Self-Education and Lengthening Sales Cycles in B2B

I have been following two interesting trends in the B2B world.  First is the lengthening sales cycle and the second is the increasing tendency of B2B buyers to self-educate, often not even talking to a sales person until late in the buying process.

Let’s look at the lengthening sales cycle first.  According to a survey by B2B magazine and Bizo in April of this year, 43% of B2B companies reported the sales cycle has lengthened significantly or somewhat.   There is a number of possible reasons for this including the need to get buy in from more people in the company, fewer staff to do the actual research and evaluation, fear of making a mistake and tighter budgets.

The trend of more self-education may also be contributing to the lengthening sales cycle.  Because the buyer and his/her staff are doing more research than in the past, they have to find time to do this while managing with smaller staffs.

This movement to self-education has real ramifications for B2B marketers.  Since the sales group will not learn about the buyer and the specifics of his/her situation until late in the game, the company’s marketing must work much harder to educate the buyer and keep him or her engaged.  If it doesn’t, the company might not make it to a short list of possible solution providers.

Another ramification of the self-education trend is deciding when the time is right for the sales group to try to engage the prospect.   The classic B2b model is to get the prospect’s name and contact information into the hands of a salesperson as quickly as possible.  So if the prospect requested a white paper on a web site, the next day a salesperson contacts the prospect and asks for a convenient time to call to learn more about what the prospect is looking for so the sales person can help.

In the new paradigm, this approach is probably not going to help, and it could be damaging to the potential sale by annoying the prospect.  If the salesperson prides himself or herself on tenacity, the prospect will eventually totally disengage and take the company company off the consideration list.  More than likely, this will show up on the sales report as a bad lead or that the opportunity was lost to a competitor with lower prices.

This means marketers must provide a great deal of content to give the prospect the information needed to consider the company’s products or services.  This information can come from white papers, industry presentations, webinars, videos, social media, cased studies, testimonials, discussion groups – basically wherever and however a prospect might search for information.   At every action point, the prospect should be given the opportunity to engage with a content expert.  If that happens, it is an opportunity to learn more about the prospect’s needs.  Don’t automatically dump it to a salesperson to start birddogging.  With proper training and systems, the content expert can work behind the scenes to determine the right time to engage the sales group.

A while back I wrote about thinking about the buying cycle (how the prospect wants to buy) rather than the sales cycle (how the company wants to sell) because the buyer is the one in the driver’s seat.  The self-educated prospect is a key ingredient in the buying cycle and possibly the lengthening sales cycle.


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