Top-Shelf Tip No. 51:

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."

E.F. Schumacher

Steps To Simplify The Complex B2B Sales Cycle

I work for a healthcare company with 78,000 employees around the globe. We sell multi-billion-dollar health systems, pharmacies and practices. Our products are complex, and our way of doing business with the customer is even more complex. The sales process can take up to a year, and contracting takes up to six months. With contracts averaging three to five years, by the time the ink has dried, it's time to start warming up the customer for renewal.

This is an example of how intricate and complex today's buying process is in the business-to-business marketplace. It involves multiple parties over long decision-making cycles. The research firm, Gartner, describes it as a "buying gridlock."

In this issue of Promotional Consultant Today, we'll share these tips for navigating the B2B world based an interview conducted by Brent Adamson, sales principal executive advisor and author of The Challenger Customer and The Challenger Sale, with Ruth P. Stevens, a consultant specializing in customer acquisition and retention.

In its research, Gartner discovered that it's difficult for customers to buy today. Some of this dysfunction in the B2B purchasing process includes:

1. Bigger, increasingly diversified buying groups. It was only 2.5 years ago that we found the average buying group consisted of 5.4 stakeholders. This number is up 26 percent to 6.8 today, and the average buying group now consists of 3.4 different functions. Diversity also means different tiers within the corporate hierarchy, different geographies and different teams. In many cases, these stakeholders have never worked together. Alarmingly, we're seeing more and more purchases where the customer doesn't even know who ultimately will be in the decision-making group.

2. Dysfunction runs rampant. As customer buying group diversity goes up, so does stakeholder dysfunction. Members of these groups are having clear disagreements, avoiding key issues and reporting that they aren't being heard.

3. Decision-making takes longer than expected. A full 84 percent of customers report their purchase process took longer than expected-nearly twice as long.

4. Even indecision takes forever. The average purchase decision now takes 4.9 months, but shockingly, the average "no purchase" decision takes 4.7 months. So, whether your average sales cycle is three months or three years, "doing nothing" takes just as long to decide as "doing something."

What causes this complexity? The Gartner research suggests that it's because we operate in a world of "more". More information, more options and more people are involved in a purchase decision. The problem is that this "more" is causing decision paralysis.

What can a sales team do about it? While the tendency is to be more responsive to the customer than your competitor, the better solution is to focus on clarity. Help your customer through the buying process. Here are four key steps to this process:

1. Map the customer's buying journey. This goes beyond mere awareness, consideration, preference and purchase. Instead, map out the challenges the customer might face before, during and after the purchase, to identify, for example, when new stakeholders tend to get involved.

2. Uncover challenges and hurdles. Next, identify the challenges the customer is most likely to face at each of their key decision points. Ask, "What is the biggest roadblock to agreeing on the problem? Why do customers fail to agree on a course of action? Why does analysis paralysis set in?" These questions bring up what is hard for the customer's decision-making process, not what is challenging about buying your solution.

3. Identify fixes. Once potential hurdles are identified, design tactical ways to help customers overcome those roadblocks. This might be in the form of decision support tools, webinars or marketing content that helps customers anticipate these obstacles.

4. Track customer progress. Finally, track exactly where customers are on their purchase journey so you can better eliminate obstacles and help course correct.

PCT returns to your inbox again tomorrow with more solutions and ideas.

Source: Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, and teaches marketing at companies and business schools around the world. She is past chair of the DMA Business-to-Business Council, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Stevens was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain's BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She is the author of Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, and Trade Show and Event Marketing. She is also a guest blogger at Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

Compiled by Cassandra Johnson

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