How marketers are over-simplifying B2B buyer behaviour

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Research demonstrates that the traditional view of B2B buyers has never been universally true. So what does this mean for marketers?

One of the major themes in B2B marketing and sales over the past decade has been the emergence of empowered and independent buyers. Numerous research studies have shown that business buyers are using the wealth of easily-accessible information to perform their own research regarding potential purchases.

Some research has also shown that many B2B buyers are delaying conversations with vendor sales reps until later in the buying process. Several years ago, for example, SiriusDecisions said that 67% of the B2B buying journey was being done digitally, and CEB reported that a typical B2B buyer was 57% through the purchasing process before he or she engaged with a potential supplier's sales rep.

The idea that B2B buyers prefer a "do-it-yourself" approach has become part of the conventional wisdom of B2B demand generation, but it has not gone unchallenged. For example, in the Altify Buyer/Seller Value Index 2016, two-thirds of surveyed buyers (67%) reported that they sought input from potential suppliers before they began evaluating solutions.

The latest insight on this issue is provided by CSO Insights' 2018 Buyer Preference Study. This study was a global survey of B2B buyers in 25 industries who are responsible for making purchases of $10,000 or more at companies with revenue of at least $250 million.

In this study, 70.2% of the survey respondents said they prefer to have a clear understanding of their needs before they talk with a sales rep. Almost half of the respondents (44.2%) said they also prefer to identify possible solutions before they engage with a sales rep. So CSO Insights did find that many B2B buyers have a strong preference for self-education in the early stages of the buying process.

This study also revealed, however, that buyers' behaviors are more nuanced than some pundits have suggested. For example, CSO Insights found that buyers are open to engaging with sales reps early in the buying process under certain circumstances. There is more interest in early engagement when a business challenge is:
 

  • New and unfamiliar to the buyer
  • Perceived as risky for the buyer's company
  • Perceived as risky for the individual buyer
  • Complex
These findings are consistent with the results of a recent survey of business buyers by McKinsey & Company. In the McKinsey survey, 76% of respondents said it was helpful to speak with a salesperson when they are researching a new product or service. That figure drops to 52% for repeat purchases of products with new or different specifications. And only 15% of respondents found it helpful to speak with a salesperson when they are repurchasing the exact same product or service.
 
So what should we glean from these research studies?
 
One important point is that B2B buying is a complex phenomenon that cannot be adequately described by a few high-level survey statistics. As humans, we have an inherent tendency to seek simple answers to complex issues, and this often causes us to reach oversimplified and inaccurate conclusions. As Albert Einstein once said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
 
As humans, we have an inherent tendency to seek simple answers to complex issues, and this often causes us to reach oversimplified and inaccurate conclusions.
The most appropriate watchword for B2B buying might well be "diverse" or "varied." For one thing, not all B2B purchases have the same attributes. Some are far more complex, require significantly higher investments, and entail substantially more risks than others. It shouldn't be surprising, therefore, that a rational buyer doesn't use the same process for every purchase that he or she participates in.
 
In addition, not all B2B buyers are alike. They have different personalities and decision making styles, and these differences affect how they prefer to learn about business issues and possible solutions. The CSO Insights research revealed that buyers with certain decision making styles are far more likely than others to prefer engaging with a sales rep early in the buying process.
 
The belief that B2B buyers are self-educating and delaying conversations with sales reps has driven several profound changes in the practice of B2B demand generation. It has provided the impetus for the use of content marketing, led many companies to expand the role of marketing in the demand generation process, and been the catalyst for establishing or expanding ecommerce capabilities. Overall, these responses have been appropriate and beneficial.
 
But this model of buyer behavior is an oversimplified representation of reality. It is not (and never was) universally true or completely accurate. This means that B2B marketers must be prepared to help sales reps have meaningful interactions with buyers early in the buying process.

About G. David Dodd

G David Dodd

G. David Dodd is a consultant and author who has been advising and supporting B2B companies for over 25 years. He works with clients to evaluate major strategic issues and initiatives, develop business and marketing strategies, create authoritative, compelling content, and design effective content marketing programs. He also helps clients develop and implement marketing performance management systems and processes.

See more of David's thinking at his B2B Marketing Directions blog.

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