B2B Complex Sales: the 4 states of the buying decision mindset


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Are your prospects Painting by Numbers, on a Quest for the Grail, Lost in the Fog, or running around like Headless Chickens?

There’s been a lot written – some of it by me – about the stages B2B prospects tend to go through in their buying decision process, and the need to align your your sales and marketing tactics accordingly. Of course, their journey is rarely linear: at any point they can choose to move forwards, revert to a previous stage, put the project on hold, or abandon the journey altogether.

But the stage your prospect is currently at isn’t the only thing you need to be aware of when it comes to understand their likely buying behaviour: you also need to understand something about the state of their thinking about what they are trying to achieve, and how they think they might go about achieving it.

I wrote about the 4 different states of the B2B buying process last year, but I think it’s worth updating and expanding the idea a little in this article. The 4 states of the buying decision mindset 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 you can reframe either the process or the goal, your chances of winning depend on your ability to offer the best price, delivery and contractual terms against the specification set out by the customer. If you can’t change the game, you have to either play by their rules or chose to walk away.

This can turn into a painful and expensive process for any vendor that isn’t in the driving seat when it comes to influencing the prospect’s specification. If you fail to recognise that you’re in a “paint by numbers” project, you can waste an incredible amount of selling time.

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.

If you’ve got a smart sales team, backed by intelligent marketing, they will typically relish these “holy grail” projects. They give you a real chance to establish thought leadership, and to distinctively differentiate your approach – so the challenge is to find more of them, by engaging with the prospect before they have worked out how to solve an urgent problem.

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. We call 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.

These can be horrible and frustrating opportunities to work on. I’m told that government projects often have these characteristics. You need to get to someone senior enough to be able to reshape their thinking about what they are trying to achieve. If you can’t even if you win, you can probably count on a painful implementation.

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.

The first thing to do if you encounter a “lost in the fog” project is to make sure that the prospect sees a real need to change. Highlight the cost and consequences of inaction to them. Illustrate the alternatives available to them. And start – right from this early stage – to lead their thinking in the direction of your strongest, most relevant capabilities.

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?

Recommendations for sales managers

You’re probably used to asking your sales people what stage their opportunities are at. Hopefully, you’ve already got them thinking about the stage the prospect has reached in their buying decision process, and not just about the stage the sales person has reached in their sales process, which as we know can be a completely different (and frequently more optimisic) matter.

This idea of buying “states” is probably new to them and maybe also to you. But I’d strongly encourage you to explain these different stages to your sales people, and ask them to position each of the deals they are working on against these 4 categories. If – as might often be the case – the state isn’t actually very favourable, you can strategise with them to either work out how to reframe the prospect’s thinking or recognise that, since you’re probably going to lose, you might as well qualify out early.

By the way, I’d like to pay tribute to 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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