Whitepaper | Hugh Kennedy

Breaking Through to the B2B Buyer: Offer A Vision For Change

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom out there in BtoB marketing. For example:

  • Buyers know what they need and follow clearly defined steps in the buying process
  • Marketers should develop personas that reflect these needs and then create content that will address questions and issues that arise at discreet stages
  • Buyers are only looking for marketers to answer their questions so they can make informed buying decisions.
  • If marketers are telling buyers what to do, they are not "customer centric" or "good listeners.”

Only a few problems with all this:

  • The buying process for most organizations is messy – and highly protracted
  • Organizations might have a clear vision of the end-state they are pursuing, but seldom have a concrete idea of how any particular solution will get them there
  • Buyer confusion is exacerbated by the fact that, in most markets, solutions seem like commodities and marketing messages bang away at the same tired tropes, especially cost savings and efficiency.

Where’s the truth in all this noise?

We decided to go global to find answers, so during July and August 2017 PJA and our research partner Aberdeen surveyed more than 250 BtoB buyers across a range of industries, including technology, professional services, and manufacturing. We looked at companies from under $50 million in revenue to over $5 billion, with 60% in North America, 21% in Europe, 12% in Asia/Pacific, and the rest distributed across Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. More than a third of respondents were CEOs or Presidents, with Managers, Directors, and Vice Presidents making up 41% of the rest.

We called our survey “Breaking Through to The B2B Buyer: Offer A Vision for Change.” (Download full report below) Here’s what we found:

First and most importantly, BtoB buyers want change, and they really do want to be challenged. When we asked, “Are you more likely to work with a vendor who challenges the way you currently do business – for example, by highlighting a pain point or organizational weakness you weren’t aware of?” more than 65% answered, “Yes.” When we asked, “How often are you likely to work with a vendor who changes your purchasing criteria by addressing a pain point you couldn’t solve before?” more than half of respondents said “Often” and another 10% said “Every time.” The net: as many studies before us have found, companies want to work with vendors that make a compelling case for change.

Buyers will alter their purchase criteria for companies that address pain points. More than half of respondents in our study said that would be more likely to work with a vendor who changed their purchasing criteria by addressing a pain point they couldn’t solve before. This is critical because it highlights the extent to which buyers are uncertain with regard to what they need. It also reveals that buyers are willing to turn to vendors as experts who are able to educate them on the market, the solution space, and even the way they do business.

If buyers don’t find compelling reasons to purchase, the process stalls. The two greatest barriers to purchase approval in today’s organizations were lack of clarity around what the company needed (32.8%) and indecision (27.9%). Vendors can play a huge clarifying role here. The same week I saw these results, a good friend was bemoaning how the CIO of his multibillion-dollar company was feeling more confused about the solution she needed as the purchase process went on, not less. What’s wrong with this picture?

Buyers want a path to competitive advantage; products are just a means to this end. Strategic marketers and salespeople get this fact; others don’t. In fact, nearly 44% of companies (a plurality) said they last paid a premium for a product or service when they believed it would generate competitive advantage. Just as interesting, the second most popular factor in making a purchase decision (42%) was whether the vendor or solution supported the company’s goals. Only total cost of ownership was judged more important.

As I noted, these findings are consistent with other research. Among the best is The Challenger Customer, which showed that an average of 5.4 decision-makers are involved in a complex BtoB purchase (and often can only agree on one thing – grinding down prices), that buyers need compelling insights to challenge their assumptions and get them off the dime, and that you have to connect with energized, push-back Mobilizer types (we call them Crazies) inside organizations who want to change the status quo and will drive consensus for your solution if you can engage them. Ignore these realities and the prospect often will choose the path of least resistance: namely, doing nothing.

But if there is so much opaqueness and dithering when it comes to potentially transformative solutions, what is important in cutting through?

First, vendors need to help prospects embrace change so they can make the decision to do things differently. In other words, you have to paint a picture of what the product can do beyond a few marketing buzzwords. More than half of respondents identified this as a priority.

Second, vendors need to have a vision for making the entire category better. More than half of respondents said that this ability would turn their heads.

The survey also looked at purchase triggers and perceived product differentiation. The results are eye-opening:

  • Brand is an important factor in putting together a short list of vendors, but quite a bit less important as the purchasing decision nears (13.3% vs 4.3%).
  • In two-thirds of cases, buying decisions are triggered by a perceived business strategy need, versus when a solution is outdated or a higher-level executive calls for it.
  • More than a third (37%) reported that products under consideration are infrequently or never seen as superior to each other.
  • The single greatest factor that determines the time horizon for a purchase is not budget review cycles, but perceived complexity of implementing a new solution (45.1%).

Not a big surprise, when you get down to it, that companies have an insatiable appetite for competitive differentiation. Once you understand that, it’s clear how rare it is that companies can connect their products to this business need.

The reality that explodes the BtoB buyer myth? If you’re looking to stand out among the sea of competitors when your buyers decide they’re in the market for what you offer, three things are compellingly clear:

1. You have to know your prospects well enough to understand their goal and the pain points that prevent those goals from being achieved. Pointing these out may challenge your buyer, but that is increasingly what they want.  

2. Your brand has to play a deeper role in your market (not just your company) by articulating why the market has to change – the buying process, the conditions for victory, the change that matters.

3. You have to connect what you do to the prospect’s competitive advantage. Nothing short of that will do for today’s strategic buyers. And as our survey shows, if you succeed you’re more likely to earn that vanishingly rare thing in BtoB – a premium price.

Remember, just because someone claims to want something, it’s often not even close to what they really need. Where you take this opportunity is up to you.
Check out the full report below.

Brand for change

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