It seems like a self-evident truth, doesn’t it? One of the consistently effective b2b sales strategies is to sell the way your customers want to buy. All you need to do is to understand their buying decision process.
According to research published last year by Hank Barnes of Gartner, your prospects may be more willing than you think to help you understand how they go about making purchase decisions. Not unexpectedly, a quarter said that they view that sort of information as confidential.
But to varying degrees, and depending on how they were asked and on the quality of their relationship with the the vendor and their representative, the remaining three-quarters of the clients Gartner surveyed expressed some degree of willingness to share the information with a sales person…
Three-quarters are willing to help if asked
You can read Hank’s full article here. But in summary: nearly half of their clients expressed a willingness to share information at a high level, and to identify the major gates in the buying decision process. More than 10% would go further and share the granular details of the process, and nearly 15% would additionally be prepared to share details about who owns each decision point.
So - three quarters of your prospects are willing, if they trust you and if you ask them appropriately, to share at least some invaluable intelligence about their buying process. But you have to ask. I think that statistic proves that it is always worth asking.
If it’s worth asking, it’s worth asking right
The obvious conclusion is that every sales person should be brave and bold enough to ask. The timing needs to be right: if the prospect has no reason to trust you, they are far less likely to share the information, and may regard your request as impertinence.
Hank quotes a great example of a well-structured enquiry about the key stages in the prospect’s buying process in his article. It focuses on the enlightened self-interest of both parties to help each other in their respective responsibilities. But what if, despite your best efforts, your prospect is completely unwilling to share any information?
What if they refuse to tell?
Your prospect might position their unwillingness to provide any insights as a consequence of a highly regulated buying process. But even in those situations, a complete unwillingness to illuminate the buying decision process is likely to be an unpromising sign.
In fact, a reluctance to explain their process should cause you to evaluate whether you ought to be pursuing the deal at all. It implies an imbalance to the buyer-seller relationship that will surely cause you grief later on in the buying process.
Unwillingness - or ignorance?
It could also indicate that you’re engaged with someone who actually doesn’t actually understand their firm's buying decision and purchasing processes - ignorance, rather than unwillingness - and that you are operating at completely the wrong level in the prospect organisation.
Either way, you might be better off declining the opportunity, rather than running with the deal completely blind. Whether the reason for refusal is ignorance or unwillingness, there are likely to be opportunities out there where you have a better chance of collaborating and winning.
The value of generic buying-based stages
Thus far, I’ve focused on understanding customer-specific buying processes. But there is also tremendous value to be had from aligning the stages in your pipeline around a series of genericised stages that reflect how your typical buyers typically buy.
In effect these generic stages act as a useful working hypothesis for how individual prospects are likely to buy. You might, for example, use the following stages:
- At first, the prospect seems satisfied with the status quo
- Then something happens to make them open to the possibility of change
- Then they need to decide whether they need to take action
- Then they need to define their decision criteria/shortlist
- Then they need to select their preferred option
- Then they need to validate their decision
The great benefit of starting with a buyer-centric generic process is that it allows you to anticipate what most buyers are most likely to prioritise at each stage in the cycle, and to align your marketing materials and sales tools accordingly.
A skeleton, not a cage
Sales people can then build on this foundation and adapt and adjust it to what they have learned about the specifics of each given active sales opportunity. In the hands of intelligent sales people (and intelligent sales managers!) the framework becomes a valuable skeleton, rather than a restrictive cage.
So - how much do your sales people really understand about their prospects buying decision processes? And how clearly do they understand what stage each of their prospects has reached in their respective buying decision prospects? And if the answer is (as it often is) “not enough”, how much better could they be doing if they really mastered this essential skill?