Do Customers Really Have A Buying Process?


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It’s become common “wisdom” that we have to align align our sales process with our customers’ buying processes.  I write about it constantly, as well as hundreds of others.  It’s become almost a mantra in all the literature and training programs.

I suppose it’s easy to want to believe customers have buying processes.  Certainly, procurement has processes they follow in their buying activities.  There is a certain structure/process to the RFP/RFQ process.  Things we buy every day have a certain routine-ness to them, to the point they become transactional, which may be a process.

But if we look at complex B2B buying, do customers really have a buying process?

There’s some evidence they may not–or at least their processes aren’t very good.  Both CSO Insights and CEB point to high rates of “No Decision Made,”  each citing data that over 50% of buying efforts result in No Decision Made (Note this is different than a decision not to change.)  If customers had good buying processes, wouldn’t the failure rate be much lower?

There’s another way to look at this.  We develop processes to streamline things which we do very frequently.  For example, manufacturing processes drive for maximum repeatability and effectiveness in the manufacturing process.  Invoicing and accounts payable each follow standard repeatable processes and are tuned to maximize effectiveness and efficiency.  Order processing, likewise is tuned for repeatability and efficiency.  Our sales process focuses on the critical activities we must consistently execute with the customer.

Implicit in the development of processes is the fact that we do certain things frequently, and we want to develop processes to optimize how we do those things.  We want to repeat and tune our effectiveness, efficiency, and ability to produce similar outcomes each time we undertake the task.

Which brings us back to the question, in complex B2B buying, to the customers really have a buying process?

By definition, these are things our customers don’t do frequently.  In fact our customers really struggle to buy.  They struggle with recognizing the need to change.  They struggle with aligning differing priorities and agendas in the buying group.  They struggle with the activities they must undertake to define, agree on a solution, make a decision, and move forward to implementing a solution.

Part of the problem is the buying group constantly changes.  So there is little inherent knowledge of previous buying experience they can leverage.  Even though there may be some common people in each buying process (for example procurement, IT), there are people that are new to this particular buying effort–who may not have been involved in a similar buying decision for years.  For example, how many times in their careers do financial executives make decisions on new Financial Systems?  Or manufacturing executives buying new plants/assembly lines, or engineering executives buying new design tools, or sales/marketing executives buying new CRM tools.

Most complex B2B buying decisions are made very infrequently, often with very different business conditions, and different people involved in the decision effort.  As a result, it’s highly unlikely they have a well defined buying process.  In fact, as Hank Barnes has said, the process can be quite “squishy.”

There are certain activities that are common in every buying effort, for example, agree on the need to change, define the problem, needs, desired outcomes, define the process to evaluate alternatives and make decisions.  But each of these and the context of each of these, and the participants, are different for each buying decision.

The reality is, for complex B2B buying efforts, our customers are unlikely to have a buying process.   They are struggling to figure out how to buy and have relatively limited collective experience of buying/solving this problem in the past.  They need our help to help them define what they should do.  They need our help to recognize the need to change, to engage the right people in driving the change initiative, to align priorities/agendas, to determine what they want to achieve, to determine the steps and activities they should go through to achieve those goals.

While our customers probably don’t have a buying process, we must be not revert to the old days of inflicting our sales process on customers.

In the past, what’s been wrong about our selling process, is that it has primarily focused on what we do to customers to get them to buy.

While it’s unlikely that our customers don’t have a buying process, they are still in control!  Our selling process has to be focused on helping them buy and achieving their goals, because it’s only that which enables us to achieve our goals.

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.


  1. Though B2B purchase decisions often have guardrails in the form of Procurement Department rules, in the main B2B customers decide in a manner similar to their B2C counterparts. In sum, we’ve found that, if indeed customers have a selection ‘process’, the act of choosing is intuitive. That is, selection itself tends to be more emotional and subconscious than functional and rational; but, post-purchase, the selection is justified more on a functional and rational basis than emotional.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. One of the chronic confusions sales reps face is management’s notion of a rational and procedure-bound buying process (I’m referring to commercial B2B, not B2G). As you point out, while there are ancillary buying procedures or steps – e.g. approving a capital purchase request, generating a purchase order – the activities supporting project management and vendor selection are seldom formulaic.

    Why has this misconception of a documented, repeatable, scalable buying process become so widespread? I’m not sure, but I can attribute some of it to sales culture: we find comfort in things that are deterministic and concrete, so we seek them, and when found, we latch onto them. The problem is, many reps – especially newer ones – go scurrying off in what ultimately is a fool’s errand. “What is your buying process? . . . ” As if anyone on the prospect’s end can provide an honest answer, let alone one that even remotely reflects how things will proceed.

    To help reps gain a more realistic idea about how prospect committees operate, I coach them in the dynamics of project management. This helps reps get a sense about how their prospects move forward with initiatives (though I use these terms loosely). An excellent resource I use is Steve McConnell’s book, improbably titled Rapid Development. McConnell has coined a descriptive term, fuzzy front end (page 124) to describe the early genesis of a project. So far, I have never seen this time-consuming stage depicted with ordinal boxes and directional arrows. Think a meander in the woods, with lots of bumping into trees and occasional falling off a cliff. For those who still like flowcharts (I am one) and feel compelled to chart the stages of a project, I recommend drawing a pile of cooked spaghetti, and labeling the nodes dead ends, fits and starts, changed priorities, internal strife and competition, and budget freezes. That will help a rep know what he or she will likely encounter – at least in the IT world, where I live and breathe.

    Reps must re-direct their efforts from seeking out “the buying process,” and instead cultivate their talent for discovering disparate and disconnected prospect evidence, and making intelligent judgements about how things will progress. That’s what the most talented – and more successful – reps do. That’s hard to coach, but it needs to be done. These days, it’s simplistic to ask, “Did you find out what their buying process is . . . ?”

  3. A buying process is a discontinuous (irregular) activity and therefore very situation-dependent. Assuming there is a comprehensive list of the potential components to consider for a decision (which most companies to not have), only a certain number will apply to each unique situation. Some of the situational components:

    – Size of purchase
    o Smaller purchases will often be habitual or spontaneous.
    o Larger purchases are more deliberate, suggesting:
     They are more rational (tangible) than emotional.
     Buyers are less confident.
     Decisions are more complex.
     Risk of a wrong decision is greater.

    – Learning by the purchaser is required for all major purchases unless it is just reordering the same product.
    o Even an improved version of what one already has requires some learning, particularly if it is technological.
    – Previous experience of the purchaser is critical. Any first time buyer has very different purchase criteria than does an experienced buyer.
    – Risk – a consistent risk is fear of making a wrong decision, especially in the case of a large purchase.
    – Change – all change involves both learning and potential risk.

    The above components are a combination of the tangible (features) and intangible (risk).

    Buying decision processes are therefore informal, personalized and situation-dependent. One of our sales insights has been that “a client is a person rather than a company.” In other words, get to know both the personal and company decision-making context (components).

    Over the years we have constructed a database of issues to consider for each Value Analysis study we are hired to conduct. While only a few issues typically apply to each situation, the database allows us to quickly find relevant issues without relying on memory.

    The same process can be applied to a buying process.

    – Companies should institutionalize the buying process components through accumulated learning over time.

    – Vendors can enhance their position (add value) through helping prospects formalize their buying process by providing a resource to identify all of the aspects to consider and those which are most pertinent. This needs to be an objective resource, not merely sales-driven on the part of the vendor.

    When “no decision” is made it is often driven by:

    – Lack of Value Perception
    – Perceived risks
    – Lack of confidence
    – Lack of commitment
    – Lack of information
    – No urgency to act
    – Don’t fully trust the source of the product

  4. Ty, thanks for your thoughtful comment. In the spirit of “Yes, and…..” much of the research around No Decision Made shows that it is less a challenge of product/solution selection, but challenges with internal alignment and the ability of the group to work together.


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