For decades, marketers have used the traditional sales funnel as a way to illustrate the typical buying process.

Marketers attract potential buyers at the top of the funnel with advertising and promotional activities designed to engage them. Once they’ve converted on an offer—such as an opportunity to respond to an email or download a resource—they become leads. Some leads will become prospects, and marketers continue to push them further along in their decision-making process until they become customers.

This model reflects a world in which data was scarce and sales teams led the way. Before digital engagement platforms, sales representatives were the gatekeepers of information.

This has all changed as information has become more readily available online.

Buyers have more access to independent sources of information and opinions than ever before. In fact, about 80 percent of the sales cycle is over for them before they even pick up the phone.

This evolution of information means the sales cycle has evolved, as well. It also means customers don’t always enter into the decision-making process the same way nor do they follow down the same path.


That’s why marketers today need to rethink the traditional sales funnel to improve customer engagement. They need to think about the sales cycle as something that may be different for each type of buyer and treat those buyers accordingly. Here’s how.

Develop Buyer Journeys Mapped To Unique Personas

One problem with the traditional sales funnel model is that it looks at all buyers as basically the same person, with the same challenges and needs. It assumes all buyers will act in a similar, predictable manner. This just isn’t true.

If you take time to analyze your customers from the past year, you’ll probably notice you have one primary persona—the type of buyer who represents the majority of your sales, or the one who presents the most immediate opportunity—and a number of secondary personas. You may also have personas that differ by industry, role and company size.

Take the time to look back at the interactions you’ve had with each of those types of buyers and identify common themes. Is the sales cycle significantly longer for one persona compared to another? Does one tend to pick up the phone and call after receiving several emails, while another persona downloads multiple resources before there’s any interaction with someone from your sales staff?

If you’re using a customer relationship management system, such as HubSpot or Salesforce, you should have plenty of data to reference. Your findings will shape your buyer personas, or the generalized characters that represent the needs, goals and behaviors of your actual buyers.

It also helps to interview some of your customers to learn more about what influenced them at every stage, especially if you’re in the early stages of persona development. Once you have more detailed profiles of your customers, you’ll have a much better idea of their typical journeys, or decision-making processes.

You can then use this to determine how your team should interact with them at every stage, from the initial information they’ll want to see on your website to the type of content they prefer and, finally, when you’ll know they’re ready for a call from your sales staff.

Determine Where Your Buyers Are In the Journey

Work with your sales staff to determine what factors signify a potential buyer is an opportunity, and what additional factors demonstrate they’re ready for a conversation. You can then assign points for each activity and arrive at an overall score for each of the contacts in your database.

A good marketing automation software, such as HubSpot, allows you to set up custom lead scoring so you can automatically grade contacts as they come into your database. Remember it’s also important to disqualify leads that don’t fit your criteria, or assign negative points for actions that signify a lack of interest, such as unsubscribing to your emails.

Once you have a better understanding of where your buyers are in the sales cycle, you’ll be able to send them more targeted messages and information they actually want to see. The idea of qualifying leads isn’t new, but it has become more sophisticated and accurate as marketers have greater access to hard data about their potential buyers’ behavior. It now includes everything from website visits to social media interaction and considers each potential buyer’s readiness as an individual, rather than pushing them through as one large mass of prospects.

Change Your Terminology

Does your marketing team still talk about strategy in terms of TOFU, MOFU, and BOFU? That’s understandable because top of funnel, middle of funnel and bottom of funnel are familiar terms you’ve probably been using for years. However, it’s important to clearly communicate the more accurate concept of the buyer’s journey when you’re talking to stakeholders within your company, especially the sales staff. Here are are few terms you should be using instead:

  • Instead of the top of the funnel, say the start of the buyer’s journey
  • Instead of the middle of the funnel, say personalized engagement
  • Instead of the bottom of the funnel, say the end of the buyer’s journey

Each part of the buyer’s journey requires multiple touch points from your sales and marketing staff.

During the start of the buyer’s journey, the focus should be on identifying the potential buyer’s challenge and providing useful information that points him or her toward a solution in general terms. If you’re selling recruiting software, for instance, your ideal buyer is probably someone who has difficulty keeping up with the hundreds of resumes that pass through his inbox each day.

You can attract his attention with information that talks about how to rank candidates, manage follow-up and ultimately assess their skills. Without hitting your potential buyer over the head with messages about your product, you should point to the benefits of using recruiting software.

The idea of the buyer’s journey offers a more personalized take on the traditional sales funnel, taking into account each potential buyer’s needs at every stage.

Structure Your Team Accordingly

As marketing and sales teams move more toward this model, it’s crucial that each person interacting with the customers or data understands his or her role in the process.

Your company should take the time to clarify the roles your sales representatives, marketing professionals and customer service staff will have in interacting with the potential buyers and the data you collect about them. It will become even more important to have someone who thoroughly understands marketing automation software and data and can devote the time it takes to set up meaningful lead scoring systems.

More companies are hiring marketing technologists to manage all this data, and the need for these professionals will continue to grow.

As the Information Age and the greater availability of data change the landscape of sales and marketing today, rethinking the traditional sales funnel is just one shift your company needs to make to stay competitive.

Marketing expert and futurist Mike Walsh discusses nine other  predictions all Chief Marketing Officers need to be aware of to stay competitive in the coming years. To find out what they are, download this free eBook by Mike and Kuno Creative, The 21st Century CMO Playbook.