From The Editor | September 30, 2020

Understanding The Early, Middle, And Late Stages Of The B2B Buyer's Journey

Abby Sorensen July 2017 Headshot

By Abby Sorensen, Chief Editor

Compass-Journey

 

You will win more business if you create and properly distribute relevant content that truly helps buyers throughout the entire buyer’s journey. Before you read about the three stages of this buyer’s journey, pause here. Go back and read the article, “The B2B Buyer’s Journey: Explained.”

Now that you’re caught up, here are a few reminders about how B2B purchasing works. The buyer’s journey is not a sales funnel. It is not a process used to predict revenue. It is not a way for your marketing activities to shortcut the sales cycle. The buyer’s journey is not about you, the supplier. It’s about your buyers. Specifically, it’s about how your buyers solve their biggest challenges and capitalize on their biggest opportunities.

When a challenge or opportunity arises, buyers embark on a buyer’s journey. The Follow Your Buyer methodology relies on a buyer’s journey model adapted from Selling To The C-Suite by Nicholas Read and Stephen Bistritz. These authors explain the buyer’s journey as an eight-step process that takes place in three stages (early, middle, and late). Below, we’ll walk suppliers through each stage and step, plus we’ll outline specific actions related to each.

Stage One: The Early Buyer’s Journey

The early stage of the buyer’s journey is an awareness phase where buyers seek education, advice, and insight. Suppliers seek to create awareness and establish expertise. To do this, content can include objective and educational thought leadership articles but should have no overt supplier branding. The goal of supplier content in this stage is to start building trust in your brand.

1. Understand Current Issues

A buyer’s journey starts as stakeholders learn about and gain agreement on issues negatively impacting the business or opportunities that would help the business grow. Issues can present from market forces or internal sources. This stage often has executive and department head involvement. Stakeholders likely have differing opinions on which opportunities or problems should be the highest priority.

In the “understand current issues” step, suppliers should:

  • Focus on the buyer’s goals and problems, not on what you want to sell.
  • Understand the details of the buyer’s defined opportunities and problems.
  • Understand the key stakeholders who make up the buying group.
  • Share information that helps buyers better understand their defined opportunities and problems.
  • Teach buyers something they did not know about their business to help identify new opportunities or to expose buyers to problems they did not realize they had.
2. Establish Objectives

Buyers are now ready to define what they hope to achieve and set a timeframe. Stakeholders are willing to accept information that helps them set accurate objectives.

Executives involved in the purchasing process will heavily influence this stage. Stakeholders try to define what is possible but may not actually know what is possible. Because of this, the buying group will typically choose a conservative objective even as executives tend to be more aggressive.

In the “establish objectives” step, suppliers should:

  • Continue to focus on what buyers are trying to solve and achieve, not what you want to sell.
  • Understand the objectives buyers are considering and which stakeholders hold specific opinions.
  • Attempt to help buyers define what is possible.
3. Set Strategy

This is where buyers develop an action plan to achieve the established objectives (who, what, where, when, why). Success criteria is defined during this step in the buyer’s journey.

Areas of disagreement among the buying group can start to increase, especially if individual stakeholders have a vested interest in a specific strategy. Subordinate stakeholders begin to have more involvement as top executives start looking for their input.

In the “set strategy” step, suppliers should:

  • Continue to focus on what buyers are trying to achieve or solve.
  • Understand why buyers believe the options they are considering will be effective.
  • Start developing an opinion on what an effective strategy might be for the buyer.
  • Share helpful third-party information on the options buyers are considering as well as options you believe buyers should consider.

Stage Two: The Middle Buyer’s Journey

The middle stage of the buyer’s journey is an evaluation phase where buyers try to solve a specific problem. Suppliers seek to further establish expertise and introduce solutions. To do this, content formats like case studies and comparative research can be lightly branded. The goal of content in this stage is to continue educating buyers in a way that aligns their journey with your products/services.

4. Explore Options

Stakeholders are tasked with researching products/services to present to the buying group. If the “set strategy” step is what buyers are going to do, this step focuses on how buyers are going to do it.

Buyers will develop ways to review progress and will start to develop a budget. Executives and department heads will start delegating action items, which means the numbers of stakeholders will increase, leading to more and more disparate opinions. Disagreement will often lead back to what is familiar to the buyer. If you are not the incumbent supplier, or if your product/service is not the status quo, you’ll need to prove there is a better option.

In the “explore options” step, suppliers should:

  • Confirm your understanding of who, specifically, is involved in the buying group.
  • Learn each stakeholders’ desired outcomes and how they plan to achieve them.
  • Develop an opinion on what will (and won’t) work to achieve the buyer’s outcomes.
  • Start introducing data specific to your products/services that will help the buyer.
  • Introduce information that shows what other buyers have achieved and how they did it.
5. Set Vendor Criteria

Buyers start to evaluate what capabilities are required from specific product/service options. Only now do buyers begin to make a list of suppliers they might want to work with.

Those stakeholders closest to the challenge or opportunity will determine the specifications of the products/services needed. Individual stakeholders who have suppliers they prefer may try to steer the criteria to match their preferred suppliers. If you have done an effective job in helping the buyer determine effective options to solve their problem, you have a better chance of the criteria being set to match your solution. If the status quo is the default choice, price becomes more of a factor.

In the “set vendor criteria” step, suppliers should:

  • Match your data to each stakeholder’s needs so that buyers fight for what you can do as standard criteria.
  • Introduce comparisons, if needed, between how you solve the buyer’s problem versus how your competition solves the problem.
  • Utilize case studies and testimonials to convince stakeholders that a different approach is a safe and logical choice.
  • Do not get comfortable with good feedback, and instead continue sending new data to each stakeholder.
  • Continue to refine your understanding of how you can help buyers.

Stage Three: The Late Buyer’s Journey

The late stage of the buyer’s journey is the purchase phase where buyers are ready to decide on a solution. Suppliers seek to convert leads to customers. To do this, content formats like product/service descriptions and application notes can be heavily branded. The goal of content in this stage is to persuade the buyer that your products/services meet their needs.

6. Examine Alternatives

This is often the stage where buyers first reach out to suppliers for proposals. Suppliers who have provided helpful content up to this point will increase their chances of being considered.

It is difficult to get buyers to slow down and consider other options since they have already done so much work leading up to this step. Suppliers who have not differentiated themselves at this point risk being judged solely on price.

In the “examine alternatives” step, suppliers should:

  • Continue to influence all stakeholders to find out where you rank in the buyer’s evaluation.
  • If you rank high, continue to demonstrate value until the final decision is made.
  • If you rank low, understand why and show compelling data to move you up the list.
  • Avoid dropping your price, which only compromises your value in the eyes of the buyer.
7. Plan Implementation

Buyers are now ready to make a purchase and roll out the product/service. Stakeholders whose option was chosen want the negotiation, purchase, payment, and implementation process to go smoothly and reflect positively on them. Conversely, stakeholders whose option was not chosen may look to undermine the process. Executives will get involved again to make a final decision based on the recommendations of the buying group.

In the “plan implementation” step, suppliers should:

  • Work quickly to make a case to any stakeholder you fear will veto the decision.
  • Use data to support product/service components you fear may get cut leading up to the final decision.
  • Get upset with yourself, not the buyer, if you lose. Take the time to understand why you lost, always keeping in mind the buyer’s perspective.
  • Double your effort to make sure the implementation goes well if you win.
8. Measure Results

Now the buyer wants to validate if the purchase is helping solve the issue that started their buyer’s journey. ROI is measured using the success criteria from the “set strategy” step.

Executives are very involved in measuring ROI, often through reporting from department heads and buying group stakeholders. If the supplier performs well, they get plugged into future buyer’s journeys, often as the standard that other suppliers must exceed. If the supplier performs poorly, a new buyer’s journey with new suppliers will be triggered. This stage is where suppliers either make stakeholders look really good or really bad.

In the “measure results” step, suppliers should:

  • Prove to the buyer that your products/services are helping.
  • Determine what needs to be reported and who among the buyer’s stakeholders needs that data.
  • Look for other opportunities to help your buyer, gathering clues from both the buyer and from the market.
  • Keep updated on stakeholder changes (additions, promotions, etc.) and make the case that you are helping them.
  • Quickly recognize any failings, own those failings, and work with the buyer to fix what isn’t working.

Follow Your Buyers Throughout Their Journey

If all of this sounds challenging for suppliers, just remember that it is even more confusing for buyers to navigate the buyer’s journey. Too many suppliers try to force buyers through their sales cycle. Buyers are frustrated by the flood of content that only seeks to sell them something instead of helping them accomplish an outcome.

The best way for suppliers to win more business is to follow buyers throughout their purchasing journey, providing helpful content throughout each stage and each step. The best B2B marketers not only attempt to inform buyers throughout their journey but also learn how to add value through content.