Our latest episode of the Above the Cloud podcast series features an interview with Mark Canon, a long time local search/SMB software exec who is currently chairman of Boomtime. Today when he isn’t creating art at his New Mexico studio Mark is thinking deeply about how to master B2B sales in an era where sales cycles keep getting longer.

I conducted this interview with Mark late in the day on November 7 at our Tech Adoption Summit event in San Francisco. What emerged from this roughly 30-minute conversation was a cogent diagnosis of what is wrong with B2B sales today and a roadmap for how to break out of it. Much of what Mark talks about in the interview has been applied to mid-market businesses, but he believes many of the lessons can be applied to smaller businesses. This podcast is a must for anyone who likes to geek out on sales methodology.

There were a few core tenets to Canon’s thesis on how to fix B2B sales. One is that sales cycles are B2B being stretched (a fact not in dispute) and the causes are insufficient freely available information to make good decisions, fragmented decision-making, and risk aversion. Hence a longer and more complex sales cycle.

Another element to his thesis is that all B2B software in any given category is that product differentiation is rare, and when it occurs is very short lived because developers all have access to the same toolkit.

The way out, Canon argues, is to build credibility with B2B prospects by helping them build the knowledge they need to make a better decision, and to move them down the sales funnel gradually to close through a series of micro-commitments (opening an email, downloading a white paper, taking a call, etc.)

The bottom line is to “de-risk” software purchase decisions for B2B buyers. Ultimately, Canon argues this process can actually shorten B2B selling cycles.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview at the Tech Adoption Summit.

On the Broken B2B Sales Process

There are three problems facing B2B marketers. There is not enough time to tell their story. And [prospects] don’t have enough time to listen to it, so they never tell it. The second problem is [software] products are not differentiated. And to the extent that differentiation exists, modern software development technology will allow you to bridge the gap within six months. The third challenge is a lack of appreciation for risk mitigation aspect of selling in B2B. Businesses are doing self-research, which is incomplete. There are more decision makers involved, and sales cycles are getting much longer. No one wants to make the wrong decision [because the riks of a bad decision is so high].

On the Freemium Model

The strength of the freemium model is that there is a relatively low cost to a mistake. It is one of the reasons the model has been successful.

On How to Sell to B2B Businesses

One thing you need to understand about these businesses — whether it’s an SMB or a $50 million B2B business — is that essentially they don’t trust anyone. So you have to put a human face on your business as quickly as you can, so they can identify with you. And you have to create some kind of transparency statement so they understand how you do business. Or else they will walk away.

You can listen to the complete interview with Canon here on Episode 12 of Above the Cloud.