Overcoming inertia

Editor's note: Jeana McNeil is vice president of Isurus Market Research and Consulting, Burlington, Mass.

Set it and forget it is the attitude in many low-involvement B2B categories – data security, business insurance, telecommunications, commodity inventory, etc. These categories of products and services are important to the customer’s business but are often seen as necessary backroom operations that add costs. As such, inertia keeps most businesses from proactively evaluating alternative approaches or vendors. If the product or service is good enough businesses don’t have the motivation to evaluate their options. If the product or service is high-risk or complex it creates further obstacles: There are stacks of behavioral economics research that show people, including business buyers, are risk-averse.

Due to the set-it-and-forget-it approach, the purchase journey for products and services in this category consists of long stretches of inertia, interspersed with periodic spikes of intense interest in alternatives (Figure 1). During the inertia phase businesses pay little attention to the category. They don’t think about how things could be better or stay aware of vendors, etc. They remain happy with (or at least accepting of) the status quo until a product/service failure or a significant price increase jolts them out of their comfort zone. Then their attention to the category spikes; they scramble to find a vendor that can address their acute pain points. They reach out to peers and advisors, conduct online searches, read online reviews, take sales calls, etc.

But this intense interest isn’t always enough to overcome the status quo. As prospects begin to review their options a different type of inertia sets in: The hurdles and challenges inherent in internal purchase processes stall the decision. Buyers often decide that it would take too much effort to switch or that there is too much risk in doing so and opt to stay with the incumbent vendor.

Inertia returns

Once a prospect makes their decision to switch vendors, or maintain the status quo, their inertia returns. They stop paying attention to the category and their awareness of vendors and alternative approaches rapidly dissipates.

This buying cycle creates significant challenges for vendors that operate in these categories. If your product or service is a low-involvement one, convincing prospects that it’s worth their time to look around outside of their sporadic spikes in interest may require more sales and marketing resources than you have available. The most effective approach for many B2B vendors is to ensure they are positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that arise.

This article presents four categories of insights that market insights teams can use to help their companies take advantage of these types of sporadic opportunities. These include: understanding the failures that prompt vendor evaluation; identifying where prospects go for information; understanding the requirements for a replacement solution; and mapping the last mile of the buying process in more detail. We also suggest several approaches to collect and consolidate the insights.

Understand the failures. The trigger to act in low-involvement categories tends to be a failure or cost increase rather than a proactive desire to improve the status quo. Your sales and marketing can speak directly to these motivations if you understand the what, where, why, who and how of the typical failures that motivate prospects to evaluate vendors: You understand their pains and can assure them that these failures will not happen with you. Convincing a prospect that the failures they experienced will not happen with you will be as compelling as the additional benefits your company provides. If a prospect feels at risk of the same type of failure with a new vendor, they have little motivation to switch.

Be where prospects look. Although the product or service may be important to their business, prospects often look at just a handful of vendors: those they’ve used before, are familiar with, find in a simple online search, know their peers use or are recommended by their trusted advisors. To improve the likelihood of being in this initial consideration set, B2B vendors should:

  • Keep track of, and contact with, individual customers and prospects when they move to new employers.
  • Attend industry events as a sponsor or attendee.
  • Identify the trusted advisor channels you can feasibly influence.
  • Invest in optimizing search results.
  • Advertise to maintain brand awareness (this varies in importance by market).

Value of insights is clear

The role and value of market insights is clear. B2B vendors need to allocate their sales and marketing resources in the right places and most vendors don’t have the budget to be everywhere. Is it better to spend the money to be at the national trade show or to run print ads in an industry journal or optimize your online ad placement? Research can help prioritize sales and marketing activities.

Understand all of the requirements. During the sales process, it is important to distinguish between the trigger that prompts a vendor review/search versus the criteria that drive the purchase decision. A specific problem causes the buyer to investigate other solutions. The new solution must solve that problem, plus satisfy a range of additional critical buying criteria. Consider this example: An incumbent server-based technology crashes, creating weeks of disruption as the prospect gets their system and data back up and running. Your solution attracts the prospect with a message about a modern user interface (UI) and a cloud-based application that is always available. However, the criteria that will actually drive the decision may be very different: In addition to the UI, the prospect needs a reliable, compliant, cost-effective solution that integrates with its other mission-critical systems.

Map the last mile. When a vendor is in the right place at the right time, it still may be stymied by a no-decision. Research by CEB1 indicates that the frequency of stalled B2B purchase decisions is on the rise as the buying process has become more consensus-driven. Decisions can be paralyzed by the array of solutions available, the volume of information vendors provide about their solutions and the increasing number of stakeholders involved in each purchase.

Instead of feeling empowered by the information available, buyers become overwhelmed. This is especially true in low-involvement categories where the prospect hasn’t thought about the issues prior to their sudden spike in interest. It can be easier for a buyer to maintain the status quo rather than face the uncertain benefits of a replacement.

One way to address this issue is to take a prescriptive approach to selling. When prospects reach out to vendors, most still need to understand what solutions best fit their needs and whether they should switch at all. They weren’t necessarily thinking about other vendors, or the category at all, before the failure. Buyers seek multiple options and ask for more information because they don’t really know what they need; they hope that one of the options presented will stand out as the right choice for them. Instead, the opposite occurs: Too many options overwhelm and complicate the decision. The CEB research shows that vendors that take a prescriptive approach – provide a recommendation with a clear rationale instead a series of options – close significantly more deals. That said, it is important for your recommendation to be in line with the core drivers of the prospects purchase motivation. Prospects tend to reject solutions they view as too broad in scope relative to what started them down their purchase journey. Put another way, address the acute pain point first, before expanding to all the other things your product can do.

Research can support strategies

Marketing research can support strategies to improve effectiveness and win-rates during the “last mile” of the prospect buying process. When B2B marketers map the buying journey, the focus tends to be on building awareness and consideration, where marketing has the most responsibility. However, close attention to mapping the journey once a prospect engages with the sales team can help close more deals by providing insights into:

  • How knowledgeable and informed the typical prospect is when they begin to interact with the sales team. This helps marketers and the sales team set a baseline for creating materials and processes that speak to prospects in a way, and at a level, they can understand.
  • The two or three main drivers of the buyer’s purchase intent outside of the failure that triggered the evaluation process. Even when buying the most complex product, most prospects are focused on improving a handful of key activities. This helps marketers and sales teams speak to the benefits that prospects care most about.
  • The internal barriers your internal champion is likely to encounter, so that you can provide data and recommendations for how they can overcome them. Once your champion is sold, the deal can still be derailed without internal consensus.

Illuminate the journey

Mapping the customer journey and decision-making process requires data. This can be a challenge in low-involvement categories; sporadic, unpredictable sales make it difficult to find and conduct research with customers/prospects that recently switched vendors. That said, there are still a variety of research tools and data sources available that can illuminate the customer journey. These range from informal internal interviews to robust market surveys. The following is a review of tools and data sources and how they can provide individual insights to create a more comprehensive view of the customer buying process.

Internal interviews with sales/account reps. Sales and account reps often have more direct contact with customers and prospects than anyone in the organization. They can provide insights into: the types of problems and solutions that prospects ask them about; how prospects find out about the company; and the decision factors that drive prospect decisions.

It is important to recognize that sales/account reps view clients and prospects through a narrow lens and bring with them a set of biases and interpretations. That said, an open-ended conversation with a handful of reps can provide useful insights with no more investment than the time it takes to conduct the interviews.

If reps are not accessible, lead-generation systems often track the customer’s reason for contacting the vendor or the specific message/ad that created the lead. An analysis of these data can identify patterns in the pain-points that prompt outreach.

Qualitative interviews with customers. Recent customer acquisitions are an important data source. The insights team can identify relatively new customers (e.g., became a customer within the past one to two years) and conduct in-depth interviews to explore: the trigger that initiated the investigation; how they identified the vendors they evaluated; their vendor evaluation criteria; and their buying process.

Research with customers that switched enables a focus on demonstrated behaviors rather than the predicted behavior. People generally do a poor job of predicting where they would look for information and how thorough an investigation they would conduct. That said, this approach has limitations because memory fades quickly. One way to overcome this hurdle is to explore these topics as part of a win/loss program. These questions can be added without significantly increasing the length of a win/loss survey or in-depth interview.

Win/loss interviews. The most current and accurate information about why prospects consider switching vendors, where they look for information and their buying process can be gathered by including the exploration of these factors in your win/loss program. This will help distinguish between the messages and criteria that drive consideration vs. purchase decisions.

Market needs survey. A quantitative market survey can identify the most common and persistent problems that drive dissatisfaction. It can also help identify the full range of criteria a replacement solution must satisfy.

Customer satisfaction survey. Customer satisfaction data can be a surrogate for the broader market if the data are used judiciously. The factors that drive customer behavior are often similar in nature to those that drive prospects. You can review existing data and/or add a few relevant questions to your VOC program to identify the factors that diminish satisfaction. Factors that make your customers unhappy likely do the same for your competitors’ customers.

Data science. Another emerging option is insights from applied data science firms. These are the big data vendors that consumer brands use to identify the Web sites their target markets are more likely to visit and the type of content they search for. The vendors in this category are just starting to expand into B2B sectors so their application is still limited. But it is something that may soon have a place in the insights team’s toolbox.

Create a cohesive story

Market insights play an important role in increasing win-rates in low-involvement B2B categories. Most organizations will need to combine data from multiple studies and sources to create a cohesive story and develop recommendations for the marketing and sales teams. The effort and time involved in this work can provide meaningful competitive differentiation for companies that compete in low-involvement categories. The companies willing to do the work will be well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities that arise.

1 “The new sales imperative.” Harvard Business Review. March-April 2017. https://hbr.org/2017/03/the-new-sales-imperative