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Do Customers Really Have A Buying Process?

by David Brock on November 27th, 2017

It’s become common “wisdom” that we have to align align our sales process with our customers’ buying processes.  I write about it constantly, as well as hundreds of others.  It’s become almost a mantra in all the literature and training programs.

I suppose it’s easy to want to believe customers have buying processes.  Certainly, procurement has processes they follow in their buying activities.  There is a certain structure/process to the RFP/RFQ process.  Things we buy every day have a certain routine-ness to them, to the point they become transactional, which may be a process.

But if we look at complex B2B buying, do customers really have a buying process?

There’s some evidence they may not–or at least their processes aren’t very good.  Both CSO Insights and CEB point to high rates of “No Decision Made,”  each citing data that over 50% of buying efforts result in No Decision Made (Note this is different than a decision not to change.)  If customers had good buying processes, wouldn’t the failure rate be much lower?

There’s another way to look at this.  We develop processes to streamline things which we do very frequently.  For example, manufacturing processes drive for maximum repeatability and effectiveness in the manufacturing process.  Invoicing and accounts payable each follow standard repeatable processes and are tuned to maximize effectiveness and efficiency.  Order processing, likewise is tuned for repeatability and efficiency.  Our sales process focuses on the critical activities we must consistently execute with the customer.

Implicit in the development of processes is the fact that we do certain things frequently, and we want to develop processes to optimize how we do those things.  We want to repeat and tune our effectiveness, efficiency, and ability to produce similar outcomes each time we undertake the task.

Which brings us back to the question, in complex B2B buying, to the customers really have a buying process?

By definition, these are things our customers don’t do frequently.  In fact our customers really struggle to buy.  They struggle with recognizing the need to change.  They struggle with aligning differing priorities and agendas in the buying group.  They struggle with the activities they must undertake to define, agree on a solution, make a decision, and move forward to implementing a solution.

Part of the problem is the buying group constantly changes.  So there is little inherent knowledge of previous buying experience they can leverage.  Even though there may be some common people in each buying process (for example procurement, IT), there are people that are new to this particular buying effort–who may not have been involved in a similar buying decision for years.  For example, how many times in their careers do financial executives make decisions on new Financial Systems?  Or manufacturing executives buying new plants/assembly lines, or engineering executives buying new design tools, or sales/marketing executives buying new CRM tools.

Most complex B2B buying decisions are made very infrequently, often with very different business conditions, and different people involved in the decision effort.  As a result, it’s highly unlikely they have a well defined buying process.  In fact, as Hank Barnes has said, the process can be quite “squishy.”

There are certain activities that are common in every buying effort, for example, agree on the need to change, define the problem, needs, desired outcomes, define the process to evaluate alternatives and make decisions.  But each of these and the context of each of these, and the participants, are different for each buying decision.

The reality is, for complex B2B buying efforts, our customers are unlikely to have a buying process.   They are struggling to figure out how to buy and have relatively limited collective experience of buying/solving this problem in the past.  They need our help to help them define what they should do.  They need our help to recognize the need to change, to engage the right people in driving the change initiative, to align priorities/agendas, to determine what they want to achieve, to determine the steps and activities they should go through to achieve those goals.

While our customers probably don’t have a buying process, we must be not revert to the old days of inflicting our sales process on customers.

In the past, what’s been wrong about our selling process, is that it has primarily focused on what we do to customers to get them to buy.

While it’s unlikely that our customers don’t have a buying process, they are still in control!  Our selling process has to be focused on helping them buy and achieving their goals, because it’s only that which enables us to achieve our goals.

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4 Comments
  1. Good article David. I do believe that B2B buyers usually have a process but it is highly individualistic or as Hank Barnes said, “squishy”. Our job is to account for this flexibility and be tour guides to help them make the right decision (hopefully buy what we are selling). This is what I call “selling more by selling less.”

  2. Dave,
    I agree with you that in complex B2B buying, customers do often not have a formal process. I therefore focus mostly on the gates customer have to pass to come to a purchasing decision. These gates look for evidence that the stakeholders have made changed their mindset (e.g. from ignorant to be ready to look into a problem, from looking at the problem to deciding to look for a solution etc.). In my experience, monitoring these gates carefully reduces the number of deals ending in no decision. Yet the seller must be willing to abandon a deal if a milestone cannot be reached.
    Customers not having much clarity about their process to follow, gives sellers an opportunity to facilitate the customer’s process. Knowing the next logical gate to be reached by the customer, helps sellers to determine actions crating momentum for the customer to reach this milestone.

  3. More great Dave Brock wisdom!

    Buyers have a decision-making process and an approval process. Buyers can have needs and you can have the perfect solution and even a sterling personality but without a decision there will be no need to approve anything!

    The sales model wants to instill the notion that buying is linear with a specific cause and effect relationship. It’s not! It’s dynamic (not squishy) and ALWAYS follows 3 simple buying patterns:

    1. Understand the status quo “deeply”. You’ll never hear a buyer say “we couldn’t really understand the risks and impact your solution would have on our business and operating procedures but we decided to buy anyways”.

    2. Can we fix the problem ourselves. Until buyers recognize that they can’t fix the problem themselves or with familiar resources they will never bring in an external solution. This is where they build workarounds and give existing partners a second chance to deliver. The very fact that a familiar resource resolved a symptom of the problem in the past makes it even easier to return to that familiar resource.

    3. Do we have buy-in. Everything and everyone the created the problem or will touch the solution needs to commit to bringing an external solution into the company.

    All buyers follow these 3 steps whether they’re B2B or B2C. They DO NOT suddenly become aware that they’re on a “buying journey” and waiting for someone to tell them the best “story” so they can complete the purchase process.

    It gets complicated for sales reps because buyers get ahead of their blocking and start solution discovery before they’ve made a decision to proceed. This is a “head fake” that causes premature rejection of marketing leads, poor qualification and ultimately restricts the number of deals that land in our pipeline.

    Buyer’s don’t resist change. They resist BEING changed!

    You said it best, “They need our help to help them define what they should do. They need our help to recognize the need to change, to engage the right people in driving the change initiative, to align priorities/agendas, to determine what they want to achieve, to determine the steps and activities they should go through to achieve those goals”.

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