How to optimize your B2B sales cycle using market research

How to optimize your B2B sales cycle using market research

Key takeaways: To optimize selling strategies, B2B companies must analyze their performance throughout the sales cycle. Depending on the sales objectives, typical insights projects that can help companies make improvements include: target market research, marcomms studies, thought leadership, customer journey mapping, and win-loss analysis.

What is a typical B2B sales cycle?

Sales in B2B tend to be higher value compared to B2C. And the purchases often involve more risk, as many B2B products have a critical role in how the buyer’s company operates.

Therefore, the B2B purchase journey is often long and complex. It can last several months, involving several stages and many different stakeholders.

While the specific B2B sales cycle stages will vary by company, broadly speaking, it tends to include the following aspects:

  • Lead generation
  • Lead qualification
  • Prospect engagement
  • Solution tailoring
  • Solution presentation e.g. product demo
  • Deal closing or contract negotiation
  • Account development
  • Referrals and positive reviews etc.

For sales and marketing teams, successfully steering customers or prospects through that sales funnel requires a lot of hard work. But actually, the full selling process is much longer than this.

The buyer journey begins long before the lead generation, qualification, and engagement stages of the B2B sales cycle start. Buyers are already 60% of the way through their purchase journey before the first contact with sales representatives, according to reports.

Here is a simplified version of the fuller B2B customer journey – the sales cycle shown above only starts at stage 4 out of 5, ‘selecting the supplier’:

  1. Recognizing there is a problem or need
  2. Evaluating and comparing available solutions
  3. Defining the requirements for the product
  4. Selecting the supplier
  5. Justifying the decision

To optimize their selling strategy, B2B companies need to analyze their performance throughout the sales cycle. But for the full picture, they also need insights to understand the full customer journey – starting long before sales reps get involved.

That way, among many other benefits, they can improve their chances of coming into the customers’ consideration early on, before directly engaging with them during the sales cycle. 

Contents

How market research helps improve sales performance

Target market research

Marcomms research

Thought leadership research

Customer journey mapping research

Win-loss research

 

 

How market research helps improve sales performance

While it has a broad range of benefits, fundamentally, market research is important in B2B because it informs the path to business growth.

Robust data supports evidence-based decisions, with the potential to deliver better results – in terms of business strategy and crucially, sales performance.

Market research insights can help you make a sales cycle more efficient, for example. And data-driven sales in B2B can translate into a 15-25% increase in profits, according to McKinsey.

There is no one-size-fits-all market research approach to studying the B2B sales cycle though. Depending on your objectives, typical research projects related to B2B sales include:

  • Target market research
  • Marcomms research
  • Thought leadership research
  • Customer journey mapping research
  • Win-loss research

Taking each of these in turn…

Target market research

The broad goal of target market research is to better understand the different groups you sell to. Then you can tailor your sales and marketing efforts to each group more effectively.

To define these, a common approach involves market segmentation research. Alternatively, or in addition, you can use buyer persona research to help marketing or sales teams better understand and visualize their target audience – typical details included are:

  • Profile
  • Purchase criteria
  • Pain points
  • Jobs-to-be-done
  • Influence on the purchase decision
  • Information sources used
  • Communications preferences

When you have limited time or resources, you could prioritize customers that appear to represent the best opportunity.

In that case, use target market research to find your ideal customer profile (ICP). For example, look for a high or strong expected customer lifetime value (CLV), profitability, and likelihood to purchase.

Marcomms research

Optimize your marketing and communications strategy with insights from marcomms research by…

#1 Identifying the right marketing channels and messages

Qualitative research can help you identify the best places to put your messages so that the target audience will see them when looking for information related to their buying process.

For example, a media diary provides a reliable long-term view of customers’ engagement with marketing communications.

You can also use this method to shape the design of your messages, by learning more about the audience’s wants and needs regarding product information.

#2 Testing marketing communications and advertising materials

When you have decided on a channel strategy and drafted your materials, you can use research to test your campaign before it goes live.

Again, qualitative research is useful here, typically including questions such as:

  • Do they understand the message? 
  • Does it appeal? 
  • Are its claims credible?
  • Does it fit with their perceptions of your brand?
  • Is it unique?
  • Can they recall the CTA? How likely are they to take that action? (If there is one)

If you have several viable messaging themes, quantitative research is also an option, to validate the concept likely to produce the best results.

#3 Measuring impact

Once the campaign is live, you can measure its effectiveness using research too, in addition to tracking KPIs via your analytics and sales tools.

Use qualitative research to find out answers to questions such as:

  • How are customers or prospects reacting to the campaign?
  • Are they engaging with it as expected or intended?

Alternatively, use an online survey to test brand or product awareness, as well as favorability and perceptions. In particular, if you’ve already used an online survey to help inform the messaging, running another lets you make consistent pre and post-campaign comparisons.

Thought leadership research

One form of marcomms better suited to B2B than B2C is thought leadership. Grab your target audience’s attention by sharing valuable insights in exchange for contact details, rather than using a sales pitch.

White paper reports, with exclusive data provided by thought leadership research, support your brand awareness and lead generation activities. Other benefits include:

  • Building trust and standing out: Compel customers and prospects to seek out your content proactively
  • Showcasing your expertise: Grow the reputation of your brand by demonstrating genuine expertise and the quality of your service to any prospect’s business

From a research perspective, the process should involve:

  • Building a map of the reports that currently exist in the market – to identify white space for your whitepapers
  • Using quantitative and qualitative interviews to produce exclusive insights and get industry experts’ in-depth knowledge
  • Turning these insights into engaging content and industry-specific recommendations

After that, create a strategy to maximize reach and media coverage for your white papers.

Customer journey mapping research

Building a full customer journey map helps you optimize your B2B sales cycle in several ways.

The goal is to consider the whole experience of interacting with a brand, including:

  • Marketing touchpoints designed to raise awareness and interest in the brand
  • Touchpoints along the purchase journey, from the purchase trigger through to the final selection
  • Touchpoints linked to activation, e.g., proofs of concept
  • Touchpoints linked to usage, e.g., customer service teams handling issues
  • Touchpoints linked to defection or lapsing, e.g., closing an account
  • How the various stages mentioned above link together into one single journey

Using insights from the map, you can influence a better customer experience by:

  • Communicating the right messages at the correct time
  • Anticipating buyers’ needs at every stage during the B2B sales cycle
  • Restructuring your website, as well as your informational and transactional content
  • Finding unnecessary processes and removing them, reducing costs

Businesses can use mapping insights to optimize their marketing budget and drive changes where they are needed most. Additionally, product teams can use some of the insights to develop new products that better suit the target audience’s needs.

Win-loss research

Lastly, win-loss research provides an analysis of your business’s sales performance. It explores the full reasons why you won or lost sales, then provides recommendations to improve your success rate in the future.

CRM data alone is not enough. The most reliable source of information is the actual buyer that made the decision.

Through in-depth interviews, you can assess how your business performs during the sales process from prospects’ perspective by:

  • Revealing why you were or weren’t shortlisted
  • Identifying when and why you won/lost the sale
  • Assessing your performance against competitors
  • Identifying areas for improvement and recommendations for future opportunities

This information provides businesses with clear guidance on how to optimize their sales cycle and marketing strategy.

Best practices for getting B2B sales cycle insights

#1 Agree on which sales goals need insights from market research

Start by analyzing your current sales performance and identifying where you can improve – for example, do you want to be better at: 

  • Closing deals?
  • Increasing sales leads?
  • Identifying new prospects?

Clarify the business goals you want to achieve. Any research project covering the B2B sales cycle should be designed around your company objectives first and foremost.

#2 Involve the right stakeholders to set the research objectives

Work out which key stakeholders oversee each stage of the sales cycle. When setting your research objectives and hypotheses to test, including every relevant department helps mitigate project risks.

The sales team alone cannot shape the optimal buying process. It’s a team effort that requires input from most business departments. 

Involving the right stakeholders from the project’s outset tends to save time later on. Leaving them out risks producing results that won’t meet the needs of every department.

#3 Look at the sales cycle from your customers’ perspective

No matter which aspect of the sales cycle you research, make sure you analyze the B2B buyer’s journey from a customer perspective.

Work out who is in your B2B customer’s decision-making unit (DMU) and identify the hierarchy of their purchase criteria.

By walking through a typical buyer journey in interviews with customers and prospects, you can build up a long list of all the different touchpoints where they engage with your brand.

Explore the outcomes of these interactions – are they positive or negative, and why?

#4 Share and activate the findings

Make sure all relevant teams understand and know how to use the research’s insights and recommendations, not just your sales professionals.

Use a visual format to easily share the findings around the right departments – such as flow diagrams, infographics, and videos.

For example, workshops are a great way to absorb the information, clarify the implications, and agree on actions or next steps.

Summary

While the specific B2B sales cycle stages will vary by company, it tends to include: lead generation and qualification; prospect engagement; solution tailoring and presentation; deal closing/contract negotiation; account development; referrals, etc.

How market research supports your B2B sales cycle performance

Robust data supports evidence-based decisions to deliver better results – in terms of business strategy and sales performance. Research projects include target market; marcomms; thought leadership; customer journey mapping; and win-loss research.

Target market research

Tailor your sales and marketing efforts to each different group in your customer base. To define the groups, a common approach involves market segmentation research. Or, you can use buyer persona research to help better understand and visualize audiences.

Marcomms research

Optimize your marketing and communications strategy with insights from marcomms research by identifying the right marketing channels and messages; testing marketing communications and advertising materials; and measuring their impact.

Thought leadership research

Thought leadership supports your brand awareness and lead generation activities. Build a map of reports that currently exist in the market; use quantitative and qualitative interviews to produce exclusive insights; and turn these insights into engaging thought leadership.

Customer journey mapping research

Businesses can use mapping insights to optimize their marketing budget and drive changes where they are needed most. Additionally, product teams can use some of the insights to develop new products that better suit the target audience’s needs.

Win-loss research

Assess how your business performs during the sales process from prospects’ perspective by revealing why you were or weren’t shortlisted; identifying when and why you lost the sale; assessing your performance against competitors; and analyzing improvement areas.

Best practices for getting B2B sales cycle insights

We recommend that you: agree on which sales goals need insights from market research; involve the right stakeholders to set the research objectives; look at the sales cycle from a customer perspective; and share then activate the findings.

Chris Wells
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