4 distinctively different states of the B2B buying decision process


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I’ve written before about the Buyer’s Journey, and about the stages that your b2b prospects go through in their buying decision process. That journey is rarely linear: your prospects can decide to move forward in their decision making process, stay where they are, go backwards or abandon the journey. Understanding where your prospects are in the journey and determining what tactics you should use at each stage are fundamental to the success of any B2B sale.

But in this article, I’d like to focus on another concept – one that is directly complementary to your understanding of the stages of the journey – and that’s the idea that B2B buying decision processes typically occupy one of 4 states at any one point in time. These states are defined by two axes: whether or not your prospect has a clear vision of where they want to get to, and whether or not they have a clear idea of how they are going to get there.

4 States of the B2B Buyers Journey BandWThese 4 states:

  • Know where and how
  • Know where but not how
  • Know how but not where
  • Know neither where nor how

Are likely to result in dramatically different behaviours as they conduct their search for a solution, and I want to highlight some of the implications – and hopefully give you some food for thought – in the remainder of this article.

Painting by numbers

Paint by NumbersWhen your prospects believe they know both what they want to achieve (where) and how they are going to achieve it, they are in what we call “paint by numbers” mode. They have a very clear specification of what they want to buy, and they have a very well-defined process for how they are going to make the buying decision. This mode is particularly common where an organisation is buying a well-defined commodity or raw material on a repetitive basis.

Unless they can change their sense of where and how, winning vendors are likely to be defined by their ability to offer the best price, delivery and contractual terms. In other words, if you can’t change the game, you have to either play by their rules or chose to walk away.

The quest for the grail

Quest for the GrailOr maybe your prospects know where they want to get to, but don’t know how to get there. We call this the “Quest for the Grail”. Your prospects are on a mission to change things. They have a vision of where they want to get to. But their maps – which ought to show them how to get there – have large blank areas with labels like “unexplored territory” or even (depending on the vendors they choose to call in for advice) “here be dragons”.

This – in contrast to the previous example – is an excellent opportunity for consultative or (even better) challenger selling techniques. As a vendor, you have the opportunity to fill in the gaps in the terrain, to help them think differently about their options, and give them a roadmap and show them the way forward.

Running around like headless chickens

Headless ChickenOr maybe the reverse is true – your prospects, although they know they need to change, are unclear about what they need to change to (where) or what success would look like, and are shackled by a rigid procurement process that dictates how they are going to make the buying decision. With good reason, we refer to these situations as “Headless Chickens” – the process keeps moving even after the brain has been removed (if it was ever there in the first place).

This situation is often associated with an unanticipated RFP. If your prospect is in headless chicken mode – and in particular if you have no opportunity to reshape their vision or influence their decision process – you need to think carefully whether you want to waste your sales resources on the project.

Lost in the fog

Lost in the FogLast, but by no means least likely, your prospect may know that they need to change but they have no clear idea of where (or what) to or how they are going to get there. We call these situations “lost in the fog”. The prospect is often reacting to a recent change in circumstances that has made continuing with the status quo untenable. They know they need to change – but they are not yet sure what they need to change to.

This is another golden opportunity to practice your challenger selling skills. Your goal should be to help them shape a vision of what they could accomplish, as well as holding their hand on the journey towards their destination. These situations often represent a real opportunity to demonstrate the full value you could bring to them.

4 distinctively different states

4 States of the B2B Buyers Journey ColourSo there we have it: the four distinctively different potential states of each of your prospect’s buying decision process. The state your prospect is currently in will significantly influence their behaviour – and knowing which state they are in should influence yours. Of course, once you’ve diagnosed their current state, it’s possible – with a focused effort – to move a prospect from one state to another that is more favourable to you.

How well do you currently understand which state each of your current prospects are in – and if that is unclear, what are you going to do to determine their true state? But even more important than that, once you’ve worked it out, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to adapt your strategies?

And how are you going to coach all of your sales people to think in these dimensions?

By the way, I’d like to thank Eddie Obeng of Pentacle the Virtual Business School for inspiring this article.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


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