Yesterday, I published a rather long article on the Selling Process. It’s part of my series of articles about “Things We Thought We Understood About Selling But Really Didn’t.” Apologies, the article was rather long, but the selling process is so important. Understanding it, executing it well is the cornerstone to our success.
In recent years, we’ve acknowledged the concept of a customer Buying Process. Many have argued abandoning the Selling Process, focusing on the Buying Process, in the least we must align the selling process with the buying process.
We even create charts of the stages customers go through, aligning them with our selling process. For example, Prospecting might be aligned with Problem Determination. Qualifying with Committing To Change, Discovery with Needs Identification, etc.
Conveniently, these buying process steps always align with and mirror our selling process steps. And in doing this, we have assured that our selling process aligns with customer buying process. The reality is, however, very different. The buying process is something we have invented, conveniently having the buyer conducting the activities we want them to be doing. We haven’t come up with the buying process by surveying 1000s of buyers, categorizing and segmenting what they do into stages and activities that conveniently align with those things we want them to be doing.
The reality, unless they are buying every day, is our customers probably don’t have a buying process they leverage across their organizations. Some “Buying Training” Vendor or software technology provider hasn’t provided them a convenient set of buying stages and activities they consistently undertake.
The reason is, for complex B2B buying, it’s something they rarely do. They aren’t looking for new software technologies to help improve manufacturing, or development, or HR, or whatever, every day. Maybe every few years. They aren’t looking for new industrial systems, or IT systems, every day. And it’s seldom the same buying group every buying opportunity. Why would HR, Sales, Marketing Customer experience care about a new manufacturing process control system. And why would manufacturing care about a new content management system.
So our customers really don’t have a buying process. The buying process we sellers talk about is our own experience of things 1000s of buyers have gone through, with us. We can assign stages to that analysis, we can assign critical activities to each stage. But it’s our analysis and creation, not an artifact that customers create.
At best, our customers may have some procurement processes. Hurdles that procurement may create that are helpful to them. Contract reviews, legal reviews, statements of work, and so forth. These are necessary, but only cover the latter stages of the process.
In fact, buying is not the primary objective of most of these customer processes. They are looking at a change, or solving a problem. Buying may be a component of that process, but their objective is to solve that problem.
Customers have, loosely defined processes around these activities. Some have internal groups like “Black Belts,” or “Centers of Excellence” that may provide resources. But generally, at the inception of a project, they develop a project plan. They identify a goal, milestones, and activities to achieve the project.
The goals, milestones, activities are different and unique to the project.
The point of all of this is that it is not reasonable to think of a formalized complex buying process within any customer. Primarily, because buying is such a small and rare part of what they do.
The reality is buyers struggle to buy. We have the famous spaghetti chart Gartner published some number of years ago:
They wander all over the place, they don’t have a structured, sequential process that aligns neatly with our selling process.
We, also, know they fail 60% of the time!
There’s huge good news to this–our customers are crying for help! They don’t know how to buy. They don’t know how to define their problem, establish a project plan, questions they should be asking, information they should be obtaining. They don’t know where they could go wrong. They don’t know how to align and manage consensus through their change/problem solving process.
And this is where our analysis and past experience can come to bear and create huge value with the customer. While I trashed our internal analysis of stages and activities customers have gone through in our thousands of past experiences in selling to them. That analysis and insight can be helpful to our customers. We can help them understand what others have done, where they have run into trouble, things they have done to help them stay on track, things critical to achieving success.
We just have to use this analysis in the right way. We can’t assume this is what they do, because they just don’t know. But we can use this to advise them and help them develop a plan that enables them to move forward. What we are doing is teaching them a buying process (again based on what 1000s have done before.)
But there’s a “gotcha!” If we don’t have a selling process that we use. If we haven’t analyzed how our customers buy, things they do-perhaps independently from us, questions they should be asking, mistakes they make, the things they do to drive success; we can’t help them!
If all we do is focus on what we sell and persuading the customer to choose us, we aren’t doing the things most important to the customer, helping them learn how to buy!
Final thoughts. The selling process and the buying process are foundational elements of our success in engaging customers, helping them succeed with their projects. But contrary to what most think, both of these are tools sellers create based on collective experience of working with customers in 1000s of opportunities.
Teaching our customer how to buy, helping them learn from what others done creates huge value–and helps reduce failure rate, on the part of customers.
Afterword, I’m writing a series of posts on “Basic Selling Skills,” just to remind us what/why we do what we do. The link will take you to that collection.