B2B purchasing and how VR can play its part

The changed reality of B2B purchase decision making and how VR can play its part!

Author: Markus Rach

While marketing technology investments have skyrocketed in 2016 / 2017 to even overtake advertising spendings, VR has started to hype alike the last 2-3 years and is poised to reach a market size of a projected US$ 40 Billion by 2020. The majority of this is likely to come from mainstream applications and consumer targeted technology, at least as far as current projections are concerned, B2B will however claim its fair stake in future VR investments.

Shiny new toy written

One hypothesis surely is, because “marketing has lost its way” and started to engage in a never ending rat-race of technology investments, of whatever sort, following latest trends and hype cycles. Prof. Andrew Stephen of the Said Business School refers to this as the “shiny new toy syndrome” in his inaugural lecture, which is highly recommended to watch for anybody being interesting in marketing- see below.

Another hypothesis could however be that B2B marketers start to acknowledge the human factor in the B2B purchase decision making process. For the sake of discussion, one can further segregate this human factor by likely intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli on the inherent decision making process, namely:

Consumer technology influence

B2B purchasers are on the one hand influenced by experiences and emotions coming out of their behaviour as a consumer (when they are not sitting behind a desk and assumed to be highly rational). There are countless examples on how and why consumer technology (and its delivery processes) impact the B2B world. Just think of our average Amazon purchasing experience, 1 click buy, overnight or even 2 hour delivery, the ease and felt transparency of offers vs. your often rather daunting B2B purchasing process, involving calls, mails and sometimes even the need for a fax.

Emotional influence

Whilst textbooks have thought about the highly rational B2B buyer, an emotionless creature only comparing specifications against prices, the reality is different. B2B purchases are largely driven by emotions, apart from traditional belief. Emotions can come in many forms, the most relevant in the B2B world are fear and greed. Fear keeps purchasers from changing suppliers; think of the old but very strong IBM Slogan “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. Enough said! Fear is therefore a good driver to build on, exploit or decrease, pending on the side you are on.

How emotion influences B2B buying decisions

Technology (and digitalisation) influence

To some other extent, technology has started to highly impact how purchase decisions are being made in the B2B sphere. In the old days, the average salesman would claim his wealth to be in the form of a stack of business cards. Whilst this is still true in many cases, if you ever work on a CRM project you will know what I mean, having the name and address of a contact is not enough anymore to drive value in a highly cluttered world. As you lack the time to read all your emails or listen to every ad from the moment you open your eyes, so does your customer. In fact, with the rise of the internet and digitalisation as such, B2B purchasing has largely changed. Transparency has increased on both sides. You can sneak up on prospects and digitally ID them, they also have a wealth of information, just a few clicks away. The number one issue of purchasers, to get a sales contact, still remains true today but the underlying decision making process has changed due to the influence of technology. Forrester has made a famous claim in 2015: the death of a B2B Salesman, which discussed how technologies have enabled new decision making processes, shifting up to 80% in B2B decision making to before even a first sales contact has been established. In other words, digital information dissemination supersedes the human contact by convenience, speed and often accuracy of information.

technologies have enabled new decision making processes, shifting up to 80% in B2B decision making to before even a first sales contact has been established.

Forrester has made a famous claim in 2015: the death of a B2B Salesman, which discussed how technologies have enabled new decision making processes, shifting up to 80% in B2B decision making to before even a first sales contact has been established. In other words, digital information dissemination supersedes the human contact by convenience, speed and often accuracy of information.

So, where does VR come into play?

Manifold actually! VR can be part of the above consumer technology influence. Maybe not part of a consumer purchasing process or experience, but something that shines a little coolness, a little trend or a little hipster feeling to the sometimes boring B2B world (think of heavy industries, machinery etc). Furthermore some playfulness that is seen in the B2C world can be readily
exploited, e.g. to give purchasers a run-through the machine, factory, energy park or whatever else they seek to purchase. After all, seeing is believing. This ties in emotions as well as technology application alike. Examples are close to countless these days but often lack a clear return measure. Playful applications are cool and often have also a purpose, this could be to attract new employees (think of a “pimp my compressor” VR app that applications run through to showcase their engineering skills), get attention at shows or just to maybe spark the intrinsic factor of being proud to showoff within the organisation. In the long-run, this is however not enough. Martech budgets have peaked in 2017 and started to decline towards 2018 and top management becomes more savvy to question marketing spending; at least question expenditures.

give purchasers a run-through the machine, factory, energy park or whatever else they seek to purchase. After all, seeing is believing.

Playful applications are cool and often have also a purpose, this could be to attract new employees (think of a “pimp my compressor” VR app that applications run through to showcase their engineering skills), get attention at shows or just to maybe spark the intrinsic factor of being proud to showoff within the organisation. In the long-run, this is however not enough. Martech budgets have peaked in 2017 and started to decline towards 2018 and top management becomes more savvy to question marketing spending; at least question expenditures.

So what to do? It is recommended to approach possible VR applications from two angles:

1. Find a problem, a measurable and identifiable problem (ideally quantifiable in some way) that can be bridged with VR. Be sure to identify a problem first – otherwise you engage in the classic law of instrument “if your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”.

hammer and nail on wooden block

If you fall into this trap, the likelihood that your application will end up being playful rather than valuable in the long term is, unfortunately, rather high. Examples could be found in all the areas of purchase decision making influences mentioned before. Maybe you have a trust or perception issue with your overseas facilities – so instead of doing a high gloss corporate video, think of VR to transport reality and immerse your customers. Do a VR factory tour that allows customers to visit your premises to take a sneak behind the scenes. Most likely, if you measure trustworthiness of VR against a corporate video, VR will score higher. Maybe another issue is the lack of sales managers to fulfil customer demos of large scale machinery. Maybe its however a training class that has to deal with H&S issues, complex systems or whatever else. Be creative – you have problems, plenty of problems, just avoid looking for the nail!

2. Brainstorm on your budget to come up with ways to reposition budgets from one time applications to sustainable use cases. This again leads to a measurable outcome and can therefore greatly help you to argue your case in front of top management. Examples could be spendings on exhibition demos / product exhibits or the like. Maybe instead of shipping your oversized demo machinery to each location, a smart VR app could do the trick. In some instances, (remember the law of the instrument), AR might make even more sense as it neatly bridges the gap between digital enhancements and real-human interaction (e.g. guiding users through the application with the help of sales).

So it`s VR or nothing?

No! VR is a possible tool in your toolkit. It is not the tool! Some applications might benefit more from AR, some others from pure on screen experiences, and again others from mixed reality applications (e.g. Hololens). All have their pros and cons, just be sure to do your homework before engaging with any third party specialist in either domain above. Unfortunately and unless you have a lucky punch, their hammer will seem to fit your nail perfectly, but in 6 months time, update cycles will kick in, hardware repurchases will become an issue, use cases have slightly changed or countless other things. The more you think of the future (again budget), the higher the chances to create a sustainable, measurable and value providing application for your organisation.