The B2B buying process  is complex and typically involves five broad steps – ‘recall’, ‘identify’, ‘learn’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘buy’.

Mapping out the exact buying process is critical for anyone looking to market or sell in business-to-business (B2B) environments.  Armed with this understanding you’ll be able to target the right people, at the right time, in the right way.  Different scenarios will of course see a different buying process, but a recent survey of 118 B2B buyers by Circle Research reveals that there are similarities in the buying process across many B2B markets.

B2B buying process

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The winner is often preordained

It turns out that most of the decision has already been made before the buying process even begins.  Once the need is triggered, the average B2B buyer immediately has five potential suppliers in mind.  Whatsmore, the vast majority (86%) start out with a clear preference for one of these suppliers and most (94%) end up buying from them.  That means that in around 8 out of 10 cases, the winner has already been preordained and the sale is theirs to lose.

How can you create such a powerful advantage?

Customer service is critical

Length of B2B buying processWell, more often than not, this preferred supplier is the incumbent.  So, if that’s you, then most of the hard work is already done.  But don’t get complacent.  To retain that advantage, it’s essential that you invest in the customer experience as 61% of B2B buyers say that poor service from their incumbent would heavily influence the likelihood of buying from them again.  The damage that poor customer service can cause doesn’t stop there, as it will also reduce your chances of winning business with prospects too.  41% of B2B buyers who are unhappy with customer service will proactively spread negative word-of-mouth about the offending supplier amongst colleagues and peers.  That negative chatter has a big impact as 42% won’t buy from a supplier known for bad customer service, even if that supplier has a significantly better product than competitors.

Brand awareness driven by face-to-face channels, content marketing and trade media

Prospective suppliers can take advantage of these lapses by providing an alternative.  Establishing high levels of brand awareness is critical to this and when we asked B2B buyers to reveal how suppliers come to their attention during the buying process, they suggest using three complementary activities to build brand awareness:

  • 68% advise reaching out through face-to-face channels – sales visits, trade shows and other events
  • 51% suggest advertising in trade media
  • 47% recommend sharing valuable content through whitepapers, webinars and supplier magazines

They also provide a warning.  Approaching B2B buyers through telemarketing or by reaching out directly on social media may make them aware of your brand, but it will be coupled with negative sentiment from the outset.  Indeed, 52% of B2B buyers dislike suppliers who use telemarketing to target them and 35% dislike those who reach out directly through social media.

SEO and referral networks critical to being found

Despite your best efforts though, it may not be possible to make every potential buyer aware of your brand.  You can still remain in the running though.  Whilst those already in the buyer’s eco-system do have a strong advantage, 72% of buyers will expand their shortlist by searching for other potential suppliers they’re not already familiar with.  To ensure that you’re highly find-able invest in:

  • SEO/PPC as 39% of B2B buyers find additional suppliers through web search
  • Building referral networks – 34% ask professional advisers to recommend potential suppliers and 33% consult with colleagues or peers

Use ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ factors to persuade buyers

B2B buying decision criteriaThere’s still work to be done though as the average B2B buying process lasts eight weeks from start to finish.  During that period, you need to make your case and buyers suggest that four tactics work best when doing so:

  • Optimise your website as 27% of buyers will visit it
  • Build an evidence base as 20% will seek references and 18% look for case studies
  • Build a highly capable sales team as 47% meet with potential suppliers to evaluate them
  • Build strong word-of-mouth and referral networks as 34% ask colleagues or peers for their thoughts , 30% consult professional advisers and 22% look to industry analysts

And of course, you need to persuade prospective customers that you’re the best choice.  Other than price, two ‘hard’ factors are critical here – product quality and the after-sales service coupled with it (17% and 14% of buyers respectively, say these are the most important drivers of choice for them).  Four ‘softer’ factors also have a very important role:

  • Brand reputation and trust (21%)
  • Personal relationships (7%)
  • Perceived ease of doing business (5%)
  • The way in which you engage with them during the sales process (5%)

Food for thought.  How well does your sales and marketing strategy fit with this buying process?

Read more about Circle’s approach to researching the B2B buying process here.

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About Andrew

Andrew has specialised in B2B research for over a decade and co-founded Circle Research in 2006. He is a columnist for B2B Marketing Magazine, a regular contributor to Research Live and frequent speaker at leading events such as the B2B Leaders Forum, Customer Experience Live and the Social Media World Forum. Andrew is a Chartered Member of the MRS, teaches the MRS B2B research course and holds an MA in Psychology from Aberdeen University alongside an MSc in Marketing from Strathclyde University.

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