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What If The Customer Doesn’t Know Their Buying Process?

by David Brock on October 19th, 2015

We all know the customer’s buying process is more important than our selling process.  If we are to be effective, we are supposed to align our selling process with the customer buying process, staying in sync through the entire journey.

But we’re also confronted with stunning data about the huge number of forecast deals that end in no decision made.  Challenger Customer has offered amazing insights into the difficulty customers have in aligning themselves around their own decision-making process, then marching through it.

Reflecting on the struggles buyers have as outlined in the Challenger Customer, one starts to think, “Perhaps they have no process or they can’t figure out their buying journey?”

On further reflection, in complex B2B opportunities we have to think, “Does the customer really know how to buy?”  I often think of major enterprise software decisions–for example CRM, ERP, Financial Systems.  Or major capital equipment like a new process control system, factory automation, even complex machine tools.  How often in an executive’s career does she buy these solutions?

If they bought frequently–say even annually, they will have undertaken a buying process a number of times.  Yes, each one will be different, but they have reference points to help them start and to guide them through what they should look at, how they should organize themselves, and what steps they should go through to evaluate and ultimately buy.

But with many complex B2B solutions, purchases are made only a few times in an executive’s career (or even in an organization’s history.).  Even then, these buying situations are separated by so many years there may be no one who was involved the last time; or  the business, or solutions have changed so much in the interim that the past buying journey is irrelevant.

In the face of all this, we are dependent on the customer’s ability to figure it out, to create a buying process, to embark on the buying journey–overcoming all the potential missteps, diversions, and the pressures of day to day business along the way.

Yes, we’re supposed to facilitate it.  Presumably, we’ve identified  and are leveraging mobilizers.  We tailor what we do to mirror their buying journey and support them in the process.

But it’s leaving a lot to chance and putting a huge burden on the customer.  It seems the underlying assumption they have or can define a buying journey may be flawed.

It’s no wonder, so many No Decision Made’s are made!

What if we looked at things very differently?

What if instead of trying to identify and tailor what we do to the customer buying process, we instead design the buyer’s journey ourselves and lead them through that journey.

It actually makes a huge amount of sense, after all, we’ve been engaged in 100’s to 1000’s of situations–good and bad, won and lost.  We seen all sorts of buyers journeys and can share that experience with the customer.

What if we went a step further, thinking, the buyer’s journey is too important to the buyer to leave totally in their hands?  If we are truly serving our customers, creating value, it’s our responsibility to create a journey and to lead the customer, maximizing the probability of a positive outcome for them.  (Again, the underlying reason cannot be our getting the PO, but helping the customer achieve the outcomes that caused them to start the journey in the first place.)

Leading organizations actually have some elements of this in place already.  Great content strategies mirror the customer buying journey, providing timely and relevant content based on where the customer is in their own journey.  This content is even oriented toward persona’s, industries/markets.

But what if we got more proactive on it.  Leading the customer through critical decision points, helping them get to points where they choose.  They are still in control, they still make the decision to take the journey, they still make decisions at each step of the journey.  In fact, they start tailoring that buying journey for themselves.

In leading them through their buying process, we help them discover why they are considering change in the first place,  what they should be doing, what they should be looking at, who they should engage.  We already do this in delivering insight.  We help them realize they must change, they can no longer operate as they have.

Once they’ve done this, the obvious challenge to them is “what should we do about it, how should we proceed?”  We can continue to provide insights through this journey to help them identify and address the most critical things they should be doing at that moment.

The idea of helping the customer design their buying process isn’t really that outlandish.  Many times over my career and with clients, I’ve seen instances where the customer asks, “What should we be looking at?  Who should be involved?  What have others done?  How do we get this done”  Customers do this when they know the motivation is to help them achieve their goals–not just getting a PO.

Teaching the customer can’t be limited to that “Aha” moment when they realize they must change.  Teaching the customer must continue in leading them through the remainder of their journey, defining the process engaging them in tailoring it themselves, helping them move forward.

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  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Very timely Dave!

    I wonder if the issue around value propositions, and this drive from many in the Field to have a ‘magic bullet’ is also being driven by some psychological/personal challenges.

    For example, on the personal side of things, sales folks are incredibly busy – even if their technique is utterly awful and they don’t have much or any of a sales process to follow, or simply refuse to follow one, they’re busy!

    So what? Well, to ‘show up and throw up’ as I like to think of it(!) is easier and quicker, at least, in the mind of such a sales person. And it usually is – if you ‘present’ or ‘deliver’ a message then there is little conversation, little in the way of deep, searching questions, or questions that elicit a change of mental state in the client contact (what I call ‘high quality questions’). A conversation is all about questions and can go wherever the client contact takes it…

    … which brings me to the other aspect – psychological.

    A conversation that goes wherever the client contact takes it (and which, by definition it seems, will also pointedly go to those things that are the most immediate & important for the client contact…) is a conversation which is out of the control of the sales person – at least, that’s how he or she sees it because they’re not in control they think, of leading the conversation quickly (remember, they are very busy!). So their lack of confidence, their need to be ‘in control’ holds them back.

    Added to this is the associated fear of “what if the client contact asks me about some aspect of business, the market place, or anything else, that I don’t know the answer to?” – being very knowledgeable about products & services is a place of safety in the mind of such sales people. Another reason then for why they want to get back to talking about their products & services as quickly as possible. That and being ‘time poor’ in their minds because they know they have low hit rates…

    Why are these folks so busy? Because they’re not getting the results from the delivery, the ‘show up & throw up’ approach, but are too scared/uncomfortable to try anything different, like a conversation.

    I’ve recently seen the same individual account manager be challenged by our CEO to convince him (the CEO) about the value proposition he was using with a large client, and the client reaction he was getting. Our CEO wanted to be convinced that the value proposition (no mention of products in it at all!) was that effective. The account manager couldn’t wait to do this – he wasn’t scared – he was utterly confident he would have a great conversation with the CEO and ‘bring him around’ – and you know our CEO is no slouch! THAT is the kind of confidence I’m looking to see, and I know that crafting a value proposition for this particular client (a difficult one on occasion!) is where this account manager got his confidence from – that and the preparation, dry-runs and peer ‘pressure testing’ he engaged in to evolve it to this point.

    As an aside, when I attended his most recent dry run to give him some feedback, it struck me that in his value proposition and the questions he had identified to use to drive the conversation forward, where some of our portfolio of products was referenced, you could swap out and part of the product portfolio that was referenced, and swap in some other product portfolio and the conversation still worked equally well… surely a sign that you’re on the right track to a value proposition rather than another, though more slick, product pitch… And, there were also components of that proposition that I KNOW our competitors cannot totally replicate, even if they wanted to… so a growing aspect of true uniqueness there. Is it a value proposition that can be ‘potted’ and used with other clients? No! It’s tailored for the individual client, and individual client contact. Can it serve as an example of good and be used by others as a fountain for creating their own tailored value propositions, and more importantly, value conversations with their accounts? Absolutely!

    Crafting a value proposition that is at least as focused on building confidence as well as competence in the sales person to want to go and have a meaningful conversation, as it is focused on opening up awareness of what value is on offer to the client, is I think a key aspect so many overlook when thinking about what their value proposition is, and what form it needs to take to be useful to the sales person as well as the client contacts.

    Thanks for the post Dave, timely, as in moving to respond to it and you, I’ve clarified some of my own thoughts around this.

    • Wow, this was far better than the post Martin! It’s provided such great insight, as well as food for more thought around more posts;-) Thanks so much for teaching us through this comment.

      • Martin Schmalenbach permalink

        Dave – you’re welcome – thanks for the kind words.

        I’m intrigued now – looking forward to what comes out of your ‘food for thought’ element!

  2. HI David
    Good blog, spot on as ever.
    I recently did a webinar on this topic. One dynamic to bear in mind is who can actually define and approve the new process that the purchase requires if there is not one in place.

    For example the “inner circle” can define and create new policy and rules however those only in the Political structure have to follow the rules and implement according.

    I would urge sellers to uncover and test who can really “create” new processes and Procedure in the Customer in the scenario of a complex and untried purchase.


    • Great observation Tim! As a bit of a funny aside, it’s amazing how people in companies don’t know how to get things done with some of their “processes.” A number of years ago I closed a large deal with the CEO of a Fortune 10 company. But he didn’t know how to actually buy–issue a contract, PO, and ultimately pay me. No one on his staff, including the CFO knew, even though they all knew there had to be a way and a process. Fortunately, I had talked to the VP of Procurement, so we had that wired.

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