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It’s Really Not About The Buying Process

by David Brock on February 22nd, 2016

As sales professionals (marketing too), for years we’ve always been pretty self centered.  We’ve focused on what we want–selling something.

We, me included, talk a lot about the selling process.

In recent years, we’ve discovered that’s really unfashionable.  We have to mask our true goal and be customer focused.  So we’ve shifted our terminology to focus on the customer buying process.

In politically correct circles, we talk about the buying process and engaging the customer in their buying process, perhaps even being prescriptive in their buying process.

The intensity of focus and discussion has even made it THE CUSTOMER BUYING PROCESS.  The customer is at the center of it, but it is all about helping them buy OUR PRODUCTS AND SOLUTIONS.

But is that what the customer is really doing, is that what they care about, or are we just displaying our arrogance and self centeredness by focusing on THE BUYING PROCESS.

What words would we use if we really decided to look at things from the customer point of view?

The center of focus of the customer is probably not about Buying.  It’s probably about solving a problem, addressing a challenge, seizing an opportunity.

They would likely describe what they are doing in terms very far from Buying.

They might say:

“We’re designing the next generation of smartphone” or whatever cool product they are designing.

“We’re trying to reduce our manufacturing cycle time and improve manufacturing process.”

“We’re trying to grow into a new market, enabling us to establish a platform to expand our company and grow our sales.”

None of this has anything to do with “Buying.”  It’s all about solving a problem, addressing a challenge, seizing an opportunity.

Customers tend to address these as projects and put together project teams to figure it out and drive the initiative.  The project teams have differing charters, goals and initiatives.  Thinking about the examples above, we might have:

New product development team.

Manufacturing process simplification team.

New market growth team.

When we look at the work done by those teams, it involves a whole lot of stuff.  Design, development, testing, business process analysis, business process reengineering, business process optimization, market analysis, skills development, change management, implementation planning, design for manufacturability, …………

Oh, and yes, there’s sourcing and stuff to buy, but I’ll come back to that later.

Project groups struggle, they have differing agendas, priorities, views of the problem, ideas about the project plan, ideas about the goals they want to achieve.  (Checkout Morten Hansen’s Collaboration)  Hmmm, this is sounding familiar, “buyers” have the same issues.

As we think further, the buyers and the project team members are the same people, or at least some of them are the same.  Perhaps the struggle with buying is more about the project and less about buying.  Perhaps there are elements of both.  But it presents an interesting opportunity.  If the same problem solving, critical thinking, project management and facilitation skills we use in helping them in their buying process, could we have a greater impact and create greater value by helping them with their project or even with their problem/opportunity solving processes.  After all, that’s what they are really trying to do, buying is just a small part of their overall project.

Perhaps, this also gets them to the buying part in a more effective manner?

But there’s more.

We may hang out for a while, waiting for them to get to the buying part of their project plan.  Again, our self centeredness makes us think that when they look at our products and solutions, they are in THE BUYING PROCESS.  In reality, they are probably in a buying process, one of many they will be engaged in.

Let’s go back to our examples from before.

The team designing the new smart phone, has hundreds of products and services to buy.  They have RF chips, Cameras, Displays, Glass, Covers, Memory Chips, Boards, Batteries, Microprocessors, Microcode, Active/Passive Components, Packaging, and other stuff.  They also have to buy manufacturing services, perhaps testing services, logistics/shipping and all sorts of other things.  So there are all sorts of buying processes they are engaged in, but we always think of ours as THE BUYING PROCESS.  Even if what we sell is the most expensive component, relatively speaking it’s small in terms of their parts budget, small in terms of all the stuff they have to buy, and much smaller in terms of the overall project.

But that’s what we are obsessed with and that’s where we tend to focus and that’s what we want to be top of mind and most critical to the customer.

But it may not be.

I could go through the same discussion for the other two projects, but you probably get where I’m going with this discussion.  Even if I look at the manufacturing process control system the customer in the second scenario might be looking at, that may be an investment of millions.  There’s still lots of other stuff they are buying and even more work for them to be successful with their project (change management teams, implementation, business process, to name a few).

You’re probably getting a little frustrated and pissed, thinking “OK Dave, what do we do about this?  How do we help them so that we create the greatest value and win the business?”

Glad you asked, it’s simple:  Help them solve their problem!  Help them with their project struggles!  Help them get to the buying that’s relevant to you, then help them with their buying–remembering it’s done in a context of a far larger challenge.  You have to keep connecting the dots back to that challenge, because their engagement with you is about solving the problem, whereas everyone else is disadvantaged by being part of the buying process.

Their problem is not about making a buying decision (it may be one of their problems) but rather it is about what they are trying to achieve.  We have to constantly connect back to that.

But how do we do this?  First help them understand the problem, help them understand their project.  Help them align themselves and figure out what they can do.  It’s all the same stuff we do in helping them figure out what to buy, but it’s focused at a higher level.

My buddies at Microchip are simply brilliant about this.  Their customers fit into the category of the first example I provided.  Not necessarily Smartphones but cool electronic devices.  The stuff Microchip sells is just that  micro-chips.  It’s not sexy stuff, (except to some of us who geek out over semiconductor technologies—it is actually really cool stuff).

The semiconductors Microchip sells are critical to the functioning of the device or new product, even though they may cost only a few dollars.  As a consequence, product designers pay a lot of attention to these devices.  The challenge is, however, why choose Microchip?

Here’s where the brilliance comes in.  While their sales people do address the technology and competitive issues, they seek engage the project team in a different way.  They say, “What are your goals with your product?  How will you capture the hearts and minds of your customers? How will you differentiate your cool electronic product from your competitor’s cool electronic product that does the same thing?  How will you be able to maximize your market share?”  There are a whole lot of other things they can talk to the customer about, but all of them are helping the customer achieve their product launch goals, about designing and developing a cool product that will have great success in the market.  That’s what the project team is trying to achieve, that’s what “their problem” is.

By the time they get to the part about the micro-chips, they can position how their product helps them with their problem and their project.  Of course, they’ve also created all that value in helping the customer solve their problem and manage their project.

THE BUYING PROCESS is our big thing, not the customer’s.

What if we helped the customer with their big thing  their problem/challenge/opportunity?  What if we helped them with their project?  By doing these things, doesn’t it help when the customer gets to our part of their buying process?

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  1. Scott Woodhouse permalink

    Hi Dave,

    I tried to comment on your Challenger article, I am a little bit behind on my reading , so this will have to do. The beauty here is this is a great example of Challenger and where people struggle with challenger.

    I get what your saying, and that’s great, but there is some risk involved. After a while, is your true value diminished? If they start repeating the process, where do you come in?

    Also, are they really going to be able to solve all of their long term problems them selves? I don’t think its realistic in the tech world. Why? Technology stays current about as long as a loaf a bread on my dining room table with my two labs on the prowl.

    I think there are some scenarios you could apply but for the the high end stuff, I think the customer would get frustrated as look to you for that value.

    This ties nicely to the conversation that I am only 5 years late to. I agree with what your wrote, you can argue that Challenger is a Paradigm shift, but of A players, many of us including myself felt vindicated when it came out. I have been preaching the “its not the “what”, it’s the “how” for over 20 years, and thats not even my own stuff. I ripped that off from Herb Cohen teaching Negotiation.

    Good stuff, I actually enjoy reading your stuff, most of the other stuff aggravates me….greatly.

    • Scott: Thanks for the very thoughtful comment. You cover a lot here, but I’ll only address a few points.

      1. It would be great to hear more about your idea of diminishing value. I think there is a danger of “being taken for granted.” However, I think it’s fairly easily defended in competitive situations where the customer can clearly differentiate what you are doing versus the competitors. When I first joined IBM, we use to do an annual Value Add Presentation. While it wasn’t called that, we would talk to the customer in a formal meeting, every year, about how our involvement contributed to their business success. One of the purposes of that was to avoid being taken for granted. I do have to admit, it’s a challenge and something you have to be very attentive to.
      2. I’m not sure about your point of repeating the process. I think, unless these are products that customers buy everyday, the circumstances and players change so much from deal to deal, even if the same people are involved.
      3. There’s a dynamic nature about value, it’s constantly changing. There is no script to follow, so it never gets repetitive, even in similar situations.
      4. As far as solving their problems themselves and technology changes, I think those arguments create great advantage to this kind of thinking. Problems are complex (but remember we are solving world hunger), solutons/technology constantly changing, customers are time and experience poor, all that is a formula for needing the kind of value we can create.
      5. Actually, we apply this in hugely powerful ways for the high end stuff. But, remember, this isn’t an aimless chase for problems and creating random value. It’s knowing what problem you are the best in the world at solving and finding customer with those problems. Then leading with some provocative insight. We have to be very pragmatic and very focued, otherwise we are wasting the customer and our time. As for applying that to big deals, probably the best personal example was in the mid 80’s engaging the top executives in one of the largest airplane manufacturers in the world in a provocative conversation, “We believe you can design and simulate the manufacture of 100% of an airplane digitally, before you even start prototyping.” The resultant project changed airplane design and manufacturing, taking years off design cycles and billions off expense. Our focus was on the customer challenge with their customers and building their business (in a high risk market). The initial PO was several $100M, and the ultimate value of the sale was over $10B. So it applies to the largest most complex deals, just as it applies to micro controllers selling for dollars or 10’s of dollars. I do think this applies to complex problem solving/buying/sales situations. The same principle apply to other sales situations, we just apply them differently.
      6. The CEB has provided outstanding research and rethinking of what professional selling is about. But they would agree that it is hardly a new idea, the first computer I sold in the very early 80’s was a “challenger sale,” only I never knew to call it that. I was just selling the way we learned how to sell and engage the customer.
      7. Thanks for this very thoughtful comment, I would like you to push back again, I have a feeling I may not have understood everything you said. It is an important conversation.
      8. Thanks for the nice comments about the blogs, I hope the other stuff you are referring to aren’t my other posts on this blog 😉

      • Scott Woodhouse permalink

        Hi Dave,

        When we write too much, its hard, atlas for me to remember to cover all of the points we both addressed. It sucks getting old.

        So if we go back to Boeing and the 767 project, or we on the 78, anyways I would tell you the rolodex days have gone away. In fact, they have been gone a long time, there will always be exception to that , but for the most part, and its been a long time, most senior leaders don’t want to stick their necks out in our CYA risk adverse world, and Challenger points it out, again basically giving us bragging rights. What I find fascinating is that the amount of dinosaurs out there who still don’t get it.

        Case in point: So I was dumb enough to go into Healthcare IT and the Heavy Iron. I was interviewing with an IT reseller outside of that space that needed someone who understood the healthcare market, like anyone does anymore. ON the screening call the manager says he looks for the following 4 things in this order. Vendor relationships. (Means they are lazy and want the vendors to bring them deals). Way around a Data Center (WE both have been there, they are getting smaller and smaller as they virtualize, How Many CIO’s, and finally trusted advisor. A couple of months earlier, the CEO sent a letter to stock holders they were changing they way they sold because they were not penetrating al of the verticals. Duh, now you know why. So, I go to the interview, I have a list of 37 hospitals. The big boys. All competitive conversions in the last two years. Company I worked for had zero footprint, created a new product, could never understood why I was successful He asked me about #1. I told him I am a hunter, I drive my own deals, If I have to wait for someone to bring me a deal, I will go nuts. The vendors always gravitate towards the people that move product. Second, Data Center, I told him I knew more about that his guys do, I used to have to put my own servers in and set them up into production. #3. I told him he was asking the wrong question. I could never get him to ask the right question until the end. The question was, how did I convert 37 of the biggest well known hospitals, with no leverage without ever seeing the CIO. Couldn’t get it past his intellect. He could not comprehend. Then again, neither could the company…although it was really easy….

        So you apply for the high end…hmmm, i’m a guy, so that makes me not so smart. When our wives talk to us while we are paining, we have to ut the paint down so we can talk to them. They yell at us for stopping to talk. So they have a voice recognition system, on top of it sits a PACS system. XYZ company is finally going to develop the “ultimate” Pacs system that we only have been waiting forever for, and now it will change everything, workflow, IT pathways, yada yada. Just making this up, but not really that far of. They probably will only get that from me because since I know the industry, I keep abreast of everything around them. So I deliver the good news, it’s a coming. They have all of these problems in front of them…and…

        The products and the problems change, but does the process change for solving the problem ahead? One of the biggest challenge I see all day long is the inability of reps able to have the conversation….the ability to talk about something without getting into Solution Fatigue, they are reading from play books, and I love companies with play books. Its like taking candy from a baby. I will beat you every time.

        Back to the prior issue, yes your are focused because after all you do not want to crate a solution that you cannot provide, but I would submit that if you can control the narrative, you are already letting them come to their own conclusion anyways depending on when you want them too. Your smarter customers you lead them down the path, you know when they will connect the two. Some will do it maybe a little bit slower, but still do not see a difference here. Maybe its the paint thing again.

        As far as money goes, I find it fascinating that people would rank the complexity of a sale based on monetary volume. In fact, I think the current thinking of complex selling which everyone shows around, solutions selling, making the pot bigger is also invalid. Yes there are defiantly types of it, but there is one more variable that you can use to take it complex. It’s funny how many people miss this.

        Ok, I have to right a marketing plan or my investors will be really upset with me loitering the web discussing theory.

        Just remember what my mama always used to say. If you become an expert, you stop learning. Sales is like Golf. You can never achieve perfection….

    • Hi Scott,

      I’m intrigued by several parts of your response, but am not sure I fully understand the points you make about value & repeating the process – I suspect this being more a statement about MY advancing years!

      I feel there is some kind of reply in me about your observations but I need a little more clarification before it can come out… Perhaps you could expand your thoughts in these areas a little further?

      My interest here is 2-fold: I am just personally interested, and I’m also one of the folks at Microchip that Dave referenced in the original post, charged with the task of making all this ‘stuff’ (Challenger and other things) across the 1,000 (and rapidly growing!) sales folks I have round the world.

      I’m also smiling a little at the commentary around tech being current for about as long as a loaf of bread around your two labs – we have 3 pooches ourselves, so I know what you mean! Microchip is in the semiconductor business, has been in one shape or form for the better part of 40 years. One of our biggest sellers today was crafted the better part of 30 years ago, so currency in the tech world may be a little more nuanced, which only adds to the complexities a sales person has to navigate with a client!



      • Scott Woodhouse permalink

        Hi Martin,

        I have to check with Dave to see if I still have privileges to respond on his website:-) Dave went to e-mail so I didn’t crash his server.

        Ok, I have to back track on some things in order to not get another time out from Dave on his site. I get what he is trying to do, but I am more of the minority or what one consultant called me, the 4%. He said I am the type of rep that you can’t duplicate, to which many people stood up and applauded.

        First, with regards to the product, I have been arguing, politicking, promoting, jumping up and down, pushing the concept that it’s not the “what”, its the “how”. In other words, from a sales standpoint the product is the least important part of the sales process. Now, this concept was introduced to my by a gentlemen named Herb Cohen. Dave, I hope you know who he is:-) Herb is by far the greatest negotiator bar none. I know Donald has several books out, don’t want to get political, but Herb is the best. Not to tell you all of my slippery secrets, but I took some of the stuff from Herb, and he does know this, I literally sent him a package today, and converted his negotiation strategy into sales strategy. The biggest being the above strategy. I have data of my own that shows I put my money where my mouth is, but The Challenger Sale, a book which came out in 2011, does a great job supporting that concept, or as I like to say, vindicating me. Many consultants, “Sales Experts” try and disparage this book, as Dave points out accurately, you cannot roll it our verbatim, but the 4% like me can, because we have the knowledge to fill the in the blanks.

        To put the value of what I do, let me see if I can try and explain my slice of heaven and correlate it to yours. Lucky me. I work in healthcare. So I may be selling MRI’s, They actually consist of three main components, yes they are a little bit more complicated than that, but you have a Big Doughnut with is the Magnet. You have a Gradient. Ever been in a MRI? You know the banging you hear? That’s the gradient or the Horsepower. Louder it is, the more horsepower. Then there is the RF system, Transfers to power to the wheels. Higher the Signal to noise ratio, the better the image. See, You can sell these too. So we produce an image. But now you have to understand what to do with that image. This is the hard part. I have to know what is going on with networks, because how is the workflow, who is taking those image and manipulating. Remember Sunday mornings, GE commercials would show an image of a beating heart? That has to be post processed. Once it is done, where does it go, where do we store it, VNA’s and so on. Problem is people selling MRI’s can do the physics and clinical, but they can’t cross over to IT. That is where the real value of the rep is.

        So, Dave has created a new process. But here is is the question that I think that proceeds his process, and its one that I love to ask, I just wasn’t smart enough to think this up.

        Debra Oler asked the question of her company, “Why do people buy from us? ” So with Dave’s process, you are solving problems by your selves? Please correct me if I am wrong. But why do people buy from you? Unless you have a legacy product and you own the product,surgery says, it’s not the product.

        In other words, if you have the right rep who actually does his job correctly, or what I call an A player, he/she is part of that process, and in fact a very important part of that process because they will have information that you probably would not have. It does not mean we are pushing our goods. I have had managers, they unfortunately co-travel with me, we are talking about a project that we are step number 1,728, and they are on step 3. My manager will start a product or data dump. It’s embarrassing, I want to drive them somewhere and leave them. Dave’s process as I understand it gets rid of my manager, and good riddance I might add, but an A player is way to valuable not to include.

        The true A player is not looking for the home runs. They have a job to do, but the value they bring to the problem is not the product its the knowledge. I don’t walk around wondering how I am going to make my number. In fact, by my definition, an A player has shown that greatness is time tested. They don’t worry about how to push a deal in, that is why the customers want to deal with them. Why do you want to deal with Dave?

        Now in Dave’s defense, its getting harder to find reps like that. In fact that;s why I quit my day job. In my wonderful world, there has been a shift for the worse in the people they are hiring. Managers have declined in quality, CEO’s manage by budget cuts as opposed to investing in the company. There is little to no trust between sales and senior leader ship. If I ever get time, my next posting will be “If the customer is always right, why do they need sales reps?” The idea is that we have this new category of customer centric reps. They protect the customers from the company, but in reality, they hurt the customer.

        It’s late for me, I am light weight east coast guy, but headed west on Monday. I hope i answer some of your question. If not, bullet points are good, keeps me focus:-) This box is so small, Dave needs to splurge for a bigger box or maybe that thing in the corner I just noticed makes it bigger. Yup…

        Thanks for the comments, interested to hear what you do and how you feel its helped you.

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