Making sense of the buyer’s journey stats

When do buyers want to talk to sales? We examine the stats doing the rounds out there – and what they really mean

December 20, 2016


Just how far through the B2B buyer’s journey can you expect someone to travel before they are ready to talk to sales? It’s a crucial question for anyone crafting a B2B marketing strategy – and for anybody interested in more effective sales and marketing alignment. However, the broad range of different statistics out there can make it very difficult to answer.

If I conducted a quick straw poll of my team – or of B2B marketers pretty much anywhere – I’d most likely find a big spread of responses to the question: when are B2B buyers ready to talk to sales? Some would confidently claim that buyers are 57% of their way through their decision journey before they’re ready to speak to sales reps. Others would tell me that it’s 67% - and quite a few would tell me that buyers are 90% of the way through their journey before sales gets a look in.

These different statistics have quite different implications for the relationship between sales and marketing – and the roles that each team needs to play at different points in the buyer’s journey. If it’s true that buyers only seek out contact from sales reps when they’ve largely made up their mind, then the logic follows that marketing needs to take on more responsibility for nurturing leads right up to that point.

On the other hand, if buyers want to start meaningful conversations with sales half-way through the process, that might imply very different marketing tactics: integrating sales much earlier on, pushing your experts to the forefront and building their personal brands, providing sales teams and buyers alike with triggers for starting a conversation – after all, you might well be pushing at an open door with buyers who are itching to talk.

There’s a big difference between 57% and 90%. When you’re planning a strategy for aligning sales and marketing more effectively, it really helps to have a clearer sense of where these stats come from – and what they really mean.

Are buyers really 57% through the purchase journey before they’re ready to talk to sales?

The mother of all buyers-ready-to-talk-to-sales stats comes from a study by the CEB Marketing Leadership Council and Google back in 2011. It declared that ‘customers are choosing to delay commercial conversations with suppliers’ and included a nifty graphic saying that these are now most likely to happen 57% of the way through the buying process. But how exactly did CEB and Google come up with this figure?

The report is based on a study of 1,500 decision makers and influencers in 22 major B2B companies who had recently been involved in purchasing decisions. For each of these organisations, the study asked people to nominate how far through the process they had travelled before engaging a supplier sales rep directly. When those responses were averaged out, the answer came to 57%. In fact, no business engaged with a supplier sales rep directly before they were 45% of the way through the process.

So far so good – but there’s an important point to bear in mind here. Although the study spoke to a lot of people, they represented only a relatively small number of businesses. The sample size that we’re effectively dealing with for this study is only 22. When people quote this research as showing that buyers can be ‘up to 65%’ of the way through a purchase before they reach out to sales, they’re technically correct – but actually only two businesses waited that long.

What does it mean if 67% of the buyer’s journey is digital?

In fact, people who claim that the magic point in the purchase journey comes around the 65% mark are usually referring to a different study – one carried out by SiriusDecisions in 2013. This showed that buyers tend to carry out 67% of their buying journey digitally, taking control of finding information online rather than just picking up the phone to their potential suppliers and listening to what they have to say. Given that this study came out two years after the CEB/Google one, it’s tempting to interpret it as showing that buyers are waiting longer and longer before talking to sales. However, that’s definitely not how SiriusDecisions themselves interpret the data.

In a blog post entitled ‘Three myths of the 67% statistic’, SiriusDecisions’ VP Research, Megan Heuer, wrote “The 67 percent statistic in no way says that no one talks to a salesperson before getting halfway through the buying cycle, but this is how some have interpreted it. Just because buyers spend time online doesn’t mean sales is not involved at all stages of the buyer’s journey, including the early and late stages.”

In other words, although 67% of the buyer’s journey may involve self-directed research – including a huge amount on social media – that doesn’t mean sales teams have to be locked out of the process. They just have to establish a credible reason why they should be involved – and that involves having tangible value to add. “It is true that the standard is now higher for sales to add value to the conversation, because so much information can be found online,” wrote Heuer in the same post. “Marketers, your mission is to help sellers get engaged early with customers and prospects.”

How many buyers get 90% of the way through the journey before talking to sales?

Perhaps the most striking buyer’s journey stat is the fact that buyers can get anywhere up to 90% of the way through their journey before a conversation with sales happens. Does this mean that the role of sales is being pushed to later and later in the process?

The 90% stat comes from a Forrester analyst, Lori Wizdo, who first used it in a blog post in 2013 – the same year the SiriusDecisions research came out. However, Wizdo wasn’t quoting from a specific piece of research – and she wasn’t claiming that a high proportion of buyers conduct virtually the entire purchase journey by themselves – just that some do. The way she puts it is: “Although it varies with product complexity and market maturity, today’s buyers might be anywhere from two-thirds to 90% of the way through their journey before they reach out for a sales person.” In other words – there are a lot of different buyer journeys out there, and you’ve got to be prepared for all of them. More specifically, you’ve got to work to earn the right to engage.

So – what do we really know?

It’s been suggested that these different buyer’s journey stats mean that, for most of the time, B2B decision-makers aren’t interested in talking to sales at all. However, this is the wrong way of looking at it. None of the studies involved buyers telling researchers that they actively avoided making contact with sales – or that they were antagonised by having to deal with sales people. They responded to questions about when they ended up reaching out to sales teams. As digital research plays an increasingly important role for buyers, they’re less likely to be dependent on sales reps for information, which explains why this moment is more likely to take place later in the process. However, that’s not to say that sales teams don’t have an influential role to play when they do get involved.

Social selling is such a powerful strategy because of the emphasis it puts on sales reps engaging buyers with relevant insights – and making themselves a part of the digital research process. It provides a natural segue between the self-directed portion of the buyer’s journey and the more focused, later stages, when buyers reach out for expert advice – and more tailored proposals and recommendations. And sales reps from a trusted brand, who are supported with relevant, value-adding content on social platforms, are far more likely to find buyers ready to engage with them at these moments.

Better aligning sales and marketing isn’t a case of trying to pick the best possible hand-over point, that magic moment when leads are warmed up enough to accept a phone call. It comes down to recognising the interdependence of sales and marketing throughout the buyer’s journey – and equipping sales teams to start more compelling conversations at each of these points.

LinkedIn has just completed a fascinating piece of research into the impact that marketing support has on sales teams’ ability to engage buyers. We found that prospects who had been exposed to Sponsored Content from a sales rep’s brand were 25% more likely to respond to an InMail from that rep – and they were 10% more likely to connect with them on LinkedIn, initiating a conversation and securing a role for that sales rep in the consideration process.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter when the average buyer typically engages with the average sales rep in your category. What matters most is how early your own sales reps can establish permission to engage. After all, if most sales teams aren’t getting to engage with buyers until the closing stages of their decision process, there’s a huge advantage to equipping yours to get involved earlier. Watch this space for our upcoming eBook on better aligning sales and marketing that will help you to do exactly that.