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Give Buyers What They Want: How B2B Companies Can Use Online Reviews to Get Ahead

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In the last two years, business technology buyers have increasingly adopted consumer-like behavior as they evaluate products. They now complete more than half of their evaluation process before contacting sales, and they seek opinions from other users ahead of vendors
and analysts.

In fact, two-thirds search online for peer reviews or testimonials, according to a Google study. Most importantly, technology buyers value peer insights above other sources across the entire purchase cycle.

Yet today, only a minority of technology vendors have embraced user reviews. Few proactively encourage them. Fewer still strategically incorporate reviews into their go-to-market efforts. And very few use reviews as an opportunity to improve their product and customer service. User reviews give marketers the opportunity to amplify their customer success, getting customers en masse to go on the record to accelerate sales. They also give product managers access to real time, substantive and authentic feedback to improve products and services.

Business Buyers Are Also Consumers

As consumers, we rely on reviews on websites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, Angie’s List and Amazon to make purchase decisions. Many people could not imagine selecting a hotel without first checking TripAdvisor, or at least running a Google search.

Without such a transparency-forcing mechanism, B2B marketers have historically attempted to control the flow of information to prospects. Carefully crafted value propositions conveyed through highly produced marketing communications, salespeople trained to convey a standardized message, and tightly managed reference programs that gate access to customers are the norm.

Yet the buyer’s journey for B2B products is changing rapidly. Today, 78 percent of business-software buyers begin their evaluations with a Web search, and 60 percent search for peer reviews.

The shift is not surprising. After all, business buyers are consumers in their personal lives. It is natural for consumer-like behaviors to cross over into the professional realm, just as they have in many other areas.

With easier access to online information, business buyers can now complete more of their evaluation process independently. Just how much of the evaluation occurs before engaging sales? Estimates vary from 57 percent to as high as 90 percent.

Buyers Have Less Trust in Your Content

The sad truth for all of us who have spent countless hours crafting product messaging and creating datasheets is that B2B buyers are becoming less reliant on vendor-produced materials. According to Gartner, provider materials rank third in the list of preferred information sources, behind self-driven information searches and peers or communities. This remains true across all stages of the buying cycle.

Buyers want to hear from people like themselves. Historically, companies have created case studies and customer-reference programs to deliver such validation. However, the trust level in vendor-provided customer evidence is nowhere near as strong as independent sources. A 2014 poll on TrustRadius reported that 65 percent of software buyers did not trust vendor-produced case studies.

Case studies are also time-consuming to produce, with high up-front costs and lengthy legal or executive approval. It can also be difficult to convince prominent brands to go on the record.

Similarly, customer reference programs are powerful but challenging to scale and operate. These assets shouldn’t be overtaxed, which is why they are typically made available only toward the end of a sales cycle. Gaining approval to use a reference can be cumbersome, and coordinating calls between prospects and customers can be logistically challenging.

By comparison, a large base of in-depth user reviews on a trusted third-party site can provide a more efficient way to scale your reference program. Since they are public, you can share the reviews much earlier in the buying cycle without fear of overtaxing reference customers. Plus, with a large review base, your sales team can consistently find good matches for their prospects.

As Jason Wesbecher, CMO at Mattersight—an enterprise solution targeted at call centers—said, “When prospective customers ask for references, we can accelerate that very critical part of the sales cycle. We don’t have to cajole someone to get on the phone. We can send them to a website with 33 living, breathing, authentic reviews which are probably more beneficial than a single call.”

The Influence of Reviews on Decisions

Two years ago, user reviews didn’t show up as a significant factor in buyer surveys. But the evolution has been rapid. In its most recent buyer’s survey, HubSpot noted that user reviews influenced about half of all buyers.

Vendors are becoming more proactive about sharing user reviews with prospects as they realize the influence reviews have on decision-making. They syndicate them to their website and use them in email campaigns. They also train and equip sales reps to use them ahead of reference requests.

Reviews amplify customer success in an authentic fashion, as a value proposition or benefit is more powerful and believable coming directly from a customer. Buyers prefer to hear directly from those with a similar operating context who have successfully used a product. They do care about product benefits, but they are just as interested in limitations. They want to hear what it is really like to work with a vendor on a daily basis. To be credible, reviews must include these details.

Reviews enable buyers to conduct independent research more quickly and confidently—and get to you more quickly. This requires more than just a high-level rating with a few supporting words. It’s a thoughtful articulation of pros and cons, ideal use case, etc., sourced from a broad, unbiased pool of customers, and not the result of cherry-picking or advocacy campaigns.

Learning from User Reviews

User reviews offer a great source of feedback for product development and customer service. They can help identify the strong and weak aspects of your product and service.

They also can help you to understand market problems and rank competitive differentiators. For example, reviewers on TrustRadius are asked to describe the alternatives they considered and why they selected a particular product.

Reviews can help inform your product roadmap, providing input as to which features are most valued and which are candidates for investment. They also provide input into pricing and perceived ROI. In addition, reviews help inform customer retention programs by understanding sources of dissatisfaction and providing early identification of at-risk accounts.

Online reviews are rapidly becoming a critical factor in how software buyers find and evaluate products. B2B companies should take their cue from their B2C counterparts and embrace transparency. Assume that customers will review and discuss your products in public forums and that prospects will search for—and access—this information while conducting independent research.

You might initially be fearful of embracing transparency, but the reality is that buyers will talk about you anyway. By understanding that third-party reviews are your best strategic weapon to meet buyers where they are, increase sales, and improve your product offerings and customer service, you’ll stay ahead of your competition.

B2B vs. B2C Reviews

B2B companies can learn a lot from B2C companies when it comes to reviews, but there are some notable differences as well.

Decisions are much more complex. Make sure that reviews provide robust content, including a discussion of use case.

Qualified B2B product reviewers are in limited supply. Develop a strategic approach to drive strong participation rates.

Trust is critical. With five-digit or higher price tags in this high-stakes environment, trust in the reviews and review sites is critical.

Updates are key. Your product, and therefore your reviews, have a short shelf life. Be sure to implement a mechanism to keep reviews current.

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