As a marketer, understanding how your customers research and buy is an important part of your job. As an industry, we create an endless pile of customer journey maps and sales funnel images to demonstrate what we know – or think we know – about how our customers make decisions about the products and services they buy.
Because of the complexity of B2B buying, we often build these maps and funnels around broad assumptions about the audience. If the assumptions we use are inaccurate, however, then much of what we build upon them becomes inaccurate as well.
Before we discuss the myths and truths around the B2B buying process, let's start with some immutable facts:
* No two B2B buyers are exactly alike
* No two B2B buying processes are exactly alike
We talked about some of the myths and truths of the B2B buying process with Felicity Carson, Chief Marketing Officer, IBM Watson Customer Engagement. This $1.4 billion business unit offers SaaS and on-premises solutions that help businesses personalize their customer experiences. Carson oversees all marketing activities for the business and is charged with creating strategies that increase awareness and demand.
Myth 1: You Need to Reach the C-Suite to Sell Your Products
At a very basic level, this makes sense. If you want an organization to invest in your solutions, you talk to the people who ultimately decide how the money is spent. There are two problems with this idea, however.
1. People in the C-suite are exceptionally difficult to reach
2. They often operate at a strategic level and are not heavily involved in researching products and services
As a CMO, Carson sits right in the middle of this conversation. And when it comes to being on the receiving end of marketing about technology product and services, she relies on her team.
"I have a team, and my team is responsible for identifying the best vendors and suppliers and who we should go to when it comes to a martech stack or ad tech stack," she said. "They are the ones that do all of the research."
This isn't surprising. Behind every good leader is a good team. When Gartner assembled 10 questions to help CIOs identify whether or not they were a "Master CIO," none of the questions focused directly on technology and purchase decisions. Instead, there was a significant focus on people (e.g., "Focus on innovators, not innovation")1. Focusing on people to help manage the day-to-day decisions around technology purchases helps C-level executives operate a strategic level, where how their organization uses technology is in many cases more important than the technology they buy.
"The C-level is there to make final decisions," Carson said, "but the C-level is not there to go through the product assessments, to look at competitors. That's what I have a team for, and I know that many C-suites work in that same fashion."
This helps explain why QuinStreet data found that C-level and VP leads convert at a much lower rate (approximately 1 percent) than Director or Manager leads.
Myth No. 2: You Need Business Email Addresses to Connect with Prospects
A lot of email comes at us on a daily basis, and we all have our own methods to manage it. We prioritize our email by the message, the sender, and also by the account. "Obviously my work email – my IBM.com email – is used for everyday interaction with my team, what we need to get done and what we need to deliver," Carson said. And that's why when she is doing research or exploring new topics, she works to keep that information separate from her more critical business tasks.
"If I'm asked what my email address is, I tend to use my Gmail account," she said. "I don't use my business email account."
Carson will often turn to her Gmail account after she shuts down for the day, and that's when she explores the various papers and assets that caught her attention. For her, it's simply a matter of how she manages her time and her information. If offers and assets go into her IBM email, she risks doing research and falling behind on the things she needs to get done during the day. Carson is not alone.
"I have shared this with a lot of other C-suites and people who I partner with, and a lot of them tend to do the same thing," she said.
Myth No. 3: The Buying Process is Incredibly Long
The complexity and cost of many B2B purchases lead many marketers to assume that prospects will take time to move toward a purchase. In many cases, this is indeed true. In addition to cost and complexity, the number of decision makers involved also plays an important role in how long the process takes. The sales process is not linear; people come in and out of the process, and each of those entrances and exits can extend or shorten the time it takes to make a decision. The easy availability of information, however, should in theory help shorten the sales cycle.
Perhaps it's more accurate to think of it this way: The length of the buyer's journey is actually whatever the buyer wants or needs it to be.
"Buyers own their buyer's journey," Carson said. "As marketers it's our job to guide these buyers in a way that feels very seamless to them and very natural to them, and that's where the creativity and the art and the science has to all come together to make that happen."
It's challenging because every buyer and process is different. You want to supply information to help in the information discovery process, but research by CEB found it works both ways. The availability of information and the unlimited capacity of the Internet to help inform decisions can also cause information overload, sow confusion and slow the process down.2
If you can identify patterns related to the length of the sales cycle and the eventual revenue that comes when a sale closes, you can better align your team and your marketing initiatives and improve your results. When analyzing conversion data for one of our clients, QuinStreet found that a typical sale to a company in the Computer & Technology industry took 40 days to convert and was worth approximately $100,000. A sale in the Real Estate industry, however, took 100 days to convert, but was worth $300,000. What does this tell us? You can expect to put more resources into the journey in the Real Estate sector, but you can also expect to be rewarded.
Myth 4: Prospects Are Waiting Longer and Longer to Talk to Sales
We often hear that prospects are more than halfway through the process before they speak to a vendor representative.
Research by SiriusDecisions found that most prospects want a fairly even mix of human and non-human interactions.3 What's increasingly difficult to understand is which interactions are indeed "human." The B2B buying process is filled with opportunities to interact with people through technology, such as chatbots, user forums, blogs, and even the trusty old webinar. As buyers increasingly gain control over the buying process, some are likely to find value in interactions like these, where they are in the driver's seat. In fact, among "digital natives" – younger researchers and buyers who grew up with digital technologies – phone calls are often considered to be tedious and interruptive.
Are buyers putting off conversations with sales?
"It's definitely not a myth," Carson said.
At IBM, a lead starts with a response, Carson explained. For example, someone engages with a piece of content and shares some piece of information with IBM. Marketing then nurtures that response to turn it into a validated lead, which is then handed over to the sales team. Sales will then further nurture the validated leads and turn them into qualified leads.
Carson said IBM is finding that there's a much higher percentage of validated leads that sales isn't able to convert as quickly into a qualified lead.
"They're having to spend more time nurturing those validated leads and finding the buyers aren't ready," she said. "And in some instances, sales will actually hand back those validated leads to marketing, putting them back into a nurture engine."
The lesson: The click or the completed form indicated an interest, but the buyers weren't ready to make a commitment.
"This is where marketing really has to be smart with what we put in front of those prospect buyers and how we engage them and how we wow them," Carson said. "As a marketer, you have to constantly A/B test your content, A/B test your strategy and say 'Does this work?' because even if it worked a year ago, it may not work this time around."
Myth 5: B2B Buyers are Fundamentally Different from B2C Buyers
Time for another immutable truth: Every B2B buyer is also a B2C buyer. Yes, the process is different in some ways (most notably the existence of buying committees in B2B), but B2B buyers don't take off their B2C hats when they arrive in the office and put on a B2B hat. Forrester Research even wrote a report about this phenomenon called The Birth of the B2B Consumer.5
This is another way B2B marketing has changed in the last five years. Buyers do not judge vendors only by the traditional standards of products, pricing and customer service. For marketers, the rise of the B2B consumer means appealing to the B2C nature in all of us.
"To make things more complex, buyers are not only looking to drive their own customer journey, but they're looking for the best customer experience along that journey," Carson said.
Whether B2B or B2C, it's never about the product alone. When someone chooses to buy something online, they're choosing the buying experience – the delivery, the convenience and more. After all, they can usually get the same product by getting in the car and driving to the store.
"Clearly it’s not only about the product and the service, it’s also about the actual experience," Carson said.
Interestingly, the fall of the B2B-B2C divide is seen in B2C buying as well. Google reports that the easy availability of information online has consumers doing more research on purchases than ever before in an effort to ensure they don't experience buyer's regret.6 The deluge of options and information found online is increasingly stalling the B2C buying process in much the same way it can hold up the B2B process, with some consumers getting stuck in an endless loop of options and tradeoffs that can prevent them from pulling the trigger on a purchase.7
In the B2B Buying Process, Nothing is Black and White
You might find that when it comes to your business, some of these myths actually hold true – or you may find the opposite. What's important is that you gather and analyze the data that helps you understand the process your users when they buy your B2B products and services.
Start by working with a marketing partner that focuses on performance so you better understand the most effective way to reach your buyers. Then share data with your partners to provide more insight into the full purchase cycle to maximize your marketing investment and performance. You'll make better decisions around your marketing spend when you base those decisions around data, and that's no myth.