December 5, 2013

Nurturing Relationships In A Long Sales Cycle

Here is the shortest sales cycle I can think of: You’re driving along a country road. You come to a small town. You park outside the antique shop you came to see, and browse its wares. When you walk outside you smell something delicious, and realize you’re hungry. You step next door into Red’s Pizza and order a slice. Demand created, pizza handed over, cash taken, deal done, almost in the snap of a finger.

To stick to our vertical of restaurants, here’s another sales cycle scenario. Your parents’ anniversary is coming up in three months and you want to take them to dinner. They’re both gourmet cooks; it has to be good. You cruise Yelp and Urban Spoon. The local magazine does a “This Year’s Best Restaurants” story and you scan the upscale listings. You visit Zagat, and develop a short list. You visit the websites of the first three. They all sound good, and their menus look terrific. One – Elixir – promises a winemaker’s dinner every month, and offers to send a monthly email to let you know about it. You sign up. You read Elixir’s online reviews by critics and citizen-diners. You drop by for lunch to get a first-hand feel for the food, service, and setting. It’s all good, so when you make that reservation for your parents’ special dinner, you make it at Elixir. (And it turns out terrific. Your parents forgive you for not becoming a doctor.) This was a three-month sales cycle…a bit long for a restaurant meal, but this wasn’t just any restaurant meal. It was high-dollar, high-risk, and high-value, making it worth longer consideration. You engaged in typical buyer behavior: do online research, check out vendor websites, check out reviews, do a trial. Along the way Elixir did a drip marketing campaign, doing regular communications about the winemaker dinners, and giving you other news. You were nurtured.

How long is the typical sales cycle?

A recent MarketingSherpa study showed average sales for three broad categories of business size:

Multiple factors can contribute to the length of a sales cycle. Big deals, big-ticket items, high-risk items, and complex sales all take longer. Buyers now take the time to educate themselves on the issues and vendors. Often multidisciplinary purchasing teams are assembled, perhaps across multiple divisions or locations. On top of all these uncontrollable factors, there is one you can control: If your sales process doesn’t optimize movement through the funnel, you can analyze where movement stalls, and apply some action at that inflection point. It may be as simple as showing that you’re still paying attention, and still consider yourself potential partners.

Managing the long sales cycle

Whatever the reason, if you’re going to keep a deal alive over the course of a long sales cycle, you need to find a way to keep the customer relationship alive and healthy. The most reliable way is nurturing. This consists of establishing a rhythm of contact with that buyer, and keeping the communications line open with whatever it takes. That could be content such as emails, videos, infographics, and white papers, or a phone call from a rep, or an invitation to an event. Your best approach will likely be some combination of several channels; that looks more spontaneous and genuine, less rote. One big plus for using marketing automation to do this is automating the heavy lifting of what to send when, and making sure communications go out on schedule.

Starshot: Agency scores for its clients with long-cycle strategic nurturing

Starshot is a marketing agency focusing on customer experience design. With expertise in event marketing, demand generation, and digital marketing, its client roster is a who’s-who of global B2B companies, including Intuit, Sonepar, and Dell. Starshot is also a North American Agency of Record for Microsoft.

In a recent conversation (which became the basis for an Act-On case study), Angie Anderson, Starshot’s Demand Generation Practice Lead, discussed lengthy sales cycles. The average for Starshot’s clients is 18 months – and some run as long as three years. Moving people through such a long funnel is both a long-term commitment and a formidable challenge, but success can often be significant to a client’s top line. Case in point: Starshot nurtured one client’s leads for over three years, using a variety of marketing automation tools such as segmentation and A/B testing to optimize engagement. A full 25 percent of closed sales in the period were leads who had been nurtured for at least 36 months. With average deal sizes of six figures – that 25 percent close rate equals real revenue.

“We nurture all those individuals for our clients, making sure that we’ve got the right decision-makers in the process,” said Angie. “We can set it all up to run automatically, to take an action in reaction to the prospect’s behavior. The tool lets us provide what they’re looking for at that time, without necessitating interaction by an individual. But it’s still a personal relationship. At any point the rep can jump in because they know exactly what’s happened.

We’re thrilled that Angie and Starshot’s clients are enjoying this kind of success. If you’d like to read more about Starshot uses Act-On to reap rewards for its clients, please read the case study: “Nurturing Relationships in a Long Sales Cycle: The Starshot Case Study.”

One thing to remember: When it comes to drip and nurture campaigns, marketing automation is a nifty, robust tool. What it does is automate your process…it cannot substitute for process. The real winning factor in nurturing is how you meet your customer’s need for information (or entertainment, or whatever) at the right time with the right content. You supply the brains, marketing automation supplies the brawn.  If you’d like to learn more about nurturing planning and strategy, please visit the Act-On Center of Excellence to find whitepapers, blog posts, and other materials about the process and practice of lead nurturing.