Last week, research director Megan Headley joined Pragmatic Marketing’s Rebecca Kalogeris on the Pragmatic Live podcast to discuss The B2B Buying Disconnect, our landmark study on technology buyers and vendors.
“There’s been lots of studies that show B2B buyers are conducting more independent research than ever before, and are increasingly behaving like consumers,” explained Megan. “But there hadn’t really been any research that looked at both buyers and vendors together. So how are vendors responding to these changes and are they missing out on any areas of opportunity?”
In this episode, Megan and Rebecca deep dive into how buyers perceive vendors. Most notably they discuss how trustworthy buyers consider vendor collateral and claims to be, and the impact that has on the buyer’s journey. They also discuss what vendors can do to rise above their competitors to play a more influential role in the purchasing process.
You can listen to the full Pragmatic Live podcast here and read the transcript below.
Rebecca: Hello and welcome to the Pragmatic Live Podcast Series, where we tackle the biggest challenges facing today’s product management and marketing professionals for some of the best minds in the industry. I’m Rebecca Kalogeris, Vice President of Marketing at Pragmatic Marketing and your host. Today, we are joined by Megan Headley, Research Director at TrustRadius. Hello Megan and thanks for joining us today.
Megan: Great. Like you mentioned, I’m the head of research at TrustRadius, and we are a review platform for business software. So we really sit at the juncture between B2B software buyers and vendors. We have tens of thousands of end-user reviews on trustradius.com, which buyers really use to research and evaluate the software products that they’re thinking about purchasing, and then we also engage with vendors, one, to make sure that their products are, you know, listed accurately and represented properly in our taxonomy, and to make sure that we’re understanding the changes that are happening in their spaces. And then we also have a set of vendor offerings that are focused on helping vendors leverage review content in their own sales and marketing efforts. So that’s what we do.
Rebecca: Excellent. And we’re actually meeting today because you guys did a survey sort of digging into the B2B buying disconnect, and it’s a fascinating look I think at how buyers see the process versus vendors see the process. So can you tell us a little bit more about the survey?
Megan: Yeah, absolutely. So, like I mentioned, since we work with both buyers and vendors, we were really avid followers of all of the research around the changing B2B buying journey. And there’s been lots of studies that show B2B buyers are conducting more independent research than ever before, and are increasingly behaving like consumers. But there hadn’t really been any research that looked at both buyers and vendors together. So how are vendors responding to these changes and are they missing out on any areas of opportunity?
So we set out to survey both buyers and vendors to discover any areas of alignment, or gaps, between how buyers are making their decisions and then how vendors are trying to influence them. The end goal really being, how can vendors better serve their potential buyers? So we invited buyers and vendors to take aligning surveys. And these were buyers who had played a significant role with an important software purchase decision for their organization or individuals who work in marketing or sales management for a software vendor.
We had about 608 people to those surveys, and we ask buyers questions around the information sources that they use, what selection criteria were most important to them. How did they view the role of the vendor, and then ultimately how did they feel about their purchase, so how satisfied were they with the product. And then we ask vendors a similar set of questions around what they think is important to their buyers, and then what kind of content types do they focus on sharing with their buyers, and how effective do they think that content type is.
Rebecca: Excellent. All right, so what did you find? Tell me some of the key things that popped out for you?
Megan: Yeah. So I’ll start with the good thing, which is the major area of alignment that might not surprise anybody, but I think it’s important to mention. Buyers and vendors are really aligned around product demos and free trials. So product demos and free trials were among the most commonly used information sources by buyers. For example, more than 75% of buyers use product demos in their selection process, and product demos and free trials were two of the top three most helpful information sources according to buyers, and two of the top three most trustworthy information sources. So hands-on experience with the product is really important and desirable for buyers.
Rebecca: What I found really interesting in the study too is when you ask vendors about the materials that they create, and you ask what do they think was sort of the difficulty of creating those materials, that the demos were on the lower end. So they were more effective to the buyers and they were less difficult to create for the vendors and that just feels like a win-win.
Megan: Exactly, exactly. So on that vendor side, product demos, they were the second most commonly shared content type that vendors were using the prospects, the first one being case studies. And they were the most effective content type according to vendors, in terms of helping to convert prospects. So exactly, like you say, buyers and vendors are clearly aligned around this product demos and free trials, hands-on experience with the product is good all around.
Rebecca: Excellent. All right, what else did you find?
Megan: I think in terms of the biggest kind of gap or the biggest disconnect between buyers and vendors, is really around vendor collateral vendor websites and marketing collateral. So while buyers use these information sources — for example, the vendor website was the second most commonly used information source by buyers — buyers did not find them very helpful or very trustworthy.
In fact, the vendor website and vendor collateral were the two least helpful and least trustworthy information sources overall according to buyers. And if you’ve ever bought software and tried to understand certain details from the vendor’s website, this might not really surprise you. And digging into the qualitative data around it, buyers who didn’t like vendor collateral often described it as, you know, really fluffy, lacking detail, and really aimed at getting your contact information as a lead rather than giving you valuable useful information.
A couple of quotes to kind of put some color on that. One buyer said vendor websites are limited, provides little insight, and are only geared to get your information for a sales call. Another buyer said vendor collateral is often puffery and glosses over important details.
Rebecca: Well, you know, we always say it’s 100% buzzword compliant, right? So on the websites, you go on there and you think, “Well, that’s a lot of nothing.”
Megan: “What does that mean?” Exactly. And then the interesting thing here too is that on the vendor side, while they’re really focused on creating a lot of marketing collateral to share with prospects, vendors marketers themselves recognized that those content types — blogs, whitepapers, eBooks, infographics, etc. — are the least effective content types in converting prospects. So vendors themselves recognized that their own marketing collateral is not very effective.
Rebecca: I think it’s probably a big focus because it’s something we control a 100%, right? We can do that in our vacuum and move forward, and sometimes that’s what gets done most.
Megan: Exactly. That’s a great point. But one thing that we want to point out is that we don’t necessarily think this means that vendors shouldn’t produce marketing collateral, right?
Rebecca: My profession thanks you.
Megan: But we see it as an opportunity to really do a better job with your marketing collateral. So what we know when we’re looking overall, when we’re looking at averages, buyers found vendor collateral to be unhelpful and untrustworthy. But there was a small subset of buyers who liked the vendor collateral. And when you kind of dig into the qualitative response is those buyers, the ones who liked the vendor materials described a really balanced, thorough, detailed, and personalized purchase process from these vendors.
Just a couple of quotes to put some color on that. One buyer who likes vendor collateral said it really helps to understand the product. the service, the pitfalls, and the options. Another buyer said, “I like that the vendor was open and did not hide anything about their products.” So we really see this as an opportunity to produce marketing collateral that is more useful and feels more believable to buyers.
Rebecca: That makes a lot of sense too when I think of all the things I buy, it seems like almost everything on Amazon, right? And I don’t expect all five-star reviews, but I expect a certain level of review, and I go and I dig and I tend to read the negative reviews to figure out what is the bad feature. We’re used to that level of transparency in almost everything we buy in our personal lives, so I think bringing that into a B2B environment makes a lot of sense.
Megan: Exactly. And, you know what, the negative reviews or the negative perspectives, the pitfalls, it doesn’t necessarily keep you from purchasing the product but what it does is it helps you trust all of the positive reviews.
Rebecca: That’s a good point. Were there a particular type of vendor claims that weren’t believed or areas that were particularly setting off people’s BS alarm?
Megan: Yeah, exactly, there are definitely were. So one line of questioning we had was we asked buyers to describe a vendor claim that they found questionable or did not quite believe. And what we found is that the types of questions or claims that people described were pretty interesting. So when they expound things, really broad over generalizations like it’s the best out there or it’s gonna solve all my problems or it offers endless flexibility.
Rebecca: It’s a miracle.
Megan: Exactly. And then also, there were other claims around the availability of a specific feature that the buyer knew from other resources to be untrue, or promises around ease of use or ease of integration or ROI calculations, buyers described as being potentially inflated or unbelievable. Even pricing. So buyers were concerned about hidden costs from the vendors.
But I think the really interesting thing around this line of questioning was that you know after we ask buyers to describe a questionable claim that they had perhaps not quite believed, we ask them, “Who made the claim? Was it the vendor that you ultimately brought from or another vendor that you considered purchasing?” An interesting thing was that 58% of the buyers said that the questionable claim they described came from the vendor of the product they ultimately bought.
So to me what this really says is that vendors can continue to make broad generic claims or really only speak in their own marketing voice, and make claims that buyers might not believe, and people will still purchase their product. But they really be kind of missing out on an opportunity to be more influential among their buyers and they won’t really be serving their buyers as well as they could be.
Rebecca: That’s interesting, right, that they know the truth is being stretched. They’re a victim of this or they can see the spin, but they know it and they still move forward. And part of that probably is a reflection that almost everybody does it. But if you’re not doing it, what an opportunity to really stand out from the crowd.
Megan: Exactly, exactly. And what we found is that when buyers don’t quite believe what vendors are saying, all they do is they go validate it elsewhere. Because buyers are using multiple information sources to inform their purchase. They’re really taking what the vendors says with a grain of salt and looking elsewhere to inform their decision.
Rebecca: Excellent. One of the other really fascinating things I thought in the survey, of which there were obviously a lot because I keep saying this, was the idea of whether or not the sales team played a strategic role in the process or not. Can you talk a little bit about that and what you found?
Megan: Yeah. So the first thing I’ll say is that, despite the trend toward independent research that many studies has shown, the vendors still plays a role. We asked buyers to rate how influential was the vendor in your decision. And 60% of buyers said the vendor was somewhat or very influential, so a three or a four on a scale of one to four. So vendors are definitely playing a role. But then we also ask buyers to describe, in the open text response, the role that the vendor played in their selection process. And we found that there were really two types of answers, besides a small set of buyers who said the vendors simply played no role whatsoever. Besides those buyers, there were two types of answers. There were buyers who described a very tactical or a very pragmatic role, so things like the vendor gave me pricing info or set up my package or facilitated a standard demo, answered my questions, provide a technical support. You know, essentially, the vendors sold me the software and provided information that I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. So that’s one group.
Then there was another smaller group of buyers who described a much more strategic role where they felt like the vendor was more of a partner. So in these cases, buyers talk about things like a very personalized demo or vendor representatives helping them build a case to convince internal stakeholders or demonstrate ROI for their particular situation. These buyers described kind of really positive non-salesy interactions with vendor representatives.
So I think the interesting thing here was that if you overlay those two datasets, the rating on how influential the vendor was and whether the buyer described a tactical or a strategic role, you can clearly see that the vendors who are being more strategic are ultimately also more influential. To put some numbers around that, if you look at the buyers who described a strategic role, 89% of those buyers said the vendor was somewhat or very influential. And then if you look at the buyer who describes a tactical or a pragmatic role, 62% of those buyers said the same thing.
Rebecca: You know, it’s fascinating because only, what, 23% of the buyers consider sales to have played a strategic role.
Rebecca: Do you have any idea of what percentage of the vendors thought they’d played a strategic role? I wonder what the connection is there.
Megan: Yeah, we didn’t have a specific line of questioning around that. I think we sort of made the assumption that vendors want to be strategic. I think vendors really do want that, that’s kind of their ultimate goal. But I think in the case of this survey, most of the vendors that the buyers were interacting with really weren’t succeeding at being strategic.
And I think this played into the authenticity that we already talked about. So if you think about the kinds of vendor collateral that buyers did like — providing really detailed, thorough, balanced information — our conclusion is that vendors who are being authentic, being balanced and straightforward in their interactions with buyers, and really acting like partners, those vendors are in the best position to influence their buyers.
And if you’re not providing this type of information, if your collateral is really fluffy and one-sided, generic and all in your own voice, making promises that your buyers aren’t really believing, people will still buy from you. But it’s not really because you influence them, it’s gonna be more based on their own independent research where they’re looking to validate your claims elsewhere.
Rebecca: Excellent. So another area that you guys dug into that I thought was pretty interesting is what kind of factors, both of the vendor and of the product, really played the biggest role in the buyer’s purchase?
Megan: So you’re talking about the selection criteria that people thought were important?
Megan: Okay, great. So I think the unsurprising thing here was that according to both buyers and vendors, product capabilities were the most important selection criteria. If you look at price, the strength of the features set, ease of use for end-users, easy to set up — factors that are really related to the product and its set of capabilities were the most important selection criteria according to buyers and vendors. So they were pretty aligned around that.
But then we also asked about some other kind of vendor-related or external factors that may have been important to some buyers — does the vendor clearly understand my unique needs or how innovative is the vendor, what’s the market presence of the product, things like that. And there the biggest disconnect that we saw, in terms of which selection criteria were important to buyers versus what vendors thought was important to buyers, was really around the vendor clearly understanding unique needs and pain points. So 70% of vendor respondents said that that was an important factor to buyers, but only 39% of buyers selected this option.
We see this as kind of playing into the strategic data point, so this could indicate that vendors really see their role as being more strategic. They think that they’re showing they understand the buyer’s unique needs and unique pain points and trying to tailor their interactions based on the buyer’s unique situation, but buyers either aren’t really recognizing this role or don’t feel it’s as important in their selection process.
Rebecca: Fascinating. So you have these buyers that have bought from you, perhaps despite the claims you’ve made, and they use a variety of materials, particularly demos and free trials to kind of validate the product and check with peers. Then they come in and they are generally fairly satisfied. But there was a disconnect with what vendors did with the satisfied customers afterwards, or as a case maybe, what they didn’t do.
Megan: Exactly. So the first thing is that one of our major findings is a missed opportunity for vendors — they’re not fully leveraging their own customer base. I think the first point to make here is that, aside from hands-on experience which we already talked about, buyers really like to hear directly from end-users. So this might be in the form of direct referrals from people that they know, vendor provided customer references, or end-user reviews.
For example, after a product demo and free trials, the two most helpful information sources according to buyers were direct referrals from peers and colleagues and user reviews. So overall, buyers are really looking for that type of perspective, and they find it pretty helpful and pretty trustworthy, so that’s one thing. But then another key point to keep in mind, which you just mentioned, is that most buyers really are happy with their purchase. So we asked the buyers, “Now that you’re using the product, how satisfied are you with it on a scale of 1 to 10?” And 46% of respondents gave the product a 9 or a 10, so technically promoters on the typical NPS scale. But then if you add in 8s, which is also really positive rating, that number grows to 81%. So 81% of buyers gave the product an 8, 9, or 10 of a satisfaction rating on a scale of 1 to 10.
And then 91% intend to renew. So those are some pretty satisfied customers. And this didn’t really change if you slice the data by demographics, if you look at small business buyers versus midsize companies versus enterprise buyers, or if you look at the size of the purchase in terms of annual licensing cost. These numbers don’t really vary. So even enterprise buyers or buyers making a large complex purchase are ultimately just as satisfied as well.
Not only are most customers pretty satisfied, they are also a group of people that buyers really want to hear from. But we also asked people, “Now that you’re using the product, have you taken any sort of action, and what kind of action have you taken, around sharing information about that product with other people?” So recommending the product to a peer or providing a cases study or a customer reference to the vendor, things like that. And only 20% of our respondents had taken some sort of action that the vendor could really leverage among prospects, such as providing a case study or serving as a reference or providing a testimonial.
So these vendors really have an arsenal of satisfied customers who buyers really want to hear from. But these customers aren’t all out there speaking on the vendor’s behalf in a scalable way that vendors can really use to reach more prospects.
Rebecca: Well, excellent. All right, Megan, so we talked a lot about a lot of different things, because there’s a ton covered in this survey, and we will provide the link in the description so people can check it out.
Rebecca: But if you were to pick two things, two things that you really either want people to do differently or to really remember from this survey, what would it be?
Megan: I think the first thing is that vendors need to do a better job of connecting their prospects with their existing customers and existing users. This is who the prospects want to hear from, it’s an effective tool to help the prospects discover what they need to discover about your products. They trust that resource. And, you know, your customers are pretty willing to do that for you. So I think that’s thing one.
Then second thing is that once vendors start doing that, once vendors really start connecting their prospects with their existing customers and existing users, they do not need to limit themselves to the happiest of the happiest customers. Like we just talked about, buyers are looking for thorough and balanced and unbiased information, and if you’re only sharing with them your biggest advocates and only connecting them to your biggest advocates, they’re not really gonna trust you. And they’re gonna go somewhere else to validate what you and your super happy customers are saying.
But if they can also see what the 8% of your customers who are detractors, if they can also see their perspective and see what they’re saying, it doesn’t really prevent them from purchasing your product necessarily, but it does help them trust what everyone else is saying. So vendors who are really open, transparent, and authentic with their buyers are really in a great position to facilitate the process and serve their buyers well.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining me today Megan. It has been a real pleasure to have you and I hope you join as again sometime. And thank you all for listening. Don’t forget to join us next week when we tackle another great topic designed to help you elevate your product, your company, and your career.