The gap between business-to-business buyers and sellers has been growing, according to CSO Insights, the research division of Miller Heiman Group.
Its survey of 500 B2B buyers at mid-to-large companies around the world delivered the following findings:
- More than 70 percent of B2B buyers preferred to wait to engage a seller until the latter demonstrated a clear understanding of its needs;
- Nearly 58 percent of buyers saw little difference among sellers;
- More than 10 percent saw no difference at all among sellers; and
- Only 23 percent of buyers considered vendor salespeople a preferred resource for solving problems.
Sellers are seen as product representatives, not business problem solvers, so buyers wait until they want to learn about a specific solution first, the survey results suggest. That limits sellers to specific stages in the buying process, which makes it difficult for them to differentiate themselves from the competition.
“The big change in buyer behavior is that buyers formerly needed salespeople to provide information about solutions,” noted Seleste Lunsford, managing director at CSO Insights.
“The advent of the Web began to change that, and subsequent developments in the depth and detail of information available online made talking to salespeople early in the decision-making process unnecessary,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “Next, consumerization changed buyer expectations.”
The Roots of the Problem
“Convenience is the primary reason B2B procurement officers opt for self-service over live salespeople,” said Scott E. Webb, president of Avionos.
Digital capabilities let businesses operate 24/7, and “consumers have taken full advantage of these flexible hours,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Now, as [business-to-consumer] patterns trickle into the B2B world, these buyers expect the same flexibility in their business buying lives.”
Further, making simple and repeat purchases through self-service systems is a faster process, “so it’s definitely an appealing option for buyers,” Webb said.
Artificial intelligence engines and machine learning led to consumers getting recommendations tailored to their preferences, CSO Insights found. B2B sellers, on the other hand, have to learn about their customers at their first meeting.
Internet-based companies see a business opportunity with AI-based technologies replacing sellers, based on the survey results. Already, people can buy US$250K or more worth of complex industrial equipment on Alibaba, for example.
Ultimately, product reviews, recommendations and insights for even large, complex B2B purchases such as commercial hydroelectric power systems will become as commoditized as those for consumer products, CSO Insights predicted.
Other causes of the growing buyer-seller divide:
- The growing workload of sales teams, which leaves them little time to research new customers and learn about them;
- Sky-high expectations for buyer-seller interactions;
- The increasing workload of buyers, which leaves them little time for human interactions; and
- Outdated account-management methodology, which focuses more on sales than on post-sales, and doesn’t integrate sales and service functions well enough.
“Sales and service need to be aligned in what they communicate to the customer,” CSO’s Lunsford noted. “Both reps are saying what they’ve been taught to say … and the customer’s frustrated because the service rep contradicts the sales rep.”
The tortuous buying process, which often involves up to six people on the buyer’s side, further complicates matters for sellers.
Issues of Trust
“Buyers find first-hand and third-party information sources more influential and trustworthy than vendor salespeople,” remarked Julie Neumann, content director at TrustRadius.
Vendors who are more honest and open about their products are more likely to close the deal, suggest TrustRadius surveys of more than 650 technology buyers and vendors on the B2B purchasing process.
“All vendor-provided resources were at the bottom of the barrel for influence and trust,” Neumann told the E-Commerce Times. Vendor reps ranked 11th out of 15 options for influence and trust, despite being the fifth most-used resources.
Sales Teams Staying Alive
As self-service begins to play a larger role in purchase processes, sales reps have been morphing from order takers to trusted advisors for buyers, Avionos’ Webb noted.
“Sales teams will never be phased out,” he maintained. “Their roles and responsibilities are just changing.”
The trusted advisor role “means that the sales reps can save time by eliminating monotonous tasks such as basic order capture, and reinvest that time in more strategic conversations with both existing clients and new prospects,” Webb said.
Organizations can benefit from a combination of sales enablement and holistic changes in various areas, suggested CSO Insights, including sales processes, management execution, technology stacks and hiring profiles.
“Organizations can and do undergo massive overhauls when their survival is at stake,” Lunsford said. The problems and solutions are real. We never say it will be easy.”
Further Steps Sellers Can Take
“First, make it easy for buyers to experience your product directly and help them determine whether or not it’s the right fit for their use case,” TrustRadius’ Neumann advised.
Vendors have to be open and authentic in their own marketing assets and interactions with prospects, she cautioned. They also have to leverage information sources buyers already find influential and trustworthy.
“Connect buyers with your customers,” Neumann suggested. “Most every buyer has an extensive network of colleagues that have experience with all the technology they’re considering, or even with their same use case. However, they rate vendor-provided case studies and references as less trustworthy and less influential than third-party resources like peer reviews and referrals.”