I was a Millennial B2B Buyer. Here’s What You Should Consider.

turbine image for a b2b brand buyer blog post

This post was originally uploaded to our previous Medium blog on September 20, 2016.

In the course of researching a few other topics, I came across a series of articles on how ‘Millennials’ are reshaping the B2B buying process and it got me to thinking about my past life in automotive and heavy duty parts.

Before my life as a Visual Communications Designer, I was a Millennial B2B buyer and manager. Millennial workers are beginning to have more and more say in decision making and purchase authority and for a group that has grown up in a world where Brands are omnipresent, some insight into their mindset can go a long way. This is my story.

It had been a long morning already. No amount of coffee was going to change that. The recent cold snap that had dug in around Calgary was exiting its second week, and the toll it was taking on the aircraft deicing equipment was beginning to rise to epic proportions. And of course, it was that precise moment when the giant overhead door rumbled up unexpectedly as another unit was being brought in. Despite the regular weekly maintenance these units underwent in the winter, they were part of an aging fleet that wasn’t handling the extended cold snap, meaning frequent breakdowns.

The Result: the mechanics in the shop did an admirable job of patching these units up and getting them back into service. My team and I made sure they had the right parts right away. We’d worked closely with our customer, done our diligence before the start of winter to ensure that we had a ready supply of the more common parts, but we’d managed to exhaust some of those early on, and replacements weren’t readily available anywhere in my company’s supply chain. Which meant the hunt was on to find what was needed as fast as humanly possible.

If there’s one constant in the Airline industry, it is schedule. Delays cost thousands of dollars, no matter what time of year, and delays in winter are no exception. So when an aircraft is unexpectedly sitting on the ground, fully loaded, pushed back from the terminal and waiting 40 minutes to be deiced before takeoff, that can mean tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in potentially lost profit.

And upset passengers.

And frustrated ramp workers.

And an Equipment Manager (my direct customer) who was already getting heat from his superiors in Toronto about the number of delays their group was being charged with.

Knowing that these deicing units were the highest priority (winter in Canada, go figure), everything else was put aside until this issue was resolved.

Fortunately, in the build up to the winter season I’d begun building relationships with key suppliers who would be instrumental in ensuring success down the road. Now that we’d exhausted inventory, and had an immediate need, those relationships were going to pay dividends.

In the fall, I’d started researching these key suppliers from our own internal databases. We had preferred suppliers listed and for the majority of parts for these units, it was the OEM manufacturer. Internal consultations were done with our Purchasing and Sourcing departments, and I had a pretty good feel for what I was getting myself into. I’d reached out to the OEM parts department via email and phone calls to get a feel for who they were and to make sure we could work together (email and phone being the best methods of contact, given that we were in Calgary, and the OEM was based in Kansas). Their timely replies and ease of access assured me that they would be there when we needed them. If I or any of the mechanics had any questions about diagnosing issues or determining correct part numbers, we knew they would be the best collaborators.

They also understood the pressure we were under in the middle of winter to get these units supplied and back out the door. EVERY time we needed them, the OEM was there. I sang their praises to anyone who’d listen in the company, and the managers and purchasers at the other stations in Canada took note. In the 2.5 years I did that job, it was one of the best customer experiences I had.

Now, let’s fast forward to the start of this week as I was looking at various B2B marketing papers. This one from IBM on Millennials in the B2B marketing world really stood out. I was able to identify with pretty much everything that they found. Hence why I’m writing this, and you’re reading it.

What was of primary interest to me was this Figure right here:

table showing priorities for different demographics in the b2b buyer space

Notice any similarities from what I outlined about my own experience above? It’s pretty much a dead on match. You know what isn’t seen here? Price and features and benefits of products were factors quite a way down the list but nowhere near the top. When time was limited there were other factors at play.

So what? you might ask. Why should I care? Here are my takeaways on this:

Know Your Audience

At the time I had this job, I was just turning 30. I am a part of a millennial cohort that is being handed more responsibility and B2B purchasing power as older Gen-X and Baby Boomer employees are retiring or moving to more senior positions. This cohort has different communication preferences, researches products in a digital and social space, has a higher expectation for a great customer experience, and is seeking a deeper relationship than most would expect. So while this might not be a perfect case study for every single key decision maker reading this, it does reinforce the reality that knowing your audience is essential to successful delivery of your offering. While I wasn’t their primary audience, their brand was flexible enough to deliver on their promise to me as well. Well positioned B2B brands that empathize with the challenges the customer faces, harness collaboration and find an easy way of doing business may find more success with this growing group of millennial decision makers and influencers.

Make information and data easily accessible

The Millennial cohort relies heavily on easily accessible data to begin forming opinions on products and services. The one drawback I can identify with the OEM manufacturer was that they didn’t have the best handle on this. While we still had paper copies of the technical manuals, it took longer to find the right parts and sometimes led to ordering errors on our part, a big problem when time is critical. As it was, their collaborative efforts and ease of access to expert individuals in the company made up for it.

Make a great, cohesive, branded customer experience

From the first interaction with your website, to the follow up after delivering your offering to the customer, create a great experience. Understanding your brand, communicating it and living it at every touchpoint are essential parts to success, not only with Millennials, but with every demographic. Consider that this cohort is the first to grow up in a world where consumer brands and brand experiences have been an omnipresent part of life. Delivering a great experience makes you stand out, and contributes to occupying a strong position in your markets mind.

The responsibilities I had on a day-to-day basis were no different than the older Gen X / Baby Boomer managers in the company. I had the same level of authority when it came to operating my branch. The biggest difference lay in how I went about doing the specifics: finding suppliers, building relationships and opening dialogues. Each activity was performed in a much different way than my colleagues. Failure on any of these fronts would have resulted in costly delays for my customer and would have ultimately cost me my job. Understanding that I worked a bit differently led to greater success not only for my supplier, but for me as well.

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Survive or Thrive. Business Lessons from the Three Little Pigs.

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Business is often portrayed as a battle against others. Met­aphors run rampant about winning the game and beating com­petitors. Analogies talk of fighting a war for a limited piece of pie. It’s like a massive game of Survivor where you need to outwit, outplay, and out­last the others. But how do you play when an unexpected fiscal tsunami strikes and hits the entire island? You do so by running your business more like an episode of the three little pigs than Mark Burnett’s famous TV series of Survivor.

Just look at those three little critters. A small porky group of four legged animals. All appearing to be equal with each having the same opportunities available. All three open to the pending doom of the big bad Wolf of Bay Street, yet each stay in control of their own efforts and decisions. Three characters who can teach us a lesson about ourselves and the world of business.

Consider Ben. He was the first little piggy. He was an impatient piggy, always wanting to find the easy way to the trough. Times were good, everyone was feasting, and Ben wanted to be part of it. He too wanted a beautiful house of his own. So, one day along with some friends, Ben set out in search for materials to build his new house. He had financing and a desire to succeed. It wasn’t long into his journey when Ben met a farmer along the road with a load of straw. Ben was pretty sure it wasn’t the best material he could use, but he didn’t want to wait. He wanted to build his house as quickly as he could and start getting orders. “No waiting for me,” said the impatient little piggy. “There’s orders to fill and producers to serve. I’ll build my house quickly and get on to more important things.” And that he did.

Ben bought the straw and quickly built a fine straw house. He hired a freelancer to come up with a cool name, and he made himself a pretty neon ‘BenCo’ sign to mount on the side of his building. It was good. Everything was okay, and it was all he needed while things were booming. The phone would ring, and Ben would find some friends to fill orders and answer calls from producers too busy to be choosey. Unfortunately though for Ben, he thought all he had to do was be at the right place at the right time with any house, and dinner would be served. A lot of mistakes could be covered up during the days of $100+ bales of hay, and Ben was making one of significant proportion.

The second piggy, Bob, also wanted to be part of the feast. He was already eating well, but like many, he wanted more. You see, Bob already had a house. It was one that was built years earlier by his dad. It was a well-built house made of field stones and sticks, but Bob wanted it bigger. “It’s too small,” said Bob. “If it’s bigger, I can make more and take over the whole county.” So, he brought in some advisors, secured funding with his bank, and set out to expand his house.

Bob knew bricks would be the best material to use in building up his existing house of stones and sticks, but bricks would take time and require more effort to get. Not wanting to miss out, he decided to take a short cut. “I’ve already got sticks and stones, and I can get more without much effort. I’ll expand in no time and get back to the table quickly.” So, Bob set out to get his sticks. With one quick call, he found the first farmer available to bring him his load of sticks. They were ‘good enough’ for what he needed, so he purchased them and set out on building. They’d work fine to expand his house. They would certainly do.

It was only the third piggy who actually did what needed to be done. That piggy was Fred. Fred had a reputation as someone who never took the shortcut. While straw and sticks were readily available, he knew bricks were also there for his use. It took a bit more investment in time and effort than the other options required, but he knew it was necessary for when the storms would come and the wolves would gather. Unexpected situations would always arise. Fred wasn’t going to be the little piggy who’d get roasted. So, before the clouds could peak on the horizon, Fred invested in his house and his future. While he could have taken the easier route to pick up straw or pick up sticks, he knew the value in having a solid foundation. For Fred, it wasn’t so much about beating the other pigs. It was about surviving even the huffiest of puffs.

And, as the story continued, with the storm now past and the Wolf of Bay Street having fed on those other fat little piggies, Fred’s house was the only one to survive. And, based on the situations of the others, we might say he even thrived.

So, what’s the moral of this modern day tale? How can we learn to be more Fred and less Bob or Ben?

Start with a focus on your future, more than your today. Invest in the things that will provide long-term returns and stand the test of time. Research has shown investing in a well-positioned brand outperforms the S&P 500 and MSCI with an average return of 103%.

Then, work to beat the wolves more than you work to beat your competitors. When all the little piggies are battling the same big bad wolf, everyone must band together. And, although big bad wolves come in different shapes, sizes, and forms (i.e. government policies, environmental trends, socio-economic constraints, etc.), if it huffs and it puffs, it’s likely a wolf. Much of the marketing efforts we’ve put together for our clients have focused on reaching across industry associations and leveraging industry colleagues to grow their entire segment and ultimately their own business. It’s true all ships lift when the tides rise.

Lastly, never build a straw (or stick) house when bricks are available. For our clients in the B2B space, shortcuts will often lead to failure. We provide our clients with the insight and activities they need to grow their business. It’s about figuring out what makes them unique and valued, and it’s the foundation of being able to present their offerings in a way that stands out and gets them the attention they deserve. Building a sustainable value proposition must begin by knowing the real value you bring to your market and not by taking a shortcut to build upon what you ‘think’ they care about.

So, for those looking to survive beyond storms and wolves or any other unexpected calamity, take your time to build a solid foundation. It’s better to be huffing and puffing from putting in the work than to be the victim of a bigger huff and puff. Only survivors will thrive.

Have a comment? Think we’re full of it? Fully agree and want to bask in our adulation and thanks for reaching out?

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This article was originally published in the Oilfield Pulse magazine, Volume 6, Issue 5, 2017