Understanding the B2B buyer’s journey

Understanding the B2B buyer’s journey

B2B buyers’ journeys are often complex, but understanding them in detail can help you optimize your sales and marketing strategy for better results.

Why does the B2B buyer journey tend to be more complex than in B2C? There are lots of reasons, including:

  • B2B purchases usually cost more
  • Therefore, purchase decisions can be more business-critical and involve more risk
  • To minimize the risk of making the wrong decision, businesses typically involve more stakeholders and stages in the purchase process
  • The decision-making process is often more thorough and can last several months
  • Post-purchase, customers may have limited opportunities to change providers – for example, because the change would be time-consuming or expensive

Moreover, a typical journey will vary notably by sector. The process followed by buyers of industrial products will have stages that don’t feature in the journey to buy SaaS solutions, for example.

Plus, buyers are always looking for a better, more efficient purchase process – so the typical journey evolves over time.

What a business learned about its buyers’ journey several years ago could be outdated now, particularly for insights from before COVID-19. For example, McKinsey reports that 70% of B2B decision-makers now prefer remote human or digital self-service touchpoints, compared to pre-pandemic.

And arguably, age matters in B2B too. Millennials have now replaced Gen X as the most represented generation in the workforce. Many of them are decision-makers, with studies showing they spend more time researching products and are more likely to consult several information sources during the buying journey.

Exploratory buyer journey research in B2B is an insightful way to analyze where and why you’re missing out on sales opportunities. Similarly, it can clarify where you’re doing well and need to keep up the good work.

The insights help the sales and marketing teams produce the right information that buyers are looking for and push it to them at the right time in the journey.

B2B buyer journey research gets you insights to:

  • Find customer/prospect pain points in the journey and fix them
  • Allocate your marcomms budget where it’s needed most
  • Help sales reps anticipate buyers’ needs more accurately
  • Help product development teams build solutions for customers’ unmet needs
  • Cut any unnecessary costs e.g. for unused channels/processes
Contents

A buyer journey example in B2B

How to do B2B buyer journey research

B2B buyer journey research: best practices

A buyer journey example in B2B

Here is a simple diagram to represent a hypothetical buyer journey.

The process can finish at the ‘end of journey’ point, or with upselling / cross-selling / renewal opportunities, or there may be a new trigger causing the process to start all over again. 

It’s common to see standardized buyer journey models like this and while they are a useful simplification, they tend to have significant limitations:

  • The journey looks formal and structured, with each stage given the same weight but in reality, one stage could last seconds while another could last months
  • The journey looks too linear and sequential – in reality, buyers often revisit stages (sometimes simultaneously) or skip some altogether

This second point is crucial – the buyer journey in B2B is not linear. It can deviate, as buyers may go back to redo a stage several times in the same journey.

There are plenty of nuances to a B2B journey. For example, if a customer is making a repeat purchase, fewer people will influence the decision and it will take less time.

So to build on the previous diagram, the new blue arrows show some more of the complexity involved in the buyer journey:

Also, barriers to change (e.g. internal resistance, lack of time, lack of conviction) can return buyers back to the status quo at any time.

Yet the above still remains a simplistic visualization. A strong B2B buyer journey research project should unpack the stages in granular detail, exploring all the key touchpoints and nuances at each stage in a much more detailed map.

The research needs to analyze:

  • The importance of each stage in the buyer’s journey
  • The ideal performance from your brand at each stage
  • Your current performance at each stage
  • Actions you should continue to do
  • New or improved actions required to improve your performance 

In short, it must identify how to better influence key decision-makers at key stages of the buyer journey e.g. by optimizing your marcomms channels and messages to their needs.

Nonetheless, while there will be sector and business-specific variations, the following stages are common in a buyer journey:

#1 Trigger

The buying process begins when a business recognizes they have a problem to solve.

For example, the trigger could be a specific pain point, or people in the business may notice that a rival is doing something better, or a vendor may make an interesting sales approach.

The buyer research project needs to identify the range of triggers for your customers and how your brand can be present for them.

#2 Evaluating solutions

Once a business recognizes its problem, it begins weighing up how to solve it.

Sometimes its decision-makers will do nothing, especially if the available solutions look too expensive or time-consuming.

If they commit to fixing the problem, they need to decide whether to create the solution in-house or buy it from a third party. They also need to define the type of solution required – there could be different product categories.

At this stage, buyers start comparing the pros and cons of each potential route. They rule potential solutions in or out at an early stage.

#3 Defining requirements

Having settled on a way forward, the decision-makers need to specify more precisely what the company needs, in terms of:

For more formal buying decisions, a purchasing manager may need to approve the final product specification.

#4 Provider awareness

If the business has worked with third parties for solutions like these before, they may skip this stage or it will be quick.

The business may also have a supplier database or an approved list of vendors to choose from. For those following a formal process, they may put out an RFP.

Alternatively, provider awareness could begin with a Google Search and end with browsing different vendor websites – yours (if they are aware of you) and those of competitors.

#5 Provider consideration

Again this process can be formal or informal:

  • The formal approach may involve committees, an evaluation of RFPs received, listening to pitches, and so on
  • An informal approach may involve a smaller team comparing providers in a less structured way

Either way, their task is to gather and review information on potential providers and their solutions against their specific criteria.

This stage can last anywhere between a few seconds to several months.

#6 Finalizing the purchase

In the end, a key individual or team puts forward the provider who they believe best meets the business’ most important criteria.

In more formal scenarios, they may still need to justify the choice to a wider decision-making team – in some cases, the board or C-suite.

This stage can derail things for a vendor, so if selected, you may need to take an active role in moving the buyer forward to finish the purchase journey. You may need to provide additional information, customer testimonials, or a presentation to the final decision-makers, for example. 

#7 Post-purchase experience

Once the buying process is complete, in many cases the journey continues even though the buyer may take on a more passive role at this stage.

You want the buyer’s long-term loyalty so that they renew the service or consider making further purchases in the future.

Therefore, the customer experience plays a key part in an ongoing buyer journey or path to re-purchase.

This involves everything from any initial onboarding to product aftercare/maintenance, the quality of your account management efforts, and the product or service experience itself.

#8 Upselling / cross-selling / renewal

If the previous stage goes well, the buyer may choose to renew or make further purchases from you.

The second time around, the buyer journey should be shorter and involve fewer stages. The key decision-makers could jump straight to finalizing the purchase.

However, a below-expectations experience at the previous stage could end the journey here. That may mean when future triggers occur, the buyer restarts the journey from scratch, re-considering all potential solutions and your competitors too.

How to do B2B buyer journey research

To get a comprehensive picture of what your buyers’ journey looks like and how you can capitalize on it more effectively, we recommend: 

  • Aligning on the research objectives with key stakeholders
  • Working out who’s in the decision-making unit (DMU)
  • Ranking their decision-making criteria priorities
  • Identifying all the buyer journey touchpoints
  • Analyzing, visualizing, sharing, and acting on the journey insights

Aligning on the research objectives with key stakeholders

Involve at least one stakeholder from each customer-facing department in the process. Find out what the interactions with customers are, how often they occur, who in the team is involved, where customers go next in the journey, and the reasons why.

It’s an important part of the research process in terms of getting stakeholders’ buy-in. 

They can make sure the project won’t waste time answering questions they already have answers to and share their hypotheses for the research to test.

This exercise provides an internal view of the customer journey. There will be gaps, but the research can fill these gaps later.

Without yet interviewing your customers, you can fill some of these gaps using behavioral data you may already have – for example:

  • Customer service logs detailing queries or issues
  • Sales pipeline management system records
  • Market research data from your previous projects e.g. customer satisfaction
  • Product analytics software e.g. Amplitude
  • Business intelligence software e.g. Tableau

Behavioral data is particularly valuable because it should be objective and free from bias. Again it also provides a platform for the research to build on so that it doesn’t retread old ground.

Working out who’s in the decision-making unit (DMU)

It’s important to get insights from three types of customers for a full picture of the buyer journey:

  • New customers
  • Established customers
  • Lapsed customers

Doing so should help you capture all the different customer touchpoints in the journey. They should also have different perspectives on pain points, and friction in the journey that deters them from completing the journey with your brand (or perhaps any provider). 

Also, competitor research can help you understand prospects’ journey – how it differs and why they don’t end it by choosing you.

Crucially, these external interviews will fill gaps in your understanding of who is involved in the final purchase decision.

These decisions often involve several people in B2B (but in smaller businesses, a select few individuals may wear several ‘hats’) and the DMU will have some power dynamics.

It’s unlikely that there’s only one C-suite decision-maker making the final call. Research from Google has found that 81% of staff outside the C-suite have a say in purchase decisions.

In most cases, there will be junior staff involved – potentially across departments such as IT, Operations, Marketing, Finance, Procurement, and so on.

The research needs to identify how to satisfy the key criteria of different people in the DMU and ultimately, ways to influence them and improve your sales strategy.

Ranking their decision-making criteria priorities

The DMU assesses providers against hygiene and differentiating factors. The research must identify these differentiators and what best-in-class looks like.

The tricky aspect is that some of these criteria can be subconscious. Throughout the sales process, there are hidden or unspoken dynamics that individuals in the DMU may not be aware of.

For instance, cognitive biases and emotions affect B2B purchase behavior with buyers nearly 50% more likely to base decisions on whether they see some personal gain.

Often what buyers say matters isn’t the whole truth. They may not know exactly why they make their decisions and tend to over-rationalize reasons for their actions.

However, there are ways to interrogate these subconscious factors in B2B research, such as via trade-off analysis techniques to probe deeply into behaviors and motivations.

Identifying all the buyer journey touchpoints

By walking through a typical buyer journey in interviews with customers and prospects, you can build up a long list of all the different touchpoints where they engage with your brand.

You may also identify touchpoints where they interact with other brands, perhaps because your presence in these channels isn’t strong enough.

For example, buyers tend to begin their journey by informing themselves or their team about the issue, and then deciding which solution will best fit their particular problem.

Therefore, the research project must establish the main channels they’re using to get information and the key topics or details they’re looking for, so you can shape the agenda.

It should also explore the outcomes of these touchpoint interactions. Are they positive or negative, why, and what would help them on their journey instead?

Analyzing, visualizing, sharing, and acting on the journey insights

Leveraging the insights from your internal stakeholders, behavioral data, and customer interviews to identify how to better influence decision-makers at key stages of the journey. Work out how to optimize your marcomms channels and messages to their needs.

There are several different ways to map out the buyer journey and these insights – including flow diagrams, storyboards, infographics, and videos. The best option varies depending on your business and the objectives.

But crucially, the visual format must lend itself to be easily shareable around parts of the business that are customer-facing.

Then you need to make sure the different teams understand and know how to use the insights and recommendations. For example, in-person or virtual workshops are a great way to absorb the information, clarify the implications, and agree on actions or KPIs.

B2B buyer journey research: best practices

#1 Use a variety of qualitative techniques to explore the journey

In terms of choosing between quantitative and qualitative research, qual tends to be the best way to understand customers’ motivations and behavior throughout the buyer journey.

There are several viable qual approaches including:

  • One-on-one depth interviews: Ask respondents to describe their typical buyer journey step-by-step and in detail, plus the pain points
  • Diary exercises: Ask respondents to keep ‘media diaries’ on their daily interactions with your brand and others, or ‘purchase diaries’ capturing each step of a real buyer journey
  • UX interviews: Ask respondents to share their screen while they go through parts of a buyer journey in real time 

For either approach, explore in depth throughout the buyer journey what they need, how they get it, and why. Find out what their best possible scenarios look like and how that compares with their current experiences.

#2 Use quantitative research to validate the results if needed

For robust research insights with statistics, you could consider running a quant survey after the qual is complete.

That way, you can put some metrics on each step – for example, the percentage of buyers experiencing a specific stage, or the relative importance of each stage.

You can also get statistical data on your brand’s performance throughout the buyer journey, then supplement it with digital analytics – for example, exit rates for web pages.

#3 Explore differences by segment

It’s unlikely that the buyer journey will be the same for each of your customers.

If you try to build a single buyer journey map for your entire audience it will either be too high-level to be accurate, or too complex to cover each individual variation.

Use results from market segmentation research or your buyer personas to identify which segments in your customer base are likely to go through different journeys.

Include your key segments in the buyer research project to examine the differences in their journey and when analyzing the results, build separate journey maps for them.

#4 Conduct a win-loss audit on the buyer journey

A win-loss analysis uncovers the real reasons why you win or lose sales from customers so you can take action.

It ties in nicely with buyer research because it also explores the process customers and prospects go through in detail, assessing how you perform at each stage.

The final results give you clear guidance on how to improve your marketing and sales efforts for a better win-loss ratio.

 

Summary

Benefits of B2B buyer journey research include getting the insights you need to: find customer/prospect pain points in the journey and fix them; allocate your marcomms budget where it’s needed most; help sales reps anticipate buyers’ needs more accurately; help product development teams build solutions for customers’ unmet needs; and cut any unnecessary costs e.g. for unused channels/processes.

A buyer journey example in B2B

While there will be sector and business-specific variations, the following stages are common in a B2B buyer journey: trigger; evaluating solutions; defining requirements; provider awareness; provider consideration; finalizing the purchase; post-purchase experience; upselling / cross-selling / renewal.

How to do B2B buyer journey research

To get a comprehensive picture of what your buyers’ journey looks like and how you can capitalize on it more effectively, we recommend: aligning on the research objectives with key stakeholders; working out who’s in the decision-making unit (DMU); ranking their decision-making criteria priorities; identifying all the buyer journey touchpoints; analyzing, visualizing, sharing, and acting on the journey insights.

B2B buyer journey research: Best practices

We recommend that you: use a variety of qualitative techniques to explore the journey; use quantitative research to validate the results if needed; explore differences by segment; and conduct a win-loss audit on the buyer journey.

Chris Wells
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