BuyING vs BuyER: how systems guide buying decisions

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The terms ‘buying’ and ‘buyer’ seem to be defined by sales and marketing to denote purchase-related activities. After almost 40 years of thinking, training, and writing several books on issues related to the Buy Side, I’d like to offer a clarification: buyING is

a process; a set of systemic, procedural, decision making tasks; a possible result following essential change management practices that may lead to fixing a problem with external solutions.

In this article I’ll explain the buyING process and when, why, and how it sometimes leads to folks becoming buyERS – and when it doesn’t I’ll explain why. I’ll also define each step so sellers and marketers can use them to facilitate their route through to becoming buyERS.

As of now, neither sales nor marketing facilitate the systemic progression of change management steps to buyING decisions, instead use solution-placement, and needs-based content that merely engage the low hanging fruit (currently less than 5%) – those who have already self-identified as buyERS and will probably discover your site anyway.

But the buyING decision sequence is very specific and, with different goals, could easily be added to the front end of sales and marketing to reduce and make efficient the decision time needed to accomplish off-line tasks. Obviously this would produce more sales.

WHAT IS A SYSTEM AND WHY THEY’RE IMPORTANT

To explain the buying decision process, I’ll begin with an explanation of systems. You see, buyING is systemic, not needs-based. Hence what I believe to be the main reason it’s been overlooked by sales and marketing.

I define systems as any group of components that agree to the same rules. Systems are necessary for survival: You’re a system. Your group, your company, your family, are systems.

All systems are based on unique norms, identities and beliefs that designate their individuality and maintain the integrity of their relationships and purpose. Google is obviously a different system than IBM: different management styles, different people hired, different marketing and sales processes.

A unique standard of all systems is that they don’t judge themselves even when they appear inappropriate to others. Systems aren’t logical; their identities and beliefs just represent the unique norms that caused their formation. Have you ever noticed friends in a bad marriage and couldn’t understand why they stay together? Their system was configured that way from the start and maintains its normalized trajectory.

It’s only when a system begins to malfunction that a warning is sounded. And because it has operated in a ‘good enough’ way until then, doing anything different is not a foregone conclusion. The status quo is good-enough.

And here’s a trap we all fall into when we think someone’s system must change: one of the goals of systems is to maintain balance (Systems Congruence), maintain the same configuration of rules and norms through time. Any change, any additions or subtractions, risk disruption.

BUYING IS SYSTEMIC

Here is where buyING comes in. When a system (in this case a possible prospect and the alleged problem that needs fixing) exhibits a problem, it will always use the rules of Systems Congruence to resolve it:

  • Everyone involved with the problematic component must help scope out the full fact pattern of the problem and be involved with the solution or there will be imbalance;
  • Every effort is made to resolve the problem from inside (i.e. workarounds) because anything new may not carry the same rules and norms;
  • Before any change can be made, the ‘cost’ of the change – the risk to the system – must be known and addressed by the full set of stakeholders;
  • Before any change can be made, the ‘risks’ of the new solution cannot be greater than the risk carried by the known problem/the status quo or the status quo will prevail.

It’s only when all of these issues are handled is the system willing to change. This is what sales and marketing overlook. BuyING is a systemic process, certainly not so simple as having a need or making a purchase. Once the problem is fully defined, AND workarounds are tried, AND there is buy-in, AND the risk is fully understood and managed, THEN they become buyERS.

Sellers and marketers start off assuming their solutions can resolve a problem after posing some very biased questions and without full knowledge of the system of hidden politics, relationships, history, or goals that caused and maintain the problem.

But until the group/person has gone through their unique and systemic change trajectory (I call this change management) to figure out if they can withstand change and still function to meet their goals, they’re not seeking an external solution, don’t consider themselves buyERs and ignore your outreach. They’re not even prospects, need aside.

Indeed, your targeted outreach seeks and uncovers only those who have already become buyERS, thereby limiting your success to those already seeking your solution. Unfortunately, this overlooks those who WILL become buyers once they’ve completed their systemic change work.

CHANGE MANAGEMENT PRECEDES BUYING

Change management is an obligatory part of a buyING decision – the systemic decision making process that results in a congruent resolution and may or may not include making a purchase. Here’s what happens.

When a problem presents itself, people start off trying to resolve it themselves (not as buyERS); they take specific steps (see below) on route to a solution to make sure that the system ends up in balance. This route, these systemic laws, determine the buyING process and outcome – whether or not someone becomes a buyER. It’s only after they’ve gone through this and determined

  • that the ONLY way to resolve the problem is with an external solution,
  • that they cannot resolve it with a known workaround,
  • that the risks are all known and don’t ‘cost’ more than the status quo,
  • there is buy-in from ALL stakeholders who will touch the solution,

that they are buyERS. Until then, they don’t even self-identify as buyERS or notice your marketing or sales outreach. People really don’t want to buy anything, merely resolve a problem at the least ‘cost’ to the system. Again, buyING is systemic.

Viewing the sales and marketing in this light, it becomes obvious how you restrict your audience: when you offer content directed toward a product or solution, only people who have completed their change process and have deemed the ‘cost’ of a purchase manageable will be interested.

But there are about 80% more potential buyERS who are still in the buyING decision process, haven’t yet gotten their ducks in a row, and can’t buy until they do. You overlook them, mistakenly assuming you can engage them with clever outreach/content or data capture.

But you’re failing, and your closing numbers are diminishing. You call this ‘no decision’, and yet they are making decisions without you, without reading or heading your outreach. And the sales process itself is going the way of the landline.

Why not add a decision facilitation process to serve people where they really need your help?

WHERE BUYING NEEDS SELLING

In 1983 I founded a tech start-up in London. Because I had previously been a very successful sales professional dedicated to discovering ‘need’ and placing solutions, I was surprised at the complexity of making a decision to buy anything. I had to:

  • recognize which stakeholders to include (more than I had assumed!) to even understand the full fact pattern of the problem;
  • garner agreement that something needed to be different (or there was nothing to fix);
  • try workarounds and do all we could to fix the problem ourselves before even considering anything external;
  • fully understand the risk (the ‘cost’) to our status quo before considering buyING/bringing in an external fix.

To my surprise I discovered that my buyING decision had little to do with making a purchase but was a complex set of collaboration processes to facilitate group buy-in and understand the downside of making any changes. Ultimately, all problems had to be resolved with minimal disruption.

As a seller I had been indoctrinated in the normalized thinking of ‘needs-based’ outreach: ‘get in’ to the ‘right’ people with a ‘need’ that matched my solution; write ‘good’ content to engage; make my site compelling to differentiate from the competition, always assuming I could make a compelling case that my solution was the answer.

But as an entrepreneur I discovered that until people were near the end of their decision path they didn’t even seek out or notice content; they might have been in the buyING process, but weren’t yet buyERS. And reading content on a solution I might not need, or my group hadn’t approved of, possibly having only partial facts on how our problem originated or was maintained, or until workarounds were tried, was a waste of time.

Eventually, in 1986, I developed Buying Facilitation® to facilitate the buyING process in my company. I then used the process to double our own sales and have since trained it to over 100,000 people in global corporations such as IBM, Kaiser, Bose, KPMG, Wachovia, Morgan Stanley, DuPont, etc.

Buying Facilitation® is

a generic change management process (used for coaching and leadership also) that makes it possible to execute the decision making steps in a way that leads to a congruent solution and quickly leads those involved in the buyING process to become buyERS where relevant.

In control group studies, used as a front end to sales, it has an 800% increase over using sales on its own. Buying Facilitation® to lead folks through their buyING decisions; sales to help buyERS decide on the purchase. And marketing throughout, although initially focusing on leading each stage until they become buyERS when content-specific data is employed.

To help you understand what goes on in the buyING process, here are the 13 steps in a systemic Buying Decision Path between problem recognition and a resolution (or purchase) that all people must go through as they work at resolving a problem.

It’s quite possible for sales and marketing to enter during these steps, recognize who will be a buyer on the first call (Remember: you’d be wearing a change facilitation hat first, not a sales hat.), and lead them through their buyING steps to become buyERS. Note: these are relevant for any decision making process.

1. Idea stage: Is there a problem? Who needs to be involved to gather the full fact pattern?

2. Brainstorming stage: Idea discussed broadly with colleagues. Begin discerning who to include in ongoing discussions. Begin gathering full fact pattern of problem.

3. Initial discussion stage: Initial group of chosen colleagues begin discussing the problem in earnest to gather full fact pattern: how it got created and maintained; posit who to include on Buying Decision Team; consider possible fixes and fallout. Action groups formed to bring ideas for possible workarounds to next meeting. Invites for new, overlooked stakeholders to join.

4. Contemplation stage: Workarounds (previous vendors, inhouse solutions) discussed for efficacy. People who will touch the solution to discuss their concerns to engage before they resist. More research necessary on possible solutions, ways to determine if workarounds are viable.

5. Organization stage: Group gathers research to determine if a workaround is possible. Discussions of downsides of each. Viability of workarounds determined.

6. Change management stage: If workarounds acceptable, group goes forward to plan to implement. If workarounds deemed unacceptable, group begins broad discussion to consider downsides of external solutions: the ‘cost’ (risk)of change, the ‘cost’ of a fix, the ‘cost’ of staying the same, and how much disruption is acceptable. Broad research to be done for next meeting on solutions that might meet the criteria and ‘cost’ minimal disruption.

7. Coordination stage: Dedicated discussions on research in re risk factors, buy-in issues, resistance. Delineate everyone’s thoughts re goals, acceptable risks, job changes, and change capacity. Once agreement is reached, folks resisting must be heard; group must decide how to include and dismantle resistance. Specific research now needed. Discussions on next steps.

8. Research stage: Discussion on research that’s been brought in for each possible solution. Who is onboard with risk? How will change be managed with each solution? To include: downsides per type of solution, possibilities, outcomes, problems, management considerations, changes in policy, job description changes, HR issues, etc. and how these will be mitigated if purchase to be made – or discussion around maintaining the status quo instead of resolving the problem at all (i.e. cost too high). List of possible solutions now defined; research for each to be ready for next meeting.

9. Consensus stage: Known risks, change management procedures, buy-in and consensus discussed for each possibility. Buying Decision Team makes final choices: specific products and possible vendors are named. Criteria set for solution choice.

10. Action stage: Responsibilities apportioned to manage the specifics of Step 9. Calls made to several vendors for interviews, presentations, and data gathering. Agreed-upon criteria applied with each vendor.

11. Second brainstorming stage: Buying Decision Team discusses results of calls and interviews with vendors and partners, and fallout/benefits of each. Favored vendors pitched by team members among themselves, and then called for follow on meetings.

12. Choice stage: New solution/vendor agreed on. Change management issues that need to be managed are delineated and put in place. Leadership initiatives prepared to avoid disruption.

13. Implementation stage: Vendor contacted. Purchase made. Implement and follow on.

Given these steps, you can see that people aren’t buyERs until Step 9. Before then, they are people trying to fix a problem internally, and aren’t seeking out products or solutions to purchase so there’s no way ‘in’ with traditional sales and marketing. But if you lead folks through their Steps of change, both sales and marketing can influence the buyING so folks become buyERS.

ADDITIONAL SALES AND MARKETING OUTREACH

To help those in the buyING process become buyERS, marketers can write change management-based content with different focus: help them determine the full set of stakeholders; teach them how to engage buy-in etc. Sales can begin each contact by helping them notice where they are in their change process (i.e. instead of need). And once they get to the end of their buyING process, they would be buyERS and ready to purchase and receive relevant content.

I have actually created a Buying Enablement process to help marketers achieve this, complete with titles for content outreach. Note: it’s vital that content do NOT include any product pitches as folks truly are not considering this until the later stages. Of course a great footer and linked articles will lead to solution content.

Folks must go through their decision making/change management process anyway, with you or without you. So it might as well be with you, especially since you’ll know the specific components of each step better than they do.

It’s obvious that with websites and search being what they are, people no longer need sellers or marketers to provide content. But because the buyING process is so much more complex these days, this is where they need the most help. HELP THEM BECOME BUYERS by facilitating them through their buyING process. It’s a win/win folks.

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