There Is More Than One B2B Buyer’s Journey

To help our clients understand their buyers, SiriusDecisions conducts significant and objective primary research. One of the most interesting discoveries revealed via our most recent b-to-b buying study is that there is not one buyer’s journey. In fact, there are three common, distinct scenarios of buying behavior that we isolated. It’s important to know which buying scenario that an offering or campaign is associated with in order to align go-to-market strategies to how b-to-b buyers buy.

Buying Spectrum

Buying Scenario: Committee

This is a highly complex purchasing process; the buying decision is phased, structured and hierarchical. This scenario is typically associated with large buying entities, most commonly organizations with $1B or more in annual revenue, and representative of offering types with price ranges in the hundreds of thousands to more than $1 million. The length of the buying cycle clusters around six months; however, we observed many instances of the purchasing decision lasting longer – as much as a year or more to make a decision to buy (licensed members can read the brief “The SiriusDecisions Buying Decision Process Framework”). In a committee scenario, our study showed  that six to 10 individuals were involved in the decision to purchase across multiple departments or functions (buying centers). The committee buying scenario requires the highest level of interaction between the buying entity and the provider organization to facilitate a decision to purchase an offering (licensed members can read the brief “The SiriusDecisions Buying Interaction Model”). We observed, on average, approximately 18 interactions (nine non-human intereactions and nine human-to-human interactions) occurring in this type of scenario.

Buying Scenario

Buying Scenario: Consensus

Consensus was the most common buying scenario that SiriusDecisions observed across all organizational size dimensions. Consensus is a team-based buying scenario where multiple people are involved across the organization. The typical price range for an offering in this scenario was $50-500MM USD (with longer tails for billion-plus for organizations with more than $500MM in revenue, and longer tails for under $50MM for emerging organizations [under $50MM in revenue]). In this buying scenario, the decision is horizontal and canvasses multiple departments or functions. It is not as complex as the committee buying decision because does not go to a senior level executive team, but it is still moderately complex as consensual decisionmaking is much harder to facilitate, given there are so many dynamics given the involvement of multiple buyer personas that must be influenced and informed in order to attain the vote to purchase the offering. We observed, on average, approximately 14 (seven non-human interactions and seven human-to-human interactions) occurring in this type of scenario.

Buying Scenario: Independent

This is a simple buying scenario where one or just a couple of people were involved in the decision to purchase, and the decision was easier to facilitate than committee or consensus decisions. The decision to purchase is made by one or two buyer personas and does not go either horizontal (consensus) or vertical (committee); the decision remains in a specific function or department. Thus, because the purchase is independent of the consensual voting or formal committee approval-type dynamics and there is no need to gain consensus represented by the other buying scenarios, the decision can be made independently or in isolation. It’s important to not confuse this scenario with transactional or e-commerce purchases. While the independent scenario is most related to those types of purchasing methods, our research has identified offerings purchased over the Internet in the other buying scenarios as well. This buying scenario is the least complex, as there is less impact from internal influencers and the provider only has to inform and persuade one or two key buyer personas. This makes it much easier to devise messaging, content and campaigns. The independent buying scenario requires the least amount of interaction between the buying entity and the provider organization to facilitate a decision to purchase an offering. We observed, on average, approximately 12 interactions (six non-human interactions and six human-to-human interactions) occurring in this type of scenario.

The 2015 SiriusDecisions B-to-B Buying Study reports observations from studying the recent b-to-b buying decisions of over 1,300 b-to-b executives across North America and Europe. For more information on the reports (available to members of the SiriusDecisions portfolio marketing research and advisory service), download the brochure. For members of the portfolio marketing service, click here to read the full research brief with deeper data and insights.

The “Experiential Shift” and what it means for Product Marketers

Product Marketers should help Sales sell. Research says that the buying experience now drives B2B customer loyalty much more than product features, price, or vendor brand reputation.  So is there more that Product Marketers can be doing to help Sales create experiences that really connect? Yes, there is, and it’s called “experiential segmentation.”

Your customer segmentation model may be perfectly rational, and that may just be a bigger obstacle than you realize

As the differentiating power of traditional sales levers (price, features, brand reputation) wane, the buying experience is growing more important. Product Marketers are responsible for providing buyer insight, often in the form of personas, that help Sales sell. Yet, according to our research at Quarry, the customer segmentation model employed at 70% of B2B enterprises is not meaningfully different from that of competitors.  And that poses a problem.

A persona, like any other form of “target” definition, pre-supposes an underlying segmentation perspective. Take a look: Are your personas differentiated, one from  the other, by means of some categorical framework?  Job title, for instance?  Or company size? Or industry vertical? Each of these categories is a segmentation perspective. Each encodes a theory that says, in effect, “this system of differences between people explains and predicts differences in how they behave.”

These category-driven theories, we must presume, have some basis in fact. But they also suffer from two liabilities that you would be wise to consider.

First, as noted above, for 70% of B2B marketers these theories are not proprietary.   If the segmentation perspective – meant to be the “difference that makes a difference” – embedded in your personas is the same as the segmentation perspective of your competitor, then, even if you have done an excellent job in every other respect with your personas, the utility that Sales can extract from personas for the purpose of differentiating the buyer’s experience has been limited from the outset. Letting this situation persist hinders an experience-led sales and marketing strategy where customer insight is the edge in creating experiences that connect differently and better.

Secondly, even where they may be differentiating, these categorical segmentation perspectives are proving to be weak theories. They rest on assumptions that are crumbling under the weight of evidence and changing circumstances. Let’s take the commonplace (some might even say “best practice”) of using organizational titles as the foundational categorization scheme for personas.

Job titles may feel meaningful but…

In my recent interview with CEB’s Pat Spenner, Pat underscores how CEB’s research on the consensus-driven nature of B2B purchases reveals that both job title and organizational rank are weakly correlated with the propensity for an individual to stick their neck out to lead the consensus buying group to consolidate their understanding of a problem, establish the criteria for a solution, select a vendor and seal the deal for a quality solution. In short, according to that research, “Mobilization,” not “job title” or “rank,” is “the difference that makes a difference.”

Moreover, these top-down categorizations of customers (role, size, vertical)  rest on a body of 18th century rationalistic economic and psychological theory that assumes human beings behave in the marketplace as “rational actors.” The last few decades of research in behavioral economics, prospect theory, neuroscience, organizational behavior and cognitive linguistics converge in a way that is extremely harsh to that “rational actor” notion.

Now, chances are, you have a somewhat change-averse colleague. Let’s call him Larry. Larry will argue, “well, maybe our segmentation model is the same as our competitor’s for a good reason; maybe that is just what reality looks like.” For Larry, the fact that your segmentation model is the same as a competitor actually feels reassuring – an independent source of validation. And Larry might also assert that while job titles are a weak predictor of “mobilization,” they still seem indispensable to operationalizing B2B demand-gen tactics.

And here’s where you as a Product Manager need to make a choice. You could defer to Larry. You could spend a bunch of time trying to argue with him. Or you could take the lead in creating and implementing an alternative that is better aligned with our contemporary understanding of how buyers buy, how humans behave and how experience-driven sales and marketing works.  In short, you could embark on an “experiential segmentation.”

When curiosity leads, new insights can follow

What might that process look like? It starts with setting in brackets the current categorical assumptions about the differences between customers that make a difference. It involves a curiosity-driven exploration of your customer’s broader context – not just what your customer thinks about your brand or your category of products. It involves a recognition that the complexity in people’s motivations and the contradictions discovered in their self-stories are not noise to be discarded but instead are foundational assets for building proprietary customer insights. And it involves a certain amount of change management leadership to get your colleagues aligned around an insight-rich view of the customer that is proprietary and custom-tailored to creating differentiating experiences for your customers – both in digital demand-generation channels and in face-to-face selling. If you’d like to learn more about that, you can read about it here.

It’s not necessarily easy. Partly because some reassuringly familiar things must be abandoned.  Simple categories and tidy, “rational actor” assumptions about b2b purchase decisions need  to give way to a more nuanced multi-dimensional viewpoint  on buyer’s motivations.  And, (something that may make Larry nervous) you’ll have fewer “best practice” examples you can point to for reference until you actually get there.   But what are your options?  Buyer experience is increasingly driving sales.  If you take seriously your responsibility to provide Sales with buyer insight, it’s hard to ignore the evidence that segmentation, as it is widely practiced, undermines experience-based differentiation.   There is more that Product Marketers can be doing to help Sales create experiences that really connect. It’s called “experiential segmentation.” And it will separate you from your competitors.