4 Ways That the Pandemic is Changing B2B Buying Behavior

B2B ecommerce transactions are expected to reach $1.8 trillion by 2023. Even before the pandemic, B2B buyers were adopting the habits and expectations of B2C buyers. They overwhelmingly start their buying journey online and expect a personalized, seamless and frictionless buying experience. Buying groups and sales teams, dominated by millennials, are increasingly moving through the buying process on their own.

Way back in 2019, Gartner reported that the abundance of online B2B sales information was causing a significant delay in in-person sales interactions. Then the pandemic came along, and most in-person sales interactions evaporated almost overnight.

The pandemic accelerated digital transformation across every B2B market sector, adding fuel to what was already a largely self-serve buying process. For this post, we list the top four post-pandemic B2B buying trends with the goal of helping inform your B2B digital marketing strategy.

Trend #1: B2B buyers prefer digital and remote interactions

In October 2020, McKinsey reported that 70 to 80% of B2B decision makers preferred digital or remote interactions over face-to-face meetings. The top reasons included safety, savings on travel and ease of scheduling. Digital interactions were preferred at every stage of the buying cycle from identifying new suppliers to ordering and reordering goods and services.

The following chart compares the time buyers spend on remote interactions with sellers versus time spent interacting in-person.

 

Source: McKinsey

Remote interactions such as virtual meetings and events consume the largest share of buyers’ time across the entire purchasing cycle. In-person interactions were more common when buyers were identifying and evaluating new suppliers, but even this is changing. Businesses have been forced to move the early evaluation process online when reviewing new vendors and they’re discovering they prefer it, even for high-ticket items (and especially when reordering from a known vendor.)

McKinsey found that 70% of B2B decision makers are open to making new, fully self-serve or remote purchases that exceed $50,000 and nearly 30% are willing to spend more than $500,000. Writes McKinsey, “The most notable sign that digital sales have come of age is the comfort B2B buyers display in making large new purchases and reorders online.”

Trend #2: Consumerization defines the B2B e-commerce experience

Last year, we noted the growing trend of consumerization in B2B marketing. This year, that trend has accelerated, with B2B buyers continuing to embrace buying behaviors that have traditionally been associated with B2C shoppers.

Much like B2C shoppers, B2B buyers have high expectations for their online shopping experience. In one study of over 200 B2B buyers, 87% of respondents indicated they made purchases on ecommerce marketplaces versus 71% who use eProcurement systems. Only 8% of buyers said they prefer making purchases using eProcurement systems.

B2B buyers are turning to marketplaces like Amazon, Alibaba, and Exporthub because they provide the   services and features that shoppers have grown accustomed to receiving. This includes price comparisons, personalization/recommendations, advanced site search and ease of returns.

 

Top five B2B marketplaces as of 2018—Source: Statista

Creating a B2B marketplace strategy is now essential for reaching B2B buyers. Smaller companies can leverage existing marketplaces such as Amazon and Exporthub and larger manufacturers (e.g., CPG manufacturers) can consider creating their own marketplaces.

Trend #3: B2B buyers want the online buying journey to be easier

In line with the trend of consumerization, is the expectation that B2B buyers have for a better overall online buying journey. In a Gartner survey, 77% of B2B buyers said their latest purchase was difficult. A big reason for that is the complexity of the buying process itself, with B2B buying groups typically including 6 to 10 decision makers, each of whom is gathering information independently of the other.

The best (and only) way to facilitate the B2B buying experience when there are so many moving parts is through technology (Gartner calls this “buyer enablement”). By providing (the right) information to buyers at the appropriate time during their research, sellers make the research phase (e.g., what Gartner calls “solution exploration”) much easier.

Technology that aligns your marketing, sales, and experience teams including customer data platforms (CDPs), customer relationship management platforms (CRMs), and creative management tools (e.g., Adobe Creative Cloud) enable team collaboration across many products, campaigns and markets. These tools help to de-silo information and data, ensuring that sellers can deliver personalized, relevant information to buyers at the right time.

Trend #4: Having high-quality content is no longer enough

There’s a wealth of high-quality content available to B2B buyers as they move through the circuitous path from identifying a problem, to selecting a product or service that helps them solve it.  In a Gartner survey of 1,000 B2B customers, 89% of respondents felt the information they encountered when they researched a new purchase was of high quality.

The problem is that there’s too much high-quality information and it’s causing decision fatigue. This same survey revealed that when B2B customers have too much high-quality contradictory information from vendors, they’re over 150% more likely to settle for a smaller, less disruptive solution.

B2B sellers should continue to provide high-quality content, but Gartner recommends using a “sense-making” approach over a “giving” or “telling” approach. Sellers who use a sense-making approach closed more high-quality, low regret deals versus sellers who used a giving or telling approach, as the following chart illustrates.

Source: Gartner

Gartner defines the three approaches as follows:

  • A giving approach is an information dump. It’s the more-is-better approach to dishing out content. The marketing team is more likely to use this approach versus the sales team.
  • A telling approach employs the classic sales strategy of meeting with a customer and explaining the benefits of a product or service. This approach is understandably more effective when it comes to closing the deal with 50% of high-value deals closed using this method versus 30% for the giving approach.
  • The sense-making approach strikes a balance between the two. This approach incorporates three steps to providing information and facilitating the process that buyers go through to evaluate it, as follows:
  1. Connect: Connect customers with curated information and tools.
  2. Clarify: Reduce the complexity of the information provided.
  3. Collaborate: Provide guidance on the quality of information, but allow customers to draw their own conclusions.

Keeping up with buyers in a constantly changing environment

In many ways, the latest B2B buying trends haven’t changed much for 2021 versus 2020. If anything, they’ve accelerated, with B2B buyers embracing digital interactions, adopting more consumer-focused behaviors and expectations, and embracing a personalized, easier online buying journey.

The main difference this year is that all B2B sellers must now step up their digital transformation game. Great content isn’t enough. You need great content execution as well. Likewise, having an eProcurement system isn’t going to sell more products if your customers are shopping in marketplaces like Amazon and Alibaba.

The best way to adapt to changing buyer behavior is to have a scalable digital transformation strategy that focuses on buyer enablement. With the right tools, you’ll be in a much better position to weather whatever 2021 throws at you.