The SaaS Buying Experience: Mapping How Businesses Buy Software

August 14, 2019

Learn about the 27 steps B2B buyers follow as they make their way along the software buying journey.

The original version of this article, authored by Scott Albro, was published by TOPO, now Gartner. 

Given the importance of the buying experience and how fast the software buying experience is changing, it’s critical that marketing and sales professionals understand how buyers purchase software today.

In recent years, the software buying experience is much improved thanks to three factors. 

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The emergence of the software as a service (SaaS) model has had a profound impact

While SaaS started out as a way to deliver better products, many of its core principles have migrated into marketing and sales organizations and changed the buyer’s experience with the company. For example, free trials are now common in the software industry but were extremely rare before the emergence of SaaS.

There’s been a major shift in power from vendor to buyer

Thanks to the internet, software buyers have access to more information online. They are able to more easily connect with their peers, and can identify and evaluate different options. For example, pricing information is now readily available for most software products — again, something that was uncommon a few years ago.

The consumer internet has conditioned business software buyers to expect a good experience when buying software

The fastest-growing software companies borrow heavily from the likes of Facebook, Twitter and other big consumer sites when designing their buying experiences, because those are the experiences that buyers want, even in a professional context.

With this much change taking place in the industry, it’s critical that marketing and sales understand exactly how buyers are making purchasing decisions.

Key dynamics in the SaaS buying experience

There are five dynamics in the SaaS buying experience that marketing and sales professionals should pay particular attention to.

1. The buyer is completing the vast majority of their purchase without engaging vendors.

Our data suggests that buyers are completing a little over 60% of the buying process before engaging a vendor. Sound a little scary? It is, particularly when you understand the next dynamic.

2. Vendors that have good brand recognition and easy-to-use trials have a huge advantage over the competition.

That’s because many SaaS buyers won’t engage in more than one trial. Our data shows this is particularly true in the small and midsize business market where buyers tend to comparison shop less. You need to make sure that buyers find your trial first — and that you don’t squander that opportunity when you get it. 

3. A lot of buyers are frustrated by SaaS trials.

To be certain, the free trial is a major innovation in the software industry. However, while many vendors have cracked the code on making free trials easy to sign up for, there’s still a lot of work to be done on making them easy to use. Setup, configuration and usability issues continue to stymie buyers.

4. In many cases, the real decision-maker is only tangentially involved in the buying experience.

With so much information available and SaaS being a lower-risk investment, many decision-makers are delegating the buying process to others. While the decision-maker may kick off the buying process and make the final decision at the end, someone else is doing the vast majority of the work.

It often surprises marketing and sales that a new decision-maker enters the fray in the last 5% to 10% of the buying experience. This person often needs to be engaged, educated and sold from scratch.

5. The improvement in the buying experience has changed the prevailing dynamic in many organizations.

Some of our clients don’t have sales teams — they have order-taking teams. A variety of factors are contributing to this issue. The buyer does a lot of their work on their own now, obviating the need for sales involvement. Furthermore, the trial is such a dominant part of the buying experience that sales simply acts as account management for free trial users.

Finally, in-app e-commerce makes it possible for buyers to close the sale themselves without any help. Order taking isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it does suggest that these sales organizations could be growing faster if they were actually selling.

The 27-step SaaS buying experience

What’s the SaaS buying experience really like? Experiences vary, but it’s possible to develop maps for particular markets. For example, we recently mapped the buying experience of a small business thinking about buying customer service software for a client. 

We’ve identified 27 distinct steps that the buyer takes as they move from status quo to final decision. Many of these steps can be applied to other software markets as well.

Status quo

  1. One-person supports org. There is one person handling support cases at the business — often this is the CEO/owner.
  2. Using gmail/Google Docs. The company has a single person using these applications for customer support issues.
  3. Workload growing. As the business is growing, so is the amount of customer support work.

Identify opportunity/problem

  1. Number of tickets growing. The number of customers/tickets/complexity of issues are growing rapidly.
  2. Two people now working support. The CEO hires/assigns employees to work support issues.
  3. New employees are not self-sufficient. The assigned employees are constantly pinging the CEO and other employees for help with support issues.
  4. Two-person workflow issues. This creates workflow issues where the company can’t track whether issues have been resolved.

Understand requirements/options

  1. Assign new employee to find solution. The CEO assigns a new employee to find the technology solution.
  2. Collect basic information. The buyer uses Google to reach third-party vendor sites to collect basic information and understand market landscape.
  3. Talk to peers. The buyer collects information from peers and end-users about requirements and vendors.
  4.  Identify core features. The core requirements are identified as basic ticket management and online support.
  5. Gather pricing data. The buyer gathers pricing data from well-known vendors’ landing pages.
  6. Focus on ease of use. The buyer realizes that low set-up costs and ease of use are the most important requirements.
  7. Develop a list of vendors to engage. The buyer identifies from one to three vendors that initially seem to meet requirements.
  8. Create vendor evaluation plan. The buyer develops demonstration/trial-centric plan to engage shortlisted vendors.

Engage vendors

  1. Visit the first vendor’s site. The buyer visits the perceived leading vendor’s site and consumes product, pricing and resource center content.
  2. Sign up for a free trial. The buyer signs up for a free 14-day trial on vendor’s homepage, and wants to get started right away.
  3. Just need it to work. The buyer’s primary objective at this point is to determine how easy the software is to set up and use, and whether it will satisfy core use cases.
  4. Start using trial. The trial actually requires real work to start using, but the buyer perseveres.
  5. No other trials. Given the time needed for set up, the buyer is highly unlikely to invest in a trial with a second vendor.
  6. Calls/emails from vendor. The vendor offers support through the trial but given the tactical nature of the conversation, buyers disregards much of it.
  7. Able to satisfy core use case/requirements. After spending two to three weeks using the software, buyer determines that it meets core requirements.
  8. Takes a second call from vendor. The buyer receives another call reminding them that the trial is about to expire.

Make decision/purchase

  1. Internal meeting about decision. The buyer makes the recommendation, and the CEO agrees.
  2. Buyer decides to purchase. The buyer moves forward with purchase without evaluating other options.
  3. Enters credit card information. After a quick reminder from vendor, the buyer enters credit card information in the app.
  4. Buyer becomes a customer. At this point, the trial converts to full customer access and the buyer begins using software.

While no buying experience map is perfect, for each major step, the best marketers and salespeople will understand the buyer’s psychology, what information they’re consuming, the interactions they’re having, what’s required to move the buyer to the next step and potential obstacles.

Understanding these as you interact with the buyer will lead to higher conversion rates and more revenue.

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