What do the most successful business-to-business (B2B) software companies have in common? It’s a trend that investors say will continue to shape the entire B2B landscape for the next ten years. These breakout companies all use it: Airtable, Dropbox, GitHub, Intercom, New Relic, Pagerduty, Slack, Stripe, and Twilio. For once, the answer isn’t AI or blockchain.
These companies use a bottom-up sales motion that treats business customers like regular e-commerce customers. They allow individual employees to purchase software with a credit card and to personally benefit by inviting others to adopt the product. Broadly, this trend is called consumerization. “B2B growth sales” is another term used by Silicon Valley investors to describe product-led customer acquisition targeted to an individual professional user and their networks rather than a top-down sales model and a formal organization-wide implementation.
The new wave emphasis on product-led growth means companies must rely on the quality of its offering — and the conversion funnel at its heart — to sell itself. It turns out building products people love and making them easy to buy is also a nearly impossible strategy to defend against for traditional enterprise incumbents like IBM, SAP, and CISCO who usually make crappy user experiences (sorry, not sorry.)
The reality is that hybrid models are prevalent between the old and the new, the self-service and direct sales. Companies that use both methods often experience great internal power struggles over roadmaps and resources between Product and Sales Teams until leaders prioritize one over the other unequivocally. Working in that battlefield is not fun.
B2B growth metrics
As consumerization continues apace, the parameters used to measure the performance of user experience largely overlap between B2B and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies.
Here are my three work streams for managing growth performance in both B2B and B2C companies:
Firstly, align the company to a growth model and conversion funnel with shared definitions, targets, inputs and outputs.
Secondly, continuously monitor the completion rates of crucial user journeys in the conversion funnel, such as signup, onboarding, and checkout flows. Ensure design changes are improving completion rates against the baseline by chipping away at dropoff points.
Thirdly, everyone from the executive to the intern should be keeping their eye on top-level business health metrics like churn, monthly recurring revenue (MRR), lifetime value (LTV), and cost of acquiring a customer (CAC). Some ways to maintain this alignment is through a company-wide dashboard published daily to a Slack channel or email distribution list. Others create status wallboards displayed in shared office space.
To keep those performance monitoring activities updated across releases or business cycles is undoubtedly easier said than done, but it’s the shared foundation of a rigorous growth practice. Discipline required. Ok, I hope you now hold these three truths to be self-evident as I do.
Moving on, B2B and B2C’s growth models diverge at a strategic level. B2C companies are more concerned with virality (show me hockey stick growth charts, please.)
“Virality also matters for B2B companies, but might not be the primary growth lever,” noted Patrick Thompson, a former design manager at Atlassian and co-founder of Iteratively.
B2B teams are more focused on expansion than virality.
Let’s talk about expansion. I don’t mean geographic expansion as in operating in more cities or regions. The primary growth strategy is to “land and expand” within a customer’s organization. Expansion means increasing the amount of usage and revenue derived from the relationship, but it can take several forms.
Many services align their plan offerings to the number of users and resources allowed at each tier. They throttle collaboration features, storage amounts, or access to historical data at the lower levels. Upgrading accounts to more expensive plans is called expansion revenue and is the way B2B companies counterbalance churn.
Another common tactic to increase expansion revenue is by getting company accounts to adopt additional features or product lines.
For example, Gusto is a human resources (HR) tech company that started with a core payroll product. The payroll service was very successful, and disrupted the market for traditional payroll companies in the United States like ADP. However, for continued growth, Gusto aims to move core payroll accounts to adopt other services such as benefits management, time tracking, and even HR-as-a-service. The more product lines used by an account increases expansion revenue, switching costs, and the likelihood of retention.
Design experiments to run
Some great places to start growth work if you’re a B2B company
Onboarding and checkout flows
Auditing the onboarding and checkout flows for performance and dropoff points is always a path to uncover quick growth wins for any product at the outset of your work.
When a growth team is born onboarding and checkout flows tend to be the first baby steps taken
Jacki Bauer is the design manager leading GitLab’s new growth team, and her priority at the outset was tackling the purchase flow.
“GitLab had extra form fields, extra steps with the purchase flow that was making it hard for customers to buy it, but through our work we have since simplified the process to make it easier and faster for the user and are seeing great results,” said Bauer.
Improving checkout rates with better user experience translates design directly into revenue making it a fruitful area of the product to get results and build credibility for the team doing this work.
Prompting organizations on starter plans to upgrade is an essential ingredient in UX-led growth.
Upsell prompts can appear in the regular workflow when a premium feature is discovered or be triggered when rate limits are reached. Prompts can be delivered in-app as messages, buttons, modals, banners, cards, popovers, or tooltips
For example, when a Zapier free plan user goes to create a task, but they’ve already exceeded the number of free plan tasks allowed, then a modal appears that says, “You need to upgrade to do that” with a button to Upgrade Now.
Experiment with combinations of trigger actions, timing, and UI patterns to see what works. Checkout “The 9 best upselling prompts for B2B SaaS companies” for ideas.
Encouraging annual vs. monthly subscription plans “can be instrumental in lowering churn and ramping growth,” according to data from subscription revenue experts ProfitWell. Annual plans give the customer a longer time to realize the product’s value while reducing the purchasing decision to once instead of twelve times a year. Annual plans have a higher value to companies, which is why you often see them get discounting in pricing and extra design nudges to encourage annual plan purchasing.
“Annual vs. Monthly is great but experimenting with the actual pricing is huge. Most companies don’t do it and it can significantly change the revenue of a business,” said Thompson from Iteratively.
The kickback is a way to design a loyalty or referral program that allows someone who is professionally making purchasing decisions on behalf of others to benefit in their personal lives.
In some ways, the kickback is an ancient way of doing business, but Lyft offers a modern examples of the practice’s latest incarnation. If you have a passenger profile with Lyft Business, when you take five business rides than you get $5 off a personal trip.
Consumerization drives the convergence of B2B and B2C customer acquisition methods. However, leading B2B companies also focus more on expansion of usage and revenue within organizations. Using design experimentation to optimize parts of the product that drive expansion is a road paved with gold.
The Long Read
For even more, checkout the audiobook and ebook UX Design for Growth.