A survey by Bain and Google of 1,208 people at U.S. companies who are involved in buying software, cloud hosting, hardware, telecommunications, logistics, marketing, and industrial equipment revealed a set of misconceptions among sellers about how buyers behave. Sellers don’t realize that 90% of buyers choose a vendor that was on a short list at the beginning of the sales process; they focus too much on high-level decision-makers, underestimating the number of people inside the buying company who have influence; they rely too much on digital channels, neglecting physical selling; and they don’t realize how much the product demonstration factors into buyers’ decisions.
The deal was theirs to lose. An accounts payable software firm recently aimed to win a contract with a current customer, which had assembled an initial short list of contenders. However, when it came to the demonstration stage to show the newest product, the sales staff did not adequately prepare, stumbling over a clunky user interface, a weak roadmap for the next generation of products, and a mismatch with the buyer’s needs. The account chose another firm it had put on its “day one” list of vendors — the group that it had in mind before beginning the process.
Like this software firm, many business-to-business (B2B) vendors spend much of their sales and marketing resources on misplaced activities.
For example, they often don’t realize that buyers already have a list of potential vendors in mind before starting the search process, and 90% of the time end up buying off that day one list. Sellers tend to woo the top decision makers at their current and prospective accounts, paying less attention to the wider group of influencers and users at buying firms. Further, they rely too much on certain digital channels, at the expense of other digital sources that could be more valuable; they also neglect physical selling that includes strong demonstrations and product visions. And they often treat late-stage, proof-of-concept demonstrations as a minor exercise.
The typical result: Someone else lands the deal.
To better understand the buying process in detail, Bain & Co. surveyed 1,208 people at U.S. companies who are involved in buying software, cloud hosting, hardware, telecommunications, logistics, marketing, and industrial equipment. We also conducted extensive interviews with 10 buyers, in which we examined their habits at each stage of the journey — from awareness of products that could address a need, to discovery of which vendors qualify, to consideration of the competing vendors, to the final decision. The survey and interviews revealed themes in buyer behavior common to all the industries analyzed.
Buyers make a list of vendors for consideration before starting the search process.
Fully 80%–90% of respondents, depending on what they are buying, have a set of vendors in mind before they do any research. Just as important, 90% of them will ultimately choose a vendor from the day one list.
How can vendors break into this select day one status? Buyers favor three routes:
Previous experience with a vendor counts for a lot.
Succeeding with current customers goes a long way toward earning their next purchase, even if the buyer moves to a different company. The CIO of the venture arm at a technology company had used Verizon in a previous role, noting that Verizon was easy to work with and had great service. “When we went through our due diligence, Verizon’s service felt more personal, and they really tried to understand our problems and requirements. Given my previous experience, and that their service was still great, we chose them.”
Buyers rely on colleagues for recommendations.
Trusted colleagues carry weight among buyers. At a company searching for a compressor supplier, the buyer asked colleagues for recommendations. After a thorough research and vetting process, the final decision came down to the two vendors recommended by those colleagues.
Vendor websites can strongly influence the search.
Buyers at the research stage want to see an informative, easily navigated website, and have little patience for sites that fall short. One buyer in the market for packaging used vendor websites to gather such information as delivery timelines and cost estimates, removing firms with clunky sites that lowered her perception of the vendor’s reputation and products.
A strong digital presence goes beyond the website.
When researching potential solutions, many buyers use a range of digital sources. Besides vendor websites, buyers turn to industry publications, industry influencers such as Gartner, and review websites. Preferred sources vary by industry. For instance, buyers of technology products rely on webinars during the consideration stage more than in other industries. Where products are more customized, such as compressors designed for a liquified natural gas facility, a webinar is less helpful.
Demonstrations and trials can make or break the deal.
Vendors underinvest in demos at their peril, as these are one of buyers’ most widely used sources of information during the consideration stage. Some 72% of respondents said vendors they ultimately chose outperform the rest in demos and trials.
In a telecommunications face-off, the chosen vendor “showed us the end-to-end feasibility of their solution in our ecosystem,” one buyer told us, whereas the runner-up’s demo trial period “exposed product line limitations.”
Buyers assess not only today’s products, but also the next generation. Having a compelling product vision and roadmap thus makes a big impression in buyers’ minds. “We look at the roadmap to see if they had a sensible plan to develop their product,” a technology buyer said. “We’re trying to figure out if they understand recent threats and investing in the products.”
Understand who shapes the decision.
Most B2B buyers start their journey by assembling an internal committee, whose members have different roles in influencing the decision. The committee often consists of three tiers: Ultimate approvers who own the decision; a core buying committee that does the research and runs the process; and internal influencers, including end users, who provide comments on vendors and products.
The sway of each tier varies throughout the buying process, but the core committee consistently has the most influence and presents the biggest opportunity for vendors. A vendor’s first task is to identify members of the buying circle in each of the three tiers. Marketing to them should involve content tailored to their priorities, such as ROI-focused case studies for the chief financial officer, and product feature case studies for product managers. When they search for information on a product, the vendor’s website and social media presence should be optimized to be easily discoverable.
Entering the sales process, consider all the relevant members of the buying committee, including internal influencers, junior though they may be. Influencers matter most when a buyer is winnowing a large set of vendors to a handful for final evaluation. But sellers also need to win over internal influencers during demos, when end users will be most likely to judge how well the product will meet their needs.
Unless a company truly understands what buyers value, how they gather information, and how purchase decisions really get made, sales efforts will fall short. Moreover, buyer behavior has changed in recent years, with more people and more digital touchpoints influencing the decision. Knowing how buyers gather information helps firms crack the day one list, earn the trust of the right influencers, and nail the demonstration, raising the odds of landing and growing accounts.