To know your future, you must first understand the past. This is exceptionally true when it comes to the buying behaviors of B2B customers. Before 2020, no one truly expected a global crisis such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. It caught everyone off-guard, no matter how advanced they were on their digital transformation journey.
Such a hit disrupted the status quo and changed the way B2B customers interacted with their suppliers and how they made their purchases. But how has B2B customer buying behavior evolved before the pandemic? How has the pandemic changed it? And how will it continue to change moving forward?
You’ll find the answer to the first question in this article, which is part of a three-part series that will answer all three questions. So, let’s get started!
Key highlights from the past
In the last five to seven years, B2B buyer behavior has changed significantly. And this has happened because of digital transformation which enabled business expansion into the virtual world. This advancement in the B2B landscape enabled B2B buyers to start their purchase journeys online before even setting foot in a physical store. And although they would generally close the deal offline, their buying decisions were influenced online.
In fact, according to research at the time, 67% of purchases for multiple industrial manufacturing and pack-and-ship industries were influenced by digital, meaning that buyers were sitting at the border between the online and offline worlds.
1. Increased online interest
Digital transformation and online expansion have enabled businesses to get closer to their customers. Many offline buyers started doing their independent research online and sift through vast amounts of data in order to attain accurate information about a supplier, their products, and their services. Before deciding to make a purchase, albeit offline, B2B buyers would consult online catalogs, conduct a series of searches, visit branded websites, seek out customer reviews, and more — all in order to find the best deals for their company. Once they identified the right offering, they would close the deal offline.
At this early stage in the buying journey, B2B buyers were merely curious to see what’s out there rather than actively conduct targeted searches. Nonetheless, this has influenced and continues to influence the way things are brought and sold in the B2B space.
Online, buyers had and continue to have access to a variety of information about a supplier or a product, which means that, while it became easier for buyers to gather information independently, it became harder for sellers to influence their buying decisions.
In fact, according to Gartner’s research from 2019, B2B buyers spent most of their time, about 27%, conducting independent research online, and only 17% meeting with potential suppliers.
2. Non-linear buying journey
B2B buying is anything but predictable. The main events in the buying journey don’t occur in linear order. Instead, some events, such as supplier selection or solution exploration might reoccur over and over again, sometimes even simultaneously.
This is also because a B2B buying decision is not made by a single individual. The decision-making process involves six to 10 individuals, each of whom conducted independent research and selected a different set of desirable solutions.
It’s rather difficult to follow a linear buying process when so many people are involved in deciding which supplier and which product to choose. Plus, B2B customers go through a series of tasks in order to finalize a purchase, according to Gartner. These include problem identification, solution exploration, requirements building, supplier selection, validation, and consensus creation.
3. Diverse buying groups
Over the past few years, B2B buying groups have become functionally diverse to accommodate the different needs for complex solutions, data security concerns, financial instability, and more.
More and more companies are involving different types of stakeholders in the buying process, and they cover a wide range of roles, teams, locations, and age groups. Each of them has individual opinions, priorities, and concerns, thus prolonging and complicating the decision-making process until a consensus is reached.
On top of that the millennials, who have become the largest workforce today, are generally skeptical not only of sales reps but also of the data they find online. They always seek out more evidence than their older generations. This has to do with the fact that millennials have been raised in the information era, making the need and desire to research a fundamental part of their overall behavior.
In 2018-2019, millennials have increasingly joined buying groups and they’ve been proven to hold more influence in final purchase decisions. As they continue to enter buying groups in the present as well, B2B sellers must ensure that they address their concerns and accommodate them in ways that drive consensus.
4. The importance of high-quality information
Because the B2B buying journey is non-linear, complex, and time-consuming, and because many of the individuals in the buying groups are millennials who value data-backed evidence, the focus has shifted to high-quality, easily accessible information in the past 3+ years.
B2B customers are likelier to close a deal with the seller that makes it the easiest for them to make a purchase. This means that they increasingly shopped at suppliers that offered them plenty of accurate information to digest and made the purchase process seem like a smooth sail, from the online catalogs to the offline deal.
It seems as though, in recent years, B2B buyers and sellers have started to embrace the online world and increasingly do business online. It became clear who the buyers were (and are) and what their preferences were, most notably: easily accessible information and data-backed evidence. It became evident that, although most purchases were made offline, most B2B buyers responded to offerings online.
So, that was then. What about now? How has the pandemic affected B2B buyer behavior? We’ll tackle that question in part II.