As marketers, we know a huge shift is happening in the buying process. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the B2B space. These days, buyers do their own research. They don't talk to salespeople until late in their purchasing process.

The traditional sales funnel we all grew up with—that neat, linear process that moves the buyer smoothly from awareness to action—just isn't reality anymore.

So if we can't use the funnel anymore to explain the buying and selling process, what metaphor can we use to guide our marketing and sales activities?

Many options are out there. For example, Forrester discusses the French Horn, and while that model has its strong points, it's complicated and hard to implement. McKinsey has the Consumer Decision Journey, but that doesn't have much granularity to help us rethink our sales and marketing efforts.

The analogy I think best illustrates the new buying reality is the one I talk about in my book The Radical Sales Shift: 20 Lessons from 20 Leaders on How to Use Marketing to Grow Sales in B2B Companies.

The New Buying Process Is a Pinball Machine

The days of the predictable sales funnel are over. The purchasing journey isn't a straight line any more. Buyers ping back and forth between stages, jump back to an earlier stage, go straight to purchase, or end up not buying at all. The process is like a game of pinball.

In my analogy, the buyer is the ball, and the B2B company sets up the game board with paddles, flippers, and ramps that guide the ball's journey. The ball has to navigate bumpers and drains to reach the goal post, just as the buyer navigates specific touchpoints before making a buying decision. And like the ball in a pinball game, the decision can move unpredictably.

Your lead generation activities are the entrance to the pinball machine, and your sales and marketing tactics are the flippers, gates, and spinners that help the ball along its trajectory.

The ball bounces from webinar to factory tour to case study to free trial, earning you points with the buyer as he or she learns about your product or service. But the process is rarely predictable. Often, the ball ends up veering off your "planned" course, causing sales and marketing professionals to adapt and guide the ball (i.e., customer) through a less direct route with additional touchpoints.

Sometimes, the ball looks like it will head straight for the goal post. But then it hits an obstacle and goes in a direction the exact opposite of what you expected, forcing you to react fast to keep it in play.

Other times, the ball will head straight to the goal without hitting anything along the way. It might hit three (or 20) paddles and spinners before it makes it to the goal. Or the ball could make contact a dozen times then unexpectedly fall into the gutter.

Every Game Is Different

Each game is based on the needs and the momentum of each buyer. The process can feel random, but it's not.

Just as a pinball game is governed by the laws of physics (with variables such as the size of the ball, the angles at which it hits obstacles, the force with which the player actions the ball, even the positioning of the machine on the floor all affecting play), the B2B sales process is based on a huge number of factors, too.

You can't influence everyone, but you can control how your pinball surface is set up.

You determine the ramps and flippers (i.e., sales and marketing tactics). You control what they are, how powerful they are, and where they are placed. You can position them where they will be most effective in sending that ball towards its goal.

Which Ramps and Bumpers Work Best?

How do you know which tactics (ramps and bumpers) will be most effective? By carefully monitoring and measuring what works and what doesn't.

Maybe people aren't going to your webinar because you aren't hyping it appropriately. So, you tweak your message to generate more interest and send out a press release to get the media talking about it.

Perhaps your tweets aren't hitting your audience because your buyers aren't on Twitter. So, you find out what social media they are on, and you use that platform to talk to them more directly.

You can control the interactions that your buyers will experience, even if you can't always control how they will react.

By treating the B2B buying process as a pinball machine instead of the more traditional funnel, you embrace the shifting needs of the new buyer rather than trying to force them through an outdated model. In turning your sales and marketing people into pinball wizards, you'll be well on your way to scoring big points with buyers—and winning big at the sales game.

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Forget the Funnel: Why the Sales Process Is More Like a Pinball Machine

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image of Lisa Shepherd

Lisa Shepherd is president of The Mezzanine Group, a B2B marketing company in Toronto that works with small and medium-sized enterprises.

LinkedIn: Lisa Shepherd