Making B2B Buying Decisions
The organizational buying process contains eight stages, which are listed in the figure below. Although these stages parallel those of the consumer buying process, there are important differences that have a direct bearing on the marketing strategy. The complete process occurs only in the case of a new task. In virtually all situations, the organizational buying process is more formal than the consumer buying process.
It is also worth noting that B2B buying decisions tend to be more information-intensive than consumer buying decisions. As the marketing opportunity progresses, buyers seek detailed information to guide their choices. It is unlikely that a B2B buyer—in contrast to a consumer—would ever make a final buying decision based solely on the information they see in a standard advertisement.
The organization buying process stages are described below.
The process begins when someone in the organization recognizes a problem or need that can be met by acquiring a good or service. Problem recognition can occur as a result of internal or external stimuli. Internal stimuli can be a business problem or need that surfaces through internal operations or the actions of managers or employees. External stimuli can be a presentation by a salesperson, an ad, information picked up at a trade show, or a new competitive development.
General Need Description
Once they recognize that a need exists, the buyers must describe it thoroughly to make sure that everyone understands both the need and the nature of solution the organization should seek. Working with engineers, users, purchasing agents, and others, the buyer identifies and prioritizes important product characteristics. Armed with knowledge, this buyer understands virtually all the product-related concerns of a typical customer.
From a marketing strategy perspective, there is opportunity to influence purchasing decisions at this stage by providing information about the nature of the solution you can provide to address the organization’s problems. Trade advertising can help potential customers become aware of what you offer. Web sites, content marketing, and direct marketing techniques like toll-free numbers and online sales support are all useful ways to build awareness and help potential customers understand what you offer and why it is worth exploring. Public relations may play a significant role by placing stories about your successful customers and innovative achievements in various trade journals. (Note that the AirCanada video you just watched is an example of this. The video was created by IBM and is offered as one of many “IBM client stories.”)
Technical specifications come next in the process. This is usually the responsibility of the engineering department. Engineers design several alternatives, with detailed specifications about what the organization requires. These specifications align with the priority list established earlier.
The buyer now tries to identify the most appropriate supplier (also called the vendor). The buyer conducts a standard search to identify which providers offer what they need, and which ones have a reputation for good quality, good partnership, and good value for the money. This step virtually always involves using the Internet to research providers and sift through product and company reviews. Buyers may consult trade directories and publications, look at published case studies (written or video), seek out guidance from opinion leaders, and contact peers or colleagues from other companies for recommendations.
Marketers can participate in this stage by maintaining well-designed Web sites with useful information and case studies, working with opinion leaders to make advantageous information available, using content marketing strategies to make credible information available in sources the buyer is likely to consult, and publishing case studies about customers using your products successfully. Consultative selling (also called personal selling) plays a major role as marketers or sales personnel learn more about the organization’s goals, priorities, and product specifications and provide helpful information to the buyer about the offerings under consideration.
During the next stage of the process, qualified suppliers are invited to submit proposals. Depending on the nature of the purchase, some suppliers send only a catalog or a sales representative. More complex purchases typically require submission of a detailed proposal outlining what the provider can offer to address the buyer’s needs, along with product specifications, timing, and pricing. Proposal development requires extensive research, skilled writing, and presentation. For very large, complex purchasing decisions, such as the solution sale described above, the delivery of a proposal could be comparable to a complete marketing strategy targeting an individual customer. Organizations that respond to many proposals typically have a dedicated proposal-writing team working closely with sales and marketing personnel to deliver compelling, well-crafted proposals.
At this stage, the buyer screens the proposals and makes a choice. A significant part of this selection involves evaluating the vendors under consideration. The selection process involves thorough review of the proposals submitted, as well as consideration of vendor capabilities, reputation, customer references, warranties, and so on. Proposals may be scored by different decision-makers using a common set of criteria. Often the selection process narrows down vendors to a shortlist of highest-scoring proposals. Then the short-listed vendors are invited to meet with the buyer(s) virtually or in-person to discuss the proposal and address any questions, concerns, or gaps. At this stage, the buyer may attempt to negotiate final, advantageous terms with each of the short-listed vendors. Negotiation points may cover product quantity, specifications, pricing, timing, delivery, and other terms of sale. Ultimately the decision-makers finalize their selection and communicate it internally and to the vendors who submitted proposals.
Consultative selling and related marketing support are important during this stage. While there may be procurement rules limiting contact with buyers during the selection process, it can be helpful to check in periodically with key contacts and offer any additional information that may be helpful during the selection process. This phase is an opportunity for companies to demonstrate their responsiveness to buyers and their needs. Being attentive during this stage can set a positive tone for how you will conduct future business.
The buyer now writes the final order with the chosen supplier, listing the technical specifications, the quantity needed, the warranty, and so on. At this stage, the supplier typically works closely with the buyer to manage inventories and deliver on agreement terms.
In this final stage, the buyer reviews the supplier’s performance and provides feedback. This may be a very simple or a very complex process, and it may be initiated by either party, or both. The performance review may lead to changes in how the organizations work together to improve efficiency, quality, customer satisfaction, or other aspects of the relationship.
From a marketing perspective this stage provides essential information about how well the product is meeting customer needs and how to improve delivery in order to strengthen customer satisfaction and brand loyalty. Happy, successful customers may be great candidates for published case studies, testimonials, and references for future customers. Dissatisfied customers provide an excellent opportunity to learn what isn’t working, demonstrate your responsiveness, and improve.
Procurement Processes for Routine Purchases
As noted above, the complete eight-stage buying process described here applies to new tasks, which typically require more complex, involved purchasing decisions. For rebuys and routine purchases, organizations use abridged versions of the process. Some stages may be bypassed completely when a supplier has already been selected.
Organizations may also use e-procurement processes, in which an approved supplier has been selected to provide a variety of standard goods at pre-negotiated prices. For example, an organization may negotiate an e-procurement agreement with Staples that allows employees to order office supplies directly from the company using an approval workflow in the ordering system. These systems help simplify the buying process for routine purchases, while still allowing appropriate levels of approvals and cost controls for the buyer.