The primary difference between customer journey and sales funnels

An unfortunate truism has, for many years, pitched two unique and useful models against each other, depending on whether you are from a marketing or a sales background: customer journey vs. sales funnels.

Marketers tend to promote the concept of the customer journey, while sales teams are more likely to rely on a sales funnel. In an age when sales and marketing teams should be fully integrated, it’s important that the two models are used together to achieve the best results for both sales and marketing teams and, therefore, the business overall.

CX Trends 2021 - Narrow CTA

So, what is the customer journey? And what is a sales funnel? This article will delve into a deeper explanation of each model, but there are three facts to bear in mind for starters:

  1. Both are similar tools that are closely linked to one another.
  2. One complements the other; one is not used in place of the other.
  3. They are not different names for the same thing, nor are they mutually exclusive.

What is the customer journey?

A customer journey is the process by which a potential customer engages with a brand to achieve a goal; usually, the goal is for the customer to make a purchase.

Marketers will create a customer journey map, which is a visual representation of this process. The customer journey map allows organisations to get into the heads of their customers, gaining a sense of what motivates them, their needs, and pain points. By understanding the customer journey, the following types of questions can be answered:

  1. How do customers discover your business?
  2. How are customers researching your brand?
  3. What snags or obstacles are customers encountering on their path to purchase?

In practice, the customer journey maps the route a prospective buyer takes from the time they first encounter a brand, detailing the various brand touchpoints along the way to the time they make a purchase. Some maps may go the extra mile and include the route to repeat purchase activity.

Brand Purpose Guide - Narrow CTA

The purchase of one product might come from a range of different customer journeys. For example, Jennifer and Terry both purchase a microwave oven from the same retailer. Jennifer saw an advert on TV which prompted her to visit her local store to make the purchase. Terry, however, was already subscribed to the retailer’s email list, so he received a newsletter and completed the purchase online. Terry was more inclined to complete the transaction online as there was an offer of free delivery. The result is the same, but each customer has taken a different journey.

This is why it’s important for a business to understand the variety of customer journeys that exist and develop distinct buyer personas to represent the separate journeys, motivations, and needs. Despite differing routes, however, there are some stages that are true to all:

  1. Awareness of a problem or need: find out what your customers want to purchase and find out how you can make this available to them
  2. Search: how can customers find you online or in person?
  3. Consideration: why might someone choose to buy from you instead of a competitor?
  4. Purchase: customers have clicked the ‘buy’ button, but why?
  5. Brand loyalty: customers are going to form an opinion on what they’ve bought, so how can you keep them coming back for more and encourage referrals?

Back in the days before businesses embraced digital technology, the customer journey was a relatively linear affair with a straightforward path from awareness through to purchase. Nowadays, buyers tend to encounter the brand at least eight times before making a purchase, meaning that their journey can be more complicated, looping back or hopping across touchpoints. Any customer journey map worth its salt should take this into consideration, aiming to be as specific as possible in laying out multiple touchpoints and their potential relationship to one another.

The customer journey can be tricky to track and won’t always be 100% accurate. Still, it’s a model that has clear benefits for efficient lead nurturing and delivering an improved customer experience.

What is a sales funnel?

A sales funnel is a visualisation tool traditionally used by sales teams to understand how prospective customers (or leads) are interacting with a business. It is sometimes also referred to as a marketing or a conversion funnel.

Leads enter the top of the funnel (TOFU), drop through the middle (MOFU) and end at the bottom (BOFU) when the leads have made a purchase or achieved the goal the business has set for them.

Unsurprisingly, the funnel is, well, funnel shaped. It’s wide at the top to catch all the leads, narrowing through the middle (as the ability to convert leads naturally becomes more challenging) all the way down to the slim point at the bottom where successfully converted leads turn into customers. Typically, more resources are required at the top of the funnel (when businesses cast their net wide to make prospects aware of a brand) than are required further down the funnel.

Here is a simple example of a sales funnel:

TOFU: 100% of visitors to your website

MOFU: 75% of them visit a website product page

50% of them sign up to receive your e-newsletter

20% of them click on a voucher link from your e-newsletter

BOFU: 5% of them complete a purchase via your website

If you’ve got 100 leads pouring into the TOFU, you now know that you need 100 leads to make five sales.

Visualising these steps as a funnel helps organisations to understand what stages of the funnel are working well and which stages are having problems converting leads to the next stage. For example, a low number of leads at the TOFU probably means that more resource should be pumped into brand awareness activities. Low conversions from TOFU to MOFU might be improved by a FAQ page or more detail on a product page. BOFU conversions might be increased by more persuasive marketing emails.

The concept of the sales funnel may be basic, but the data it delivers is significant. A funnel provides reliable feedback data on what marketing activities are working for customers, making their discovery and interaction with a brand a positive experience.

Customer Experience Big CTA

Differences between customer journey and sales funnels

Having understood each model and its benefits, how are the two different?

1. Customers and leads

One of the primary differences is that a sales funnel operates using leads, and the customer journey focuses on customers. Essentially, sales funnels look at customers as data values, whereas customer journey maps evidence a more human portrayal of that data.

2. Linearity

Simply put, sales funnels tend to follow a linear path from lead to purchase. Customer journey maps are non-linear, often looping and meandering, representing genuine buyer behaviour.

3. Data drivers

The customer journey is driven by the identification of customer motivations, needs, and emotions. The sales funnel is driven by internal business processes.

4. Touchpoints

The customer journey literally maps a buyer’s touchpoints with a brand, whereas the sales funnel may heap these together under broad stages within the funnel.

5. Level of detail

The sales funnel is designed to be simple and easy to understand at a glance. The customer journey map should include a greater level of granularity, delving into detail.

6. Accuracy

The sales funnel deals with quantitative data, so is always going to be fairly accurate. The customer journey map, however, may be difficult to track, and no single customer journey map is going to represent each diverse customer journey with accuracy.

Similarities between customer journey and sales funnels

While it’s important to understand what makes these two models different, it’s also useful to understand where their similarities lie:

1. Perform a reality check

A sales funnel and a customer journey map should both tell the same story. The customer journey map can provide a reality check against the sales funnel. Do they look similar? Does funnel progression match real-life observations? If not, you will need to look at this again.

2. Buying stages

The sales funnel for every business will look different depending on the processes used, but all are likely to follow the same stages as the customer journey map. Both the sales funnel and the customer journey map adhere to the buying stages that a customer moves through, from awareness of a problem or need to search, consideration, purchase, and (ideally) loyalty. It can be useful to map these stages against funnel levels, not just against the customer journey map.

3. Inform marketing activities

Using a sales funnel and the customer journey map in tandem is a powerful way to target marketing activities, smoothing the way for a more positive path to purchase.

4. Take a holistic approach

By viewing both tools as complementary, they can enrich each other to build a more holistic view of the customer.

5. Troubleshooting

If there is a ‘blockage’ in the sales funnel and leads are not progressing down it as expected, tweaks can be performed by using the details of the customer journey map to find out where the problem lies.

In summary

With a deeper understanding of both models, it’s less about ‘customer journey vs. sales funnels’ and more about utilising them to work in tandem and deliver the best results for the customer.

Campaign Manager Tool - Narrow CTA


Net Promoter® and NPS® are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Satmetrix Systems, Inc., and Fred Reichheld.


Learn more how Reviews can help your Business

Get Started