Business buyer behaviour seems to be well understood by people in the field yet poorly understood by those who presume to teach them. I’ll explain a framework for understanding business buying behaviour that allows you to teach with, and use in the field.

There are three big frames you need to have in your mind.

1:  How mature is the market? Are we at a stage in the market’s development where we will be selling to:

  • Early adopters or nervous pragmatists?
  • Confident pragmatists or infrastructure buyers?
  • Blind buyers (basically at the very end of the market and often aren’t buying at all)

Understanding this framework is vital because the way they all behave is fundamentally different.

2: Who does this problem affect in each business? That is who is going to light the fire? Who else will get involved and in what roles?

3: How will each of those buying influences navigate from not being interested to absolute support?

We went searching for some online articles to help in today’s show and what we found was mostly rubbish. I did manage to extract some nuggets though, so bear with me, I’ll go fairly quick in the review and then tie it all together at the end into a three-part framework for understanding business buyer behaviour.

The first article from knowthis.com is based on a fallacy that businesses either sell to consumers or to businesses who do. This is simply untrue. Some B2B chains go twenty or thirty deep, and you may get business, but to suggest consumers at the end of that chain is false. This case argues demand always hinders on the consumers. There is however, a useful definition of buying roles, if you can be bothered to wade through it.

The second article is written in poor English and makes assertions of general truth that are rarely correct. But, it does a good job of describing why multiple buying influences are involved in complex buying decisions and therefore in complex sales.

Our third article, ‘Principles of Marketing’ from zeepedia.com is universally awful. It’s a theoretical model of the buying process and it’s not about behaviour at all. As a practicing marketer or a salesperson, there’s little practical application.

The fourth article does actually honour the title – Stages of Business Buying. It also touches on behaviour and in particular, risk aversion, problem identification, and risk avoidance. It also shows a greater understanding of real world issues that sales and marketing professionals face, and to an extent, is quite useful.

Now, our next article, we found because it’s been shared so often – 426 times on LinkedIn, and 530 times on Twitter.

It’s really a consumer article and therefore, relevance to you as a B2B buyer, not so much – but there were actually a couple of good points. It flags two important shifts that affect us as B2B marketers, just as much as it affects consumer marketers. The first one is digital marketing requires us to think about a richer engagement, not just blasting content out through digital. The second one is users switch devices many times and so we can’t anymore say that we need multi-channel and think therefore, if John’s using mobile and Sally’s using desktop, that’s okay. No, John’s actually using mobile, then desktop, then mobile, then desktop. That’s the point made in this article and I think that’s a helpful contribution.

First I’ll honour what I think we just gathered from those five articles, then I will give you my spin on it. I’ll be brief. Well, there were really four main points, but I’ll add one more.

  • Complex, important decisions involve many players from different functions. Those players each assume different roles in the buying process. They might be users, influencers, buyers, deciders, or gatekeepers and they each play a different role.
  • Buyers, each of them, work through identifiable stages, they recognize the problem.
  • They develop specifications to solve the problem, you can call that need.
  • They search for and evaluate possible products and suppliers. Then they select a product and supplier, order.
  • They evaluate the product and supplier performance, considering future purchases.

It is important to also note, digital plays a key role across the buyer’s journey and it’s now not just multi-platform, but it’s multi-platform for each user. A bit of a complexity there.

Okay, what I’m going to suggest doesn’t actually disagree with any of that but I think I want to frame it quite differently.

Start by looking at your whole market. Is the part of the market who’s ready to buy right now really only the early adopters, in which case your language is going to need to be about creating opportunity, getting ahead of your competition. That is going to affect their behaviour too. They’re going to be willing to jump as soon as they smell a great opportunity.

Or, are we’re running out of early adopters, and now we have to sell to the somewhat nervous pragmatists? Their behaviour is going to be fundamentally different. They’re going to really need a nudge.

Or, are we dealing with the less nervous pragmatists in what Jeffrey Moor calls, ‘The Tornado’, where they don’t need to be persuaded to buy the product, but they need to be persuaded to buy your product. Really different behaviour.

Or, is it now a more mature stage where this product or service is being bought by infrastructure buyers? IT, HR, finance, typical infrastructure buyers. Again, different behaviour. They’ll be more procedure driven.

Or it is really just the very end of the market, where the only people buying the product are those that don’t even know they’re buying the product because they’re buying it wrapped up in somebody else’s product.

First frame, really understand where your overall market is at. They will behave differently. Secondly, identify who’s going to light the fire. That is, who does this problem most affect?

Most marketers who I talk to think their problem is really the CEO’s problem, and it rarely is. Who in the business is going to be most troubled about the problem that you’re solving, because that’s who’s going to light the fire inside their business. Who else are we getting involved in the decision? We know there’s many. Finally, how will each of those users navigate from – ‘Do we really need to do this?’ to ‘I’m on board and I’m on board with you’. It’s that bit I will quickly dive into now. I’m not going to take long but I want to give you a framework for thinking about that last piece.

In the beginning, most of the buying influences, whether they’re the one who lights the fire or they’re playing some other role as a buying influence, at some point, might be interested, maybe because they’re the one who’s interested or maybe because a colleague got them interested. Note – I’ll be referring to Miller Heiman’s “Articulation of Buying Influences”. I think it’s far more useful.

Then at some point they acknowledge not only there is a problem but that your version of the problem is what they should be focused on solving. That’s if you’re managing the dialogue well. If you’re not, then they’ve got somebody else’s version of the problem and that’s not to your advantage. We definitely want them to be worried about the way we think the problem ought to be solved. Then there’s, “Now I know what I need”. Then, “Now I understand your offer, probably as well as others”, and then, “I prefer yours”, and then, “I’ve made a decision to buy or support yours”.

That journey we call, ‘the buyer’s journey’, a term I coined in 2003 in The Leaky Funnel. In that book, I explained how companies play and go to market strategies. I coined the term ‘the buyer’s journey’ to describe that basic process. You want to understand business buyer behaviour, you need those three things. You need to understand how the overall market is thinking, work out who’s going to light the fire and who else is going to get involved, and understand how each of those is going to move through their journey. Therefore, our tactics and our measurement need to support that journey.

We do a show every week and you can find it either at youtube.com/alignmeb2b, or at align.me/blog. Now, if you’ve already done that, fantastic, thanks, welcome aboard. Next request is go check out Funnel Plan, go to funnelplan.com. There is a waiting list there for those of you watching this before April 2016 – when the product will be released to the general public.

Funnel Plan is all about planning, mindful of market maturity, finding the key buying influences, and then choosing tactics to help that journey. Therefore managing business buyer behaviour, not just observing it.