Monday, February 13, 2012

Why "Shorter" Sales Cycles Mean More Work for Marketers

Last month, MarketingSherpa published a chart-of-the-week that showed how respondents to its 2011 B2B Marketing Benchmark Survey answered the following question:

"Q. Please select the time period closest to the length of your organization's entire sales cycle, from first lead inquiry to purchase."

The chart shows that, on average, sales cycles were shorter in 2011 than in 2010. Jen Doyle, MarketingSherpa's Senior Research Manager, attributed the shorter sales cycles to a decrease in average deal size in 2011 (which MarketingSherpa's survey also revealed).

I have no doubt that deal size has a big influence on the length of the sales cycle, so I can see how a decrease in average deal size would result in shorter average sales cycles. But I suggest that something else is partly responsible for these survey results.

The most significant development in B2B marketing and sales in recent years has been the emergence of what I call the self-directed buyer. Today's business buyers are self-educating and performing research independently, before they identify themselves to potential vendors. In a recent survey by DemandGen Report, 77% of B2B buyers said they did not talk with a sales rep until after they had performed independent research, and 36% of buyers said they didn't engage with a salesperson until after a short list of preferred vendors was established. Other research has shown that business buyers are often more than half way through their buying process when they first meet with potential vendors.

So, the visible sales cycle that we can measure is representing a smaller percentage of the buyers' full decision-making process. This fundamental change in buyer behavior has far-reaching implications. Most importantly, it means that most B2B companies have no real choice but to adopt a new approach to demand generation. Gone are the days when you could rely primarily on your sales reps to acquire new leads and shepherd those prospects through the complete buying process. Today, your prospects are learning about their problems and forming opinions about potential solutions and solution providers before you know who they are.

In these circumstances, it's imperative to have marketing content that can function as a "surrogate salesperson," especially for buyers in the early stages of the buying process. Today, your marketing content must:
  • Make potential buyers aware of your company
  • Teach prospects about the causes and effects of important business problems or challenges
  • Educate prospects about potential solutions for these problems or challenges
  • Demonstrate your company's expertise
  • Persuade prospects to identify themselves and give you permission to communicate with them
If you don't have content that can perform these marketing functions, why would you think your company would have a seat at the table when a prospect is ready to have a serious sales conversation?

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