Optimizing for the Self-Serve Buyer is Table Stakes

Optimizing for the Self-Serve Buyer is Table Stakes

There’s nothing new about the trend of B2B buyers preferring self-service journeys. What is noteworthy is the extent to which it has suddenly become the norm. 

TrustRadius’ annual research report into trends in B2B buying and selling reveals just how much self-service is now non-negotiable. The data shows that between 2021 and 2022, something shifted for B2B sales. Today, self-service is a fundamental part of buyer expectations for the buying experience. 

As the 2022 B2B Buying Disconnect: The Age of the Self-Serve Buyer report explains, the shift has been rapid and unmistakable. In 2021, 87% of buyers wanted to self-serve all or some of the journey, whereas this year, virtually 100% want to self-educate and manage the buying experience on their own. Last year, vendor reps were the second-most preferred source of information for buyers, while in 2022, they don’t even make the top five.

Dmitry Dragilev, founder of TopicRanker, has seen this change firsthand, as well as anecdotally. “What I have seen with my own company, and virtually from fellow founders with SaaS products across industries, is that buyers are no longer simply going to your website and buying your product,” he said. “Instead, before they buy, they tend to spend a ton of time on third-party review sites to do their research about the solution they are buying before they even get to your website.”

It’s clear that in 2022, you can’t be lukewarm about self-service. It’s a pillar of the way people buy, so if you don’t take it seriously—and fast—you’ll risk falling behind your competition.

Self-service sales have met their inflection point

A combination of familiarity with digital channels and expecting open access to information has brought sales to the self-service tipping point. According to the 2022 B2B Buying Disconnect report, when sales reps eventually get involved with prospects, they need to interact in a much more consultative manner, taking their nurture signals into account while validating their marketing claims with social proof.

“One of the biggest shifts we’ve seen in how customers interact with companies is how quickly the bar has been raised,” commented Tom House, CTO at supply chain management company Noble. “There is greater demand to instantly know who they are, what they want, and how they can get the product/service they’re interested in.”  

While many marketers talk about the importance of thought leadership to help with differentiation, the trends suggest today’s buyers want cut-and-dry information more than anything else. According to a recent DemandGen report, 42% of buyers consume three to five pieces of content before talking to a sales rep. 

Digital strategist and consultant Shane Barker has been tracking this trend closely. “What I’ve noticed is that the new breed of self-serve B2B buyers is looking for a few key things,” he said. “They want to be able to find, try, and purchase products on their own, without having to talk to a sales rep. They want to know exactly what they’re getting before they buy it, and they’re not afraid to ask questions to make sure they’re getting what they need.”

What’s more, Barker continued, “They’re looking for products that offer a good value for the price, and they’re not afraid to comparison shop to find the best deal. And, most importantly, they trust industry experts more than they trust sales reps.”

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The TrustRadius annual research study backs this up with the finding that for 76% of buyers, their first step after identifying a need was to do their own research in some manner, whereas only 24% said they would first contact a salesperson. 

“Adjusting sales tactics is not an option for future consideration—it’s an immediate requirement for post-pandemic survival,” said Mike Dickerson, CEO of ClickDimensions. “Businesses that don’t adapt quickly to meet buyers’ digital-first preferences risk unfulfilled quotas, insufficient pipelines, and profits well below expectations.”

Why is it so important to provide self-service? 

For one thing, today’s buyers can’t afford to waste time in meetings or phone calls. They expect to be able to find basic product information online, such as pricing, features, and other specs. If there’s a gate between them and the information they seek, they won’t waste time unlocking it. They’ll find a competitor offering a route with less friction. 

Additionally, B2B buyers expect hybrid, non-linear, smooth omnichannel sales journeys that they control. Today’s customers are largely channel-agnostic; what matters is finding the information they need. McKinsey research reports that buyers use as many as 10 channels in the same buying journey. There’s no way to deliver these self-directed, non-linear journeys unless you make self-service content readily available.

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B2B International’s research has found that as buyer committees skew increasingly younger over time, sales cycles grow, as does the number of content touch points that people engage with.

When you provide the self-serve content that buyers demand, you’re showing respect for their process, you understand their needs and that builds trust. Buyers, especially digitally native Gen Z and younger millennials, are sick of being sold to. They want to be able to make their own decisions and don’t like feeling that someone is trying to influence them toward a decision that might not be in their best interest.

“Avoid the temptation to gatekeep key resources,” asserted Demand Science’s Abbi Tanton. “Sure, it might fast-track some one-on-one communication as your prospects are forced to contact you with their questions, but these conversations won’t be an opportunity for a sale. Prospects will be disgruntled they can’t find the information they need … attempting to push them further down the funnel at this stage will only alienate them further.”

What is accelerating the self-service trend?

The business and media worlds have seen a significant loss in trust with almost everyone, and the result is that buyers don’t take vendor-provided sources at face value. They prefer objective sources, like reviews, reports and recommendations from their peers. 

The easier you can make it for them to find these types of resources by including customer reviews on your website, partnering with user-generated review platforms, and linking to analyst reports and ratings, the more they will trust your brand.

Illustrating this shift, TrustRadius found that independent sources like user reviews, free trials, analyst rankings, and advice from community forums all showed significant increase in engagement since last year, rising from 10% to 15%. In contrast, vendor-controlled sources, like talking to sellers and using the vendor website or marketing materials, all showed a parallel decrease anywhere from 8% to 18%, and talking to vendor reps dropped by a whopping 41%.

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Undoubtedly, a big part of why we’re seeing this shift now is the coming of age of the digitally native buyer. Gen Z and millennials are in the process of taking over at work, including in buyer committees. In 2020, they represented under 50% of U.S. workers, but are poised to constitute the majority by 2025.

Google has always been these younger cohorts’ first port of call for information. They see social media as a trusted information source, they are highly connected, and are used to reaching out for friends’ opinions and experiences before buying. Accustomed to content on demand when it comes to sports, music, and movies, younger buyers have the same expectations for content in their professional contexts. 

However, it’s worth noting that not only younger buyers want self-service now. Older buyers are following suit, so it’s not just that Gen Z and millennials are imposing their preferences in the workplace—others are following the same trends. 

McKinsey attributes the shift at least in part to the pandemic. In the last two years, people experienced far more omnichannel, self-directed sales out of necessity, due to lockdowns and sheltering in place. “As B2B buyers flexed to remote and digital ways of engaging, they found much to like,” McKinsey’s analysts wrote.

The need for self-service buyer journeys is undeniable 

Between the rise of digitally native B2B buyers, familiarity with on-demand content, lack of trust and patience for conversations, and preferences for non-linear, self-directed experiences, 2022 is undoubtedly the year of the self-service buyer journey. You can either meet their expectations of a friction-free buyer journey, which makes it easy for them to find the independent sources they need, or watch buyers run to your competitors.

Upcoming webinar: Recession-Proof Your GTM Strategy

August 9, 2022

12:00-1:00 pm ET

Featuring TrustRadius’ VP of Marketing, Allyson Havener, and VP of Research, Megan Headley

The most successful companies will recession-proof their go-to-market strategy by adapting to the self-serve buyer. Join the discussion of our latest research on B2B tech buyer behavior and learn strategies and tactics to work smarter, spend less advertising dollars overall, and avoid wasting time and money on leads that never convert.

What to expect:

  • Findings from TrustRadius’ annual research report: 2022 B2B Buying Disconnect: The Age of the Self-Serve Buyer
  • State of the B2B marketing industry in a looming recession
  • How B2B marketers and sellers can activate the customer voice and downstream intent data to target in-market buyers with funnel-aware messaging at the right time
  • Q&A

    About the Author

    Gabrielle Sadeh
    A consultant, social media specialist, and blogger based in Tel Aviv, Gabrielle Sadeh helps brands share their voices and scale their businesses through powerful digital marketing strategies.