Buying During Difficult Times


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Complex B2B buying is never easy. I’ve written, extensively, about how difficult it is for buyers to align diverse priorities and agendas, and navigate the buying process. The majority of buying ends in no decision made. The need hasn’t disappeared, the customer, for various good/bad reasons just fail to make a buying decision.

We are learning, as sales people, what we need to do is help the customer organize to buy and navigate their buying process. We know we have to help customers make sense of what they face and what they’d like to achieve. More than anything, we have to help customers have confidence in the decisions they’ve made—not selecting the right vendor, but putting in place solutions that will achieve their goals and objectives.

So, in the best of times, buying is difficult.

Now we face the COVID-19 virus. Our worlds are changed. As individuals, many now work from home. Terms like “shelter in place,” “social distance,” have entered our vocabulary.

The economy has been turned upside down. Markets are in free-fall, businesses are being asked to shut down certain operations for public safety, supply chains are stretched or shut down, demand has changed profoundly–some up, some down.

Organizations of all types are stopping or freezing many things. They are trying to figure out what is happening with their markets and customers. They are trying to figure out what is happening with their own organizations and their people’s ability to be productive. They know their customers and people are concerned–for their health, families, jobs, future.

They face problems and challenges they may have never faced. Or problems, now in a context that is different from anything they have ever experienced.

But buying will not stop. In fact the need to buy is likely to accelerate–at least in those areas that help our customers manage their way through this crisis.

But buying will change–a process that was difficult before, will be even more challenging. Concern for risk, time to results, the ability to implement and manage in a changed world, uncertainty in the markets, capital availability will be foremost in their decision making processes.

Organizations will focus first on the highest priority areas. To the degree they view their markets and challenges as “chaotic,” their focus will be to “stop the bleeding,” and stabilize their organizations. Projects focused on this will get the most attention.

As sellers, if our solutions help the customers “stop the bleeding,” we have a tremendous opportunity to create value and help our customers move forward. They will need to move quickly, though cautiously. We need to help them understand the risks, understand how to manage the implementation in these changed times, and how to accelerate time to results.

As they start to stabilize their strategies and operations, our customers face complexity. They face issues they have never dealt with before (at least in composite) and to which there are no obvious solutions. There are a number of ways to help our customers deal with complexity. One approach is to help the break up the issues into more manageable issues. Another is rapid experimentation. (Read my posts on Complexity, Cynefin).

Whatever approach, or combination, our customers may not have experience in managing their buying processes in the Complex domain. We can provide great value, based on our experience in working with other customers. While much of our experience may not match the situations our customers face, we can help provide them a solid starting point to identifying, addressing, and managing the complex issues they face.

We know some things all our customers will be facing in buying and in prioritizing projects:

  • Projects focused on “stopping the bleeding,” will take precedence.
  • Only the highest priority projects will get attention and investment. If the project you are trying to incite your customer to undertake doesn’t directly address their top priorities in managing this crisis, you are wasting their time and your time. You serve them best by deferring the project until they can better focus.
  • Time to results will be a critical consideration for all projects. There are several interesting considerations with this. Since there is high urgency, customers may be looking to compress their buying process to accelerate implementation and attainment of results. Customers may also not be looking for the “perfect” solution, just a solution that works and helps them move forward.
  • Only those projects with the strongest business cases will be approved. While capital and funding will be constrained, top executives recognize they have to invest and change to manage their organizations through this period. If you aren’t building the strongest business case possible, if you and your customer can’t directly connect the results to the top priorities, your project is unlikely to be approved.
  • If your solutions are not mission critical, you may be able to help your customer think about how they can get things off their plates, enabling them to free time and focus on the critical issues they face. Don’t take too much of their time looking at this, but it may be very helpful to them.
  • Because of the unknowns and perceived risks, more people are likely to be involved in buying decisions.
  • Customers, at all levels, are uncertain (individually and organizationally). They need confidence in the choices they are making. It has nothing to do with what you sell, but the problems and issues they are prioritizing.
  • Recognize that at all levels our customers are afraid and confused. The greatest value we can create is to help them regain their confidence and show that we care.

There is a lot of talk about selling in difficult times. But that doesn’t help our customers. The magic is in helping our customers buy in difficult times. Think about how you can do this.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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