The buyer’s journey is a framework for thinking about the stages that a buyer goes through in the complex purchase typical in B2B. It allows sellers to arrange their tactics to best help their buyers navigate each of those stages and to measure their effectiveness at creating advantage as they do. Summarised as awareness, consideration, and decision, it is often broken down into further stages.

Growing businesses – whether start-up, small, medium or enterprise – want a sales and marketing engine that performs. At what though? Revenue is a measure but a flawed one for both Sales and Marketing; this year’s revenue often contains sales success from past years and delivery success since. Revenue growth (rather than absolute revenue) might be more accurate. But that, too, is a difficult measure. Is revenue growth this year a function of price increases, amazing delivery of value from the operational side of your business, usage growth by your customers, or the efforts of Sales and Marketing?

Closed sales this year/quarter/month is a better measure for sales and marketing as it strips out these impurities. Your decisions about whether you record the value of closed sales by number, number of new logos, annual contract value, anticipated lifetime value, and revenue or gross margin is situational.

Regardless, closed sales is a lag indicator. Before a sale, we have preference. And before that, we have an offer of some sort. Before an offer, we have a scoped need, and other stages like basic awareness still earlier.

We (Sales and Marketing) want to choose the right tactics, and we want them to work.

It turns out we also want our strategy to work. We consider strategic questions like:

  • who do we want to be exposed to those tactics?
  • and what are we going to sell them when they are?
  • and who’s going to execute the tactic? Is it for us or our resellers?

As I’ll argue in this essay, the buyer’s journey is a framework for optimising both your tactics and your strategy, and therefore your performance.

Marketers who are more familiar with consumer marketing than business to business marketing will tell us, “Businesses don’t buy, people do”. While true, this is a sure sign of someone who’s not had a lot of experience marketing to businesses.

In consumer marketing (B2C), you can make an amazing and provocative piece of creative, make people laugh, slap the logo on the end, and you’re done. I’m kidding of course, but only just. Consider some of the funniest ads you saw last night and try to remember the brands.

Most B2B buying is especially complex. Business (B2B) marketers understand that their buyers take many steps on their path to purchase, and they often take many weeks, months or years to make a decision. And there are many players involved on both sides.

Some B2B buying is simple, and some B2C buying is complex, but in the main, B2B is a good enough proxy for ‘the complex sale’.

And in B2B, we need to use many, many tactics to help buyers move through this complex and time-consuming journey. So, the job of any tactic isn’t to sell but to move.

To where?

From where?

And what went on before this particular tactic that might influence a buyer’s receptivity to this tactic? To bring in the father of persuasion Robert Cialdini, how were they persuaded (sic)?

That is, what ‘priors’ do they bring to each stage in the journey? In a perfect world, we might have been the author of all of those ‘priors’. In reality, this is rare.

The buyer’s journey is a progression of thought. It might help if I describe it backwards first to unpack the buyers journey stages, then forwards so you can think about how you might optimise that journey.

  1. I like xx
  2. Why do I need something like xx anyway, though?
  3. And what will happen if I don’t buy something like xx?
  4. Who might I consider?

Let’s now play that forwards using slightly different language:

  1. I know you (but don’t really care)
  2. I’m curious enough (but still not terribly motivated), perhaps look at solutions and concepts for a while without really knowing what I ought to be looking for
  3. I bounce in and out of those moments for eons until…
  4. I have a problem worth fixing
  5. I explore options, talk to vendors, colleagues, friends, advisors, scratch my head and arrive at a view about what I need (from someone)
  6. Maybe I retreat and return a few times before landing on a clear enough idea about what I need
  7. Then I get more proper offers from one or more options. That can be anything from a super formal tender to a phone quote or DIY web-config, but now I know what the deal is
  8. Then I discard options until one seems to be the best path
  9. Then I buy
  10. And if I work at a big company or am an otherwise clear target, maybe before that whole journey started, someone had my name in a database, and I didn’t even know that I was a ‘target’.

Some writers like to argue that the buyer’s journey is not linear and might use language like “the funnel is dead”. Cute, but not terribly helpful. It is perhaps more helpful to think of the journey as iterative than linear.

Many have had a go at defining and articulating the buyer’s journey. I like HubSpot’s attempt. https://blog.hubspot.com/sales/what-is-the-buyers-journey

They distil the multiple stages into three:

  • Awareness stage
  • Consideration stage
  • Decision stage

And they acknowledge the changing awareness for the buyer at each stage:

  • Awareness – pain/problem aware
  • Consideration – solution aware
  • Decision – provider aware

Sourced from HubSpot

At align.me, we use a more-granular journey for a few reasons, which I’ll argue here. But I’m still comfortable with HubSpot’s somewhat-simple top/middle/bottom of funnel stratification.

Even at this very high level, though, I’d use different language (just to be picky). Buyers are usually aware of the provider(s) early in the journey, not just late.

Sales and Marketing both have roles in helping buyers to navigate their journey. Pre-sales does too. Is it the case that Marketing owns the awareness stage, Pre-sales the consideration stage, and Sales owns the decision stage?

The buyer's journey - a term first coined by Hugh Macfarlane in 2003That’s convenient but rarely true. Many (most?) sales are initiated by Sales. Sure, Marketing might have created an environment for success, and in some businesses, they might even be the source of many opportunities. But individual salespeople often create many of their own new opportunities. So, this simplistic articulation of the buyer’s journey certainly doesn’t help explain and optimise the roles to be played by Marketing, Pre-sales, and Sales.

Let’s flip to the buyer’s view of this journey. For a buyer, gaining clarity about what they need – whether from you or someone else – is a key stage in their journey. Once they’re clear about what they need, they can view and judge solutions well.

But why do they need a solution at all? What is going on – or what risks going on – that gives rise to this need? Put differently, what problem are they trying to solve? And what would the consequence be for not solving that problem? These are key questions for a buyer.

Whatever good things the business is trying to achieve (growth, cost reduction, expansion, compliance, etc.), those goals and objectives face hurdles. Maybe the business lacks know-how, resources, or capabilities. Maybe they lack something less human, like data or systems.

In pursuit of their objectives, a business will face:

  • Impediments
  • Barriers
  • Hurdles
  • Constraints

For a seller, it doesn’t make sense to offer a solution until there’s agreed clarity about the need. And the need is informed or triggered by this gap.

The difference between this gap and the need is key. It’s also the seller’s best opportunity to create positive influence. One seller might be superior at meeting one articulation of the need, and another seller better at meeting a different articulation of the need.

Let me give you an example. A part of our own business is go-to-market planning. If you believe that you need a go-to-market plan that is largely similar to others’ and you don’t have many stakeholders, then we’d be competing with low-priced books, courses, eBooks and the like.

But if you believe you need a go-to-market plan that is unique and has been built and bought into by a dozen senior contributors, then our workshop-driven approach would be more attractive.

Let’s push that further. If you believe that you need a go-to-market plan that is informed by deep research, sector analysis, contributions from hundreds of customers and your field, then align.me would be competing with Bain, BCG and McKinsey.

We do sometimes. But we win when the need is for a go-to-market plan built and bought into by your senior contributors. So as a seller, if we’re granted an opportunity to shape your concept of the problem you want solved and what you need to do so, we’ll argue the need for team input and suggest that you need a plan built in a few weeks, not in many months. And we’d argue that you need a plan built within a sane commercial cost range and so ought to be leveraging some sort of clever tech to allow us to do so.

I won’t take that argument any further lest you think I’m trying to shape your thinking :).

If it doesn’t make sense to offer a solution until there’s agreed clarity about the need and the gap, is that true earlier? That is, should we be trying to trouble a potential buyer when we are just getting onto their radar?

Sometimes you do. Perhaps you want to be positioned in their mind as one of the credible providers of a solution in a certain category. But you might also want to be positioned as someone who can solve a certain type of problem.

If a B2B buyer is already looking for solutions in a certain category, they might be Googling that category, researching listing sites like Captera, or consulting with analysts like Gartner. In this case, we should position as a credible solution and use good questioning and discovery techniques to take them backwards in the journey to reshape their concept of what they need. Done well and authentically, a buyer can believe they need A/B/C when they start and legitimately and wisely conclude at the end of that process that they need B/C/D.

For a buyer not yet looking, we might position as someone who has insights into their problems and can help.

Pick any common tactic in B2B sales and marketing and think about the stage in the buyers journey where this best fits. Or most often fits.

Consider case studies for example. They are a common and effective way for a seller to evidence their ability to deliver value. A case study can describe the entire journey that the buyer took and continue on to describe the outcomes achieved.

But we can also optimise any case study for one or another buyer’s journey stage. Consider how you might optimise a case study in these common use cases:

  • A buyer who can’t (yet) see some of the barriers they will face as they pursue their objectives;
  • One who isn’t yet clear, or perhaps wrong in their thinking, and what is needed to overcome those barriers;
  • One who doesn’t really understand you’re approach to the proposed solution; or
  • One who doesn’t understand why this approach will yield better outcomes.

The case study document itself might be optimised for any one of those stages. In theory, we might even entertain the idea of a single case study being manifested as many documents, each optimised for one stage in the journey. This could allow for the automated marketing or the manual selling to leverage the right story to help any individual buyer to their next stage.

An effective case study, though, is rarely optimised for every buyers journey stage.

That little example, and insight from it, suggests that every single tactic needs this simple piece of clarity:

  • What do we believe buyers who receive this tactic already think?
  • What do we want them to think once we’re done with this tactic?

That’s it. Simple, but a little too rare. Consider any big tactic:

  • Webinar
  • EBook
  • Executive roundtable
  • Seminar presentation
  • Discovery workshop

…or any smaller tactic

  • Follow up email
  • Confirmation call

The job of each tactic is to help a buyer from one thought to another.

Sometimes, they need to be repeated. Consider a nurture series where you might rely on many emails read over an extended period to slowly unlock the grip on one idea to allow consideration of another.

Sometimes they work in tandem with others to successfully achieve a progression:

  • An email invitation to a webinar hints at the problem (gap/challenge/barrier/impediment)
  • The webinar explores it
  • The follow-up email reinforces it
  • The 1-1 meetings and discovery sessions personalise and enumerate it

The job of each tactic – alone or in tandem – is to help a buyer from one thought to another along the buyer’s journey.

Ask any sales professional about their closure rate – the percentage of their proposals that they successfully close – and they’ll almost certainly know. 25% to 33% (one in four or one in three) is common. Ask them how long their sales cycle is, and they’ll also often have a decent handle on this. Three months is not uncommon, although many in B2B deal with sales cycles that are considerably longer and some are blissfully shorter.

Ask them to break both closure and cycle length down to the stages, and they’ll rarely know.

But they need to.

We’ve built hundreds of go-to-market plans in workshops in 32 countries and thousands using our planning software. And the difference between the shape of average deals that are ultimately won and those that are ultimately lost is telling. This pattern is different for every business, but there are two common patterns:

  • If a buyer has been ‘stuck’ at any particular buyer’s journey stage for longer than is normal for you, then the probability of them ever progressing is already low and is getting lower by the day
  • If a buyer whistles through a stage faster than is normal for you, double-check that they really are locked in at the next stage. There is a huge risk they will slip backwards later.

Sometimes (or if we’re honest, often), these fast or slow buyers are really a reflection of fast and loose data in your CRM. Salespeople are not famous for loving admin, and will often not update sales stages in the CRM as their buyer progresses. So, what presents as a fast navigation through one stage might just be a reflection of the salesperson updating multiple-stage progressions in a late-night sitting.

Neither do salespeople generally like conceding defeat. Many of the deals that look like they are ‘stuck’ in your funnel have leaked from it long ago.

All that to say, we need to get good at updating progressions so we can gain useful insights into win and loss patterns generally and the probability of each deal specifically.

In 2003 I wrote The Leaky Funnel. My first version was a prescriptive argument about how to build a go-to-market plan, but I discarded that in favour of writing it as a novel.

In the book, I needed to argue the ideas contained in this essay and to refer frequently back to that idea. I needed a handful of words to collect this idea so that if I had to refer to it 50 times in the book, I’d need a few thousand words only once, and a few words every other time. Like the way we use an acronym like ‘B2B’ as shorthand for business-to-business.

It was for this reason, and not for any grand plan, that I coined the term ‘the buyer’s journey’. It is now a common expression and owned by the universe. But the fire started here. I risk saying this and appearing immodest to argue only a few points:

  • I have been thinking about this idea for a long time
  • I have a lot of experience using this idea
  • Anyone who lays claim to owning the term might want to check around a little

I coined the buyer’s journey as a term, but I don’t own it. No-one does.

I’ve mentioned a few times that we run workshops to help businesses build go-to-market plans and have software to make that process hyper-efficient.

When I ran the very first Funnel Camp workshop in 2000 for IBM, one of our workshops was to define their own concept of the buyer’s journey. We repeated that for around 20 workshops with other clients and abandoned the journey-definition exercise thereafter as the conclusions were always identical. Each discussion might have started uniquely, but once we analysed, discussed, debated, we always landed at the same articulation of the buyer’s journey. We’ve now run around 500 workshops and used the buyer’s journey to shape every single one.

Since 2020 these workshops have all been done on Zoom. Before 2020, they were all face to face. When COVID-19 pandemic sent the whole world home in March 2020, we made a deliberate decision that our pivot (everyone had one) would be to lean into remote delivery. We modified our Funnel Plan software to enable multiple remote participants to input, rate, and debate options and to decide and articulate their conclusions. We even integrated Zoom into Funnel Plan so that we can kick off a Zoom meeting from inside the software.

All that to say, I am confident arguing that the following is the clearest and most road-test articulation of the buyer’s journey for complex B2B.

Stages What they think at this stage
New names found “I don’t necessarily know you, nor that you can solve my problem”
Positioned in category “I understand that you are one of the companies in this product category.”
Interest Established “This topic is interesting to me. I would like to meet or read or listen”
Gap acknowledged “I agree that I have the problem that you and others in this category can solve.”
Need agreed “I am clear about what I need to fix this problem – whether from you or someone else – and can see the payoff for properly fixing this problem.”
Offer understood “I can see how your proposed solution might meet my needs and provide the payoff I seek.”
Preference formed “Yours is the only solution I want to consider.”
Decision made “You and I have a firm agreement binding us both.”

You can see parallels to HubSpot’s simpler articulation:

  • Awareness stage

    • Positioned in Category
    • Interest Established
  • Consideration stage

    • Gap Acknowledged
    • Need Agreed
  • Decision stage

    • Offer Understood
    • Preference Formed
    • Decision Made

But we’ve added two stages in the buyer’s journey that don’t fit neatly into HubSpot’s model. HubSpot are famous for championing inbound marketing. And why not? But many of us in B2B have to do lots of outbounding too. And for this reason, we need to begin with a stage that’s not truly a buyer’s journey stage, but when choosing tactics (coming up next in this essay), there are many key tactics needed to find the right names.

And the same is true of the recycling that we need to do to those buyers who have leaked from the funnel and need to be nurtured back in.

Every business needs to craft its own set of tactics. And they should have the CEO (or divisional head) and the heads of each of Sales, Marketing, Pre-sales in the room when they craft their tactics for the buyer’s journey, and often a half a dozen others who report to these leaders. And they probably should have an experienced facilitator lead them through the process of considering, debating, forming their tactics roadmap for the buyer’s journey

The result might look something like this:

And for buyers who leaked from the funnel and needed to be nurtured before returning to the funnel, we might expect tactics like:

  • Email blog to those we have email addresses for
  • Google remarketing for website visitors
  • LinkedIn remarketing for the subset of our website visitors who also meet our ideal client profile as defined in our LinkedIn filters

In our Funnel Plan we’d represent this as a series of inter-connected tactics:

Enough with the theory. Here are some steps for your to consider:

  1. Rename the stages in your CRM to be those of the buyer’s journey, rather than the sellers. It doesn’t matter where you are. It matters a lot where they are.
  2. Set gates up for your marketers and salespeople to define what indicators you’d expect to see from the buyer to suggest they have completed this stage in their thinking, and what actions your sales and marketing folks need to take to close out this stage.
  3. Get your sales and marketing leadership together to build a buyer-centric strategy (not “what do we sell and to whom?” but “what problem to we solve, and for whom?”. Remember your team should include CEO (or divisional head), and the heads of each of Sales, Marketing, Pre-sales and a half a dozen of their reports.
  4. Have that same team identify the tactics you’ll use to help buyers to navigate each stage of the buyer’s journey
  5. Build reports in your CRM to track lag (time) and leakage (failure to progress) for each stage in your buyer’s journey, and use those measures to inform changes to your strategy and your tactics.

…oh, and if you need a little help from someone who’s led this initiative before, do let us know.