Deciding what to buy used to be a whole lot easier. Once the urge to make a purchase had struck, we gathered a list of options and methodically pared that set down until we had arrived at the option that best suited our needs.  In marketing terms this was referred to in terms of a "funnel" metaphor - the initial choices we began with constituted the "wide end" of the funnel, which then narrowed gradually as we subtracted options from the consideration set.

The digital age has brought on some dramatic changes in buyer behavior, and according to David Edelman in Aligning with the Consumer Decision Journey, traditional marketing strategies are no longer effective.

For one thing, the funnel metaphor is no longer applicable. Rather than passively being "sold to" and removing options from our initial consideration set, we actually tend to add products into the mix as we actively evaluate information across the web and social networks. Think about what happens when you Google something – the search engine returns a number of similar results on top of what you'd searched for. With advertisements and promotional stimuli lurking in virtually every nook and cranny of the Internet, narrowing down purchase options is much more difficult than it used to be.

Also interesting is the idea that the buyer-seller relationship no longer ends after the sale. Instead, we often enter into what Edelman refers to as a "loyalty loop" during which we continue to engage with a brand or product long after we've made a purchase. Think about when you "Like" a brand's fan page on Facebook or write a product review on Amazon - you've just become an advocate on behalf of the seller, essentially doing some of the marketers' work for them!

Image courtesy of McKinsey & Company[/caption]As a sales professional, think about how this applies to the way your customers engage with you and your company. Does the type of relationship that you have with your customers look more like a funnel or more like a continuous engagement loop? During active evaluation, would your virtual persona lead a potential customer to add or remove you from their consideration set?  Do your relationships end after the sale, or are you constantly creating advocates on behalf of yourself and/or your company?

With proper sales training, we as sales professionals can learn how to constantly expand the common ground that we share with our customers, building long-term relationships that facilitate our role as collaborative business consultant, not just a walking-talking product brochure.