Some of the best research on B2B buying over the last few years highlights a variety of “new” buying behaviors. Whether all the behaviors are new or not is questionable. But, we would argue that while some of the behaviors have changed, the B2B buying process is largely the same.
The process by which clients hire consulting firms feels messy and chaotic. They struggle through a malaise of identifying and prioritizing their biggest organizational challenges. They form cross-functional buying groups to diagnose those challenges and select potential firms to hire. And, they drag firms through a gauntlet of information requests and interviews to make a decision. Having a model to describe how it all works is critical to 1) prioritizing your firm’s marketing resources and 2) isolating your marketing and business development strategies.
We developed the Rattleback Arc of the Client’s Journey to make sense of it all. This model represents the 4 stages a client goes through on their journey to becoming a client — learning, vetting, discussing and hiring. It provides a clean view of how clients navigate their way of becoming a client. It’s clear and it’s simple. But does it hold up in the face of everything that’s happened over the last 5 years?
The short answer is yes. But, before we get there, let’s look at how client buying behavior has changed or accelerated over the last 5 years. Based on Gartner’s research into B2B buying, I see 5 notable trends:
- Purchases being made by larger groups
- More B2B purchases representing organizational change initiatives
- The B2B buying process becoming even less linear
- Content is confusing clients not illuminating the path forward
- Clients are spending less time with sellers
Note: Any data referenced below, unless specifically stated otherwise, comes from Gartner’s research on the B2B buying journey.
#1 – Purchases Being Made by Larger Groups
Almost all clients are seeking to build internal consensus on a purchase long before they make it. They recognize that the success (or failure) of any endeavor hinges on gaining buy-in from within. This is particularly true of any consulting project. If everyone agrees a project needs to be done and can see a vision of a better reality they’re more likely to be an ally in the journey.
As a result, clients increasingly rely on buying groups to make decisions on which firms to evaluate, short-list, and hire. As of 2019, Gartner estimated the typical buying committee for any B2B purchase had grown from roughly 5 people to nearly 11. In practice, post-COVID, a buying committee can be as large as a client chooses. There are no limitations. How many people can we cram into one Zoom call? There’s your buying group. Clients will involve people both up-and-down the organization. And across it. This is true whether you meet all of them or not.
#2 – More B2B Purchases Represent Organizational Change Initiatives
The purchase of consulting services has always represented a desire for some level of organizational change. But it appears that more B2B purchase decisions are increasingly connected to larger organizational change initiatives. Even that simple salestech integration that seems straightforward might require significant process and behavioral change throughout the organization. In fact, B2B buyers estimate that half of the purchases they make will have some implications on organizational structure.
What does this mean? It means that a client’s decision to hire your firm hinges heavily on the confidence they have in their organization’s ability to change. Even a consulting assignment you see as tactical in nature may represent some meaningful level of organizational change management needed to realize the benefits. You have to account for this in all your marketing and business development activities.
#3 – The Buying Process BECOMING Even Less Linear
Buying and selling models have depicted the process as a simple, linear progression forever. This, of course, has never been true. The Arc of the Client’s Buying Journey was purposely structured as an arc for this reason. It represents all the activities that clients have to accomplish to hire you. To some extent, clients have always bounced back and forth between these different activities rather than exploring them in a sequence. Now, it’s just more visible because so much of the buying process is digital.
Gartner describes this as the “jobs to be done” that a buying group must accomplish to make a purchase decision. They argue that clients essentially loop in and out of the jobs on their journey towards a purchase decision. Also of interest is that they point out that these “jobs” are being done both “digitally” and “with a sales rep” equally and simultaneously.
#4 – Content is Confusing CLIENTS, Not Illuminating THE PATH FORWARD
The content explosion of the last 15 years simply has no bounds. During the pandemic, every firm marketing and editorial leader I spoke with told me the same thing. “We published more in the last 3 months than we did in the last 3 years.” This continues unabated. The number of podcasts have grown exponentially over the last 15 years. The cost of this explosion is now coming to roost. Collectively, we have flooded the zone with content. There’s simply too much for clients to deal with.
The worst part of this is that clients find much of this information to be conflicting. They’re not sure what to believe or what solution to trust. This leaves them confused. And, it exacerbates their very real instinct to … do nothing!
To be clear, this does not mean stop publishing. It does mean, however, establishing strict quality standards for what you publish and when you publish it. And, it also means making sure that everyone in your organization understands it — particularly those that are expected to sell from it and deliver services based on it.
#5 – Clients are Spending Less Time Meeting with Sellers
On average, when making a B2B purchase, clients are only spending 17% of their time meeting with potential suppliers. Obviously, this percentage shrinks when you isolate the time a buyer spends with any one firm. In fact, Gartner estimates that only 5-6% of the total buying time in the B2B buying process might be spent with any one individual firm.
As it relates to hiring a consulting firm this is only true for some firms. For firms that have positioned themselves as a recognized expert or trusted advisor, this percentage almost surely goes up. In fact, I would argue that clients are spending more of their time with firms that occupy that space in their minds. They’re turning to those trusted advisors to help them make sense of the noise in the market.
Where else are they spending their time? Notably, clients are spending 27% of their time “researching independently online.” In fact, it’s the place where clients spend the majority of their time in the purchase process. So, yes, that thought leadership that’s flooding the zone is getting consumed. Predominantly online.
This predilection for an increasingly digital experience extends itself into the discussion, hiring and delivery process as well. Sometimes by request, other times by necessity, clients have become much more comfortable with digital-first or digital-only buying experiences. As an example, one of the research partners we work with has collapsed the entire hiring and delivery process into a “conversation free” digital experience. All information pertaining to a research request can be submitted online. A quote is provided through DocuSign. A survey draft can be written, uploaded, approved, and deployed through their web-based portal. And, survey results are dropped right into our Survey Monkey account.
The Activities are Changing but the B2B Buying Process Remains the Same
In sum, yes, clients are exhibiting new buying behaviors. They’re spending more time online. Less time with your people (unless they see them as a true expert and trusted advisor). Buying more cross-functionally. Involving more people in the buying process. And, are increasingly, concerned about validating that they’re making the right decision. As a result, they’re hyper focused on building internal consensus. When we meld Gartner’s new behaviors and “jobs to be done” with the Rattleback Arc of the Client Journey we get:
The 4 stages — learning, vetting, discussing, and hiring — remain largely unchanged. These 4 stages exist to help clients solve the “jobs to be done” within the buying process. Your job, from now and forever more, is to help clients do each of their buying jobs more easily and effectively.
- Gartner, “5 Ways the Future of B2B Buying Will Rewrite the Rules of Effective Selling” and “Win More B2B Sales Deals.” Both are publicly available on the Gartner B2B Buying Journey Landing Page.