It’s beginning to dawn on all of us that the pandemic will have permanent effects. We aren’t sure exactly what those effects will be, but the outlines of them are already forming.
How people buy is one of the things that’s changed. The shift from retail brick and mortar to e-commerce was already well underway, of course, but
More than a year of living with COVID-19 has caused sweeping changes in buying behavior for both consumers and business buyers. As things slowly begin to return to “normal” – the new normal – we are starting to see some of those changes become permanent.
For the last year or more, B2B buyers have been largely cut off from conferences, in-person meetings, or even their offices. This has had profound effects on how people do their jobs, including how B2B buyers make their decisions. Their behavior has shifted almost universally in one direction: from offline to online.
Many B2B buyers were already doing much to most of their purchasing and research online before the pandemic. Most of the buyer’s journey was already happening before a buyer ever spoke to a salesperson. 2020 just accelerated the change.
But the shift during 2020 became so clear and has probably become permanent enough for there to be a name for it: Digital self-service.
What is Digital Self-Service?
Digital self-service or just “self-service” is a collection of marketing and customer service tactics that allow clients or customers to resolve issues or answer questions on their own through digital channels.
Examples of digital self-service include, but are not limited to:
- Knowledge bases
- On-demand training
- Remote sales rep interactions
In this article, we’ll focus on the marketing aspect of digital self-service. We’ll discuss ways that B2B marketers and B2B sales teams can work together to give B2B buyers the autonomy and control they want, and may by now even expect.
The Digital Self-Service Trend
Digital self-service has been called the biggest trend in B2B marketing in 2021. A late 2020 study from McKinsey illustrates how deeply entrenched it already is:
- Only 20-30% of B2B buyers say they want to interact with sales representatives in person. Even after COVID-19.
- “Over 90% of B2B decision makers expect the remote and digital model to stick around for the long run, and 3 in 4 believe the new model is as effective or more so than before COVID-19 (for both existing customers and prospects).”
- 99% of B2B buyers said in the survey that they will purchase through a completely digital self-serve model. Almost all of them said they are “very comfortable” making even $50,000 or higher single purchases entirely via digital self-service.
So B2B buyers aren’t just ready for digital self-service: They’ve already embraced it. And if buyers have embraced self-service, then that means B2B marketers and their partners in B2B sales need to embrace it as well.
The Evolution of the B2B Buyer Journey
To ground all this in some data, here’s some recent research from McKinsey & Company outlining how many B2B decision makers were already using digital self-service options last year:
Note that these buyers weren’t behaving this way simply due to the restrictions of COVID-19. When asked what their preferred interactions would have been, the answers came back as almost identical to the chart above:
So B2B decision makers want to communicate and do business with their vendors more via a self-serve model. But were they doing so only because of COVID? Were they “making do” with less effective sales communications simply because they had no other option?
When asked directly about this, the decision makers said they found the new self-serve model just as effective as the more hands-on approach they had been using before.
Not only is the new self-serve model as effective as the more hands-on approach used before… but it’s also here to stay. 91% of B2B decision makers said they “are ‘very likely’ and ‘somewhat likely’ to sustain these shifts 12+ months after COVID-19.”
In other words… welcome to the new normal in B2B purchasing.
Marketing and Sales Need to Cooperate for Digital Self-Service Success
As a marketer, you may be thinking, “well, this does affect me, but it seems like it may be more of a concern for Sales than for Marketing.”
That may well be true. But Marketing’s role is increasingly to support the Sales process – most B2B marketers are now directly compensated based on how many SQLs they produce or how much revenue they drive.
And supporting Sales is about to become even more important. Because according to the survey from McKinsey, Sales departments may be looking at some staffing cuts in the coming months.
Going Forward: How to Activate a Self-Service Program
So the need is clear and the time is now. But how can you actually bring a self-service program into being?
Probably quite easily.
The good news is that you probably already have the elements of a self-service strategy. As mentioned earlier, self-service is hardly a new thing – most B2B marketers and sales programs have had some parts of the buyer’s journey automated or self-serve for a while. Having things like email autoresponders, on-demand webinars, and marketing automation programs that show different content or different ads based on buyers’ “digital body language” is not new.
Digital self-service just organizes all these disparate tactics into a coherent strategy. It brings the idea of letting the buyer guide their own sales process from the back burner to the front burner, if you will. It requires marketers and salespeople to build systems so buyers can get the information they want when they want, how they want.
Implementing a strategy like this entails managing content a bit differently, and it also means including pricing information. That may be a slightly uncomfortable shift: At least historically, some B2B firms have not wanted to disclose their specific prices until very late in the sales process. It may be time to rethink that position now, as price is one of the key pieces of information required to make a decision. If B2B buyers are going to guide themselves almost completely solo through the sales process, they’re going to need price information as well.
Here are a few other basic elements or areas to focus on as you upgrade your B2B digital self-service program:
- The McKinsey & Company study shows that if there could be only one channel for digital self-service, video would be it. Sales interactions, in particular, are increasingly video-based. But content also needs to be video-friendly. Also consider offering content in audio format, especially long-form content or content best-suited to early in the buyer’s journey.
- On-demand webinars. It’s time to let your audiences see webinars when they want. Take an inventory of your company’s video assets then organize them in a way that helps your buyers and your current customers access them easily.
- Purchasing and repurchasing. These events are obviously at the crux of driving revenue, but with so much focus on getting and nurturing leads, don’t forget the last step! Purchasing should be as frictionless as possible, even if buyers are on a mobile device.
- Checking inventory and order status. These complement ordering and reordering, but are distinct enough to deserve their own focus. Consider setting up a small focus group of five buyers (which is just enough for a viable usability study) so you know where the glitches are in your system, or perhaps which features your customers love most.
- Requesting quotes and samples. This is a perfect example of a process that might have previously required a salesperson’s help. But it’s time to take that “gatekeeper” away and let people order samples quickly and easily (via mobile devices, too). For quotes, online calculators are ideal for self-service. We’ve seen interactive content and online assessments be favorite content formats for B2B buyers for a while. This trend towards self-service just reaffirms how effective interactive content can be.
The Buying Committee and Digital Self-Service
Never forget: “The” B2B buyer is largely a misnomer. Most B2B buying decisions are made by a group of buyers – a buying committee – not by individual buyers.
Sure, senior leadership may have more input on the final purchase, but middle managers and the end-users in a company usually also have a say. So don’t forget to think of the buying committee as much as individual buyers as you implement a digital self-service program. Different people on the buying committee will need different information. Each one of these personas may need its own customized or segmented self-service content and messaging.
Digital Self-Service in 2021 and Beyond
COVID-19 has changed many things, though most of what’s changed was already changing. COVID just accelerated the shift. B2B digital self-service is a perfect example of this.
The good news is that because this shift was already happening, most B2B marketers will already have the elements of a good digital self-service program. The thing to focus on now is to take the separate tactics and assets and glue them into a coherant whole.
There’s one other aspect of digital self-service that is more of an evolution than a brand new thing: the partnership between marketing and sales. Digital self-service requires deep alignment and coordination between the two departments.
The priority of buyers’ needs, and the goal of delivering “the right message, to the right person, at the right time,” is also evident in this new self-service model. In a way, digital self-service can be seen as just another advancement of marketing automation.
So there we are: Three major trends in B2B marketing, all wound together in this new strategy of digital self-service.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.