When economic times are good, B2B businesses are less likely to pay as much attention as they should to the B2B buying process because their bottom lines are not getting hit. As a result, they take for granted that things will always continue to be that rosy…until, of course, hard economic times suddenly come on. Then, intimately understanding the B2B buying process is what can help your company flourish.
Today, the U.S. economy is still not what it should be in terms of a healthy economy. Challenges facing it include lost jobs, lost wages and, naturally, lost confidence. The federal government has squandered the opportunity to grow the economy by using a “stimulus” package directed at various government projects. Consequently, businesses have slowed down their spending dramatically, which means that B2B companies have to harness everything in their power to win over their prospects.The best way to do this is by mastering the B2B buying process. It can be thought of as a three-step process that is further broken down into subcategories. The three steps are awareness (broken down into initial research, recognizing opportunity and priority shift), evaluation (broken down into discovery, education and evaluating options) and decision (broken down into validation and choice).
Regardless of the state of the economy, the smart B2B company controls its destiny by adjusting its marketing and sales processes to support its buyers’ buying process to its advantage.
You need to mold your marketing and sales processes to make sure you help your buyers buy the way THEY want to buy because, if you don’t, there will be a mismatch, and your sales will suffer.
Marketing goes to great lengths to generate raw leads, but unless the buying process lines up perfectly with your company’s selling process, you might have a “leaky funnel.
Let’s dissect the typical B2B buying process and how you can align your content and website to support your buyers:
Step 1: Awareness
Your buyer will be doing some initial searches and research to get his hands around the problem.
This is where you, as the vendor, come into play, to help them in the process of better understanding and formulating their status-quo problem. This is the very first step: Earn your buyers’ trust by showing them you understand their problem first.
The challenge of content marketing
Content marketing plays a huge role in creating a buying vision because, in the early stages of the buying process, your buyers will likely do this initial research on their own.
The problem is a lot of marketers are catching up on creating content, and the natural result is that not all of the content out there is perfectly curated. Because the entry barrier to creating content is really low (anyone can go and create a blog), there are actually tons of unstructured content out there that your buyers are reading in addition to yours. Your buyers are exposed to all of that and are confused.
You’ll face inherent challenges to creating the buying vision, positioning your message for both decision makers and influencers. Failure to establish a powerful presence this early on can end with you not being considered by the prospect for the final decision.
At this point, your buyer is reaching consensus on the definition of the problem. This is an internal realization that the status quo doesn’t need to be what it is and that there is a better way. It’s like painting a picture of heaven using inspirational cues.
How would your life be if you didn’t have to deal with the issue? Here is an example of an inspirational video for a B2B software company .
Now, one thing is that your buyers agree that there is an opportunity, and another is to make the determination that the opportunity needs to be acted upon, i.e.
Agreeing to the fact that there is a problem doesn’t imply agreeing that the problem needs to be fixed.
The priority shift occurs when your buyer agrees to putting the necessary resources into solving the problem, and a formal procurement process starts. At this point, their buying process is formally starting.
Understand that, in the B2B buying process, status quo is a reference to a dilemma, hurdle or other problem that your prospect is experiencing in its business operations. This can manifest in any number of things, from lost revenue to lost efficiency to lost business opportunities. Whatever the dilemma is, your prospect is stuck in it due to the status quo of being reluctant to change.
To make a priority shift your buyer needs trigger events . A trigger event is nothing more than a chance for you to shift consensus in your prospect. For example, let’s say that the old decision maker at your prospect leaves, giving way to a new decision maker who is open to doing things without any preconceived biases. There’s your big chance to get him to see the need for a shift away from the status quo.
The priority shift will occur faster when the gap affects their business more decisively.
There are 3 types of gaps in the mind of your B2B buyer :
#1 Opportunity for Improvement: This is the type that has the lowest urgency in your buyer’s mind, simply because he’s not bleeding. If the gap identified is of the type “profit improvement,” “productivity enhancer” or “simplification of processes,” etc., it will have the least impact simply because the reasonable objection is “We are happy with what we have,” or “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
#2 Threat of Deterioration of Current Status: This is the second-most powerful type of gap because it already positions the gap as a deterioration that will occur slowly but surely: “You are happy with what you have now, but just until your competitors finish eating your lunch.”
#3 Fear of Loss of Current Position: This is the most powerful type of gap and the most likely to trigger action. You’ll get a much speedier priority shift when the opportunity is positioned in a way that illustrates “how many sales & profits you are losing right now,” “this is how much money you are bleeding right now” or “visualize the bushels of money left on the table” types.
By being genuinely helpful during the awareness stage, you really will create an emotional connection and gain a good deal of trust from the prospect’s decision makers.
In fact, research supports this, as 65% of decision makers (read: executives) will go with the vendor that creates the buying vision very early on, during the status-quo part of the awareness step.
Key things you need to do to help your B2B client in the Awareness stage of their buying process:
Your blog will play a huge role in this stage because it’s completely open and immediately searchable and findable.
Promote your content widely and deeply.
Don’t blog just about anything that comes to mind. Have a plan; work the plan. You have to think of your blog as if you were building a training center for your buyers. Think of how you would like your ideal buyer to be able to formulate his problem when he contacts you and then builds that content out.
Cut out all filler and useless content. Be useful. Be helpful.
Use social media to drive buyers onto your blog and your landing pages where they can check out articles and ebooks that can help them formulate their own problem. You can, for instance, send them insightful articles that expose their pain points through a friendly LinkedIn message. Heck, if Twitter’s more their thing, use that instead. Keep at it until you see a shift in your buyers’ behavior, whether that’s them visiting your website, downloading your free guide, taking the next step, etc.
Focus on topics that can give the buyers perspective on the industry data already available; expand on the industry facts and stats, but add your interpretation of those.
Create empathy by humanizing the situation. Use storytelling formats to put the problem in the context of your buyer personas .
Keep your buyer personas in mind, always.
Differentiate your content with a unique tone of voice. There are tons of content out there. How will yours be different?
Good, advanced content titles that can help your buyers in the Awareness stage are (fill-in the gaps with your own, and position them to your buyer personas):
- 10 costly mistakes in _________
- The ultimate guide to ______
- 5 misconceptions of _____
- 8 ideas to inspire ____
- How to run/make/generate _____
- 3 Industry tested frameworks to _____
Step 2: Evaluation
Discovery & Education
At this step of the B2B buying process, the buyer has a problem formulated, an agreement that it is a problem that needs to be fixed and has committed some time and money to fixing it.
Now the hard work begins as your prospect will inevitably throw itself into doing as much research as possible to locate top experts on its problem and determine the possible outcomes it can expect.
Now that the buyer has prioritized the project, it will brainstorm a short list of solution providers.
To make a long story short, B2B buyers are a lot more self-educated than ever. Whereas salesmen at a B2B company used to be the most significant source of information for B2B buyers, this has all changed tremendously. You can thank the Internet for that.
According to hawkeye’s B2B Buyer Journey Research , prospects looking for B2B solutions are fond of three things in particular to help them make a buying decision: interactive demonstrations, videos and testimonials. So point your prospects to these tools that explain to them their problem and your solution, all in the goal of getting them to shift consensus.
All this research activity from your prospect is a gigantic opportunity for you to seize control of the situation and present it with its best options for reaching a solution. Now’s your chance to stand out and position your company as the best solution provider.
You’ll get better results with your prospects when you position yourself as the authority in helping them solve their problem. At this stage in the buying process, they’ve already been converted to realizing they have a problem. Now, it’s entirely up to you to sell them on the fact that your company is the solution provider they’ve been waiting for.
The good news is that, if you were able to position your company or yourself well by being helpful during the Awareness stage, you already have the upper hand. If, on the contrary, your Top of the Funnel content is missing, you’ll have to do three times the effort during the evaluation stages to gain the lost ground.
This is the point where you educate your prospects. Show them that you understand their concerns by giving them examples of solutions that mitigate the problem. Always stress how your authority in the field will help them address their concerns efficiently.
Create buying guides: A buying guide essentially explains to your prospects the list of available solutions they have at their disposal, based on your analysis of the problems and risks they’re facing as they work to a solution. This will steer your prospect in the right direction, evaluating the factors that matter, what questions to ask and how to select a vendor. You should position these guides for each one of your buyer personas. Here’s an example of a buying guide for social-media brand advocacy.
Create Comparative sheets. If you have clearly identifiable competitors, go as far as to present them with a list of vendors that offer solutions. Be sure to put your company at the top of the list, of course. This way, you can contrast and highlight exactly how you are different than the rest and do so in a controlled environment.
Position yourself as an expert in your field. Well, first be an expert. Then make sure that your buyers know that.
Use Marketing Automation to send deep and insightful educational campaigns to give useful advice to your buyers about how to solve their problem and see all the different angles from it.
As always, make sure that the messages you are sending out and the issues you are addressing are the ones that your buyers care about. Kristin Zhivago proposes that you should be able to prepare content that answers 80% of your buyer’s questions, leaving the last 20% to a well-trained sales team; that's the way buyers want to buy. Make sure you are answering the right questions at the right time.
Step 3: Decision
Validation is best defined as your prospect about to reach that fateful decision of who to select as a vendor. In reality, at this stage, the decision has been made for or against you, and your buyer is only looking to justify his decision. Ardath Albee’s “eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale” defines validation as when your prospect arrives at a “short list and needs to make sure his assumptions are true before making a final decision.” At this point, your prospect is ready to bite, but he’s just narrowing down all of the finalists on his short list, which means that the pressure is on your company more than ever to persuade him to go beyond that remaining doubt and choose your solution.
This is where the purchasing team of your prospect needs to reach its all-important consensus in order to move forward on selecting a solution. It can be hard for different people on the purchasing team to come together and make a compromise, so this is the point where you really want to increase your chances of being picked by influencing them.
One of the best ways of influencing an indecisive B2B purchasing team is by being extra persuasive that your company’s solution is the only one for them. A highly effective tactic for achieving this is the customer success story. Such testimonials make such a huge impact because the purchasing team will see that others like them were greatly aided by your solution.
The higher the commitment (time required, cost of your solution), the more you will need to work on the validation stage. You have to make sure your buyer knows that your solution works. Jakob Nielsen points out that elaboration of social proof should be proportional to the friction of the purchase. I.e., for a $10 SAAS solution, a series of credible testimonials will do. For an enterprise software that costs hundreds of thousands, you will need elaborated business cases.
To get your buyer to commit to your company as the solution provider, nothing beats the customer success story. Google research reveals that up to 62% of the decision makers on a purchasing team search the Internet to locate these customer search stories to help them make the final decision. Instead of letting your prospect do all the hard work by itself, stand out from your competitors by bringing the customers success stories to your prospect and showing it how your company has helped implement solutions for past clients.
Ideally, your B2B company should have a host of customer success stories ready to go on your website that you can show your prospects. A great example of having these extremely valuable customer success stories available is B2B Technologies, an IT professional services company. Note how that page on its website shows several of the B2B company’s customer case studies.
Complaints Pro does it right by showcasing an impressive success story on their homepage.
Whenever this company wants to impress a prospect and move from its short list to being chosen as a vendor, it can just refer the purchasing team to this page.
There, uncommitted and doubting decision makers can see all of the effective and successful work that B2B Technologies has done for numerous clients like Equifax, Georgia Perimeter College and the Morgan Corporation. As a result, B2B Technologies has empowered itself to stand out from its competitors, tremendously raising its chances of being chosen by the prospect.
The Role of Your Content, Your Website and Sales
Your content and your website have their place in supporting your B2B buyer’s buying process - note that I’m not saying a role in supporting your sales process. You should address all of the most common questions front and center using a combination of blog content, advanced content (downloadable stuff) and web pages.
I've seen cases where the product is a niche consulting service that was highly standardized, high scrutiny (priced in the hundreds of thousands) and featured a highly structured sales process, where the website’s role was set to support the early stages of awareness and persuade buyers to make a priority shift, right after which the well-setup, structured sales process would pick up the lead and further convert it.
In the case of an IT Consulting for specific ERP implementation services (i.e. instance SAP or Epicor), this awareness stage was addressed by the software manufacturer; the lead was arriving with the priority shift already made and going pretty much straight into the evaluation stage. In this case, the purpose of the website was built to aid the buyer in the evaluation and decision stages of his buying process.
So where one leaves it and the other one picks it up really depends on:
What is it that you are selling? (product vs. service, custom vs. out of the box)
How much does it cost (how much friction)?
How niche is your market? (vertical penetration vs. horizontal)
How well-structured is your sales process once the lead is generated?
What are your buyer personas looking for?
By really digging into how your B2B customer’s buying process works, you can position your company to be ahead of the game. Regardless of the economy, you can’t take any potential business for granted, neither can you afford to lose prospects because you didn’t know how to support their buying process.
The three steps of the B2B buying process are awareness, evaluation and decision. Remember them at all costs. From the very beginning of this process, you have the power to influence your buyer by being genuinely helpful, and you can only do that when you deeply understand what your buyers go through.
Don’t be slow to act, as there are highly important things that you can do from the very moment that you succeed in helping your buyer better formulate his problem.
Keep these rules in mind, and you will have a far more successful time in being selected by prospects for solutions to their problems.