Brilliant Influencing: Sell How the Customer Wants to Buy


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Smart organizations, and the best salespeople who work for them, determine their approach to selling based upon their prospects’ and customers’ approach to buying. Sounds simple, but I’m always amazed at the number of organizations and sellers that define their selling process based upon their own needs, not on how the customer wants to buy. In fact, research shows that customers’ most-stated complaint of the sellers who call on them is that they do not follow the customer’s buying process.* Sellers who avoid this mistake will win much more than they lose.

The obvious way to avoid this problem is to do some up-front research to learn exactly the steps, the process, the procedures, and the people of customer buying, and modify your selling process to fit what they want. This alone will make selling easier and more productive.

But this is only part of the picture. In industries and markets where customers have important, complex issues requiring sophisticated, large-investment answers, the thing that top sellers understand that average sellers don’t is that what customers want changes as the buying process continues. Let me explain the three shifts in buying focus that you must learn and internalize if you are hoping to make it to the elite level of selling.

1. It Takes Products to Play

Early on, at the first sign of pain, or the potential for gain, buyers of all types (technologists, executives, users) think about finding a potential “product” (a tangible entity that can be seen and felt) to fix a problem or make their life better. A little naively, buyers are hoping for a silver bullet (e.g., if only we had good CRM software or new imaging equipment or robotics, etc., then life would be good). An important rule of human nature takes place here: even though we “know better,” we hope and look for a simple answer to complex issues.

Therefore, and assuming that basic capabilities are in place, to make it to the short list of potential suppliers, you have to be seen as having “one of the best” product offerings in order to make it to the dance, to participate in the bake-off, to audition for the beauty contest. This means that during the initial stage in the buying process, the selling process should focus on the attributes of the product in order to get the prospect interested.

But as I’ve written in the past, the best sellers know that the product is only one part of a successful solution and that many other factors will eventually influence success. The very best salespeople always try to persuade the customer to perform an assessment early on, both to gain the information they need and to help elicit a deeper understanding from the customer.**

As the customer starts to understand the complexity of the situation and the limitations of the “product” component, their thinking evolves to the next phase of clarity and interest, and thus the selling emphasis must change.

2. It Takes Support to Stay

As hard, cold reality steps in, the buyer realizes that there really is no silver bullet, and getting results may be a little more difficult than initially hoped. This realization is quickly followed by a growing anxiety about the risk of addressing this complex, ambiguous problem and the potential downside if things don’t go as planned–goals may not be achieved, costs my be overrun, people may be blamed.

Here the buying rules of the game change. Buyers feel that with very few exceptions (Apple, for example) the products of top suppliers are pretty similar. Notice that I used the word “feel.” Sure, I understand that your product is different and better, and I’m sure that if I cared, you could tell me why. However valuable a dialogue about product features and benefits may have been early on in the buying cycle, it is not important now! If you insist on telling your prospect about product features and benefits (something he or she doesn’t care about), you will be participating in a monologue. Unless you have Jay Leno’s skills or Bob Hope’s capabilities, your prospect will not be amused and will immediately classify you as a vendor and eliminate you from the hunt. At this stage, the customer wants to know potential supplier quality control and fail-safe capabilities; they want to know that you have the processes and the people to make things work. They want to know about your technical support and your commitment to uptime, and they want case studies and testimonials from others they respect in order to overcome their fear and minimize their risk.

3. It Takes Services to Pay

Once the prospect has confidence in your ability to make the product work and keep it running, their thinking evolves again. It goes back to their real reason for buying, which is to make their operation perform better. Now they stop to consider how the tangible product can impact an operation or improve a process or add value to the business. Only services can make this happen, and thus the value proposition migrates again. Your professional services capability to implement or install or commission a product tailored to their unique situation is what they want to hear. Top sellers are listening for the clues to shift focus one more time, and then clearly articulate the benefits of your advanced services, your consulting ability to customize answers, and the results other clients have achieved.

So, do you need adequate products? Of course! Should you understand and follow the customer’s buying process? Certainly! But brilliant influencers know when to shift the emphasis on their capabilities and offerings to match the natural shift in the needs and wants of the buyers of important, complex solutions.


* Atkinson, Tom and Ron Koprowski. July-August 2006. “Finding the Weak Links.” Harvard Business Review.
**“Alexander, James. “Brilliant Influencing: Always Start with an Assessment.

James Alexander, EdD
James "Alex" Alexander has a doctorate in Human Resource Development, and after a dozen years in corporate life has spent more than two decades helping product companies build brilliant services businesses. Alex researches, publishes, advises, trains, and speaks on transforming good services organizations into high-performance services machines that create loyal customers, drive sales of services and products, and dominate the competition. He has written five research studies, four books, and over 150 articles, and has spoken, consulted, and trained in 25 countries.


  1. Hi James: what you have described seems more a vignette – a buying pathway versus the buying pathway. I don’t question that your chain of events has occurred somewhere, but I do question whether it’s extensible to the point where practitioners can make generalizations about how things typically occur in a buying process. While I agree that all too often, vendors define a sales process that is unrelated to buying processes. I’ve also found that they do this through hubris, insensitivity to buyer needs, or simply because they’ve shortchanged the time and attention necessary for understanding buyers.

    But the outline you’ve posited isn’t consistent with my experience in B2B sales. I’ve rarely found, for example, a Step 2, where “cold reality steps in, the buyer realizes that there really is no silver bullet, and getting results may be a little more difficult than initially hoped.” Often, this epiphany occurs well before sales is involved.

    The other risk that I see is in what you recommend in Step 1: “the selling process should focus on the attributes of the product in order to get the prospect interested.” I’m wary of anyone who invokes the word rule or rules for sales strategy or tactics, but I find this an example of product-centrism that often gets salespeople into trouble. Anecdotally, managers will say, “pitch the product to get the prospect interested.” To some buyers, this is a visceral turn off.

    In the early stages of a buyer-seller engagement, Isn’t an empathetic sales approach and sincere curiosity for gaining insight into a prospect’s business challenge more valuable, and less risky for everyone?


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