If you ask B2B sales professionals what customer response they hate to hear most, “I’m not interested” would be the clear winner.  But in my experience, “I need a free trial” is a strong contender for second place. 

The concept of “free” is bad enough for a sales organization.  Product trails also involve administrative headaches, the need to spend time on training and follow-up meetings, and worries about losing control of intellectual property.  And despite everything, prospects often don’t use the trial period to do what they’re supposed to do, namely to actually try out the product. 

At the same time, most salespeople will recognize the reasonableness of a client’s request for a trial.  Most B2B sales involve a key sponsor on the client’s side.  He or she is taking a career risk in recommending the purchase of a particular solution, so have a lot at stake in making sure the product works as expected.  They also need ammunition, in the form of direct experience with the vendor’s offering, to justify the spending request to their managers and other stakeholders and to fight for scarce budget resources. 

So how does a sales organization transform free product trials from irritating time sinks to closed contracts?    

I’ve found that there are two key steps to doing this. 

The first is internal to the sales organization.   A trial must be integrated into the sales process, with the sales professional being clear to others in the organization about its role in moving a prospect through the pipeline. 

The second is client-facing, i.e., external.  Initiating a trial must be conditional on the prospect’s acceptance of several terms and conditions.  This shifts a trial from something that’s “free” to a product or service that the prospect “pays” for by fulfilling their end of the bargain. 

I expand on these two concepts in the balance of this post.  Note that for the sake of variety I use “prospect” and “client” interchangeably. 

Trials as a means to handle client objections

When it comes to integrating trials into the sales process, the good news is that any prospect that gets a trial has, presumably, already shown a strong interest in the product.  This means that trials should be offered as part of the Second Follow-up, as shown on the pipeline schema. 

I should mention that I originally published the pipeline description to illustrate what sorts of content vendors should generate for each pipeline stage, and what the content’s goals should be.  But as it happens, “Objections handling” is also a good description of what a free trial should accomplish – done right, the trial brings to the surface client objections and other issues, enabling the sales organization to address and resolve them. 

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“Why are we giving them a trial?”

Often sales organizations grant a free trial because “the prospect asked for it”, or because “it will help get them to sign”.  

Neither are sufficient reasons.  Trials must be anchored in the team’s pipeline process, and their terms and goals – chiefly handling client objections and getting client buy-in — communicated internally.  Doing so helps to assure managers that the organization’s resources are being spent wisely, and that sales professionals are not just giving clients what they ask for in order to create the appearance that the process is moving forward. 

I now turn to the external aspects of free trials, with a focus on putting the right terms and conditions in place at the outset.

Time is of the essence – but so is providing client support

Probably the most important condition is that a trial should be of limited duration.  Half the battle is getting client stakeholders to carve out time to focus on a product.  They’re unlikely to do so without a deadline that concentrates their minds and forces them to put the need to evaluate the product high on their priority list. 

Set against the need to create time pressure is the complexity of B2B buying decisions, with multiple decision-makers representing different parts of the client firm.  Moreover, there is often a sequence to the buying process, with potential users signing off on the product before it’s presented to senior management, and so on.  The length of the trial should take this into account, as well as the inherent slowness of decision-making in most large organizations.  While products and situations vary widely, I’ve found that a 30-day trial period usually strikes the right balance among these competing considerations.

Requiring a prospect to review and decide on a product within a fixed timeframe imposes commitments on them, but there are concomitant requirements for the vendor, namely the need to provide a high level of training and support during the trial period.  These are costly exercises, of course, but when done right they can lead to an impressive increase in the contract closure rate.  A key reason is that a good process reassures the client about the degree of support they’ll get after they sign.  Creating confidence in this way can be decisive, especially for a start-up firm without an established reputation. 

Last but not least, the trial period should be organized around a mutually approved timeline, complete with scheduled training sessions and check-ins.  The aim is to provide a forum for the client to bring up product issues and objections, and for the vendor to respond to them.  Such responses can range from making minor product modifications and providing extra training to extending the discussions to other groups of internal stakeholders.  This is the “objectives handling” aspect of the process that I alluded to at the outset.

Always have a contract

It should go without saying that a vendor must have a contract in place before starting a trial.  Since there is (unfortunately) no money involved, these are zero-dollar arrangements.  While such contracts can be simpler than a vendor’s standard contract, it’s imperative that they contain language that protects the vendor’s intellectual property.  This can be done by stipulating limits on the use of the vendor’s data and models and requiring the client to purge all vendor-supplied data in the event a contract isn’t signed.  The prospect should also be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before receiving any vendor data or models or participating in a product demonstration.  

An alternative to a free trial is a forward-starting contract, where the client agrees to start paying for the product after a trial period of, say, 90 days, with the right to cancel with no penalty during this period.  Such arrangements increase the chances of closing but take a lot more time to negotiate.  And since they involve a greater level of commitment from the client they’re more difficult to put in place, especially for start-up firms that have less leverage in contract negotiations.