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The B2B Customer Journey Is Beginning to Look a Lot Like the B2C Version

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In working with B2B clients, I've noticed that many feel that their customers function very differently from B2C customers and that the customer journey is markedly different. However, the increasing availability of social media has brought the two business types—and their marketing—closer than ever.

In the past, B2B required a lot of research (much of it via word-of-mouth) and a personal connection between brand and customer. Deals were made on the golf course or over dinner. B2C customers, on the other hand, had very few opportunities for research, and they were mainly guided to purchases by advertising.

"I think, if anything, digital and especially social have kicked the customer journeys into a very parallel nature," says Paul Dunay, a Financial Services Marketing Leader at PwC. "It's just the time frames that are a little bit off."

Here's a look at how the B2B customer journey is beginning to resemble the B2C version.

1. Availability of information

B2B purchases are typically very expensive and require a lot of research. Now, however, the availability of online tools has added research to almost every financial decision for B2C customers, no matter how minor.

"Now you see consumers using research tools at home for an airline flight or a car," Dunay says. "They use similar research tools [to a business], and they ask their friends via Twitter or Facebook what they think. The B2B decision process may take a bit longer, since it takes some time to sell a large enterprise purchase within an organization, but the tools they are using are surprisingly similar."

Dunay notes that the tools available to the everyday B2C customers are not as abundant when making a B2B purchase, despite the financial commitment that B2B purchases require. He cites TrustRadius as one one of the few tools that are available to B2Bs in evaluating enterprise-level software purchases.

"We still don't have many tools like Yelp for B2B," he says. "There are 3,000 sources of information to buy an eight-dollar burrito, and no sources to buy an $800,000 IT system."

2. Coming into purchases prepared

The availability of reviews, information, and opinions means that both B2B and B2C customers come into purchase decisions armed with more information than ever.

"Before they even have a conversation with the salesperson, the customer has probably done a lot more research than they ever have before," Dunay says. "We tend to think, from a marketing perspective, that we are going to initiate the conversation. That is complete baloney. The customer is in control, they have decided that they have a need in this area, they know all of the players and they have visited all of the competitive sites. The data says the tables have turned because so much data is available to the customer."

3. All customers expect to be valued

As mentioned previously, B2B customers have typically had a closer relationship with their salesperson than B2C customers have.

Most B2C customers followed the customer journey of seeing the ad, going to the store, and buying the product. Now, B2C customers expect more from the brand; they expect a personal touch through social media and a greater sense that the brand cares about them and is honest with them. That's why B2C brands like Southwest and Chipotle have fared so much better in recent years than old-guard stalwarts like United Airlines and McDonald's.

B2B customers always expected to be remembered. Now, with the level of personalization that can be achieved in marketing, Dunay says they should expect even more personal touches from their B2B vendors.

"Let's say you are a major vendor with all kinds of product offerings, and one customer has visited your page looking for data center solutions," he says. "However, when they come back to your site, you show them your same old homepage, and they've got to try again to find your data center solutions, which are five clicks in."

"Wouldn't it have been nice for them to see data center solutions right on the homepage of your website, customizing that experience because you know that they’ve been looking at that kind of stuff? Amazon does it, shouldn’t we do that? I would guess that only 1% of B2Bs do anything close to that, and I wish we could."

B2B Marketing Is Learning From B2C

Research tools have allowed B2C customers to achieve a similar depth of research to B2B customers, and in general, B2B marketing and customer journeys are becoming more like their B2C counterparts.

"I think it took a while to get B2B folks up on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn," Dunay says. "There's always been this bizarre mindset of, 'That's B2C, and it won't work for us,' and I don't accept that as an answer. We are all trying to get to the same place. B2B has more touchpoints and longer timeframes, but we both want the effort to manifest in a sale."

"I've seen much more sophisticated attribution models on the B2C side, and I'm beginning to see efforts to attribute and weight touchpoints in the B2B cycle," Dunay says. "It's hard to say it's exactly the same, but there's a lot of commonality that wasn't there before."

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Ryan Johnson is an award-winning Web content producer, SEO practitioner, and digital marketing strategist based in Chicago.

LinkedIn: Ryan Johnson

Twitter: @rsj8000 

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  • by Chris Osborn Fri Mar 27, 2015 via web

    Spot on! We are certainly experiencing this shift in our interactions with prospects. And the change has been quite rapid. The difference in prospect behavior today is markedly different than even three years ago. Great bit of advice.

  • by Dave Vranicar Fri Mar 27, 2015 via web

    Ryan, I think you're correct that B2B and B2C customer's journeys are starting to converge for some B2B decision processes, but certainly not for all.

    The big distinction today is not so much between B2B and B2C customer journeys, but rather between the customer journey for simple and complex sales. A complex sale involves more than one decision maker.

    Complex sales sales run the gamut from fairly simple to highly complex.

    A highly complex B2B sale may involve seven or more decision influencers. It may also involve multiple business functions (such as Finance, IT, Operations, Supply Chain, Procurement, etc.) It may also require board-level approval. And it will probably involve a formal purchase process, including Requests for Information, Requests for Proposals, negotiated terms of purchase, and so on.

    These differences have big implications for the proper role of marketing to support complex sales.

    You're right that media consumption and research habits of buyers are similar for many B2B and B2C sales. But media consumption and research are only the most visible parts of a customer's journey. The much bigger and more important parts occur mostly beyond the view of sellers.

    If marketers think the customer's journey in a complex sale is similar to the visible elements of a simple B2C or B2B sale, they risk missing big opportunities to help reduce sales cycles, cut sales costs, and boost sales productivity.

    For these reasons, I think it's at best a partial truth to say that the "B2B customer journey is beginning to look a lot like the B2C version."


  • by Chris Osborn Fri Mar 27, 2015 via web

    Dave - I don't think that Ryan is suggesting otherwise. I am certainly not. You are absolutely correct. I think we are all saying essentially the same thing. For comparable transactions, the distinctions between B2B and B2C sales are disappearing.

    You are entirely correct about complex sales, and you are likewise correct about the role of marketing to support the sales effort in such situations is different. However, in my experience, even this role is changing rather dramatically.

    Great comment, though. I really enjoyed your insight and perspective.


  • by Ryan Johnson Thu Apr 2, 2015 via web

    Dave, thanks for your thoughts. You have almost enough for a whole blog post right there! I would say that even with complex transactions, the two roads (B2B and B2C) are converging more now than ever before. There will will be some divergence due to the time frames (as Paul noted in the piece, "It's just the time frames that are a little bit off."). The amount of people involved in the transaction can also change the process.

    What I'm looking at here is that B2C started appropriating the B2B model of high-touch marketing and moving away from the broadcast model. They have done such a good job with this new hybrid marketing approach, that now B2C is drifting toward that approach as well. There will always be differences, but they are more parallel now than ever.

  • by Ryan Johnson Thu Apr 2, 2015 via web

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Chris! I work with a lot of B2B clients, but I am very interested in the thoughts of those who are immersed in it every day. Feel free to email me and tell me about some of the changes you have noticed -

  • by Dave Vranicar Fri Apr 3, 2015 via web

    Ryan and Chris,

    Thanks for your interesting and well-spoken replies.

    I agree with you that in some respects B2B and B2C are converging. That's an interesting trend. For B2B marketers, it means we have to pay more attention to what's working well in B2C, and we can't automatically dismiss B2C tactics or strategies as being inappropriate for B2B.

    But I'm making what I think is an important point, and I don't want it to be lost in a group hug that glosses over differences of opinion. I don't want to be contrary just for the sake of argument.

    In my humble opinion, it's not the growing similarities between B2C and B2B that are truly of interest, but rather the deep and enduring differences between simple sales and really complex sales.

    Let me make an analogy. If you're a tour guide at a petting zoo and your audience consists of parents and their children, it doesn't hurt to note the obvious similarities between horses and zebras. You connect with your audience and relate to them in terms that are familiar to them. To some degree, you also state the obvious.

    If, on the other hand, you make your living as a safari guide and are paid big money to track zebras, then you don't give a rip how similar a zebra may be to a horse. It's your job to understand the behavior of zebras. And if you're really good at your work, you don't base your tracking on generalizations about zebras, but rather on your experience of tracking individual herds of zebras.

    When you've spent your entire work life doing nothing but complex sales on both the selling and marketing sides, you think more like the safari guide. You spend your workday preoccupied with the behavior of zebras.

    Over gin and tonic back at camp, you may acknowledge the similarity between zebras and horses. That could be an interesting conversation in a social setting. But during your workday you're obsessed by the quirks in zebras that you haven't understood well enough, the behaviors you haven't anticipated, and the opportunities you may be missing because you've generalized too much.

    For marketers whose employers or whose clients are involved in complex sales, you earn your livelihood by understanding the differences, not by remarking on the similarities. I am working on a blog post and a downloadable document on this topic. So far I've noted with at least 10 important differences and their implications for marketers who work with complex sales.

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