Give modern B2B buyers want they want most — honest customer references

The business-to-business (B2B) buying cycle is being upended. The latest management research suggests that modern B2B buyers no longer wish to be sold to by vendors in a traditional sense — where an army of trained sales representatives are making boastful claims, and pushing products and services onto them with cookie-cutter narratives. Instead, digitally savvy buyers are increasingly relying on their peer networks for guidance on key B2B purchasing decisions, as peers represent the best source for unbiased commentary on suppliers.

How and why are B2B buyers becoming peer driven?

According to the 2018 Buyer Preferences Study by CSO Insights, peers and colleagues represent one of the top five preferred resources for B2B buyers to solve business problems. This resource ranks 32 percent higher than vendor sales professionals, which came in ninth on the list. And an independent study conducted by Repshift revealed that over 70% of B2B buyers are members of some type of private purchase support group, which are often organized via LinkedIn or Slack. Although the desire for social proof among B2B buyers isn’t new, the shift towards getting that proof from trusted confidants as opposed to vendors is noteworthy.

The growing reliance on peer networks among B2B buyers is arguably a function of disingenuous sales and marketing practices adopted by vendors over the years. These practices include bold and aggressive claims that are simply untrue, or adopting a dogmatic approach to customer interactions as opposed to a consultative one. According to Gartner, 65% of a buyer’s procurement cycle is now spent reviewing information or interacting with people and organizations other than the suppliers. The decreasing emphasis on vendors guiding the procurement process is stark — regaining the trust of buyers won’t be an easy exercise for sales teams.

How can sales teams rebuild trust with peer driven B2B buyers?

Sales teams can effectively sell to a new generation of peer driven B2B buyers by providing them with honest customer references through a transparent referral program. By offering up customer references proactively, sales leaders are building trust and accelerating an activity their prospective buyers already wish to engage in. They also demonstrate a willingness to be vulnerable and learn from their buyer as part of the procurement process — as opposed to being dogmatic. The proof is in the numbers: HBR reports that 84% of B2B buyers prefer to start the purchasing journey with a referral.

There are three key realities sales professionals must keep in mind as they become serious about introducing customer references at scale to the buying cycle:

1 Customer references aren’t your enemy. Enterprise B2B sales professionals can react to smart conversations between their customer references and prospective buyers as an existential threat. Conventional thinking suggests that if B2B buyers are suddenly turning to their experienced peers for unbiased commentary on the capability of vendors, then sales professionals lose their ability to control the information buyers consume, and ultimately the probability of a sale. This reaction is entirely counterproductive. Contrary to conventional thinking, customer references should in fact be seen as a partner in the sales cycle. Your existing customers represent the best source of feedback on the efficacy of your products and services. They understand what other people like them would care most about when purchasing from you.

2Your references are happy to talk to your buyers. According to a recent Hubspot report, 83 percent of customers are willing to act as references after a positive experience with a vendor. This shouldn’t come as surprise — a reference conversation serves as a forum for both your customer reference and prospective buyer to share insights and tips for success. These insights can trickle back to the vendor in the form of valuable suggestions for product improvement or market messaging. But due to continued anxiety within B2B sales teams around reference conversations, only 29 percent of sales professionals actually ask their customers to act as a reference. This statistic represents a missed opportunity for sales teams.

3 Modern buyers are great at sniffing out BS. Setting up a customer reference program can be a very simple exercise that requires just two ingredients: referenceable customers and an operational infrastructure that allows for their use at scale. The key is to present these references to your buyers as transparently as possible — that means no hijacking of conversations or influencing the discourse that will ensue. Otherwise you run the risk of having your buyers look beyond your suggested referrals, thus rendering the exercise ineffective. I’ve written about how to set up a successful customer advocacy in the past, and there are plenty of other resources online.

By allowing prospective buyers and existing customers to speak to one another openly, sales teams get the opportunity to build trust and obtain valuable feedback on their offerings during the procurement process, while buyers and customer references get a chance to network and share industry specific insights. Te outcome is for the benefit of all parties involved.