Is your good old B2B sales funnel really dead?

Mathias Thulin
February 22, 2019

In recent years, many people, mostly from the marketing and some from the sales world, think the classical B2B sales funnel is dead. Do we really need it today? Can we replace it with another model? Is it seriously dead? That’s what we’ll cover in this article.


Why sales funnel?

The B2B sales funnel is a great sales and marketing tool to help you visualize, easily understand, and track the key steps involved in turning a total stranger into a paying customer. It provides visibility into the effectiveness of your sales and marketing efforts.

Using the sales funnel as a framework, you can:

  • Analyze and assess the fitness of a business model
  • Understand how to better optimize and refine your sales process
  • Gain a deeper understanding of what your buyer’s journey is like
  • Identify key stages in your sales process where you’re losing customers and figure out the best way to move a prospect into the next stage
  • Improve your B2B sales strategy
  • Enhance your sales enablement assets to improve conversion rates at each stage
  • Fine-tune messaging, pricing, and other factors to match the pain points, sensibilities, or preferences of your buyers
  • Generate more sales by bringing more prospects into the funnel and turning them into happy customers

But yet, despite all these benefits, in 2012, it was only 68% of B2B businesses that have identified their sales funnel. How about you? Do you have a clearly defined sales funnel?

What is a sales funnel?

Classic sales funnel

The sales funnel has been a cornerstone of the sales and marketing strategy for over a century. It’s a sequence of stages/phases in a single selling process. It was invented by Elmo Lewis in 1898 and is widely regarded as the first formal theory of marketing. Ever since, the humble sales funnel has been subjected to numerous revisions.


Marketing vs. sales funnel

There’s huge confusion around there. Many people think marketing and sales funnels are two separate entities. Just to clarify things here. There is only one funnel. Marketing and sales just share it. However, the two teams are positioned differently. Marketing is focused more on the top of the funnel, whereas sales is focused mostly on the bottom.

Then why do we have two names for the same thing? Because the context of use is different. When the funnel is used in a marketing environment it’s called the marketing funnel. When it’s used in a sales environment, it’s called a sales funnel.

In other words, marketing builds the interest, and the bottom of its funnel marks the top of the sales funnel. Consequently, the sales funnel is powered by marketing activities that generate awareness to create product demand.

The marketing funnel can be divided into two sections:

  • Lead generation: This involves the creation of marketing campaigns to build brand awareness. Things such as trade shows, inbound marketing, content marketing, viral campaigns, online ads, direct email, whitepaper, and more, are used to sell the brand.
  • Lead nurturing: Once a prospect develops the interest in the brand, the next step is to nurture the lead. The prospect is introduced to the product or service with tailored sales content to help them consider making a purchase.

Continued interest eventually tips the lead into the sales funnel where the sales team takes over. The sales funnel is what brings the lead (i.e. the MQL) from the takeover point from marketing up until the point when the sale is actually made.

There is a heated debate happening in the marketing and sales worlds over who exactly owns the whole funnel. In the last years, as consumers have become more dependent on digital content to inform their purchasing decisions, marketers have taken on more responsibility for the funnel. See the diagram below to see how ownership of the funnel has changed.


However, there are even some who see the funnel as being split vertically, with both sales and marketing owning the full funnel. They argue that the salespeople are increasingly becoming thought leaders to drive awareness by doing sales outreach. That means marketing and sales would work together to nurture leads and prospects from awareness to purchase.

B2C vs. B2B sales funnel

Generally speaking, the sales funnel for B2C and B2B are pretty much the same. All buyers pass through the same stages: awareness, interest, decision, action.


The difference is between the sales processes, not the funnels. For instance:

  • Most B2C consumers navigate the funnel alone or with friends & family, while B2B consumers typically have a larger, cross-departmental decision-maker group.
  • Since the deal size is smaller, B2C consumers don’t directly interact with a company representative, especially on e-commerce websites, while B2B consumers typically interact with a sales representative at the bottom of the funnel.

Is sales funnel really dead?

The classic five-stage sales funnel model has been around for about 125 years. Most people claim that while the main phases of this approach are still relevant, the model is outdated overall. Is it really so?

Yes, it’s true that the days of the linear sales funnel where everybody enters the sales process at the top of the funnel and follows a similar buyer experience are gone for most B2B industries.

Buyers are in control

Why? Because the B2B customer has changed. Your customers today go through a complex journey when they want to buy something. Unlike generations before them, they can have thousands of results, reviews, and websites at their fingertips in seconds.

In today’s marketplace, it’s no longer your sales team who’s in control–the buyer is. As the access to information has increased, customers are increasingly doing their own research and depending on digital content to inform them about products. They prefer to do all the research with little to no interference from the salesperson. In fact, Gartner reports that B2B customers are traversing 57% of the funnel on their own, before encountering a sales rep. That means they enter the sales funnel at later stages.

Sales funnel vs. buyer’s journey

Some people eagerly announced the death of the sales funnel and offered to replace it with the buyer’s journey. Although these concepts are closely linked, they aren’t an alternative to each other.

While the buyer’s journey maps out how close a buyer is to buying, the sales funnel looks at how close a buyer is to buying from your company. So the former one is from the buyer’s perspective, whereas the latter one is from your perspective.

The buyer’s journey is a detailed outline of every step a lead takes to become a paying customer, while the sales funnel is a model that businesses use to sell appropriately to leads at different stages.

If you want to bring together your content marketing and sales efforts, you have to overlap your sales funnel and buyer’s journey and look at the buyer experience from a combined perspective.


Complex, nonlinear moves through the funnel

As Sales Management Association concluded, how customers move along the sales funnel has changed. It used to be unidirectional, from the top to the bottom. Now, it became multi-directional.

Leads are coming into the funnel at various points in their buyer’s journey. Sometimes this happens because they are referred and already know they want to buy your solution, so they jump in at the intent stage, just to negotiate the price. It also might happen because they have pursued their own education, made product/service comparisons with the different solution providers, and jump in at interest or consideration stages.

To make things more complex, where buyers enter the sales funnel might not be indicative of where they are at in their buyer journey. Just because a buyer requested pricing information doesn’t mean they are in the negotiation phase of their buying journey. Conversely, a buyer that downloads a whitepaper might be further down the funnel than their action indicates.

So when you think about all these complex and non-linear moves, the sales funnel does not seem to look like a funnel anymore. It seems like a complex web of individual buyer paths intersecting at the various sales and marketing touch points.
For that reason, some experts claim that the sales funnel is no longer relevant, and we have to replace it with something else. In our opinion, just because buyers have a more complex journey than before, doesn’t mean sales funnel is useless. First of all, keep in mind that the sales funnel looks at things from the seller’s perspective, not the buyer’s. And although the buyers can enter and exit the funnel at different stages in a non-linear fashion, the funnel still helps sales organizations to simplify things.

So the best thing to do is to align the buyer’s journey with your sales process, and therefore sales funnel.



No alternative model yet

Is the sales funnel really dead and useless? Think again. Clearly, today’s consumer is availed with a whole set of resources and influences unimaginable a decade ago. And yes, the buyer’s journey has dramatically changed in the last years.

To find an alternative to the sales funnel, thought leaders have come up with different models. For example, McKinsey proposes the consumer decision journey, which employs a circular model to show how the buying process fuels itself and to highlight pivots or touchpoints.

However, there still isn’t a perfect model to replace the good old sales funnel. It has a different purpose of providing valuable guidelines to salespeople on how to do their jobs. For that reason, the sales funnel is still relevant, and one of the most common areas of improvement for sales and marketing teams. So rest assured, sales funnels will be here for a while.

Now that you know your sales funnel is not really dead, what will you do to improve it? How are you going to align it with your buyer’s journey?

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