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This blog post focuses on how B2B companies can optimize their customer acquisition funnels using a customer-centric methodology to analyze and remove blockage points. Acquiring customers in the B2B world involves using a variety of marketing and sales steps with the goal of converting prospective customers into paying customers. No matter how large or successful your business is, you will have at least one place that is a blockage point in your customer acquisition funnel.
As an example, you may have too few visitors coming to your web site, which you see as the top of your funnel. In this blog post, I will talk about a method that I have found to be highly effective at removing blockage points.
We have plenty of visitors to our web site, but not enough are converting to registered users. We have plenty of users signing up for our freemium product (or free trial), but not enough are converting to paid users.
We’re doing OK getting people to sign up as customers, but there is not enough growth in the account after the first sale. This happens because most companies design their customer acquisition process around their own view of the world, instead of first taking the time to understand the customer’s buying process, and their concerns at each stage. Readers of my other article, Building a Sales and Marketing Machine, will know that I recommend designing sales processes from the outside in. Think of the concerns as being the friction in the process, and the motivations as being the forward pulling forces that you can use to overcome the friction. The art is finding the right motivation that is great enough to overcome their concerns, and have them move forward in the sales process. A very common misperception amongst first time entrepreneurs is “If you build it, they will come”. To get them to pay attention to you, you will want to think about giving them something valuable to earn their attention.
It requires a very small amount of non-private information to get going (just a web site URL), and gives back a lot of value from that small amount of input. It offers a rating (score out of 100) which takes advantage of the competitive nature of humans. It positions HubSpot as an expert in the SEO space, and it shows their ability to use technology to perform a task that is normally done by highly paid SEO-experts. Contrast HubSpot’s approach to driving traffic and and providing value for free with the worst types of website that require you to give them an email address before they will allow you watch a marketing video that will tell you about their product. If you are wondering what to offer to your customers to provide value, I have a suggestion to make: think Education.
Get inside your customers head, and understand what area they are most interested in learning about, and offer educational material in that area. Important note: most companies that I talk to think that they are doing this well, but a quick review of their materials reveals that what they think are educational materials are just thinly disguised sales collateral.
After reading the above, you might be wondering how you could do something similar, but realizing you are held back by not having a data source.
For Type A customers, the most likely starting point for an interaction will be a Google Search, since they are likely looking for a product to solve a particular need. Another frequent problem are in conversion funnels is the point where you want your visitors to register and provide you with their email address or other contact information. That information is personal, and the time it takes for me to deal with your future emails has considerable value. JBoss, the Open Source Java middleware company, leveraged two powerful customer insights to create a very high growth business. However that first insight created the next bottleneck in the funnel to solve: the millions of users that had downloaded the product for free had not registered, as JBoss felt that putting a registration in front of the download would greatly reduce download volume.
The second company that I started in 1986 was called International Software, which later became the European branch of Corporate Software.
When I first started the business, I purchased a copy of the Times 1,000 top companies in the UK, and started at the top, dialing the biggest companies, trying to reach their PC buyers. My insight was that if I sent them a free copy of the book first, and then asked them for a meeting, I might provide them with proof that we were different, and capable of providing more value to them than all the other vendors calling on them. One of my portfolio companies, Enservio, sells high value products and services to Insurance companies. While sitting in the audience of a TechCrunch 50 presentation, the CEO, Jon McNeil, had the brilliant idea to hold a similar conference for executives in the insurance industry, bringing together the very best startup companies that were innovating in the insurance industry. The net result was a great success, attracting executives that their sales people could never get to.
The other benefit of getting executives to an event like this is the amount of time that was available for relationship building. You have to like how they put a redline through Step 1: Create and account, highlighting the fact that you don’t need to register to set up a Posterous blog. Use a quote from a well known name, in this case Leo Laporte, to reinforce the fact that it really is easy to get going.
Make them feel comfortable that thousands of other customers are using the site, so they can feel comfortable that others like the site, so they probably will, and the risks of anything going wrong with their personal information are likely to be low.
The “Who is it for?” provides a nice way to allow each user type to get comfortable that this site has features that make it well suited to their needs. One thing missing from the above screen that might add value to lesser known sites is some quotes from reviews that say positive things about the product. It is important point to realize that all sales and marketing funnels have blockage points.
When running these sessions it is highly valuable to have a flow chart diagram of your sales and marketing funnel process as one of the starting places for discussion. I also recommend that the customer concerns, and possible off-setting motivations, are written down on a white board or similar during the meeting.
In my own startups, I found that I naturally gravitated into the role of being the person who tried to think like the customer, and represented their point of view to the rest of the group. Elsewhere in this blog, I have talked a lot about the importance of metrics (here and here).

You will want to measure the number of prospects going into each stage, and the conversion rate to the next stage.
These metrics will show you your funnel blockage points, and help you understand whether your actions to improve funnel flow are working. All sales and marketing funnels have blockage points, and as soon as you remove one, the blockage will move to another place.
Blockages are frequently caused because you are hoping your customer will take a step in your process where they are not adequately motivated to do that step.
By analyzing their concerns, and brainstorming with creative thinking executives, it is often possible to figure out customer motivations that can be used to offset their concerns, and get them to willingly take that step. Free products, educational content, and insights based on data that you may possess or collect are examples of tools that can be used as motivations for your prospective customers. Removing blockage points increases conversion rates in your funnel, which is one the most important things you can do to increase revenues and profitability.
I recommend setting up quarterly brainstorming sessions to focus on removing blockage points, which could also be referred to as increasing conversion rates. I also recommend choosing one executive to become the voice of the customer, and setting them the task of getting inside your customers’ heads to understand how they think and react to all stages of your sales and marketing process. The process is often thought of as a funnel (see diagram above) where you pour in suspects at the top, and various steps in the process, some percentage of prospects successfully convert to the next stage, making the funnel narrower as the process evolves. This is the point where the conversion rates from one stage to the next are not satisfactory, or the point where you have a scaling problem, (i.e.
Or you might have plenty of visitors to your website, but too few of them signing up for your trial. There is enormous power in this exercise, as removing blockage points will increase conversion rates in your funnel.
It is important to diagnose if that is the case, as the wrong diagnosis will likely lead to management wasting a lot of money on sales and marketing for a product that is not right. However you may not have solved the problem of how to make them aware of your site, and secondly of providing a motivation or reason for them to want to visit it. This is where you need to muster your brightest and most creative thinkers to brainstorm the issue.
Given the huge pressures of today’s always-on lifestyle with iPhones, BlackBerries, instant messaging, SMS, Twitter, social networks, etc., the average buyer is suffering from severe information overload.
HubSpot is a company that sells a SaaS product aimed at helping small and medium size businesses implement Inbound Marketing. The first of these, WebSiteGrader, gives customers a way to find out how well their web site will perform in Google searches (SEO), and what can be improved to make it perform better.
Because of that, bloggers will recommend the product and users will tweet about it, spreading the word. They want to get the best score, so if their score is low, they will likely want to improve it, and if that’s the case, HubSpot has the answer.
The two calls to action are carefully pitched in such a way as to offer more value for free to the customer. Then at an appropriate time the customer will be more willing to offer their email address. The power of your engineers is that they can build things that can be used by your customers and provide value to them. Compared to the traditional spend that you might put into marketing programs, this can frequently be a far better investment, and be more effective at building the right kind of relationship with your prospective customers. Frequently it is possible to use insights gained from that data to create interesting articles or services that can be used to drive traffic to your website. Sysomos provides a SaaS service to help enterprises monitor the conversations going on in blogs and social media that might affect their company.
This helps them get the attention of VCs and venture backed companies who are their prospective customers.
Mirror42 has created an on-line KPI repository that tracks the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are used in various different vertical industries. For Type B customers, the problem is much harder, and will likely cost you more effort and money. I have concerns about whether it will be easy to use, fast to evaluate, and effective at meeting my needs.
You simply email them your first post, and it get’s your registration information from your email address (pretty clever!).
The first was that giving the product away completely free would create immediate interest and viral growth.
In order to market paid services to that user base, JBoss needed to get the contact information for these users. We published The International Software Guide, a 600 page book that reviewed almost all the software products available for the PC at that time. The results were spectacular: I went from a 2-3% success rate in getting meetings to around 90%! Using compelling high value content on the web is the modern equivalent of the above story, and is exactly how companies using Inbound Marketing are driving web traffic. As part of their sales process, they need to get to senior executives in the insurance industry that are capable of making decisions. They put together an annual Claims Innovation Summit, and pulled in prestigious speakers from highly respected analyst and consulting firms, and invited speakers from within the industry to add valuable content around the startup presentations. Not only did they get hard-to-reach executives to the event, but due to the incredibly professional way in which they managed the event, they built trust with those executives, which is a key requirement before a sale can be completed. When coming up with new ideas for content on pages, split the traffic so that one half goes through the new page and the other half goes through the old page. Without this, there is a risk that a power user could see the site as too simple for them, given all the focus on simplicity in the messaging. Without this diagram, you are unlikely to find that all the players have the same picture of what is going on. In other companies, it is not always going to be clear which executive has the best natural tendencies to play that role.

If you don’t measure your funnel’s performance, you have very little chance of understanding how to improve it.
You will also care about the overall conversion rate of prospects from the top of funnel to closed deal, and the average deal size. Readers of my prior blog posts on the importance of lowering the cost of customer acquisition (CAC), will know that increased conversion rates have a huge impact on increasing sales and lowering the cost of customer acquisition.
However since most companies have already got a sales process in place, that advice is less helpful to them. Since customers have such an aversion to being sold to, and now have real control over the buying process, the old ways of moving them through a conversion funnel will usually have mediocre results. If you can’t even start a dialog with a prospective customer, then you have no opportunity to sell them. There is an interesting thing that happens when someone learns from material that is well put together and intelligent: They develop respect and trust for the person that is educating them, and will listen to suggestions that come from that person, including for products and service.
In the educational model, the teacher who does great work is automatically placed into a superior role to the person that is doing the learning. To do this well, you may need to hire a dedicated writer who is measured on the quality of material, traffic, and positive comments they generate. The backbone of the service is a series of crawlers feeding data in to a huge and constantly expanding database. There are several examples of companies that decided to issue surveys to get collect that data, promising people that participated that the would have access to the results.
At the time that we did the brainstorming session to apply this methodology, they were charging money for the documentation, which was bringing in a very nice steady revenue stream of $27,000 every month.
Before International Software, the typical way you purchased a PC and associated software was through a store like ComputerLand, or BusinessLand. This was a frustrating blockage point, and there was clearly lots of buyer friction at this stage in the sales funnel. The book was given to our customers as part of our service if they purchased their software from us. Not surprisingly, the average sales person will struggle if they simply try to cold call those executives. Or try two variations of the new page with different wording to optimize the conversion rate.
I recommend that you choose one person from the executive team to play that role, and encourage them to become intimately familiar with how your customers think.
If you solve that blockage point, usually it will cause another to appear somewhere else in the funnel. While you are doing this, you should limit your spending on sales and marketing to just the minimum level required to have adequate amounts of customer interaction to determine where your customers have the highest levels of pain and urgency, in an area that you can provide a solution.
For those startups, the technique I will describe below will be more helpful as it will focus on fixing what is most broken in their current funnel. Getting their attention by simply creating a web site and hoping for viral spread will not work in this environment.
Think of the following situation: you attend a course on social media marketing, and really like the material and the teacher. Sysomos uses the data that they have to search for interesting insights on any current topic, and then publish blog posts. Amongst businesses there is a strong desire to learn how they stack up relative to the peers and the best in the industry. Customers can also compare their performance in this KPIs to industry benchmarks, which is highly valuable. The very best method is having them hear about you from a trusted source such as a friend, respected blogger, main stream press, etc.
The solution to the blockage point was to offer the documentation for free, and use that as an incentive to get them to give us their email address. However the problem with these stores is that they primarily focused on the hardware, and didn’t stock more than 5-6 software titles, and certainly didn’t know how to demo them or support them. Once you have found the winner, repeat until it’s clear which messaging is having the best effect. I recommend using quarterly brainstorming sessions where the key execs including the CEO, heads of sales, marketing, and product, get together to work on coming up with creative ways to address the latest blockage point using the technique described in this post: Analyze the customer’s concerns and seeing if it is possible to come up with a motivation that will overcome those concerns. This will only happen as a result of them spending time with a lot of customers listening and and asking questions. You will need to conserve your cash to continue to pay for product development to evolve a product that does fit the market need. At the end of the course, they tell you that the product they use to manage their Tweets and other social interactions is XYZ.
Topics they have covered include insights on Twitter usage, social media and the Iranian election, the oil spill, Facebook, etc.
The conventional approach to registration is to make the customer register before they can get to experience the Wow! Because of the significant revenue hit this entailed, it took a while to get everyone’s buy-in, but once implemented, the process generated 10,000 leads per month, which grew over time to 16,000. We spotted an opportunity, create a new channel that only sold software, and focused on the needs of enterprise buyers.
Then in the quarterly brainstorming meetings their job will be to ensure that the voice of the customer is heard loud and clear.
Since the topics they look at are of high interest, these blog posts often get picked up by national media, such as The New York Times, and many other bloggers. We would stock a huge range of products, and provide excellent consulting advice on which products to use, as well as great support.
These published articles and blog posts have led to major traffic increases for Sysomos’s main web site, which they convert to free trials, and then closed customers.

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