magnet, attracting the undecided and providing a ‘final touch’, at least at some stage of the funnel. If only to ensure that your customer narrows down the number of companies from which they will then continue to choose.
Here is what decision-makers are most interested in when it comes to B2B offers:
- How will the product help me reduce costs?
- How can I use it to maximise profits?
- How can I simplify and optimise my processes?
- How can I automate processes?
- How can I extract, process and draw conclusions from the data?
- How can I reduce the number of employees with the product?
- How can I use it to improve the productivity of other employees?
Stage 3: Develop a marketing strategy and create interest in the product based on the solution to the problem. A common mistake marketing professionals make is advertising a product instead of its properties. What does the customer care about the product and its related offer? There are thousands of these on the market. The customer is interested in the practical aspect of using the product. What will they be able to do with it, and what will they be able to use it for? How will the product help answer the questions given in the previous section?
Stage 4: Build and nurture relationships at every stage of the sales funnel. Treat the customer as a partner and not as a payer. With B2B contract sums and long decision paths, it is difficult to take a different approach, but sometimes it still happens. Develop your business processes and marketing message so that the customer feels at every stage that you know what you are selling to them. Not your product and not your company. Not even the years of experience, the money spent on research and development, the expertise of your specialists… No. First and foremost, you are selling them a specific tool, a solution to their problem. Everything else is very, very important, but it is the background to this statement.
If you are sending cold e-mails (properly structured ones still work!), personalise the message by showing that you know what pains the addressee (the previously created persona). If you are creating content for a website, do so in such a way that it is of interest to prospects, not everyone who visits it. ‘Everyone’ will not pay you money.
When doing so, remember to be specific, especially about the measurable effects of your product. In addition to the numbers, the benefits achieved by previous customers also make a good impression.
Stage 5: Optimise business, sales and marketing processes. I will describe it by giving an example. In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate within companies about what is better – gated content or giving the customer everything at once. Do we close the gate and offer a download of the e-book after they leave their e-mail address, or do we give it away, though? The COVID-19 situation and the last two years (at the time of writing this article) show that gated content no longer works. Customers want to get everything for free, and mechanisms such as leaving an e-mail or pay per tweet have become annoying. This is all the more true given that content is abundant on the market, and customers have a wide choice. Even if you offer great value, the ‘out of the gate’ option will make it a hard-to-access good.
So what to do in such a situation? For companies just collecting a customer database, however, this is often a given, and there are ways to increase conversions. For organisations that do not feel they have to do this, I recommend providing content for free.
Webinars are a good example of optimisation. After the webinar, send the video of it to participants. For convenience and so that they can come back to it when needed. First, though, it is worth creating a webinar script. Why? So you know exactly what to talk about or for the webinar not to get ‘off track’ and become dull. And also to talk about your company’s offering. It must not be invasive, and it must not be too much. This has to be done very skillfully and in context. And then, as a follow-up, it is a good idea to add a board to the recorded webinar with the contact details of your salesperson. So that the interested customer immediately knows who they can talk to.
Classification of leads
This is a very important issue, and there are two divisions here.
Prospective customers come in three categories:
- Hot leads. This is a group immediately interested in the offer. They know exactly what they want and are just looking for an opportunity to buy. Such a customer simply walks into the shop and buys straight away.
- Warm leads. This is a group that is interested in the offer but undecided. This is the group targeted by remarketing. They need to be reminded about the product, and non-intrusively stimulated to make a purchase.
- Cold leads. Those not interested but with the potential for a favourable purchase decision in the future. Here, establishing long-term relationships is particularly important.
There is also a second division:
- Leads. These are individuals or companies potentially interested in the offer.
- Deals. These are processes through which sales have been closed.
It is worth remembering that sometimes the correct classification of leads and focusing attention on the most promising ones results in success. This will protect you from burning through your marketing budget.
Sales process, customer relations, purchasing process and after-sales support
There is no single sales pattern. The company, and above all marketing, the New Business Manager and the salespeople themselves, must be flexible. The key to success is often the relationship with the customer, and it does not end at all with closing a sale.
Sometimes you need warranty support, and answers to user questions, including the simplest ones, such as ‘How do I make it work?’ Creating a Customer Success Department or simply a help desk is essential if this is the case. Not every business requires it but combined with a knowledge base (available physically and online), such a department is often the ‘to be or not to be’ of a given company.
I once worked for a company called Landingi, which offers a tool for intuitive landing page development. I created a content marketing strategy for them, coordinated freelancers, created content and supported business processes. The main target included marketing professionals. They are not technically minded people; besides, they very often do not want to or cannot deal with software developers. They simply have to do the landing page themselves. Landings offer this option.
The key to success, but also the outright survival of the company, here is the Customer Success Department. As in any product company, including those offering digital products, the heart is the people who work directly with the customer. They need to know how to use the product and handle things themselves. If they do not know how, there must be a competent team sitting on the other side of the computer or phone. Advising, answering questions, gathering user feedback, and helping to adapt the product and implement new functionalities.
My role, both in working with content and supporting the Customer Success Department, ensured that the company gained more users and was even better perceived in the market, increasing its market share despite fierce foreign competition.
This is what the after-sales support is all about. A customer you take care of even after an invoice has been paid is a customer who comes back to buy more.
What role do CRM systems play at this point?
Customer relationship management (CRM) systems are an integral part of the purchasing process of a company offering a product. Their name itself indicates what they are used for. Not to support sales, not to control customer data and information on what was sold, how much and to whom. That too. They are mainly designed for customer relationship management.
These systems allow you to first and foremost create notes. About what the customer said, at what stage of the funnel, and when. What exactly do they care about, what objections do they have against the product, and what internally developed category does the sale put them in.
This is yet another essential element. In addition to the said qualification, the creation of a sales funnel frequently entails another internal methodology. Sales departments often develop their own classifications that help them work with the customer. This includes estimating their susceptibility to arguments, the role of emotions in their decision-making, the influence of the time pressure on their purchasing decisions, etc. A CRM system forms the basis of relationship management, and I advise my customers to use an internal lead qualification system as part of the business process optimisation.
Remember that CRM can be tailored to your, sometimes unique, sales stages. A properly configured and integrated with other company processes (primarily marketing) application will simplify and speed up processes. Good CRM will also help you to see what stage of the funnel a particular customer is currently at. This may indicate that you need to tailor the funnel to this specific customer. Personalisation of your offer, even within B2B, means generating better quality leads and more effective marketing activities.
CRM systems also facilitate the production of invaluable data and contribute to more effective, transparent reporting. This, in turn, helps to achieve a minimum level of sales.
How can content marketing support sales?
This is a subject about which one can write on and on. In fact, I have already written a bit. About what is content marketing, and also what is storytelling. To put it broadly, content has two functions:
- it builds and perpetuates the image of your company;
- it generates and increases sales.
One cannot exist without the other. After working as a freelancer for many years, and later working already for my customers within my own company, I have noticed that two patterns keep repeating themselves. They are both wrong.
- Marketing specialists fail to understand that content should also generate sales and, therefore, directly impact the financial results of the organisation;
- business owners, CEOs and marketing managers fail to understand that they cannot simply expect an increase in sales. Building a company’s image through content is fundamental, and this image also generates sales.
The two topics are intertwined, complementary and interdependent. What does it mean? An e-mail campaign generates sales. Content linked in the footer of an e-mail generates sales, but it also builds the image of a company that knows what it is talking about and employs specialists (such as those who can advise the customer). An article posted on a company blog establishes a company’s image and allows it to be found on the Internet, but since it is substantive, it also increases sales (e.g. in the form of filling in a contact form). And so on.
The general idea is that sales and marketing often have different objectives. Sometimes it is difficult to reconcile them, but in the meantime, they need to be combined. This is the reason why I place such a great emphasis on sales and marketing working closely together.
How does SEO support the sales funnel stages?
If ‘content is king’, then ‘distribution is queen’. That is – if the content is a king and the company’s attention should be directed at it, then the distribution of that content, which also means its visibility, is a queen. In other words – the neck turns the head.
All right, and now in English. You can have the best and most substantive content in the world, but nobody will notice it without proper optimisation. This is why the role of an SEO specialist is vital in the whole process. Ideally, the marketing specialist should have such competencies (for the most part, I do), but you might as well invite a second person to work with you. The most important aspect is how SEO supports the sales funnel stages.
There are three essential elements:
- building and/or improving the company’s online visibility;
- increasing conversion;
Yes, you can also expect the latter from an SEO specialist or agency! Consultancy on content optimisation, but also on its creation from scratch. After all, content production starts with SEO – one of the initial stages of the entire process. But how does all this translate into practice?
Capturing attention. Keyword analysis is extremely relevant at this stage. Keywords guarantee that we reach the right target group. Although they do not allow us to select users yet, they form a good basis. Here, the focus should be placed on general phrases.
Interest in the offer. This is the moment when branding phrases will be the key. If your brand is already present in the minds of users, potential customers will want to find it online. This is why your company needs to display its own name to people.
Product desirability. This is where well-optimised product descriptions, long-tail keywords, as well as substantive and educational messages enter the picture. Aim for valuable content that brings quality, and SEO will ensure that your specialist knows which phrases to use to create it.
Operation. At this point, the final element – SEO UX (search engine marketing user experience) – comes into play. This lengthy term basically refers to the user experience and more and more often determines the decisions taken by a particular SEO specialist. Essentially, this means ensuring that the visit to a website or landing page is pleasant for the user. The user should not feel frustrated or lost, etc. Yes, this is also something that may be required of an SEO specialist! And it also supports a B2B sales funnel.
Difference between a sales funnel and a sales pipeline
This is another mistake made by marketing specialists and less often by sales specialists. It stems from the lack of understanding of the difference between these terms and their interchangeable use.
A B2B sales funnel represents the customer’s journey from the emergence of a purchase need and the discovery of a brand that will fulfil that need to the finalisation of the purchasing process.
In turn, a sales pipeline represents activities performed by a salesperson in the sales process. It takes the following form:
- the lead generation takes place in the funnel, at the awareness stage;
- the qualification of leads occurs at the interest stage;
- the provision of a solution to the customer’s problem happens at the purchase intention stage;
- the submission of a business proposal takes place at the evaluation stage;
- the negotiation and closing of the sales occur at the purchasing stage;
- the after-sales support, offers for additional products, upselling (an attempt to persuade the customer to buy a more expensive product), discounts, etc. happen at the loyalty-building and consumption stage.
A pipeline is a reflection of the sales process. It provides information on:
- the hard data expressed in company revenue;
- the number of sales opportunities (potential, qualified, closed);
- the values (expressed in figures) of individual sales stages in a funnel;
- the duration of various stages of the sales process and the entire process;
- the amount and degree of involvement of company resources to create and close a sales opportunity.
A well-structured pipeline is essential and can, and should, be optimised as often as possible. A B2B sales funnel, and its success in general, also depends on the pipeline.
The development and stages of a sales funnel should be built around specific elements. Most importantly – the customer and their needs. The solutions offered by your product. Also, an attempt to make the customer see real value in your business and be willing to stay for longer. To come back for more and to buy in the future.
At this point, it is worth remembering two things. Since as many as 68% of B2B customers prefer to educate themselves about products on their own and do not need your sales specialists to do it for them (it was mentioned before), the content you offer must be, above all, educational. This means that it is beneficial to limit the role of the sales layer. Personally, I follow the rule of 85% content value and 15% sales part. This is a sensible ratio that meets both your and your customer’s needs. A few questions about your offer during a webinar and a short intro about what your company actually does. An extra page or two about your company in an e-book. And so on.
The second issue is the tone of voice. This is a part of branding that I am also involved in. How does your company want to present itself and its offer? How to build marketing communications? What tools to use, how should it sound? Marketing is an interconnected system in which nothing works in isolation. That is why a good marketing specialist adopts a holistic approach, supporting both sales, marketing and even HR processes. The tone of voice of the brand, or the way it communicates, is also vital. A B2B sales funnel is not merely a simple offer, figures and automatic listing of product features. It is also people behind the product.
A frequently forgotten fact is that B2B also involves emotions, and they do, after all, play a role in purchasing processes. I would be happy to help you control them and build a sales process that simplifies the purchasing process for the customer, as well as strengthens the customer relationship and increases your profits. All you need to do is contact me.