B2B Sellers Should Avoid SOBs and Engage Executive Buyers During the “Influence Window”

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Headline: In selling, timing is everything; there is a right time and a wrong time to target the executive buyer. The right time is during a customer decision phase I call the “Influence Window”. The wrong time is during the “Standard Operating Buying” (SOB) decision phase. Read more to understand the difference and implications for B2B sellers.

Traditional B2B sales processes/funnels are designed to launch, albeit with latency often measured in months, during what I call the Standard Operating Buying (SOB) Decision Phase, otherwise known as the traditional “buying cycle”. What a colossal strategic mistake! B2B marketers may love to “discover” and actively pursue SOB “opportunities” and “leads”, but executive buyers know the SOB Decision Phase to be the low-value (read transactional) back-end of a more comprehensive customer decision process that kicked off months earlier.

Go Way Upstream To the Influence Window

Aside from the funnel attach latency issue, the real problem for B2B marketers is there are 3 additional Decision Phases upstream from SOB being neglected by traditional opportunity planning sales processes. I call these upstream customer decision phases the Influence Window. Without credible outside intervention during the Influence Window, customers will naturally proceed in making their own investment decisions, sometimes existential decisions with a narrow margin of error.

In this post I describe an archetypical customer decision framework so you can better understand (and perhaps appreciate) my recommendations for credible intervention. Then in another post, I share insights I have personally experienced as an executive buyer (F500 CFO) for B2B marketers to credibly intervene upstream in the customer’s buying decision process, beyond the low-value transactional “buying cycle”.

The Low-Value “Transactional” Standard Operating Buying (SOB) Decision Phase

The SOB Decision Phase is the normal running state of business for a company or organization. It includes the annual business planning process (aka “budgeting”), usually conducted at fiscal year-end, and the highly-transactional procurement decision process conducted for recurring, direct and indirect, products and services. Unfortunately, SOB is the Decision Phase that B2B marketers traditionally label as the “buying cycle”.

From the customer’s perspective, any procurement process that is repeatable, recurring, and highly-transactional (such as SOB) is a prime candidate for process automation, LEAN Six Sigma, reverse auctioning, JIT purchasing, demand-pull fulfillment, and other 21st century procurement innovations. Said another way, SOB has been, and continues to be, internally disrupted by the customer without much value-add or direct influence from B2B marketers.

Therefore, “discovery” and “qualification” of sales opportunities, usually the first mandatory steps in a standard sales process, are not advisable starting points for B2B marketers looking to maximize ROI and credibly disrupt the customer’s higher-value Decision Phases, during an open Influence Window. Recognizing this reality but at the same time still pushing to “discover” opportunities anyways (because the sales process mandates this activity) is a form of marketing cognitive dissonance. It will be like pushing on a string: lots of work, not much customer enthusiasm to change anything (after all, do-nothing is the B2B marketer’s biggest competitor), and nothing to show for it in terms of customer loyalty at the end of the opportunity pursuit. B2B marketers may knock on customer doors all day long, but during the SOB Decision Phase, these doors (not to mention the customers’ minds) are closed to sales and marketing intervention and disruption efforts.

Reflecting on my 25-year experience as an executive buyer, I would estimate that the low-value transactional SOB Decision Phase is the normal state of business, running 80% of the time or 9-10 months a year. Inside the customer organization, SOB times are characterized as boring, dull, repetitive, transactional, no-change periods of times. B2B marketers are not generally welcome.

However, for 20% of the time or 2-3 months a year, a high-value Influence Window exists when the 3 other Decision Phases upstream from SOB catch fire in the customer organization. Influence Windows are exciting, fast moving, high-energy, big ideas and big change times.

Most importantly for B2B marketers, Influence Windows are the timeframes when executive-level decision makers and key influencers are fully-engaged and personally involved in the Decision Phases. Business-savvy credible B2B marketers are welcome.

Introducing the Strategy Setter (SS): The Human Enzyme

If Strategy Setters were biological human molecules, say proteins, they would be enzymes that act as catalysts and help complex reactions occur everywhere in the customer organization. Strategy Setters possess immense levels of business, financial, and company acumen. Politically they are massive influencers, persuaders, urgency promoters, and business initiative enablers marshalling the necessary business case justification, executive buyer sign-offs, and project resources (human, physical, and financial).

Strategy Setters are found in all functions/departments (e.g. finance, operations, marketing, technology), all lines of business, all divisions and segments and groups, and all levels of the organization (e.g. executive, middle manager, project analyst). Most importantly, Strategy Setters are not actively involved in the low-value transactional SOB Decision Phase. Therefore, Strategy Setters should be the #1 target for B2B marketers wanting to credibly intervene in upstream decision processes.

For the B2B sales and marketing professionals who have participated in our Business Advisor Training (BAT) engagements, Strategy Setters should be considered Key Decision Makers (KDMs).

The Disruptor Catalyst (DC) Decision Phase

Eventually, in all customer organizations, a Disruptor Catalyst Phase will interrupt the low-value transactional SOB Decision Phase and precipitate the emergence of a high-value Influence Window. By their nature, Disruptor Catalysts presage BIG strategic changes in the customer organization, creating a politically-charged atmosphere open to B2B marketing influence and the introduction of new ideas. Disruptor Catalysts, as I define the term, are more significant change agents than random low-grade compelling events, minor organizational changes, or mundane “buying triggers”. DCs generate the accelerant and fresh oxygen supply necessary for a strategic business reassessment inside the customer’s organization.

Disruptor Catalysts can be externally-driven by forces outside of the control of Strategy Setters, or internally-driven factors in the control of Strategy Setters. In either case, Strategy Setters, just like the human protein enzyme catalysts, spark an environment and political atmosphere conducive and open to change. Importantly, DCs may be positive or negative for the customer organization and they may be acted upon or ignored by Strategy Setters.

Examples of externally-driven Disruptor Catalysts include:
•Customer Disruptions
•Competitor Disruptions
•Employee Disruptions (e.g. availability, skills, costs)
•Regulatory Disruptions
•Economic Disruptions (e.g. GDP growth, interest rates, cost inflation, currency fluctuation)
•Tax Policy Disruptions
•Technology Disruptions
•Globalization Disruptions (e.g. trade policy, off-shoring, immigration)

Examples of internally-driven Disruptor Catalysts include:
•Strategic Planning (e.g. multi-year planning not to be confused with annual “budgeting”)
•Mergers & Acquisitions
•Decline in Financial Condition and Performance
•C-level Management Changes

The “Exciting” Investment Decision Phase

When Strategy Setters choose to respond to a Disruptor Catalyst, an Investment Decision Phase catches fire. This explosion of strategic decision-making activity can occur at any time of the year. SSs are more likely to act on DCs, rather than ignore them, since they operate under immense performance pressures, mostly coming from company equity and debt owners. Strategy Setters are under relentless pressure to improve (or at least sustain) existing operational and financial results. A decision by the Strategy Setters to act on a DC throws the Influence Window wide open to strategic conversations with B2B marketers.

Unlike the low-value transactional SOB phase, when SS minds and doors are closed to B2B marketers, the “exciting” Investment Decision Phase encourages BIG ideas and value propositions, regardless of whether the creativity comes from inside or outside the organization. The only downside for B2B marketers attempting to credibly intervene in the Investment Decision Phase is that the Influence Window is open only for a short period of time, measured in weeks not months.

The Investment Decision Phase is dominated by a small elite group of trusted Strategy Setters representing different roles (e.g. analyst, manager, executive) and functions (e.g. operations, finance, technology, and marketing) in the customer organization. In my experience, the procurement, purchasing, and sourcing functions were not represented by Strategy Setters in the Investment phase.

This elite internal group of high-performing individuals operates with significant delegated authority and autonomy from the C-suite, although C-level executives may be called on to approve the final business case argument for investment. The pressure to act is high, the internal fight for scarce OPEX and CAPEX is fierce, and the organizational politics are front and center throughout the decision process. In my experience as a “buy-side” CXO, the strongest business case with the most-compelling financial value usually wins the fight for scarce OPEX and CAPEX.

The business case at the center of the Investment Decision Phase usually contains 6 components:

1. Strategic Imperative – Context and linkage to the Disruptor Catalyst(s) propelling the Investment.

2. Key Business Initiative (KBI) – Qualitative description of the specific strategy, scope, and timing.

3. Key Performance Indicators (KPI) – Quantitative metrics (both operational and financial) and target outcomes (metric goals) to be achieved by implementing the KBI.

4. Critical Success Factors (CSFs) – Description of the essential pre-requisite strategy elements that must be present to assure a KBI is successfully implemented and the KPI metric goals achieved.

5. Financial Impact Analysis – Analysis of the range of KPI impact and ROI impact of the investment.

6. Approval Sign-offs – Usually determined by the financial magnitude and risk of the investment.

Interestingly, owing primarily to the rapid speed of activity during Investment Windows, the Investment Decision Phase does not normally account for 100% of the required decisions necessary to implement the KBI and achieve the KPI targets, especially with regard to the numerous CSFs that must be put in place. Given the inevitable uncertainty of project variables, I would estimate the Investment phase captures approximately 80% of the total universe of decisions that need to be decided. That leaves 20% for the back-side of the rapidly closing Influence Window: the Operationalize Decision Phase. The intervention door hasn’t been fully closed for B2B marketers wanting to credibly disrupt the decision process, but it is starting to slam shut.

The “Heads Down” Operationalize Decision Phase

The reputation and credibility of Strategy Setters, not to mention the C-level executives they report to, are on the line as the assets, services, and capabilities assembled during the Investment Decision Phase get fully-integrated and implemented in the operations of the customer organization. The Key Business Initiative (KBI) that was defined, planned, and funded in the Investment phase must be successfully implemented on-time and under-budget, and the KPI and ROI targets must be measured, documented, and achieved.

In the reality of running a business, this is an enormous task and is easier said than done. Inevitably, unplanned issues and surprises will arise. The performance pressure on Strategy Setters is immense and the pace is torrid. Although 80% of the total investment decision was made in the big-picture Investment Decision Phase, 20% remains “open for debate” and unresolved, in urgent need of finalization. Strategy Setters are “heads down” during this phase resolving last minute issues and shoring-up remaining Critical Success Factors. Importantly for B2B marketers, these final key decisions by Strategy Setters, at the back-end of the Influence Window, will be made with minimal analysis and maximum speed.

The Operationalize Decision Phase is characterized by project management, pressured timelines, executive-level involvement, and a laser-focus on achieving targeted financial and operational outcomes as defined by the KBI. This “heads down” concentration defines the Operationalize Decision Phase, which is the back-end of the Influence Window. As a “buy-side” executive, I have been party to some incredibly creative and credible interventions launched by very resourceful B2B marketers during this phase of decision-making. I will share some examples below.

The Influence Window Shuts and It’s Back to Standard Operating Buying (SOB)

Once the Key Business Initiative (KBI) associated with the Investment and Operationalize Decision Phases is fully-implemented and the Key Performance Indicator (KPI) targets are achieved, the customer organization will naturally revert back to the transactional Standard Operating Buying (SOB) Decision Phase where vendor relationships are de-valued and consolidated, and procurement activities are streamlined and automated.

For B2B marketers there is almost no room to influence strategic buying behaviors when the investment decision has trickled down, months later, to the end of the Influence Window. The low-value transactional SOB buying cycle, having never completely gone away, continues to repetitively churn in the background in the customer organization.

This reality of how the customer organization cycles through various Decision Phases hasn’t slowed down B2B marketers from wanting to “challenge”, “solve”, “consult”, and “value-sell” during the low-value transactional SOB “buying cycle”. This may be the right strategic conversation to have, but it is executed at the wrong time in the customer decision process. All the “challenging”, “solving”, “consulting”, “value-selling”, and “strategic account management” in the world won’t change the hard cold reality that the Influence Window has closed and customers’ minds are, for the most part, made up.

Questions:
1.Do you agree with this description of the buy-side cycle of decision phases?
2.Are there exceptions to this decision framework?

Image licensed from THINKSTOCK by FASTpartners LLC

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi Jack –
    Great insight to B2B sakes best practices! Leading sales organizations follow your discipline to gain competitive advantage.

    Aligning marketing and operations with sales can further improve sales and profit success.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Dennis Nash

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