Anyone looking to sell IT technology business-to-business (B2B) has it pretty hard these days. Decision-making processes have become more complex and more people have a say.
A recent Text100 study reported (registration required) that on average, six people (in Germany, seven) with very different functions are involved with purchasing decisions. Two-thirds of the companies surveyed said that once the decision had been made, the purchase still had to be signed off by the board. At the information gathering stage, decision-makers use numerous offline and online channels to do their research. This stage now lasts longer and more resources go into preparing and justifying decisions.
The study, which surveyed 1,900 people from around the world, asked questions about the influences that affect B2B decision-makers as they consider purchasing IT solutions.
During the research stage, people tend to rely mainly on the suppliers' websites, on IT magazines, online searches, and discussions with colleagues and consultants. The final decision appears to be influenced by two key factors: 1. the price, or rather the cost-saving potential (the study found this played a major role in all stages of the process) and 2. advice and opinions from acquaintances, as well as user reviews and recommendations.
The study identified four key influences on the decision-making process:
- Decision-makers -- who are they and what are their needs?
- Influencers -- Who do decision-makers trust the most? Who are the people that carry the most weight and have the best reputation in the field?
- Channels -- Where do decision-makers get their information?
- Content -- What do decision-makers want to see, read or hear? What kind of information do they want and value?
If technology companies want to succeed, they must take all of these aspects into account and integrate them into their marketing and communication strategies. The days of “simple” marketing are over. Tech companies need to adopt a mixed approach that combines corporate presence (owned media) with paid presence (paid media), social channels and targeted recommendations (earned media). The end result should allow potential customers to access a range of high quality information about the company and its technology.
Unlike in previous years, technical content alone will no longer suffice. IT decision-makers are increasingly being joined by those with “business focused” roles. Since these non-technical players are involved in the decision-making process, they want access to information that is relevant to them.
Customers Reach Decisions Before Vendors Know
Another point worth noting: a study conducted by CEB in collaboration with Google showed B2B buyers have on average completed 57 percent of their decision-making process before they reach out to the supplier. Forrester reports that, depending on the market and the complexity of the products in question, businesses might well have completed between 66 percent to 90 percent of the process before contacting the supplier.
Potential buyers use information sources in different ways during the different stages of the decision-making process. At the information gathering stage, a company's website plays a bigger role than it does in the stages where the decision is actually made. At that point, the focus shifts to recommendations, reviews and discussions with other customers (on and offline).
Marketing strategies should provide the information and modes of contact that buyers are looking for at every step of the decision-making process. Companies must adopt an approach that combines paid, owned and earned media over the entire purchase process.
Companies must also be careful not to underestimate the effect that relationships can have on business dealings. In particular, those in the B2B sector can have an enormous impact on decision-making processes. These relationships are no longer limited to the traditional, personal variety. In many cases, today's relationships begin on the Internet. A company's online reputation, visible in online communities, is fast acquiring the kind of influence that “real” relationships long possessed.
'Social Proof Makes or Breaks a Buyer’s Decision'
Social media and networks are having an enormous impact on marketing. Marketing efforts need to win over “influencers” and ensure that they have a regular supply of high-quality information. In the past, influencers were mostly journalists and analysts, but thanks to the Internet, the group now also includes bloggers and independent advisors who know the social media ropes. Social networks also give suppliers the opportunity to send in their own experts who can use the ropes to form opinions and increase the company’s influence.
By creating links between customers, and between customers, suppliers and partners, online activities create transparent and easy to find semi-public or public discussions. This means that marketing and sales need to start working more closely together. Marketing experts can use social media to speak to customers and potential customers. Sales experts should be connected to their customers via social media so that they can keep an eye on what their contacts and their businesses are “getting up to.”
This is also an opportunity to encourage customers to give positive reviews of and information about suppliers and their products. Ideally, when sales and marketing start working more closely, they will develop a closer relationship with the customer, who then becomes a kind of advocate for the supplier. We cannot underestimate the value of having advocates like these.
The study offered encouraging findings on this point: seven out of 10 buyers share positive experiences in social channels. Seven out of 10 also said they would provide information upon request. Surprisingly, users are more likely to share positive experiences than negative. There is one exception: Germans are comparatively more likely to leave negative messages in online forums.
Suppliers, Take Note
Suppliers would do well to take particularly good note of some of the study findings. For instance, respondents said that they didn't want sales activities to be one-off events. B2B customers want their suppliers to maintain long-term relationships with them. Relationships shouldn’t end once the product has been sold and installed, or once the warranty has expired. More than anything, customers want to hear about how others fulfilled similar requirements to theirs.
The study provides a good overview for marketing professionals (among others) working in the B2B technology sector. It breaks down the marketing and sales processes and highlights the key aspects in each of the different stages. The study calls on companies to open their minds to new sales processes and to the demands of the social media age. It encourages them to combine traditional and digital channels and fill them with smart, relevant content. It is also a call for a system of engagement -- with emphasis on the word “engagement.”
Companies need to engage with influencers, opinion leaders and analysts. More than anything, they need to engage with and commit to their customers in a way that incorporates social media and all its tools. If they do that, they’ll have loyal customers and healthy sales figures.
Title image by robcocquyt (Shutterstock)