Q&A With Forrester’s Steve Casey: Why B2B Brands Must Treat Buyers As Equal Partners

Published: July 1, 2020

The B2B buyer’s journey, as well as buyer expectations, are constantly evolving. A new report from Forrester has revealed that modern buyers are now looking to be treated as equal partners with a vendor. That means it is no longer about convincing a buyer to buy, but rather, help them buy.

These new expectations present marketing and sales teams with the opportunity to reinvent their go-to-market strategies to aid buyers along their often-self-served journey. Now, with digital marketing at the forefront due to the current social distancing and work-from-home mandates, B2B organizations must have a strong understanding of their buyers so they can cater to their expectations and build credibility in a virtual world.

Demand Gen Report recently sat down with Forrester’s Principal Analyst Steve Casey to learn more about the common factors causing this shift in buyer expectations, as well as the tools and tactics required from marketers to better connect with them.

Demand Gen Report: How has the B2B buying journey evolved and what factors caused these changes?

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Steve Casey: A lot of B2B and B2C companies have failed over time because they’ve missed the changing buyer behavior. People’s expectations and their behaviors change, and it’s true in both B2B and B2C. But our perspective is, a lot of those changes are driven by environmental factors. Things happen in the overall environment that have an impact on what you expect to happen or how you win.

The four biggest environmental factors we see driving changes in B2B buyer behavior and expectations are:

  • First and foremost, access to information. There’s just so much information available to people today. It’s shifted the balance of power. In terms of the age of the customer, where the buyer has access to so much information, they have much more control of their buying journey.
  • The second environmental factor is demographic. We’ve all been talking about Millennials for a long time, but I think today a lot of that has focused on: How do we work with them as colleagues? What are their expectations? How do we motivate them? What is having more impact now on B2B buying is that Millennial buyers are playing a significant part of decision-making. They’re driving decisions, rather than just doing the research.
  • The third factor is consumer experiences, and the impact consumer experiences have on professional buyers. We’re all just people and the experiences we have every day with brands like Apple and Amazon set the bar for what we expect more and more of our B2B purchases to be like.
  • The final environmental factor is the current conversation with social distancing and the pandemic. Of all the factors, it has happened the quickest, and it’s probably going to have the most dramatic impact.

All of that together is causing buyers to change their behaviors — they’re disconnected; people take longer to make decisions; there are bigger buying teams; they turn more; they don’t answer our emails and phone calls. Our perspective is that they’re all connected now. The biggest change is that buyers have a different expectation for the type of relationship that they have with the companies they buy from. They expect to be treated as an equal partner. That’s a consistent theme we see throughout the day in lots of cases. We described it in almost personal terms because a lot of it is becoming personal, and the consumer piece of it is a big part of that. But what this means for B2B marketers is that we need to change how we think about that relationship. The buyer wants to be treated as equal, so our job isn’t to convince them to buy. What the buyer wants is help. They want to be a part of that process.

DGR: What are some of the challenges now facing B2B organizations to be that helper and gain that 360-degree view of the buyer to better cater to their needs and challenges?

Casey: You hit on a really important point — having a deep understanding of who the buyer is and that requires data management. We must pull together all the different information we have on customers, what they’re doing and the different experiences they’re having with different parts of the organization and gaining a single view of that.

One of the key expectations of the buyer supporting this notion of a partnership is they’re looking for intuitive experiences. Every interaction can be personalized, and every interaction from the buyer’s perspective can feel like an intuitive next step in the journey. It’s less about laying out a journey for the buyer and forcing things along that path and more about letting the buyer create their own journey. It’s also about gathering all the breadcrumbs along the way so that we can create the next step in the journey in real-time and create that kind of intuitive experience they expect.

DGR: What are some of the tools and data sets that can help marketing and sales teams cater to that demand for self-service?

Casey: Anything digital that removes friction from the customer experience. It’s a combination of being in the digital channel wherever the buyer is at any moment and being able to gather the signals at the appropriate time from all those systems. I think chatbots and virtual assistants are one area that will have a real impact during COVID-19 and social distancing.

One of my colleagues, Mary Shea, predicts that the face-to-face interactions in a sales cycle will decrease down to only somewhere between 5% and 15% of the total engagement that a seller has. Those face-to-face interactions will only happen when the customer demands it. The days when the seller could say, “Hey, let’s get together and have lunch. It’s been a while since we talked,” are far less likely to happen. It’s because of the risk involved. It will only be when the buyer feels like there’s important business to do and having that face-to-face interaction is necessary.

We need to optimize the frictionless digital channels early in the funnel. B2B marketers, especially tech marketers, have been at the forefront of the adoption of chatbots and virtual assistants, but they have a long way to go.

The current deployment has been a lot about a couple of chats, and then a handoff to sales. From a company perspective, that’s “I want to get to a sales conversation so I can convince you to buy as quickly as possible.” But the buyer’s perspective is, “I just need help. I want to find the right information. I want to maybe explore pricing a little bit but maybe I’m not ready for that sales conversation.”

It’ll take a little while for the solutions to get to the point where they can handle more of those open-ended questions. There are natural language processing (NLP) and content management issues to deal with, but marketers will get there. I think a lot of this focus on that part of the process will be the driver for that.

DGR: Going into the topic of ABM, is there a difference between connecting with entire buying committees as opposed to a single buyer persona? How should marketers tackle that?

Casey: One of the fundamental elements of ABM is personalized engagement. There’s the data-driven aspect of defining who your ideal customers are and prioritizing your engagement. But that engagement, unless it’s personalized, really isn’t ABM.

With an increasing reliance on digital channels, it’s already hard to cut through the clutter, ramp up that personalization and gather as many insights as possible. One of the key elements of those insights is understanding the individual’s role in the buying team.

We’ve talked in the past about how ABM is an OK phrase, but really what you’re looking at is almost opportunity-based or deal-based marketing that allows you to focus on the individuals on the buying team so that you can create a personalized engagement that meets their needs and expectations. Each person’s needs and expectations are based on their role in the team.

DGR: What’s your stance on intent data? Are we close to leveraging that power or are marketers still just getting started?

Casey: ABM has been a catalyst to raise the prominence of and focus on intent data. There’s a certain category of data that we gather, which is behavioral and engagement data, and then we make an inference. We draw some sort of conclusion from what we observe and then ascribe meaning to that, which is intent. We think that if someone does something, then they’re interested, or they’re potentially starting a buying journey. The inference is typically that they’re intending to buy.

Having said all that, intent is extremely important. It is the key to successful marketing today. It’s how you understand what the buyer is doing. Understanding the basics about the firmographics, where they work, who they are, what their role is, and what their role is on the buying team? All of that is great, but then what are they doing? What’s that behavior, and what does that indicate? It starts with third-party intent data that you gather at the account level, then you can get increasingly granular.

What I’ve been a strong advocate for is that all the behavioral data and engagement data you gather is another intent signal. The real value comes from stitching all of that together. That’s where you get the richest possible picture of what someone’s doing. That’s how you can start to make the connections, to understand who’s connected to whom and on which team. In the primary use case, or initial use case, a lot of people start with prioritizing target accounts within ABM and spend money for initial engagement on those who look like they’re getting ready to buy. That’s really smart. But from that point forward, it’s a matter of gathering all that data.

DGR: What’s your perspective on how brands should maintain consistent conversations with SDRs, marketing, sales, customer success, etc.?

Casey: It all comes back to that consistent, shared customer perspective. When you can pull the data together from those silos so that you have a consistent view, then you can create a persistent customer knowledge that informs all of those interactions across channels. Both marketing and sales are operating from essentially the same playbook. There are lots of technologies that surface insight into the sellers and existing workflows, and the account record in the CRM. First, you alert them to something that happened and then give them a link to the account record. They look and they can see, “Oh, this happened,” and then make a recommendation about sharing content, or maybe even, “Here’s an email template you could share for engagement.” In many respects, it’s all built on the data and the insights you can derive.

DGR: Can you tell me a little bit more about Forester’s Buying Motion Matrix, what that’s all about, and how it’s helping B2B organizations?

Casey: We had a model that one of my colleagues, Lori Wizdo, had developed a little while ago to help marketers deal with the challenge of multiple buying personas, where if you’re a diversified a company with lots of offerings in different regions and big buying teams, you can end up with dozens and dozens of personas. That’s hard to manage. She came up with a concept that is meant to be a higher-level planning tool. Rather than focusing on a product-centric view, it’s about the buyer’s perspective on what their journey looks like. What does their pattern or buying motion look like? We need to recognize that all buyers are different, but there are patterns. What became apparent to us is that, depending on the type of buying pattern you’re involved in, you’re going to have different expectations.

The model is a two-by-two grid based on two dimensions. On the X-axis, you can think of it as how complex the buying decision is, meaning how long it’s going to take, how many people are going to be involved and what the impact on the business is. The further you move out on the axis, it’s going to have a huge impact on the business, there’s going to be lots of people involved and it’s going to take a long time to make a decision. Closer on the inside of the axis is a short decision, not a lot of impact, not a lot of people. On the Y-axis, you can think of that as the amount of knowledge that needs to be transferred from the vendor/provider to the buyer.


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