The B2B buyer’s journey continues to grow longer and more complex: Almost half of the B2B buyers surveyed for Demand Gen Report’s 2016 B2B Buyer’s Survey said their purchasing cycles have increased somewhat since last year. That’s because there are more people getting involved in the buying process, they’re taking more time to evaluate products and they’re demanding more proof of ROI upfront, according to the survey.
These changing buyer dynamics are prompting B2B marketers to rethink their strategies and begin approaching prospects in new ways.
“We’ve definitely seen that more B2B organizations are starting to change their approach,” said Christina McKeon, Service Director, Portfolio Marketing at SiriusDecisions, a B2B research and advisory firm that has examined the buying cycle through both the buyer and vendor perspective to identify gaps. One of those gaps, said McKeon, is that companies have been going to market based on their own internal sales cycle and not the buyer’s cycle.
“Deals have gotten to the point of more complexity — the number of people involved in different roles and the length and time involved — that you’re kind of lost without a really good blueprint of how those deals flow,” said Jeff Freund, founder and CEO of Akoonu, a company that provides buyers with the software and research to build buyer personas and map the customer journey. “That’s what the idea of journey mapping is all about, and what understanding your buyer personas is all about.”
Not All B2B Buyers Are Alike
Marketers must consider the many different types of B2B buyers when mapping journeys, according to Matt Grant, Director of Content Strategy at technology, research and services firm Aberdeen Group.
“I think people need to be careful when they’re talking about B2B buyers, because there’s a ton of B2B buying scenarios, and they’re not all the same,” Grant warned. “Sometimes they’re complicated, and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes there are a lot of people involved, and sometimes there are not.”
Freund said that when a company actually does the research on their buyers, they’re usually surprised at how many people are involved in the purchase process — each of them with their own needs and preferences for how they consume information and interact with vendors at various stages of the buying journey. “I would say that there has been a move in most businesses to a more collaborative type of buying,” he noted.
He said that Akoonu did an analysis of its customers’ win rates and the number of buyer personas developed, and found that they saw a clear trend: The more personas covered through the marketing and sales process, the higher the win rate for the company.
However, in some cases, having more personas isn’t necessarily better, he said, noting that he worked with a company that started with around 47 buyer personas and worked to narrow it down to 12 “that actually mattered.”
The process of finding those personas was data driven, and the company created what Freund compared to a heat map of contacts to see where the biggest concentration of certain roles are within companies that buy from them. Then they drilled down further to understand each of those roles and their needs in order to create personas, map journeys and create campaigns for each of those roles.
The roles that are involved in the buyer’s journey — and where they’re involved — are also changing, noted McKeon. “We did a study last year where we talked to B2B buyers, and we compared it to what we saw happening with the B2B providers, and I think we saw a pretty big shift in terms of the provider representative,” she explained. “The sales rep has always been involved throughout the entire buying cycle. But what we started to see is buyers wanting to talk to experts like customer service reps earlier in the buying cycle rather than later. That was a pretty big shift.”
Shifting Buyer Expectations
Industry experts point out that one of the biggest changes in buyer behavior over the last few years is an increase in non-human interactions — such as researching on vendor websites or doing a free online trial — rather than engaging with a sales representative. In a recent survey, research firm Forrester found that 74% of B2B buyers conduct more than half of their research online before making an offline purchase.
This can be attributed to how easier it is for buyers to find and consume content in self-guided research, according to Freund. “We’re all trained as individual consumers to be self-guided and self-directed to buy our shoes and our belts and our socks. People often do the same things in their business life and personal life,” he explained. “B2B buyers are looking at as much information as they can by themselves before they engage with the vendor. The access to the buyer has dramatically shifted.”
Once vendors have access to potential buyers, they’re expected to provide more proof points and use cases earlier in the buying cycle, according to McKeon. “At the beginning stage, where they’re trying to decide whether to make a change, they say, ‘show me a company in my same situation, and show me how they decided to go about making a change,’” she explained. “Then they get to that middle stage, and they say, ‘show me how you go about making a change from a company that’s in a similar position in the buying cycle.’”
Then comes the request for proof of ROI. “When you get to that final stage, when they’re deciding on a purchase and justifying that decision internally, that’s when they tend to want to see a formal business case that really demonstrates the financial value, because they need that in order to be able to justify that decision internally,” said McKeon.
In the B2B world, demand for ROI tends to increase as the cost of the product or service rises, according to Grant. But what tends to be even more important than proving ROI is ensuring successful integration and utilization of the solution.
“It’s not so much about proving ROI, but proving that this is going to solve a problem and it’s not going to create more problems,” he said. “You have to demonstrate not just that the investment’s going to be worth it, but that the effort is going to be worth it, and that you’re going to do everything as a vendor to ensure that you succeed with this solution that you’re buying.”
Overall, companies that invest in understanding buyer behavior and the buyer journey often see better alignment between sales and marketing, according to Freund.
“If you can get to a point where you have marketing talking about the buyers, and sales talking about the buyers, you’ve arrived at a common language and understanding,” he said. “There’s no more pointing fingers about getting leads or following up on them.”