Have you found that your sales cycles have gotten longer over the past several years? Are more people involved in the decision-making process with your prospects?
If so, you're not alone. Sirius Decisions reported that the average cycle increased by 22% from 2008 to 2013. And a recent article by Knowledge Tree addressed the increasing complexity of B2B selling:
"A DemandGen report shows that in the past year, 34% of B2B buyers have increased the number of team members involved in the purchase process. Now there are at least 7 executives involved in a B2B buying decision on average, with some decision teams having up to 20 people; however, as the number of people involved increases, likelihood of purchase declines. Even worse, it takes five to six decision-makers to agree for a sale to happen."
Risk management, once the domain of the finance department, has found it's way into B2B purchasing. To be successful in professional services marketing, you need to eliminate (or at least minimize) the perceived risk of doing business with you in the buyer's eyes. And there are five or six buyers to worry about.
As a long-time management consultant, I'm very familiar with the mantra coming from management that "you shouldn't give away free consulting." But you may not have a choice.
IBM has a Try stage in their buyers journey!
One of the things I do in addition to my day-job is to serve as the Vice-Chair for the Northern Virginia Technology Council Sales and Marketing Committee. One of the perks of that gig is that I get to hear great presentations from some of the top minds in sales and marketing every month. We recently had Meg Holt, IBM's Portfolio Marketing Manager for US Federal Government Sales share some information about IBM's Buyer Centric Marketing program.
If you think about it, IBM is a pretty amazing company. Think of the top 10 companies from 1990 - how many of them still exist? Not many. IBM is over 100 years old and despite being declared dead more than once, they still have one of the most valuable brands in the world. They have managed to adapt and overcome and stay relevant for decades and decades.
One of the many pearls of wisdom that Meg shared with us is that IBM has actually identified a Try stage in their buyer's journey. And it comes before Buy. IBM will actually put customers together with their technical people for some free consulting prior to a purchase decision! This is the company that spawned the phrase, "Nobody gets fired for buying IBM."
They have clearly identified the existence of risk management in the buying process and have done something about it.
Try offers for SMBs
I would suggest that if IBM has Try offers in their buyers journey, that SMB companies like yours and mine should think about it too. You will have to set some ground rules for who you will actually give "free consulting" to - a formal qualification process is a must.
But if you have a good prospect that is in your target market and whom you can help, here are some of the ways you can let them sample what it's like to work with you.
- Free consultation offers - this is something that has worked very well for our company. The key to this offer is you must show value to your prospect in the process. Collect the information you need from them to give actionable tips and show them a path to a better state. Most of the inbound customers we've closed have started with a free consultation. You will note that we have a bright orange button offering a consultation in the top right corner of every page on our website.
- Free trial consulting hours - similar to the free consultation, this offer provides a limited number of consulting hours to help a customer start solving a problem. Your return is a deeper insight into how you can help this project and a higher level of trust.
- Free analysis - we offer prospects a free website review and/or a free website marketing review. The prospect gets a website that gives them a scorecard and suggestions for improvement.
- Free service - or as our CFO refers to it, the nuclear option. This is where you actually give a prospect a significant amount of free service. Our CFO calls it the nuclear option because there is obviously a great deal of risk. I got my largest customer by offering a free month of service when they were in a position where they needed some help quickly. I would never do this if I didn't trust the CEO of the organization, but sometimes great risk brings great rewards.
Even if you are an established brand like IBM, you should be considering Try offers in your professional services marketing strategy. Your buyers are risk-averse and with many economists predicting a potential recession in the coming year, that fact is not likely to change soon. Be smart about it and make sure to qualify buyers properly, but a Try before you buy offer can be what you need to overcome risk aversion in your sales process.