“The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model.”

— Jay Wright Forrester

We are all enabled and constrained by our mental models. They shape our thinking and influence our actions. While these explanatory models generally give us greater clarity, sometimes they merely hold us back.

One such model, I would argue, is the conventional sales funnel. In the realm of B2B marketing and sales today, it is the defining model – the one that guides strategy, planning, organization, action and investment.

Unfortunately, it seems to misdirect our energies and misallocate our resources. The sales  funnel, as I see it, also erects needless barriers in our organizations, contributing to excessive compartmentalization and value destroying silos. 

Strong charges I suppose. But hear me out.

B2B research from CSO Insights suggests that the sales-marketing alignment issue has not been addressed. The firm found in a recent study of 298 companies that four in five marketing groups see no problem with the quality of their leads. Seven in ten marketing organizations feel the same way about lead quantity. However, more than half (51%) of all sales executives disagree and argue that marketing must improve.

But what if the alignment problem didn’t end there? What if the larger problem is that marketing and sales are going to market with an incomplete offering – one that falls short of customer expectations and objectives? What if the alignment problem also encompasses the services organization?

Thomas Lah, author of the forthcoming book Bridging the Services Chasm, argues that “the traditional product sale is an artifact of the past. Enterprise customers want to consume business improvement—not product features.”

As he sees it, “the internal service organizations within the product company are the fundamental source for enabling product adoption that leads to business impact. Whether the service organization delivers a service directly or enables service partners, it must own the identification and development of offerings that unlock product potential.”

With this in mind, it may make sense to begin thinking beyond the conventional sales funnel and sales cycle. Instead of concentrating on the sales cycle, we should now be focusing on what I’m calling the customer success cycle.

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Our mental model, in other words, needs to shift so we see the full continuum of a customer’s experience and organize ourselves around the achievement of customer success. Not only will this ultimately drive more sales, it will enable us to more productively leverage our talent and resources.

Right now, we are extraordinarily focused on the transaction itself – where money changes hands. That’s where the conventional funnel ends. If I’m in sales or marketing and my mental model is the standard funnel, then it implies that’s where my responsibility ends.

Some folks over the years have argued that we should think in terms of the “buying cycle” – aligning ourselves with the customer’s decision and purchasing process. They argue that we get too focused on our own needs and issues when we think sales cycle and they offer this as a more empathic alternative. But, again, the problem with this thinking is that our core organizational process seemingly ends when money changes hands.

We need to think more systematically and more expansively.

We should incorporate the actions of the services team into our most critical model as opposed to leaving their role as an afterthought. Services, perhaps, will become more active in the pre-sale process, helping to set the stage for what will occur after implementation. What’s more, we need to recognize the vital roles of sales and marketing professionals in the post-sale period. Our attention must shift from product sales and delivery to customer performance and success.

Take a company like SAP, the giant provider of enterprise software applications. It has a “value engineering” team whose responsibility is to consult with prospective clients to help them develop a compelling business strategy and business case that fully leverages SAP’s technology solutions. Consultative services precede the sale.

Or consider the case of InfusionSoft, a provider of marketing and e-commerce solutions targeting the small- and mid-sized enterprise market. It blurs the lines between sales and service as sales professionals and reselling partners become business coaches that are responsible for the client’s continuing success and support. Sales professionals remain actively engaged with customers in the post-sales period

We seem to be seeing a blurring of sales and service in the name of achieving greater customer success. Which is particularly important for marketing. Not only is marketing now generating awareness and leads and supporting sales upfront, it now has the opportunity to capture the stories of exceptionally pleased customers over time. These customers become advocates – one of the most vital assets that a marketing team could ever possess.

Which brings us back to the customer success cycle. Inspired by the exceptional work of Brian Massey and Dave Evans, this new model represents a new way to think about our growth challenges and opportunities.

Instead of remaining overly focused on a conventional sales cycle (or buying cycle) that ends with a financial transaction, top companies in the B2B arena are now recognizing they must provide reliable guidance that enables customers to achieve projected results and encourages them to become enthusiastic advocates to others. These companies are, in other words, closing “the guidance gap” – systematically guiding their customers from awareness to advocacy.

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Here are the key phases in this newly envisioned cycle (click on graphic to enlarge):

  • Awareness. As with traditional branding and marketing efforts, our objective in this phase is to generate attention and awareness. One thing that does appear to be changing is the growing emphasis at this stage on becoming thought leaders and trusted authorities. By staking out a compelling perspective on key issues that are relevant to our prospects, we raise our profile with them, build trust and draw them into our orbit. By leveraging the array of media and new channels now available to us, we reach them in ways that are likely to have the highest impact. Guidance comes in the form of thought leadership as companies provide relevant, provocative and compelling insights that frame the way their target audiences think about existing problems – and help them consider possible solutions.
  • Engagement. Having attracted prospects and generated leads in the awareness phase, we now must nurture them with relevant resources and build the confidence necessary to qualify them for a handoff to sales. Sales then proceeds to further diagnose the situation and identify possible solutions that can address the customer’s core problem. In cases where large deal sizes justify it, sales teams may engage in “provocation-based selling,” as Geoffrey Moore and his colleagues call it. Under this approach, they develop a specific provocation – or hypothesized business case for investment – and then approach the prospect with it.  If the upfront preparation is on target, this may prove an excellent way to reach senior decision-makers and accelerate the sales cycle. Guidance in the engagement phase becomes client-specific, honing in on the key concerns of a particular prospect.
  • Commitment. Once a business case begins to take form, it’s critical to justify it, refine it and drive consensus among members of the customer’s decision team. Consultative services teams may even be drawn into the process to discuss the process of change that must occur and the scenarios that have played out with other clients. The bottom line is that the cost of the problem must be significant enough in scope and magnitude to justify the challenge of change and address the anxiety around making the investment. By actively guiding the prospect through the implications of competing approaches or merely remaining tied to the status quo, the supplier makes the case for change and investment. Reliable guidance, in other words, is essential if the prospect is to commit to becoming a client.
  • Implementation. One of the main hurdles to customer success in many B2B sectors, particularly information technology, is inadequate customer adoption. One recent study of software executives by Neochange and Sandhill.com found that 70% of respondents cited adoption as the key driver of business value. And yet, the same study found almost two-thirds of enterprise buyers achieve less than 49% effective adoption. No customer benefits from shelfware or implementation processes that drag on beyond deadlines and go way over budget. Here’s where many companies have fallen down. They have not provided adequate guidance to ensure their customers have appropriately and fully implemented their solutions. Addressing this hurdle is a key factor in the drive toward customer success.
  • Performance. Beyond implementation, companies are under increasing pressure to document and demonstrate the value they have delivered to their clients. This is particularly true in older line B2B sectors where the threat of supplier commoditization may be most vivid. But such expectations may also be moving steadily toward more new economy industries as well. In order to win new clients, companies must be able to prove that they have delivered the results that they claimed in their pre-sales business cases. Guidance, once again, is critical if customers are to reach their objectives. But analytical consulting skills also are necessary in order to quantify and confirm these results.  Suppliers must not only ensure their customers realize performance targets, they must also be able to measure and document those gains.
  • Advocacy. Only when companies are truly delivering are they able to turn their customers into advocates – key influencers in the drive to obtain new business. Indeed, this is the point in the post-sale part of the cycle where marketing must be extremely active. By identifying the success stories of customers and giving them a platform on which to share it, marketers can more easily win the confidence of prospects and, thus, drive marketing and sales performance to new levels. Customers provide guidance and validation to new prospects. Momentum builds.  This is the central message in Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (later popularized in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm). Suppliers, of course, should have well managed customer reference programs. But it’s important to recognize that it is far less difficult to get a reference if the client has been turned into a hero and real results have been demonstrated. Nothing succeeds, as they say, like success.

While marketing, sales and service professionals tend to identify with separate and specific roles, perhaps what they all share is a role in guiding the customer to the point of success. They are, in essence, guidance professionals.

When they see themselves as part of this bigger picture – this new mental model – they may even begin to think of themselves (and their roles) differently. This model shouldn’t prevent organizations from drilling down further and elaborating on the different steps necessary to, say, close a sale. But it does provide a more systemic and all-encompassing view of what the enterprise is trying to achieve. Most importantly, it shows that companies and their customers should be focused on achieving the same thing: success.