In this column I’m going to focus on understanding how and why our prospects choose to buy, and working out what can we do to facilitate their buying decision process. This is my sixth contribution to the series “what is B2B sales excellence in the customer age?”
The usual caveats apply: I’ll be talking from my experience and that of my clients, who are all involved in lengthy, high-value, complex B2B sales processes that involve multiple stakeholders. Some of my conclusions may not apply with equal force if you’re involved in transactional sales, but I suspect that many will remain relevant. I’ll leave that to you to judge.
I’m going to start by separating the question of why our prospects buy from the question of how they actually go about making a buying decision. There’s no doubt that the questions are closely coupled, but until and unless there is an initial meaningful motivation to change, the question of what to change to and how to make the decision is a matter of little importance.
By and large, the need for change is typically triggered by some significant level of dissatisfaction with either the prospect’s current situation or their ability to achieve a desired future state. The customer might express the issue as either a pain or an opportunity, but either way, it’s what creates the catalyst for change.
Sirius Decisions refers to this phase as the “loosening of the status quo”, and it is the critical initial moment in the customer’s buying journey. So it stands to reason that one of the first things we need to uncover when qualifying an initial lead or potential opportunity is exactly what caused the prospect to start searching for a solution in the first place.
We all need to be extremely cautious about investing significant amounts of sales time in responding to what I’d characterise as motiveless enquiries. From a very early stage in our sales conversation, we need to understand:
- What caused the prospect to start searching for a solution in the first place?
- How they would characterise the issue – is it a tangible pain or opportunity, or are they simply curious?
- How would they characterise the symptoms of the issue?
- How would they characterise the consequences of the issue?
- Who else is affected and how?
- Have they previously tried to address the issue and if so, how and with what results?
- Whether they already have a vision of a solution, and if so what it looks like?
- Whether they have already identified potential solution options, and is so, what they are?
- Whether a formal budget has been established for the project and if so, how much and over what timeframe?
- How the issue under consideration ranks against the organisations “must do” priority list?
- How decisions like these are typically made in their organisation, and who typically gets involved?
There may well be other factors that inform the sales qualification process in your own organisation. You might think that’s a lot of information, and it is. You might wonder whether it’s possible to capture all this in one or a few initial sales conversations, and you might not be able to.
But there is a very clear pattern: if we allow our sales people to pursue opportunities and commit company resources without knowing these things, we run a very high risk of failure. And the longer we allow a significant opportunity to run without this information, the more expensive it gets.
We might find out that our current contact is incapable of answering a significant number of these questions. If they cannot, we ought to be very concerned about whether we are operating at the right level or with the right champion to make progress.
Which is already segueing neatly into the second element of this article’s headline: how is our prospect likely to go about making a decision about if and what to buy? One aspect of customer age decision-making ought to be obvious to all: the days of being able to make your pitch to a C-Level and have them commit their organisation without achieving the buy-in of the staff who will end up responsible for its implementation and success are long gone.
In truth, I’m not sure those situations were ever as common as all those authors of “Selling to the C-Level” type books made out. But it’s pretty clear that today’s buying decisions require the informed consent of a growing number of key stakeholders.
The authors of “The Challenger Customer” found that an average of 5-6 stakeholders were actively involved in the average complex buying decision, that the number was rising, and that many decision making teams already involved 10 or more active participants.
We need to understand these stakeholders. We need to assess their role in the decision and we need to form a judgement about their attitude to us. And we’d be very lucky if we manage to achieve the same level of direct access with all of them. That’s why we need to identify the mobilisers within the decision team.
The mobiliser isn’t always the ultimate economic buyer. But they are invariably people who have the respect of their colleagues, who understand how to navigate the politics of the organisation, and who are capable of both making the case for change and driving alignment and consensus around a preferred solution.
Of course, we want to understand the prospect’s decision process and timing. We’d hope to understand their decision criteria. But if we don’t understand the dynamics of how the decision is likely to be made, we’re really just running in the dark.
And even if we get selected, the journey is often far from over. We might have beaten off our initial competition in the form of the other options that were being considered for the project. But we often now end up facing a far more significant competitor: all the other projects that are vying for attention and funding.
So when we attempt to understand our prospect’s decision process and criteria, we need to know something more: how does their organisation go about choosing between projects and prioritising which ones get funded first? If we fail to understand this, we run the risk of getting chosen but not getting bought. And that’s even more frustrating than being told we came a close and honourable second to the vendor that the project decision team selected.