However, I ran out of space before I could adequately explore a critical issue: vendor sales transparency. TrustRadius forced the question with their (free) recent report, the 2018 B2B Buying Disconnect. From their survey data from 428 buyers, TrustRadius boiled down three takeaways. They all tie into the problem of vendor transparency:
- 85% of vendors believe they are open and honest about their product’s limitations. Only 37% of buyers agree.
- Just 23% of buyers said their vendor was highly influential in the purchasing decision. Those vendors were two times more likely to be candid about their product and provide unbiased customer insights.
- 84% of buyers said they were willing to share their perspective with prospects. There is potential for two times participation in advocacy programs, but vendors need to ask.
As I wrote last time, these are potent findings. They point to meaningful action items for software vendors. TrustRadius could have made the easy/self-interested conclusion that buyers need peer review sites to balance biased vendor marketing, and left it at that. But instead, TrustRadius is calling attention to action items that will give the software vendor more relevance to the buyer. My angle on these findings:
- Make the buying process more transparent
- Be open about your products’ pros and cons
- Empower your customers to tell your story
How can vendors impact the B2B buyer?
All three are items vendors can act on, while respecting that the control of the purchasing process has shifted to buyers. The question is: how? I explored that with Vinay Bhagat, TrustRadius founder & CEO. Bhagat believes to answer that question, we must recognize how B2B buying is different than consumer purchases. As he told me:
What we've realized is you can't apply a Yelp consumer model to B2B. Not only are the decisions way more considered, the detail and the nuance required is so much higher. I'm not selecting where I'm going to go and eat pizza tonight. This is a piece of software that's going to run my business, and there are catastrophic consequences if you pick the wrong tool.
True - and it's precisely the high stakes of this process that makes the vendors' role a big factor. Bhagat:
Because of the buyer's journey, a lot of people talk about how the buyer's doing research independently. That's true, but I still believe that in B2B, there's a heavy guidance process that's connected to the vendor, where the brand's website is a critical source of influence. Their email communications from marketing are a critical source of influence; the salespeople are a critical source of influence.
Hit the brakes - that doesn't mean smooth sailing for vendor sales and marketing teams. If they want to be relevant to today's buyer, they need to do things differently. How?
I've read a lot of stuff that you've written about the buyer's journey, so I think we're on the same page... Buyers are craving truth and authenticity, like they have in their personal lives.
Overhyped marketing spiel falls on BS-sensitive ears. But the solution is right there: amplify customer use cases.
Tech companies need to inject customer evidence into their engagement process, instead of just putting out hyperbolic language like, "We have world-class support. We are highly configurable." If they actually put real customer statements into their website, into their email communications, into their sales process, that engenders truth. That improves conversion. That compresses sales cycles.
Of course, TrustRadius advises vendors to get on board with online reviews. But as Bhagat points out, that's not the whole story:
That's where we believe this is all headed, that the B2B vendors don't just embrace transparency and have public reviews, but realize that if they take this content, they curate it, and they use it in their own channels, they'll drive alignment with how the buyer wants to buy. They'll drive efficiency. That's a very powerful idea.
B2B review sites must be equally transparent
Of course, this has implications for TrustRadius and other review sites as well. In the last piece, I shared my criticisms of vendors who have "welcome wagon" style review booths at their events, encouraging as many customers as possible to quickly post positive reviews. The ability to game review sites would impede any B2B relevance. Bhagat responded:
There's one site I won't mention where your satisfaction score is correlated to the number of reviews you have, which means if you have 500 reviews versus a hundred, you can actually drive up your [rating], which doesn't make sense to me.
We despise that kind of behavior in the marketplace. We just think it's unethical, and we think that that's another reason why people should look at the content and not purely at the data.
He says TrustRadius has a different approach:
Now, what we do on the data side to avoid that manipulation, is that we garner about 60 percent of our reviews and ratings completely independent of brands. And then we have an algorithm that looks at the source of a review or a rating, and weights the score accordingly.
It makes for the answer being presented to the buyer to be a little bit more complicated. It's not a simple average, but if you stick with simple averages, then you're not representing the truth, because it's pretty easy for brands to manipulate scores otherwise.
Before we wrapped, I asked Bhagat about another bone of contention: vendors that fall into the trap of wanting to see all-positive coverage. It's the criticisms that establish the credibility of the review. Without those, it's just another marketing pitch to ignore. Bhagat:
People don't trust the pros unless they see the cons in a review. They want to understand the cons, and they're not going to eliminate products on cons unless they are either catastrophic cons, or cons that really make it a bad choice for them.
So I absolutely agree with you. Also, they want to see some dispersion of data, meaning a couple of ones along with 2s, 5s, and 10s. They don't trust the data if it looks too perfect.
That's another area where vendors must change:
It's a constant education we find with vendors, because so many of them are hung up... I won't name names, but we recently started working with a large fintech provider. Their product reviews are generally positive, but there's a bit of a freakout going on in the company right now about, "Why are we putting these cons on there? Our competitors are going to use them against us."
But that concern dates back to an obsolete time, when messaging could supposedly be managed:
This is the world that we live in now where people expect that. They don't trust you unless you show a little vulnerability.
My argument to them is, "If you have reviews, and if they're balanced and your competitor doesn't have reviews, they're going to pick you."
Bingo. I jested on Gartner in the last piece, but it's fair to say that Gartner's Hank Barnes has blogged more effectively on how, and why, to avoid marketing hyperbole than anyone. I recommend his blog for many posts that touch on how vendors can differentiate by doing such novel, crazy things as: being clear on what they don't do. Imagine that.
There's a crucial point Barnes hits on I didn't get into with TrustRadius. Vendors take heed:
Your software is judged as much by how you interact with the buyer as how your product looks or feels. Today's subscription software market means relationships never go away. Barnes' team has found that buyers place weight on the caliber of their pre-sales interactions. Transparency extends from pricing to product reviews, from customer stories to the sales relationship itself.
End note: this piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on the informed B2B buyer.