The Evolution of the B2B Buying Process
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Before we go any further, let’s daydream a bit, shall we?
A brand new prospect lands on your site. They don’t waste time browsing or scrolling around.
Instead, they head right for your product pages. They find the product they’re looking for, load up their shopping cart with a 100-unit bulk order, and immediately confirm their purchase.
If only it were that easy, right? But, despite a call from today’s B2B buyers for a more consumer-like experience, the inherent challenges still create complexity.
As you surely know, the process your leads, prospects, and customers go through when making a purchasing decision is rarely—if ever—that simple, especially if you are a B2B business.
More often than not, the buying process involves a lot of back-and-forth between the supplier and the customer, as the former continues to nurture the latter toward conversion.
Now, the way in which B2B companies and their customers engage with one another has certainly changed in recent decades.
In turn, both the length and intensity of the B2B buying process has increased in recent years.
The above graph from a 2015 study indicated that B2B buyers were spending more time and energy researching products and prospective vendors than in years past. That trend has continued.
A 2017 Gartner survey showed that 27% of time spent performing key buying activities is dedicated to independent online research. Only 17% of time is spent meeting with potential suppliers.
And this means your website has to share a much larger portion of the process than ever before. Many of the questions that may previously have been answered on a sales call now needs to be answered on your website.
Consumers are looking for a more B2C-like experience, with easy-to-navigate websites, clear product information, and other content to aid in the decision-making process. It’s important to answer as many of their questions on the website as possible — before they have to call or engage in a chat.
Basically, if your organization isn’t willing and able to provide value to customers throughout this more lengthy and intense journey, you’re going to lose them.
Before we get any deeper, though, it’s important to recognize that the actual stages of the B2B buyer’s journey have remained unchanged.
What Is The B2B Buying Process?
As we said, the actual steps of the B2B buying process have always—and will always—remain the same.
Reason being, it’s simply the nature of business. Whether purchasing a dozen paperweights or a multimillion-dollar piece of machinery, B2B consumers all go through the same steps along their path to purchase.
- Recognizing there’s a problem to solve.
- Searching for information and resources.
- Evaluating and comparing available solutions.
- Completing the purchase process.
- Evaluating the product or service post-purchase.
While these steps might seem quite similar to that of the B2C buying process, the process as a whole is much different.
As we mentioned earlier, it’s much lengthier and more intense.
Reason being, the stakes are much higher: each purchasing decision will impact the business moving forward in some way or another.
Additionally, while B2C purchases are often made by just one or two people, the level of consensus needed for B2B purchases is much higher. The primary buying group typically involves between 6–10 decision makers. They must reach an agreement, then attain buy-in from other organizational leaders.
Let’s dig deeper into what each stage of the B2B buying process looks like.
1. Problem recognition.
Also known as the “Awareness” stage of the B2B buyer’s journey, customers at this stage have just realized they have a problem that absolutely needs to be solved.
A few examples:
- A contractor needs immediate electrical supplies on the job site
- A manufacturer needs to source raw materials in bulk
- A corporate office needs a more consistent and reliable paper supplier
The problem may be because of a need for a new product, an existing product, or a different version of a product.
The root of the need will inform what kind of qualifying they do for the product.
At this point, the customer will then begin a preliminary search for a solution to their issue.
They will first gather all of their requirements — quantity, size, color, etc — and go out in search for a product.
2. Search for information.
The next step of the B2B buying process involves the customer actively becoming more informed with regards to a few different things.
First, they might dig into the true impact solving their problem would have on their business. Conversely, they might also consider the implications of not solving the problem at all.
While simply having the problem is often reason enough for B2B customers to take action, they’ll likely want to collect this information for business-case purposes.
They’ll then start looking for ways to solve their problem.
Now, in some cases, the customer might not even know exactly what they’re looking for.
For example, a contract manufacturer may know that they need a casing for their product — but may not know what material will be the most durable and cost effective for the job.
These folks will likely do a Google search to see who else has had this problem… and that’s a BIG reason it’s important for B2B sellers to be online, and have content.
Both Clarion and Berlin Packaging are good examples of this.
Clarion has a resource center so customers can learn all about what they need.
In other cases, the general solution is clear, so the customer’s next step will be to dig a bit deeper into their options.
The corporate office mentioned above, for example, might know that their current paper supplier is unreliable, so they’ll begin compiling a list of competing companies.
These users will go about searching for their product in the way in which they’re most familiar — whether it’s via a Google search (the most popular modern option), or through a catalogue or by phoning a distributor.
Now that shopping online has become increasingly popular for B2B audiences, it’s more important than ever for B2B sellers to be online and have a website that is optimized for search.
Optimizing your website for search involves a mix of well thought-out product taxonomy, keyword-rich content, and fast page load times.
A great way to create keyword-rich content is by having a blog on your website, like Berlin Packaging.
It has sections of content built out on their website featuring case studies, a “markets served” section, and well thought-out content about the company’s mission and operations.
Berlin Packaging Insights section
After a shopper has searched for a product and has an understanding of the speculations and costs associated with what they need, they need to narrow down their choices and ultimately convert.
3. Solution evaluation.
By this stage, customers have a clear idea of what they’re looking for in a solution and have also created a list of potential options to choose from.
Now, the task at hand is to figure out which one is the best for their company.
Yes, they’ll evaluate each solution from an objective standpoint at some level, but it’s much more important for them to consider the impact choosing one solution over another will have on their organization.
Typically, this involves doing some or all of the following (and even more):
- Feature-by-feature comparison
- Cost-benefit analysis and comparisons
- Evaluation of the suppliers as an organization
Once they’ve completed their evaluation processes, there’s only one thing left to do…
Simple enough, right?
At this stage, the customer has made their decision to purchase a specific company’s solution, and are in the process of “signing on the dotted line.”
But, as we mentioned earlier, this more transactional stage of the process isn’t exactly like its B2C counterpart.
Perhaps the key differences are that, in the B2B realm, companies:
- Often discuss and negotiate payment terms on an individual basis
- Rely on volume pricing to negotiate an optimal cost per unit
- Split shipping of bulk orders to multiple locations or over sequential deliveries
Keep all this in mind, as we’ll revisit it momentarily.
5. The post-purchase relationship.
Once the customer has made their purchase and the supplier has received their payment, the two companies part ways and never contact each other again.
Really, this is where the real relationship between B2B companies and customers begins. Or, at least, it will if the supplying company fosters the relationship.
Ideally, B2B companies will continue to engage with their customers well after they’ve made a purchase for a variety of reasons, including:
- Providing ongoing service and support
- Collecting and acting on feedback
- Providing additional offers and products of value over time
Incidentally, this leads us to the next two sections of this article, where we’ll be discussing why and how the B2B buying process has changed in recent years.
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Why the B2B Buying Process Is Changing
If we were to boil down the reasons behind the relatively recent shift in the B2B buying process, we’d have to go with the following:
- Technology, and
- Customer expectations.
In fact, the two essentially bounce off one another in an almost cyclical manner:
Technology improves, allowing companies to better meet the needs of their customers.
However, when technology improves, consumers’ expectations evolves with it—meaning supplying companies have to continue innovating in order to stay one step ahead.
That said, let’s get a bit more specific in terms of how technology and evolving customer expectations have changed the B2B buying process.
1. Buyers have access to a ton of information.
As we talked about earlier, B2B consumers do a lot of research before deciding to purchase a specific product or service.
You’ve almost certainly heard that something like 57% of the B2B buying process is over before customers even reach out to providers, right?
Of course, digging up this information nowadays is as simple as typing in a few search terms and going from there.
And, we can say with 99.9% confidence that, regardless of what information they’re looking for, chances are it’ll only be a few mouse clicks away.
The question is, though:
Will it be your content the searcher lands on?
That is, do you:
- Offer text and multimedia content on a variety of topics related to your industry?
- Develop content specifically for prospects at different stages of the buyer’s journey?
- Maintain a customer-facing knowledge base so your prospects can easily find the answers they’re looking for?
(We could go on, but we won’t.)
All this being said, the point is that the prevalence of information has ultimately made it more difficult to gain visibility amongst a sea of competitors.
As more and more companies begin creating content for and providing information to their audience, those that don’t will struggle to stay afloat, so to speak.
By focusing on becoming known as the organization that provides this information in the first place, you’ll easily find yourself way ahead of the competition.
2. Buyers depend on referrals.
Referrals — whether from a friend, colleague, or unknown peer—are incredibly important to the B2B customer.
Case in point, B2B News Network reports that 84% of B2B decision makers start the buying process based on a referral.
(As a quick side note, these referred customers, in turn, convert at higher rates, convert quicker, and have a higher lifetime value than their non-referred counterparts.)
Now, the other way to look at this 84% statistic is to say that 84% of B2B consumers rely on referrals to begin the buying process.
In other words, of all the information we mentioned in the previous section, the information that matters most to your customers revolve around social proof from your currently-satisfied customer base.
(We’ll get more into this in the next section.)
3. Buyers want more personalized and individualized service.
To be sure, the relationship between the B2B company and customer has always been a bit more personal in nature.
It’s worth noting, then, that the 57% statistic we mentioned earlier (regarding when B2B consumers typically reach out to vendors) means consumers might not be getting the truly personalized service they really want.
After all, if a provider doesn’t know a prospect is even interested in the first place, how can they personalize the service they provide?
In a 2019 report from Episerver, personalization was a hot topic:
- 51% of B2Bs said they are already using basic web personalization, like displaying a customer name upon login.
- 36% said they planned to adopt personalized content in the next 12 months.
- 82% said they’ll likely use artificial intelligence for personalized customer experiences in the next three years.
Companies that actively provide for their target customers’ needs will be the ones who get noticed and generate business.
At the very least, today’s B2B companies need to continue developing innovative ways of engaging with their audience on a personal level throughout their buyer’s journey—not just toward the end of it.
4. Buyers want authenticity.
Along with a desire for personalized service, modern B2B consumers want authenticity.
That is, today’s B2B consumers want to know that the companies they do business with actually care about providing top-notch service to them and helping them achieve their goals.
Unfortunately, a 2019 TrustRadius report showed that B2B buyers’ trust in vendor sales reps has decreased year over year.
But buyers want to be able to trust that their supplying companies aren’t just looking to take their money and run.
That same TrustRadius report showed that B2B buyers really want vendors to be more transparent about a product’s capabilities and its limitations.
Moreover, B2B consumers also want to truly get to know the people behind the companies they do business with.
As we talked about earlier, there’s more to the purchasing decision than just figuring out which product or service is the best available; often, the consumer’s decision boils down to how aligned each organization is on a much deeper level.
How to Improve the B2B Buying Journey
It goes without saying that the easier it is for your prospective customers to go through the stages of the buyer’s journey, the more likely they are to do business with your company.
While we’ve already touched on a few overarching ways you can make this happen, let’s now get a bit more specific as to how to do so.
1. Enhance your web presence.
If your company doesn’t have an active web presence, you’re almost certainly missing out on a ton of business.
The key word in that last sentence? Active.
The changes in B2B buying are making it even more necessary for B2B sellers to sell online. 72% of respondents to Episerver’s 2019 report said that the majority of B2B revenue will be derived from their ecommerce websites by 2025.
That is, it’s not enough to simply have a website, various social media pages, and other such online profiles for your company.
You need to actually use each in a way that provides value to your audience.
In terms of your website, this means allowing your visitors to:
- Obtain in-depth, accurate, and up-to-date information regarding your company, as well as your industry.
- Take a variety of actions with little to no friction or need for human tech support.
- Enjoy their on-site experience from an aesthetic and a usability perspective — the kind of experience they would get on a B2C site.
(For more B2B website design tips, check out our recently updated guide here.)
You should also be present and active on a variety of social media channels and online directories, too. 58% of B2B buyers use social media as one of their research channels.
This allows you to provide transactional information about your company (such as your address and contact info) and also enables you to increase your visibility via organic means, such as search engine optimization.
It also enables you to begin collecting social proof, as well.
Speaking of that…
2. Showcase social proof.
As we talked about earlier, most B2B buyers rely on social proof in some way or another when making a buying decision. TrustRadius showed a 13% YoY increase in use of product reviews, putting them at one of the top three most relied-upon sources of information.
So it simply makes sense that you should be presenting as much social proof as you possibly can to your audience.
(Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. As we’ll talk about in a moment, you definitely don’t want to bombard your prospects with too much information.)
There are a variety of ways you can showcase social proof at different parts of the buyer’s journey.
For example, since prospects at the awareness stage generally look for referrals, you might think about creating a referral program for your current customers to join.
For prospects nearing the decision stage, you’d want to present customer testimonials and case studies showing how well your solution worked for them.
3. Provide relevant and valuable information.
As we said earlier, if your company isn’t providing a certain piece of information, one of your competitors probably is.
When a potential customer comes looking for a simple answer or solution to a simple question or problem, you absolutely need to be the one providing it—or you’ll be missing out on some major opportunities.
Another side of all this has to do with transparency.
That is, your organization needs to be open, honest, and clear about the “goings-on” of the business.
This means clearly and honestly communicating information to your audience, such as:
- Your company’s mission and goals
- Any initiatives your organization supports or undertakes
- Your operational and transactional processes as they impact the customer
And, of course, you also want to provide a ton of information regarding the effectiveness of your products or services.
For example, within your social proof-focused content (e.g. case studies, etc.), you’ll want to be ultra-specific in terms of the results your past clients have experienced.
Be it increased productivity, better loss prevention, or an increase in sales numbers, you want your prospective customers to know exactly what they stand to gain by working with you.
Basically, your goal is to ensure your potential customers know as much about your organization as possible, so they can feel comfortable doing business with you. Keep them “in the know” and worry-free, and they’ll have no qualms of engaging further with your brand.
4. Be helpful…
This goes along with everything we’ve said so far, but goes a bit further.
One of the main reasons today’s buyers expect individualized service is because it’s easier than ever before for companies to provide it.
That said, your company should—at the very least—provide multichannel support to your customers and prospects.
We say “at the very least,” here, because your goal should ultimately be to move to an omnichannel approach to customer service and support.
Essentially, this means integrating all of your service and support teams and channels.
If your prospects and customers need a quick answer to a small question, they can check out your knowledge base; if they need technical help while using your product, they can just as easily reach out to your support team via live chat (or an even more traditional channel, such as the telephone).
In short, your individual customers are always able to receive exactly what they need at any given time. Again: if your company is the most efficient at providing assistance to them, they have no reason to go elsewhere.
5. …But only as helpful as necessary.
Just because it’s easier than ever for you to reach out to your prospective customers doesn’t mean you should be constantly badgering them.
But it also doesn’t mean you should just sit back and wait for them to contact you, either.
If you’re familiar with Lord of the Rings (and if you’re not…what?), think of Gandalf: He’s always somewhere nearby, but only really gets involved when Frodo and the crew are in dire need of help.
Be your prospect’s Gandalf.
When they need more information, give it to them; when they need an answer to a question, be ready with one; when they need proof that your solution is their best choice, hit them with a variety of social proof.
Gartner’s report on B2B selling showed that purchasers gain more value from “information connectors” — sales reps who connect prospects with the right information — than from “information authority” reps who provide opinions based on their own expertise.
And when they need time to mull over their decision…back off.
Once you’ve given them all the information they need to make an informed decision, there’s nothing else you can do—and anything more will likely turn them off.
So, give them space, and let them come to you when they’re ready to make a purchase.
6. Streamline your processes.
We’ve mentioned a few times that any friction that occurs as a prospect makes their way through their buying journey may result in them changing course away from your company.
(This is why your website needs to be fully-functional, your information readily available, etc.)
75% of B2B leaders believe that a clean, streamlined customer experience will be even more important over the next two years.
As your prospect edges closer to converting, the stakes become even higher:
Despite the amount of time, money, and other resources you’ve invested into these prospective buyers, the slightest issue in your transactional processes may be enough to throw them off-track.
To ensure these roadblocks don’t pop up, you need to streamline your transactional processes as best you can. This means making sure your prospects can go through with their purchase on their terms.
A few suggestions for how to do so include providing:
- Individualized pricing
- A variety of payment options
- Customizable shipping and delivery
Basically, you don’t want any logistical issues to get in the way of your prospect converting. The more options you provide them as they go through the buying process, the easier it will be for them to do so.
The B2B buying process has evolved due to the advancement and overall acceptance of technology. Business buyers have an enormous amount of data readily available and features that were once a luxury, like 2-day shipping, are now a basic need.
The typical buyer is moving away from the human touch, but yet still craves aspects of it.
Features like individualized pricing, a personalized online experience, and custom requests are all still expected, but through a streamlined and frictionless online buying process. A more B2C-like online experience is more attractive to today’s buyers and makes it easier to find information and to buy — even, if possible, without ever engaging sales (if your business supports self-service).
This is not to say that B2B ecommerce stores should be 100% devoted to self-service functionality. Buyers are still in search of a lasting human relationship, when they ask for it.
To meet the full need of a business buyer, B2B stores need to provide the functionality to allow buyers to answer product questions themselves, view social proof, be updated on their purchases, and have a personalized experience without every talking to a human, but at the same time always be one click away from talking with one.
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