What Is the Modern B2B Buying Process?
July 11, 2017 | Jessica Mehring
The B2B customer experience isn’t a shifting landscape anymore. It’s a whole other planet.
Your customers are relying on honest peer reviews, and they’re not fooled by 100% 5-star evaluations.
They insist on personalized communications – even when those communications are automated.
They educate themselves – thoroughly – online before even thinking about making a purchase. And then they make that purchase online, too.
They expect instant responses, on-demand solutions, and fast, free shipping.
Buyers are in control, and they’re aware of it.
Contrary to the dystopian picture that might paint for sales and marketing teams, this is actually a good thing. Your job has changed from holding all the cards to showing all the cards.
Before we can serve our audiences well with outstanding marketing content, though, we have to understand their mindsets and behaviors.
Modern B2B Buyers and the Big Shift in Behavior
I touched on some important stats in my recent article on understanding the modern B2B sales process – and I want to bring some of those back into the light, here, because they’re important for marketers seeking to understand buyers’ mindsets.
Research conducted by HubSpot made it clear that salespeople are no dummies. They recognize that buyers have changed, and they’re trying to figure out how to change with them.
In fact, 79% of sales reps surveyed noted a power shift over the last 2-3 years. Interestingly, 22% found that buyers today are actually more reliant on salespeople during their decision-making process.
Considering that we also know from Forrester research that 74% of business buyers conduct more than half of their research online, and Demandbase research shows that 53% of B2B buyers admit to taking longer to make a purchase, this poses an interesting scenario.
If 22% of sales reps think that their customers are more reliant on them now, what are those customers relying on them for?
B2B buyers are using more sources to research and evaluate purchases today, and spending more time researching purchases – which leads me to believe that those sales reps are probably spending as much time educating (and pointing customers to the right content) as they are selling.
Here are some important points to consider as you try to get into the heads of your B2B buyers today:
1. They have access to more information than ever before … and the amount of information they have access to continues to increase and become more robust every day.
The simple peer review has morphed into a multimedia experience. Buyers are posting pictures of their purchases, YouTube videos of themselves opening products, Jing tutorials of themselves using software.
Competitor price-lists are readily available on vendor websites. Or if prices aren’t listed, a quick question on Quora or a Google search would produce that information for the prospective buyer.
User guides are increasingly digitized and publicized, meaning buyers can now learn how to use your product before they ever buy it.
The list goes on.
The crucial thing to note, here, is that your buyers may be experiencing information overload. Your job as a marketer has now expanded to cutting through the noise by providing real solutions.
2. They are increasingly connected to one another.
B2B buyers are more connected to each other today … and the information flows two ways. Your buyers are both learning about your brand and sharing their own experiences about your brand with a growing network of your customers.
Social media, online forums, review sites, even company intranets are connecting your buyers together.
- People talk. Make sure you’re giving them great things to talk about – like valuable content, easy-to-find answers, and standout marketing.
- Your buyers are more cynical. They’ve heard what others have said about your brand, and they’re not going to fall for a self-serving sales pitch. Focus your marketing on providing solutions to their challenges – not pushing your own agenda.
3. They are dealing with more cooks in more kitchens.
Today’s B2B buyers rarely act alone. Making a purchase is a group effort requiring sign-off from multiple stakeholders. A recent CEB study found that an average of 5.4 people are now involved in a B2B purchase.
Unfortunately, the more people involved in a decision, the less likely they will make the purchase. For effective marketing, it’s more critical than ever that you learn the dynamics of group purchases.
Source: CEB and HBR
Learn about your buyer’s business ecosystem and how they fit into it, so you can help the entire group come to a decision. This deeper insight will also help save you from making personalization mistakes.
5 B2B Buying Journey Models
As the B2B buying process has changed, so have the behavior models. Though your customer’s journey will be unique to your brand and offering, these models can give us a good jumping-off point for mapping the path from attention to purchase.
One thing you must remember, however, is that successful marketing today initializes a two-way conversation, sharing information while encouraging buyers to tell us more about themselves.
As marketers, we should be taking that customer insight and creating even better solutions and even more valuable content – and keeping that two-way conversation going.
As you explore the models in this section, you’ll note that some of them appear cyclical, while others don’t.
Let me reassure you that effective marketing is always cyclical – even when the model looks like it has a hard stop. Just imagine there’s an arrow pointing back to step one! The purchase is never the end of the journey.
Let’s take a tour through five modern buyer’s journey models.
1. Traditional 3-Step Buyer’s Journey
This is a very simple model that can be applied in almost every industry. Almost every other model is a take on this one or an expansion of it.
In the Awareness step, your buyers are have discovered that they have a problem, and they’re in the initial period of learning that your brand might have a solution for them. This is where the conversation begins.
Buyers in the Awareness step are in full-on research mode. They don’t care about brands at this point. They just want to learn more about their problem and how they might go about solving it. At this step, your content should be highly educational and more brand- and product-agnostic.
This step is also a great opportunity to learn more about what your customers are looking for and what challenges they face. Make sure you’ve got interactive content like quizzes and assessments in your content marketing mix so you can gather these insights while providing real value.
The next step is Evaluation. Here the buyer is crystal clear on their problem, knows what solution might work, and is zeroing in on a handful of brands that might have that solution.
This is the comparison step. Your brand is being pitted against your competitors. Buyers are trying to understand the available options, approaches, and pricing from each possible vendor. At this step, your content should be more product-specific. Create content that illustrates your understanding of the problem and how your product solves that problem specifically.
The final step is Decision (or Purchase). Now your buyer knows that your solution will solve their problem – they just need to know what “the deal” is, and be reassured that their investment will pay off. This is where you nudge buyers off the fence.
Think details in this stage. Data sheets, pricing sheets, benchmark reports, testimonials, and case studies will go far, here.
2. Circular Renewal Model
This model comes from Anthony Christie of Level Three Communications. A bit more complex than the traditional model, this model works well with companies who sell ongoing services or subscription-based products.
The slide above does a pretty good job of illustrating each step, so I won’t repeat all of that. I will, however, point out that marketers have opportunities to create customer touchpoints at each step.
And at each step, you have the obligation to smoothly transition the buyer to the next step to make the entire experience a positive one.
3. Beyond-the-Purchase (or Before-and-After) Model
This buyer’s journey model created by MXM reflects the cyclical nature of marketing today. As I said earlier: The purchase is not the end of the buying journey.
Too many brands forget that customer loyalty triggers more than repeat purchases – it triggers referrals and recommendations, too. Never neglect your loyal customers!
Another thing I believe is important about this model is that it includes an Experience phase.
Has this ever happened to you? You buy something, and immediately you’re sent a customer feedback survey.
You had a really great purchase experience, so you fill out the survey and use glowing terms like “outstanding customer service.” Then the product breaks. Or the service technician fails to show up. Or the software doesn’t work like you thought it would.
And now you resent the fact that you gave this company positive feedback.
Your experience didn’t match your expectations, and you want a do-over of that customer feedback survey!
Personally, I have a blanket rule that I won’t fill out a feedback survey until I’ve used the product or the service job is done. That scenario happened to me too many times to count.
The Beyond-the-Purchase model considers the after, which is something many other models simply don’t do.
Though my research into this model indicates this applies to bigger, more complex purchases, I believe this can actually apply to most B2B purchases today. Remember, a lot more goes into a B2B purchase now – more time, more research, more decision-makers.
4. Circular Trigger Model
I’ve seen this model represented in a few different ways in the last few years, but I like McKinsey’s model the best for its clarity. Like the last model we looked at, it considers the customer beyond the point of purchase. Unlike the last model, however, it clearly demonstrates the nonlinear B2B buying process.
Beginning at the trigger point, this model illustrates the initial consideration phase, the evaluation phase, the purchase, and the experience – but you’ll notice that it loops right back to the trigger again.
The next time through, however, the customer enters the “loyalty loop.” They bypass the consideration and evaluation phases and loop right back to purchase.
This is what most of us marketers strive for. Repeat buyers. Advocates. This demonstrates the importance of engaging customers all the way through the buying journey – and continuing to keep them engaged after they’ve made a purchase.
5. AARRR Model (aka Startup Metrics for Pirates)
Though this model is often referred to for SaaS startups, I think every marketer can take something away from it.
Source: Dave McClure
You can see how this model would apply to any e-commerce website. One important thing to note, however, is that this model separates out the “loyalty” segment into Retention (repeat purchases) and Referral (recommending the product to others).
From initial visit (Acquisition) to purchase (Revenue), every step along the way is an opportunity for marketers to engage B2B customers.
If you have a few moments to spare, here’s the entire slide deck from Dave McClure.
B2B buyers are more informed than ever, they take longer to make a purchase, and there are more people involved in the buying decision. BUT – and this is very, very important – this actually gives marketers more opportunities to engage.
Instead of looking at each step in the B2B buying process as a hurdle, look at it as a touchpoint. You’ll serve your audience better and create loyal customers as they move down the path to the sale… and beyond.