How much of the buying process is completed before B2B buyers talk to vendors?

For the past few years sources as varied as Gartner, marketing software vendors, and business school publications, have cited statistics that 50%, 60%, even 80% of the buying process is completed before a buyer reaches out to vendors. In addition, published reports indicate that many B2B buyers prefer to purchase with minimal involvement from a sales rep. This has led many vendors to rethink their sales and marketing approach and investments.

But how true is this for your B2B audience?

Research we’ve conducted over the past year on a behalf of a range B2B clients leads us to question the interpretation these statistics for many B2B sectors.  

We don’t mean to imply that the B2B buyer journey hasn’t evolved. It has. Today’s buyers expect to be able to find information they want online about vendors and products, and many, especially younger buyers, will take the time to find it. Buyers also prefer to control the process and interact with vendors on their own schedule – they want to be involved in a buying process, not a sales process. But their online activities at the start of their buying process focus primarily on identifying the vendors and solutions to evaluate. Today’s B2B buyers get further down the path than they once did before contacting vendors, but critical aspects of their decision are still completed with vendor input.

So how much of their decision process is left? And what’s the role of the vendor in that process?

There’s not one answer. That’s the problem with statistics and general statements that over-generalize market dynamics. That said, in our research three product dimensions appear to influence when B2B buyers engage with vendors in the buying process.

  1. Product Differentiation
  2. Business Criticality
  3. Complexity

1. Product Differentiation

The more differentiated the products in the consideration set, the more likely it is that the interactions with potential vendors drives the buyers’ ultimate decision. As product differentiation grows it becomes challenging for buyers to compare products and vendors. This is especially true in categories where product specifications and cost are typically not available on vendor websites. Even when feature lists are provided online buyers still find it challenging to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Alternatively, products and services on commodity-end of the spectrum require less interaction with vendors during the buying process.  When products are very similar across vendors and most of the information the buyer needs can be found online. In addition, it’s likely that the buyer has purchased the category of product before and is knowledgeable about their options. All that is left in their process is to check with vendors on pricing and availability.

2. Business Criticality

B2B buyers are open to purchasing products based on their own research, and with limited interactions with vendors, if the purchase poses low risks if they make a poor choice. These are typically products that are relatively easy to switch if needed and where the buyer faces minimal personal consequences if it fails.

As the business criticality of the product/service increases B2B buyers want vendor presentations and demos. The business, and buyer, cannot afford to make a mistake. They want to ensure they fully understand how the product/service will work in their organization, and for their specific use-case. There is also a degree of CYA involved. When vendors present their solutions to a group of internal stakeholders it protects the individual buyer – everyone else heard the information too.

As an example, a B2B buyer may purchase an email campaign management software without talking to anyone from the vendors, but they are unlikely to purchase a mission-critical CRM system without talking to reps from multiple vendors.

3. Complexity

If a B2B buyer understands the product, knows what they want, how to evaluate alternatives, they can complete most of their buying journey before reaching out to vendors. However, B2B buyers often purchase complex products that they lack expertise in. They don’t know what they don’t know and cannot realistically become an expert in their research and buying process. They need an external expert to help them figure out what fits their needs.

Legal, financial and insurance service providers fall into this category. Buyers rely heavily on interactions with the potential providers to inform their decision. They gauge expertise on the vendor’s ability to understand the buyer’s business, their needs, and then present a solution that fits within those parameters. Business software also falls into this category. We’ve seen enterprises use sales presentations from vendors to help figure out what they need, and what’s possible, from ERP solutions. Their buying criteria and process evolves the more they learn as they go – their RFI turns into an RFP.

These three dimensions don’t predict every B2B sector or audience’s buying process. Broad differences exist across generations in terms of online research. Some differences come down to individuals: One individual will have the time and desire to conduct extensive research; another will prefer to leave the work to the sales reps. That said, these dimensions can help you directionally understand your buyers’ journey and where they are likely to be in their process when they reach out to you.

With that as a starting point you can evaluate your current marketing and sales strategies to ensure your resources align with the prospect’s information needs, and decisions being made, at different stages of the buying process.