It’s challenging as a business technology buyer to find objective, substantive insights that you can trust. Buyers today still heavily rely upon vendor-supplied information, yet a sales rep is always going to sell just the pros of their product and marketing communications position products as complete and ideal. Trials have increased transparency, but it takes significant effort to run an effective one. Moreover, how you use a product in a trial is frequently different from how you’d actually use it day to day and may not reflect what it actually will be like to work with a vendor.
B2B technology marketers confident in their products have an opportunity to gain competitive advantage by embracing transparency — encouraging customers to share unfiltered perspectives in a forum useful to prospects and then empowering prospects to access that feedback. Vendors embracing transparency not only will differentiate themselves but can also reduce their cost of sales as buyers become more educated and convinced of their value through reading insights from and talking to peers.
Today, few vendors openly share what their product does less well, or the use cases in which it may be suboptimal; yet that is exactly the kind of information that buyers crave. Customer references are one avenue to find this information, but they are commonly withheld until the end of a sales cycle. Furthermore, references are invariably strong proponents and may not present a balanced perspective. Some buyers also believe that references are “pre-wired” to only say good things.
Beyond making the right product selection, technology buyers want to enter a vendor relationship with their eyes open. They want to be able to set realistic expectations and secure the right resources for deployment and integration. They want to know what post-sales support will be like and what level of ongoing innovation they can expect.
To be credible, it’s critical that customer insights be balanced and substantive and not merely “love fests.” Unfortunately, many product reviews on forums like the AppExchange are not only shallow but so overwhelmingly positive that they come across as insincere and therefore lack credence with prospects. New review sites like TrustRadius have placed a significant emphasis on both authentication and review quality control to ensure reviews are balanced and useful to prospects.
Truly embracing transparency means:
- Encouraging all of your customers — not just cherry-picking strong advocates — to provide honest feedback in a public forum that enforces a discipline of balanced commentary.
- Empowering prospects to access this information.
- Responding to feedback not just in words but also in actions.
While it may sound scary to invite broad, honest and public commentary, and then to direct your prospects to see your deficiencies along with your strengths, it actually can be empowering as long as you have a generally well-received product and are willing to listen and react to feedback.
Technology buyers are not naïve. They understand that no business software product is perfect. Through their own research online and talking to peers, they will uncover issues. If issues do not surface pre sale, they’ll complain about them post sale. If a prospect who’s not a great fit picks you because of poor diligence or misinformation, then it will only cause you both pain and expense in the long run.
Embracing transparency can also help you innovate to better fulfill market demands. While you can conduct private customer surveys, you’re more likely to get candid feedback through a third-party forum, especially one that allows customers to post anonymously and intrinsically incents participation and ongoing feedback.
Embracing transparency can also help you build a more robust base of content marketing assets. If your customer feedback is generally positive, then testimonies are lost in private surveys; whereas public reviews can be powerful sales and marketing tools.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, here are three trends you need to pay attention to.
1. B2B customers complete 60 percent+ of their research before they engage vendors
A recent Corporate Executive Board study of more than 1,400 B2B customers found that those customers completed on average nearly 60 percent of a typical purchasing decision — researching solutions, ranking options, setting requirements, benchmarking pricing and so on — before even having a conversation with a vendor.
2. B2B customers are looking for social proof
The trust level in vendor-produced materials like case studies significantly lags the trust they have in candid perspective from peers. Per a recent Sirius Decisions study, a common strategy among CXO buyers is to poll their peers. However, many buyers lack the personal network to poll a sufficient number of people for advice and, often, the advice that comes back lacks depth — hence the opportunity to help them find social proof in product review forums. It is important that such forums allow buyers to easily see the profiles of reviewers and to be able to filter them by company size, role, etc.
3. B2C has set a precedent
Peer reviews have become engrained in almost every facet of consumer purchasing. The hotel industry is a great case study. At first, transparency was imposed upon hotels as consumers wrote reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and others discovered them through search; however the industry now embraces transparency. Many hotel managers are diligent at monitoring and responding to customer reviews. Some brands like Omni proactively send customers to review them on TripAdvisor as part of their customer survey process. Some brands like Wyndham have started to display TripAdvisor ratings and reviews on their websites. This trend will eventually become the norm in B2B as well.
Trailblazers in B2B tech transparency
A number of technology vendors have started to encourage customers to write open and honest reviews on sites like TrustRadius because they:
- Believe the trend is inevitable and it’s better to embrace it versus fight it.
- Serve marketplaces where conversations are already occurring albeit in less structured ways.
- See reviews as a way to help tell their story to disrupt incumbents or evangelize a new concept.
- Want to get regular authentic feedback and use it to improve.
Some like Birst, a business intelligence vendor, are going a step further and proactively encourage prospects to access their reviews from their website (see Fig.1).
Source: Screen capture from http://www.birst.com/why-birst/customers with permission of Birst
“Typically our prospects have already done a fair amount of research including viewing a demonstration and even using our product before they are willing to engage with a sales rep. As a result, our marketing approach has focused on educating the prospect early in the sales cycle as best we can. We know our prospects are not just coming to birst.com, but also going to forums on LinkedIn, checking out Twitter feeds or increasingly going to a review site like TrustRadius. We seek to embrace an approach of trying to make it as easy as possible for them to source information about Birst as we’re confident that the more prospects learn about us, the more apt they are to buy.” (Wynn White, VP marketing, Birst)
A road map to success
While many vendors start with cherry-picking clients or running campaigns, true commitment ultimately means embedding review gathering into your customer life cycle. When using an embedded model, it’s important to enable your customers to update/amend an existing review versus having to write a new one each time they reach a new milestone.
Beyond generating reviews, it’s also important that you have a plan in place as to how you’ll respond and harness them. Here are a few key questions to consider:
- Who at your company will be the designated respondent and what style will they adopt?
- How will service-related feedback be triaged and product feedback incorporated?
- How will you train your reps to use reviews?
- How will reviews feed into your marketing programs?
- Will review excerpts become part of your management and board reports?
In conclusion, if you are confident in your product, you’re missing a big opportunity if you are not strategically embracing transparency. While there are many venues where you can have your customers review your product, concentrate on a site where you create leverage — where prospects will find the highest quality, most trusted content, and one that offers the best experience for your customers — where they can write one review and amend/add to it over time.
Vinay Bhagat is co-founder and CEO of TrustRadius, a site for professionals to share quality insights about business software through structured reviews, discussions and networking. TrustRadius has been described as a “high-quality Yelp for business software” and is backed by the Mayfield Fund. Previously Vinay founded the SaaS company, Convio, which went public in 2010 and was acquired in 2012 for $325 million. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @vinaybhagat.