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Buyer Self Sufficiency

by David Brock on January 7th, 2016

I read a fascinating HBR Article, “How More Accessible Information Is Forcing B2B Sales To Adapt.”  It’s a great article by authors I deeply respect.

It’s a relatively sophisticated discussion of the digitally savvy buyer, and the increasing trend of “buyer self sufficiency.”  It both reinforces, “Buyers are 57-50% through their buying process before they want to see sales people,” but also acknowledges various levels of buyer self sufficiency and their willingness to engage sales people earlier, based on lower self sufficiency or different needs.

As I read and re-read the article, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of “buyer self sufficiency.”  I think my discomfort is because it’s based on a premise about selling that is increasingly not what selling is about.

In the “good old days,” sophisticated solutions sales people found people with a need to buy, engaged them in understanding their needs, presented them solutions, and those who were successful collected a PO.  We can’t be naïve, this is still the dominant way we find, qualify, and pursue opportunities.  Buyer self sufficiency changes how we engage them and the roles of content, marketing, and sales.

Fundamentally, though, it is based on a premise of an organized customer already committed to solving a problem or addressing the opportunity.  It’s the picture of a customer that says, “I have a reasonable understanding of my problem, I’m informed or becoming informed, and I’m narrowing my choice of alternatives.

But is this the reality of our customers today–or perhaps, better stated, is that the real market opportunity open for us to address.

Perhaps, there’s a larger more important market opportunity–one that we can serve with great value and differentiation, and one that opens up entire new opportunities for revenue growth.

It’s the customer or prospect that doesn’t even recognize they should be a customer or prospect.  It’s the customer or prospect that doesn’t realize they have problems, there are better ways of doing things, there are opportunities they are missing.  They don’t know they should be educating themselves, they aren’t looking for solutions, they aren’t becoming self sufficient, because they haven’t recognized or committed to the need for change.  They aren’t looking for solutions, because they don’t know they have problems.

I think there is a far larger market opportunity in finding, engaging, teaching, and provoking these buyers to change, to look for something new.  I think there’s a huge opportunity, to help steer them to solutions by first steering them to recognize opportunities.

It’s not hard finding these–find an organization or a function in an organization that’s struggling to achieve it’s goals, or is performing worse than it’s competitors.  Find a customer missing commitments to their customers, struggling with product development, struggling to build/ship quality products.  Find a customer losing share, seeing costs sky rocket, of facing major disruptions in their markets.  Find a customer open to a new perspective or a point of view, or some one that responds to a “what if,” or “have you ever considered.”

It’s possible the self sufficient buyers represent the tip of the iceberg, and the potential buyers—those that don’t know they should be buying is the massive part of the iceberg that sits below the surface of the water.  How to we find, engage, excite and get these to move forward.

I think there’s another missed opportunity with the concept of “buyer self sufficiency,” or the organized buyer.  It’s because, the majority of buyers aren’t organized.  In this day of consensus buying, the “5.4” the majority of deals blow up–not because they can’t find acceptable solutions, but they can’t organize themselves to buy.

As individuals, they may be self sufficient, capable of researching, learning, and finding solutions to meet their needs—but of course their needs and priorities are different from the others in the buying group.  Trying to align these needs, differing agendas, priorities, and self interests is the most difficult part of buying.  It has nothing to do with which solution they choose, they can’t even get to that point because they can’t agree or come to consensus about what they want to achieve, how they will go about doing it, and what steps they must take to reach a decision.

For every 100 that start a buying process, roughly 44 reach a decision and implement a solution.  The remainder fail and never buy.  That’s too much opportunity for us to leave unaddressed!

I’ve no disagreement with the article, clearly the self sufficient buyer is forcing all sales organizations to adapt.

But there are greater opportunities and needs for sales organizations to adapt in a different ways.

Are you looking at those?  Are you understanding how you find and engage those customers that aren’t yet aware they should be customers?  Are you helping those that want to buy, but can’t organize themselves to buy or get out of their own ways?  Those are the bigger opportunities.  Addressing those is far different.

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  1. Hi David, great article! I think you’re absolutely right, and sales people do tend to focus on prospects that are actually in the buying process. In my experience it’s the sales people who also focus on buyers not in the process, as you pointed out, that are the top performance. It takes considerably more energy to focus on prospects that are not in the buying process already and that’s the difference between high performers and low performers. But like you, I believe that’s where the commercial battles are won.

    Your article made me think, that maybe the pool of buyers in the process is actually greater because of the greater amount of information. So the pool of buyers that we need to get into the buying process is smaller. I wonder if there has been any research been done on that? Hope all is well with you, see you soon! Al

    • Alistair: It’s a very interesting point. I don’t know of any research on the “tip of the iceberg” versus the “iceberg.” My knee jerk reaction is the pool of actual buyers is insufficient to meet company objectives. Virtually every company I work with is opportunity starved, they don’t have enough opportunities to achieve their goals. If you couple that anecdotal observation with other anecdotes–the general focus on demand gen, outbound, SDR’s, need for prospecting, etc one could speculate there are not enough active buyers to support expectations.

      There are several issues that come into play, perhaps the same number of opportunities being spread across more competition. Perhaps more opportunities being closed in electronic markets.

      It’s deserving of good research, but my instincts tell me there are more buyers who don’t know they should be buying than actual buyers. Being effective with the actual buyers is critical. Provoking the others to start a buying motion is increasingly important.

      What do you think?

      Appreciate the provocative thinking. Thanks so much! Best regards. Dave

  2. Interesting article. I fully agree that target audiences for many B2B companies are not actively engaged in the buying process. They are primarily focused on meeting productivity and performance metrics often with reduced staff. So few have any time to think/explore what might be new/different. Sales and marketing need to work together to inform, educate, nurture relationship, etc. Yes, the prospect oftentimes looks to electronic sources to become more knowledgeable of offerings to solve a problem (when they are aware of one) but I question who really has the time to stay informed of all new products/services on a daily basis. Especially when we are all pressed for time.

    • Kathy, I may misunderstand the “who” you are referring to, I am assuming it is the customer. I fully agree they are too busy to constantly stay informed in the latest trends/practices in their industries as well as current solutions (which by the way creates huge opportunities for sales). At the same time, when they do enter a buying motion, the data show their preference is self education. Depending on the research you believe, they are 57=90% through the buying process before engaging sales. A lot of that is driven by poor sales execution. But, as I state in the article, there are huge exposures to the customer in relying solely on these methods.

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