The buying journey has changed. Control has shifted from organizations to customers, which means today's customers are taking it upon themselves to learn as much as they can about a brand and its competitors before making a purchase.

According to Forrester Research, today's buyers would have gone through up to 90 percent of their buying journey before they make the first contact with a vendor. In some product categories, buyers will only contact a sales person when they're ready for a price quote. "The sales funnel is no longer linear and the customer is completely in control of the path to purchase," explains Mark Osborn, SAP's global lead for consumer products industry marketing.

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With this trend prevalent in both B2B and B2C interactions, sales and marketing teams need to adapt to this reality and make changes to their funnel in order to remain competitive. As Claire Rhoads, revenue marketing coach at the Pedowitz Group, notes, while in the past, sales teams were involved in the majority of the purchasing journey and marketing had a small part, their roles have now been reversed. Tim Riesterer, chief strategy and marketing officer at Corporate Visions, believes that organizations need to undergo a "fundamental mind shift" that revolves around having conversations with customers rather than deploying campaigns.

This message was reiterated repeatedly during Forrester Forum for Marketing Leaders in April, where the key message was that organizations need to focus on highly personalized interactions and steer away from mass marketing campaigns. Further, since customers are already doing their research before the very first contact with an organization, they don't want a reiteration of what they already know. "Marketing programs need to deliver value to customers," stresses Luca Paderni, vice president and research director at Forrester. "You need to deliver visible value to customers."

Know your customers

Kurt Anderson, executive vice president of sales enablement and marketing at SAVO, agrees that organizations will only win if they offer added value. "Delivering timely situational insights to conversations is what differentiates companies from one another," he notes. However, delivering value isn't a straightforward task. Different customers have varying expectations and therefore diverse definitions of what's valuable to them. Further, the Internet, which has had the most substantial and evident impact on the sales and marketing funnel, has put information at customers' fingertips. "The Web provides customers with more options of where to make a purchase, and is also a massive source of information," Osborn notes. "Buyers can be educated without companies even knowing," stresses Anderson. While this means that companies are no longer in charge of the information they deliver to customers about their products and services, they're in a position to monitor what customers are doing to learn more about them.

In order to effectively understand their customers and prospects, the first step that organizations need to take is to make sure they have a robust data strategy in place that allows them to better know their customers. As Jonathan Gray, vice president of marketing at Revana Growth Services, notes in this blog, the right data allows sales people to speak directly to the needs of individual customers through very targeted conversations.

Because customers are using the Web, smartphones, and social media to do their research, they are leaving behind them a trail of information breadcrumbs that organizations should be leveraging in order to better understand what that individual customer is looking for, but also what he already knows. This data allows businesses to complement customers' knowledge rather than waste time with repetitions.

Further customers' digital body language uncovers their pain points, allowing companies to address them directly. Riesterer says that with this data in hand, companies can provide information that customers weren't even searching for, but which can address that person's problem. "Avoid commoditization by only responding to that prospect's exact need, which is what everyone else is doing, but provide additional value," he recommends. For example, if a customer is looking for a DIY hair straightening system, she might appreciate a video with step-by-step instructions on the process, or information about the pros and cons of different ingredients. "Look at the unidentified needs that person is most likely to have and address them," Riesterer adds.

The social revolution

Social channels have continued to increase customers' ability to take charge of the buying journey, by allowing customers to interact with their peers and proactively ask for reviews and recommendations outside of their intimate circle of family and friends. As Jess Iandiorio, Acquia's vice president of product marketing, explains, social goes beyond simply indicating a customer's interest. Instead, social channels are extremely effective at giving additional information about that person, including their interests and personality. This information will allow marketers to adapt their messaging to that person.

However, social sales strategies need to be adapted to make the most of the strengths of the medium. Rhoads,notes that organizations get better results when their sales strategies aren't overly sales-focused. "When organizations focus their social strategies around interesting content, they get much higher engagement," she notes.

The other benefit of social channels is the ability to continue tracking customers after a sales interaction or even a purchase to determine the right time to reach out to them. Further, brands can identify customers who are irate with a company with which they're currently doing business. For example, a customer who has complained about his cable provider might be open to receiving information from a competitor, which spells out how they would make sure that customer doesn't experience the same problems if they switch.

Not just about what, but also where

Smartphones have brought the abilities of the Web to brick-and-mortar environments. This phenomenon is allowing organizations to reach out to prospects anytime and anywhere. Osborn notes that smartphones' biggest impact for sales and marketing is their ability to determine where a customer is at a given moment in time. He explains that if a customer has opted in, retailers can even know where in a store they are and deliver information that adds value.

Stop & Shop, a New England-based grocery chain, gives customers the opportunity to use hand scanners that are activated when customers use their loyalty cards to scan and bag their groceries immediately at the aisle. This helps them avoid the hassle of putting the items in their carts, taking them to the checkout counter, scanning them, and then placing them in a bag. This function is not only helping customers save time, but is providing the retailer with timely information, which can be combined with a customer's historical data, notes Mary Pilecki, vice president and research director serving customer insights professionals at Forrester. This information is providing stores using smartphone scans new opportunities that should be tapped. One option would be to alert customers about offers, which can even be geographically specific, for example a discount on a particular brand of cereal that a customer has never bought before as soon as she starts moving down that aisle.

But as Pilecki stresses, notifications don't need to be restricted to offers, but anything that provides value to that individual customer. "Wouldn't it be great if [the grocery store] reminded me to get milk?" she says.

Another opportunity lies in providing scannable codes on or next to individual items that allow customers to get additional information while they're in the store. To continue using the example of a supermarket, codes on the poultry chiller can provide customers with a variety of recipes and a list of the ingredients needed. Such a strategy will both give customers added value by helping them decide what to make for dinner, but could also increase sales by alerting customers to other items they should be purchasing.

Mobile can also be used to make an in-store experience easier for customers and helping them find what they need. Home Depot, for example, leverages mobile's Geolocation capabilities to let customers know in which aisle they can find the item they're searching for, which is extremely helpful, especially in larger stores and can make the difference between a sale or a customer walking away because he can't easily find what he's looking for.

The truth is that the traditional funnel has been greatly impacted by the Web, social, and mobile, and organizations need to adapt their strategies to embrace these new channels and make sure they provide the added value that customers are looking for and which will convince them to make a purchase.