by Lauren Brousell

Millennials bring consumer shopping tactics to corporate buying

Jun 05, 2015
MarketingTechnology Industry

An IBM study of more than 700 people who make corporate buying decisions, including Gen-Xers, people from Gen-Y and millennials, sheds light on notable differences in their motivations to make corporate purchases and offers valuable lessons for B2B marketers.

millennial business
Credit: Thinkstock

Millennials take a different approach than their Gen-X and Baby Boomer counterparts to many things, including social media use, work habits and communication. They’re also shaking things up in the marketing world, according to a recent report from The Boston Consulting Group.

More than half (51 percent) of the 800 millennial respondents base their personal buying decisions on peer recommendations. They also want to interact more frequently with companies through digital channels. This behavior has started to trickle down into their purchasing decisions at work, and because millennials now make up the majority of the American workforce, it’s time for B2B marketers to take notice.

Millennials want the personal touch from B2B vendors

When initially researching a potential corporate purchase, millennials prefer straightforward, in-person meetings with vendor representatives, which is in contrast to  Gen X-ers or Boomers who like to get their information from analysts, articles, blogs and third-party websites, according to an IBM survey of 704 multi-generational B2B purchasers. Of those more than 700 buyers, 447 are millennials, 154 Gen-Xers and 103 are Boomers.

Carolyn Baird, global research leader at the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) and author of the report, says B2B vendors need to pay attention to these trends. “We know how [millennials] are researching as consumers and so much of it is digital,” she says. “But when you get into the B2B space, the digital [component] is table stakes and what they really want to do is connect with individuals they’d be working with.”

[ Related: How to retain millennial workers ]

However, once millennials are ready to buy, they want that B2C-type interaction: quick, easy and digital. Today, 69 percent of millennials meet with vendors face-to-face but would rather communicate over email (69 percent) or phone (62 percent).

Tchad Rogers, director of IT at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and a millennial corporate technology buyer, says face-to-face interactions are very important to him, especially in high-stakes deals. “I watch for how people react in the exact moment a difficult question is asked and watch for body language and facial cues.”

Vendors need to meet with millennials and then back off

After getting a sense of the vendor in-person, Rogers says he needs some space and time to figure out his next move. “Our procurement process for expensive things moves slowly — sometimes painfully slowly. A vendor reaching out to try to be helpful and ‘check in’ every week drives me up the wall.”

Ronald Vaughn, IT director at Jacobs Engineering and another millennial tech buyer, agrees that in-person interactions are valuable, but he wants fast and efficient communication and a hands-off approach when the process moves to the sales cycle. “By then we’ve done our due diligence and are ready to proceed as quickly as possible to meet the needs of our clients,” he says. Vaughn also uses video-conferences and online-meeting services with screen-share features.

[ Related: How to help millennials shine in the workplace]

When moving on to the actual corporate purchase, millennial behavior is evenly split. Thirty-six percent of respondents rely on recommendations from family or friends, another 36 percent use their company’s data analysis, and 34 percent go with gut feelings. Millennials are also the only age group that cites personal or peer recommendations as a top three influencer; Gen X-ers and Boomers trust their own personal opinions of products above all else, followed by expert analysis, according to the IBM report.

“I definitely look at the data, heavily, but I trust my gut when it comes to the individual people from the vendor that I interacted with,” Rogers says. “If the data shows a promising and competitive product, and the individuals selling it pass my gut-check, then I’m likely to go into persuasive mode and explain why this is the right vendor to my colleagues. If I feel uneasy about either, then I start checking in with others and weigh their past experiences in similar situations.”

Satisfied millennials spread the word

B2B vendors should also note that if millennials like their products, they’re more likely to show love online versus past generations. Sixty-nine percent of respondents leave compliments on vendor sites, and the same number of respondents post positive comments on social media. Millennials are also less likely to blast companies with negative feedback online than the previous two generations.

[ Related: How to help millennials prepare to be successful leaders ]

“Millennials are very aware of how quickly a brand can be damaged with negative social exposure,” Baird says. They also know the potential impact of negative feedback on their own careers, and their responsibilities to represent their company brands and reputations, so Baird says they are reluctant to regularly express dissatisfaction.

Millennials are now the majority in the workforce, and more of them will become B2B buyers in the future. A key takeaway from the IBM study is the need for B2B vendors to observe millennial buying habits in the consumer world and then apply the lessons to current sales and marketing strategies. This insight, combined with solid product and good in-person impressions, will help grab the attention of millennial buyers and could result in both positive shout outs online and word-of-mouth recommendations.