I recently listened to Barbara Winters, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, to discuss how Gen Z and Millennial B2B Buyers are reshaping the buying process and what companies should do to succeed with these buyers.
And what she had to say, kind of blew me away. Honestly. Here’s why.
When I wrote The Invisible Sale, I thought I was capturing a moment in time, a strategic inflection point, as Andy Grove called it. The book provided a roadmap for a new, better, less sleazy way of selling. The process I proposed, Painless Prospecting, was rooted in using content and the science of Propinquity to become known for knowledge and producing qualified inbound leads that wanted to talk about working together. It was like Social Selling and Inbound Marketing had a love child that exemplified the best of both parents.
And, like most business books, especially marketing books, its relevancy would wane over time as technology and techniques changed. But then the pandemic hit, and not only was the book instantly relevant again, but another strategic inflection point appeared — virtualized selling.
And now, after listening to Barbara discuss Forrester’s latest research, I realize (all immodesty aside) that The Invisible Sale is not only still relevant but an essential read for any sales or marketing executive today.
The Forrester B2B Buyers Survey – The Youngins Are Here NOW
Over 50% of the buyers surveyed were born after 1981. And 64% of the people who identified themselves as purchase influencers in the study were in that younger age group. For those of us that failed college calculus (twice), that means most of our buyers now are in this younger generation. So, it’s important to recognize how they behave differently during the buying process. They're much more comfortable and more likely to use what Barbara calls digital or self-service transaction channels. “They know how to go out and look for information, find it on their own, they're used to doing that.”
Forrester broke the information collection process into two general categories:
- Self-guided interactions
All those things prospects look at and find on our own. This includes searching the internet, looking at websites, visiting forums, or online reviews, etc.
- Personal interactions
Having a conversation with someone. It could be virtual, it could be in person, it could be at an event, or via a webinar, but you're having an interaction with someone.
Interestingly, the Forrester data shows, and it has shown over time, that buyers prefer a pretty even mix of self-guided and personal interactions. It splits to about 50/50 — even when you break the data down by generational groupings. So don’t jump to the conclusion that younger buyers aren't engaging in personal interactions.
The Buyer Journey for Gen Z and Millennial B2B Buyers vs Older B2B Buyers
However, the data shows they're engaging in more types of interactions. Where the older generation will generally engage in 15 different types of interactions, the younger generation will participate in 17 types.
Another important difference is where each generation tends to start their pre-purchase research journey. The younger generation favors third-party resources — information websites, forums, and industry websites, general information websites, conversations with industry experts and analysts — as a first stop.
By comparison, Barbara shared that the older generation’s top three included vendor salespeople in person, and also vendor websites. She wasn’t clear exactly what rounded out the top three, but clearly, the data shows younger buyers prefer to self-educate before contacting a potential vendor. Hmmmm, where have I heard that before?
The Forrester data showed that salespeople are important to both cohorts, but it's interesting to see that the younger generation tends to start more with third-party sources before they contact a solution provider. And that's a change worth noting because it can be very scary for sellers. If true, it suggests that sellers have less influence on the prospects’ buying decisions. It means this younger generation, even more so than their predecessors, is full of self-educating buyers, thus creating even more Invisible Sales Opportunities.
How can sellers win Gen Z and Millennial B2B Driven Invisible Sales Opportunities?
This is where the concepts I first shared in The Invisible Sale come into play. Barbara encouraged sellers to ask themselves:
- Are your salespeople part of the conversations in the forums that your prospects visit?
[My suggestion: If not, invest in Social Selling training to teach them how to engage.]
- Is your marketing team placing your content on destinations other than your own domain?
[My suggestion: If not, define your Propinquity Points and publish there.]
She summed it up brilliantly, “They're gonna go all over the place for information. So get your information out there, wherever you can, and make sure it's on message."
But all is not lost. She went on to say, “What the buyers tell us they do, if they go to an industry website or a technology information website, they're going there to decide which vendors to go talk to. And their next steps are either to click through on information or to go perhaps to a vendor's website to get more information."
She went on to say that successfully winning business from self-educating buyers means managing your presence in those influenced channels as best you can. Then make sure that when self-educating buyers do show up at your own properties, you understand what they're looking for and give them the information they need in the format they want it delivered. Focus on the buyer experience because that affects conversion — especially with today’s younger buyers.
Gen Z & Millennial B2B Buyers Demand Better Prepared Salespeople
Upwards of 80% of Forrester’s buyer respondents indicated dissatisfaction with the buying process or with the vendor that they chose. And that was even more pronounced in the younger generation with 90% indicating dissatisfaction vs 71% of older buyers.
While Barbara didn’t explicitly state that seller style was to blame, there were a few stats she shared that certainly suggest today’s sellers need to act more like helpful professors vs hard-charging salespeople fixated on winning a sale.
The younger cohort was also more likely to indicate dissatisfaction with the relationship and more importantly, salesperson competence. Much of that dissatisfaction seems driven by the younger demo’s desire to deal with salespeople that know them and anticipate their information needs.
They desire salespeople and sales processes that make it easy for them to find information and answers. Further, they want an easy, frictionless process where it is easy for them to reach out when they do want to talk to someone.
The Future of the Gen Z & Millennial B2B Buying Cycle
But all is not lost. When asked about the future of selling to B2B Gen Z & Millennial B2B buyers, Barbara believes that personal interactions will still be an important part of every B2B buying process. However, it will be more and more facilitated by self-guided interactions and digital channels.
So, when you think about designing the future for your buyers, design for a hybrid environment so your sales prospects can move easily between channels. Implement technology and processes to understand not only how your prospective buyers behave through their process — from the first stages when they start looking for information all the way through to the conversion — but also how they feel about that experience.
Please take a look at your buying process through a traditional CX lens. What does it feel like and look like for a prospect to go through the entire pre-purchase research to interacting with your sales team to ultimately deciding to buy? Is it always easy to get the right information at each point in the process? Do you force prospects to jump through unnecessary hoops? Do you make it easy for a prospect to switch between self-educating, self-driven information acquisition to live Q&A with a salesperson at the precise moment the prospect has a question that needs answering? And once the purchase decision is made, is it point and click easy to complete the deal?
This just in: according to a recent study fielded by the CMO Council in partnership with KPMG, this might be a bigger challenge than you think.
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This post was originally published on Painless Prospecting, the weekly sales and marketing blog created by the fine folks at Converse Digital. If you want to learn how to create, engage in, and convert conversations into new clients and customers, give them a call.