The buying process: How do businesses buy SaaS and why does that matter for marketers?
In B2B SaaS, the person who uses your product is rarely the person who decides to buy your product.
Often, that person hasn’t even been involved in the buying process.
But a lot of marketers in B2B SaaS focus exclusively on that person’s needs when building and executing on a marketing strategy.
In my experience, marketers are so focused on the end user that they forget to address concerns of all the other people who are involved in making the buying decision.
In this article, we’ll look at the factors influencing the buying process of B2B SaaS products, the various people involved and talk about some of the different things you need to consider when you’re marketing to a business.
Why the buying process matters for marketers as well as sales teams
The buying process is something that both sales and marketing teams need to understand and address.
Marketers should have a well defined plan for helping your sales team navigate objections, obstacles and answer questions in a way that aligns to your company’s growth goals.
The first money I made from selling a SaaS product online came from a FTSE 100 company.
That was for approximately $12 a month.
While the amount was miniscule. The win was huge – I’d proved that our funnel could convert.
That deal could have been for $1200 a month if we had included a sales team and worked through the customer journey, using marketing to help speed the process along instead of creating the conversion organically.
As a marketer, you’re well placed to create the resources that align to the customer journey, helping the sales teams to slide deals through.
Sure, they could do it without you. And you could do it without them in a lot of cases.
But when marketing and sales are correctly aligned, hitting to their strengths, magic happens in B2B SaaS.
And that magic looks like money.
BTW – if you're the kind of person who likes a slide to share, you can check out a couple of slides I did to support this article here:
Main factors that impact the buying process
Size of customer’s business
A lot of people think that small companies are easier to sell to because their business has fewer levels of approval to work through.
It’s not always true.
I’ve been involved in sales cycles with publicly traded companies that involved a single person and happened within days of the first contact.
I’ve also been involved in buying processes at SMEs (or SMBs if you’re reading from North America) that have lasted months and failed because new people kept joining the deal.
As a rule of thumb, the larger a business is, the more complex a buying process becomes because they have a more developed management structure.
Considerations for marketers
The size of your customer’s business will impact your channel mix in two ways.
Firstly, the larger the business, the more people you’ll likely need to convince to buy your product. Finance people don’t hang out in the same places as marketers or HR people. You need to adjust your channel mix to meet each buying role where they’re at.
Secondly, if you’re dealing with smaller businesses, you have less time and money to spend on acquiring each customer. You’ll likely need a significantly larger number of those SMEs to hit your marketing goals.
An example of a good channel for reaching a large volume of potential customers is search (organic and/or paid).
If you’re dealing with enterprise SaaS, you’re probably more focused on a sales led model where marketing helps to generate marketing qualified leads (MQLs) to pass to sales.
Compliance can feel like an overly bureaucratic requirement but being excellent at compliance, and knowing how to use that as a value proposition, can create a strong competitive advantage.
Every SaaS is different but if you’re selling to businesses, you’re likely going to have to prove that you can be trusted with their data – or more importantly their customers’ data.
The amount of assurance that a customer asks for from you depends on the kinds of data your SaaS will process.
Here are some of those categories:
- The end user’s user data
- The business’ customers’ data – if you hold data on your customers’ customers, you have to do a good amount to persuade businesses you are doing good things with it.
- Sensitive data – If you hold data that relates to sensitive areas (e.g. health, finance, employment, privacy), you’ll likely need to get some kind of compliance certification. Each country has its own compliance requirements so you should check on your markets’ needs. Heads up: these are often costly and awfully headspace heavy processes to go through.
Considerations for marketers
Marketers who work on businesses where there is a strong compliance element will need to make sure that their output helps the buyer to feel assured.
This is especially the case when a startup is trying to win market share from a strong incumbent.
Cost of buying the product
There are a number of different kinds of cost incurred in buying a SaaS product.
The most obvious is the actual financial cost.
If your product costs a lot, you may end up going through layers of management to get to a sign-off.
Perversely, some organisations are so inefficient that you may find the opposite to be true.
The first sale of our product we ever made was to a university. The pitch lasted less than 5 minutes. At the end of the pitch, we shook hands on our second biggest deal (even to this day).
Conversely, our biggest deal took 18 months to close.
Even after years of B2B SaaS, I still don’t fully understand why this happens.
Considerations for marketers
Buyers tend to consider multiple different products at the same time once they have decided to make a purchase.
However, many SaaS companies are reluctant to publicly share pricing.
Buyers guides and fair pricing comparisons between your product and your competitors product are valuable resources that are also SEO-friendly.
Ranking for ‘your competitor’s brand name + pricing’ ensures you present your product on your own terms. Don’t leave it up to your competitors.
Also consider creating comparisons between your product and alternative solutions. Don’t forget that most SaaS companies are competing with doing nothing at all and with ‘use a spreadsheet’.
Cost of implementing the product
The cost that most people forget about when marketing a B2B SaaS product is the implementation cost that the buyer will feel.
Once a business gets past a certain size, it will frequently become more labour intensive for them to get onboarded with new products.
There are usually a few things that cause this:
- Institutional resistance to change – the biggest one by far. People are strangely unwilling to adapt.
- Educational commitments – onboarding into an organisation is complex. Workers have a lot on their plates already. Even when a piece of software will make their lives easier in the long term, buyers will sometimes choose to not buy because they recognise the short term efforts they’ll have to exert in educating their colleagues.
- Lack of ownership – a common failing point for B2B SaaS. The person who is enthusiastic about buying the product is rarely the one who actually has to implement it. They’ll move on and hand it off to someone else to implement. That person has no idea why they bought your tool and they enter a long road to churn that is frustrating to everyone.
- Bureaucratic risk – As discussed, compliance matters to business. Adding company data and/or customer data into a new piece of software will usually mean that someone somewhere is filling out forms and sending emails to their legal, compliance and finance departments. This is costly to everyone. It takes up a huge amount of headspace on both sides of the purchase. You both have to decide whether it’s worth it.
- Reputational risk – Linked to all the above is the least appreciated cost: that if something goes wrong with the product (bugs, data breaches etc) the person who introduced the product loses face in front of their colleagues. That’s bad for their career progression. Some buyers care about that more than others – as a marketer, it’s your job to help sales reassure them.
Considerations for marketers
Strongly aligned content marketing is the best chance marketers have to make an impact on implementation costs.
Here’s a few examples of content I would create for each of the five costs I mentioned above:
- Institutional resistance to change – Inspirational case studies, resources for internal champions to get their team onboard
- Educational commitments – learning centre content, topical education for strategic issues, help centre articles for the most commonly asked questions
- Lack of ownership – webinar sessions, re-engagement campaigns, implementation checklists
- Bureaucratic risk – terms and policies section, help centre articles
- Reputational risk – product updates pages, uptime tracker, practical case studies
Different roles who might get involved
A common error in SaaS for marketers, sales people and founders is to assume that the person who is enthusiastic about their product is the only person who needs to be sold to.
The reality is significantly different for B2B SaaS.
Companies are complex and the ways that decisions get made are like rugby balls: you think you can predict the bounce but you can’t!
To avoid costly marketing funnels and sales processes falling through, here’s a few of the different roles who typically get involved in a buying process.
The end user is as deep as a lot of marketers go. That’s a significant oversight.
Although they’re likely to be the ones who get the benefit of that value proposition you spent weeks crafting and months refining, they’re often the first link in a weird, knotty chain.
Still, it is important that they’re enthusiastic about using your product.
If you’re effective in targeting and positioning, the end user can be an internal champion for your product in the buying process. They’ll help push the right buttons, connect you with the right people, point out bottlenecks.
The economic buyer is the person who holds the cash that is going to pay for your product.
In my experience, the economic buyer is rarely a single individual but often a cohort of people from different parts of the business who are pooling ‘chunks’ of their budget so that they can buy your product.
Why is the economic buyer not usually the same as the end user?
Mostly because the person who has a problem that your SaaS solves is the junior of the person/group who holds the budget.
Marketers should be able to create resources and structure their narrative in such a way that the ROI and value for money is obvious to an economic buyer.
If that’s not possible, for some reason, the next best option is to demonstrate that they’re not actively losing money.
Management is a grouping of decision makers who vary by organisation. The management is there to hold the economic buyer and end user to account.
It is important to acknowledge the management’s role in the buying process. They can kill a deal with a sideways glance or a disapproving email.
Management itself is usually broken down into multiple tiers who have vastly different needs, desires, fears and objectives.
Middle managers, for example, usually want to ensure that no-one below them messes up publicly.
Top managers usually want to maximise profits and meet organisational objectives set by the C-suite.
Marketers should talk to sales teams to work out the generic management structure in their ideal customer profile. You can take this structure and the needs of each tier and factor that into the marketing collateral you’re building.
The board (of directors and/or shareholders) has oversight of larger organisations and may be required to sign off on a ‘business case’ for larger purchases.
Even in larger companies, boards offer accountability and guidance for the CEO. Their role is usually non-executive and don’t often get involved in operational choices.
Boards as a whole usually accept the recommendation of the CEO.
Here are three occasions where boards I have personal or close experience of have intervened:
- If the CEO doesn’t present their recommendation convincingly – boards will sometimes assume that this means the CEO isn’t behind the deal at all. That’s a severe problem for a board because ultimately, it’s the CEO who creates the framework for a larger purchase to be adopted throughout the organisation.
- If the deal is poorly timed – this usually rears itself in times when there is concern about the financial stability of the company. If a board is presented with a large or politically sensitive purchase during a crisis, they’ll often recommend the CEO doesn’t proceed.
- If the organisation is very unhealthy – sometimes boards overstep the mark. This is particularly true in companies with inexperienced founders and lots of investment dollars. If the founders or CEO of a company don’t stand up for their choices, board members sometimes just step in and run the company by proxy. It’s not healthy. But it happens.
Besides being a prominent brand, the best thing you can do to influence board level choices is to ensure that you are generating trust through your marketing and supporting everyone involved in the buying process as best you can.
The effect will normally bubble up to those board sign offs.
Best practices for SaaS Marketers
Before bringing this to a close, I want to give you some best practices as a marketer working with a B2B buying process.
Map out your buying process
I hope you’ve got the message I’ve been putting across: buying processes are so complicated.
Companies who understand the buying process and have a valuable product with good positioning can forecast their growth well.
You’ve worked hard on your product. You’re sure of your positioning.
Make sure you also understand how your customers want to buy from you.
To do this, sit down with your sales people regularly and review calls, emails and customer journeys.
This will show you who got involved, where, why and also where deals failed or succeeded.
As a marketer, you’re unlikely to have the luxury of tailoring marketing assets to a single customer. But you can understand the generic buying process for your ideal customer profile(s).
Plan for those!
Understand your customers deeply
Buyers, users and managers all have vastly different needs.
Some people will need to be reassured that they’re not killing their career options by implementing your product.
Some people just want to be appreciated as innovative.
People are unique.
Understanding your customers deeply will allow you to speak directly to their needs, wants and fears.
Speak to them regularly, use their language in your marketing, provide value to them as a human – not just so that they buy your stuff.
Enable sales with relevant resources
Lots of marketers don’t like sales people. This is dumb.
Sales and marketing together drive revenue in the business. That means you continue to get paid so that you can progress your career and have a pleasant life!
Rather than thinking that you can do your job without sales, work as a team to create the resources they need to do their job better.
Did a sales rep tell you about an objection they keep hearing from finance departments? Promote a webinar specifically for finance people in your ICP and address that objection.
Maybe you noticed that management kept asking the economic buyer for three quotes from competitors? Create the alternatives page and get the prices for your competitors on there too!
This is your opportunity to not just work on inbound acquisition but to facilitate outbound too.
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