The B2B buying decision process: challenging the 57% myth


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It’s a statistic that’s been widely quoted and even more widely misunderstood - the idea that the typical modern B2B buying decision process is “57% complete” before the customer even talks to the supplier.

57_percentOr you may have seen it quoted as “65%” or “two thirds”. It doesn’t matter, because all the figures are precisely wrong.

I think the original statistic came from a CEB* study but it has been naively interpreted and driven many thoughtless conclusions. You see, like many statistics, it’s simply a headline-grabbing average that hides a wide variation in actual behaviour.

Subsequent studies by other organisations - including one by IDC - have revealed subtleties that any B2B sales and marketing organisation need to take into consideration before they decide to make far-reaching changes to their go-to-market strategy…

An unhelpful average

In fact, the worse possible thing that any smart B2B organisation could do is take the 57% statistic too literally, or to assume that late-stage engagement has somehow become the inevitable norm. We need to put the statistic into a broader context.

First, let’s acknowledge that the stage at which the customer will feel the need to engage in a sales conversation will vary dramatically according to the complexity of their need.

You can't ignore complexity

If they have a clear sense of what they want to buy - for example if it is a simple or relatively inexpensive transactional purchase or the re-ordering of the same or similar solutions, then it’s hardly surprising that the prospect may conduct most of the buying process online.

But if the problem is poorly defined, and the solution less than obvious, or if it involves a high-value complex buying decision process with multiple stakeholders, then the prospect is much more likely to be open to early engagement with potential vendors.

Of course, at this earlier stage of consideration, they are expecting to be educated, rather than subjected to the hard sell - and will react very badly if exposed to the blunt instrument of a dinosaur sales person who has been schooled in the “always be closing” style of selling.

When "selling value" only adds to cost

Simple, generic or inexpensive products where the primary differentiation is price and delivery are increasingly becoming the preserve of on-line purchasing. In this environment, attempts to “sell value” are likely to simply increase the costs of losing the sale.

For these sort of low-friction transactional purchases, most buyers simply want the experience to be as simple as possible, and if the sales person cannot make a real contribution to their thinking process, they had better step out of the way.

For considered purchases, you need to engage early

But for the sort of high-value, considered purchases that most of the clients I work for are familiar with, early sales involvement is absolutely critical to improving the chances of sales success. As one of my customers is fond of saying, you need to engage while the cement is still wet.

In these complex deals, the concept of value has multiple dimensions. In many cases - where the prospect’s need may have to be created or at the very least redefined at an early stage of the buying journey, the sales person will probably have to “sell” the need for change - and the need to change now, rather than later - before they can sell their solution.

You can't wait for BANT before engaging

The idea that this sort of influence can be most effectively exerted when a decision process is more than half-way complete is risible. In complex sales environments, this sort of sales conversation needs to start early. And it certainly needs to start way before the opportunity can be called “BANT qualified”.

In this sort of situation, if sales people (or their managers) insist on opportunities being BANT qualified before they are prepared to engage, they are simply sleepwalking towards a revenue precipice.

Learning from top performers

Top sales performers have always understood the value of engaging in the sales conversation at the earliest possible stage in the prospect’s decision-making cycle - and they have balanced this with an uncanny ability to sniff out opportunities, and to qualify bad deals out early.

But what about the rest? What about the vast majority of the sales population? What can we do to enable them to engage the prospect more effectively, early in the process?

Marketing must take the lead

The answer must start with marketing. Marketing needs to communicate with the market in a provocative and differentiated way, stimulating the prospect to think differently and carefully structuring their “thought leadership” pieces so as to make the prospect want to learn more - and be prepared to engage in conversation - sooner, rather than later.

Weak, wishy-washy campaigns and collateral that simply serve to reinforce what the prospect already knows or believes simply won’t work - they do nothing to persuade the reader to engage.

But even creating provocative, edgy, tell-me-more content will ultimately fail unless at the same time you prepare and coach your sales people to have interesting, provocative and stimulating conversations that make their prospect want to continue the dialogue.

You need to prepare your sales people

This absolutely requires that every marketing campaign is accompanied by a sales briefing process that includes talking pieces, intelligent insights, though-provoking questions and relevant customer anecdotes.

I’ve become increasingly hard-line about this, to the point where I believe that if you’re not prepared to invest in doing this right, then you might as well not waste the effort in creating the campaign in the first place.

But do this well, and you can shatter the 57% myth. Your sales people can engage early, qualify effectively, and help shape the agenda. Or would they prefer to keep arriving late to the party, and be forever breathing someone else’s exhaust?

*formerly known as the Corporate Executive Board

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


  1. Bob, great article. I believe the 57% statistic may be true, because buyers prefer to do their own research online. And like you said in your article, if your product is simple, then this self-serve model works, because the buyer can form an accurate buying vision on their own.
    But for complex products, I believe the self-serve model ends in tears for both buyers and sellers, because these empowered buyers lack the time and expertise to form an accurate buying vision on their own. In the interest of expediency, buyers dumb everything down to where all offerings become commoditized, so the only differentiator is price. Unfortunately, what they find is that the dumbed down version doesn’t solve a problem that they don’t fully understand, so they stick with the status quo or buy the cheapest suboptimal solution. That’s why 60-70% of enterprise sales opportunities end with the buyer deciding to stick with the status quo and not buy. What a waste of time.
    So I agree ideally you’d like to approach these buyers early, but it’s not easy, because these empowered buyers still believe that they can do it on their own. That’s why I believe salespeople will also have to develop the skills needed to help buyers to re-frame their buying vision so that it more accurately reflects the truth.
    It’s like when I’m sick. The night before I visit the doctor, I go onto WebMD to figure out what’s troubling me. So by the time I show up at the doctor’s office, I am just looking for him to write me a prescription. Sure the doctor could have tried to influence me online through blogs etc., but like buyers today, I don’t have the time or expertise to become a doctor online overnight- but I still do it 😉 So, I need the doctor to shine a light of insight on my incomplete buying vision so that it more closely represents the truth.
    That’s what I believe, what do you believe?

  2. Great article Bob – I love that you exposed the statistic for what it is and differentiated between transactional and complex. If one assumes that close to 100% of the transactional-like sales are nearly complete when a buyer engages salesperson; and close to 0% of the complex-like sales are or should be early stage, then even that simplest of math brings us to the 50-60% average.

    As we so often see when marketers are marketing their marketing services, one must dig behind the claims, warnings, scare tactics and biases to get at the truth.

  3. Any B2B salesperson or marketer in their right mind would immediately see the irrelevance of this 57% number. It’s passive and reactive.

    As Bob so rightly points out, both Sales & Marketing should be initiating the conversation, challenging the status quo and guiding buyers to an in-depth ROI exploration, for starts.

    As marketing expert Ardath Albee so rightly says, “BANT is bunk.” Marketing & Sales need to work together to create content that raises questions, shows a different way, expands thinking and drives momentum.

    Salespeople and sales leaders have lots of learning to do to be successful in this changing environment. Many are sleep-walking or struggling.

    Few realize that their learning agility is now the most crucial skill they need to focus on developing. Most have never even heard that term.

  4. Most of this has been said before (including by me) but not nearly as well. This is a GREAT article. “Sleepwalking toward a revenue precipice is already a classic! I am so glad Jill brought up Ardath Albee’s ‘Bant is BUNK’ phrase. In many companies marketing is mailing it in (totally focused on cost and quantity of leads); and I still hear “we want BANT qualified leads” from sales executives who are selling a complex, expensive solution. Thanks, Bob Apollo, for the final word on the 57% (or two thirds) nonsense (well, probably not final – but you said it all… well).

  5. Bob: great piece on an important topic. My two cents:

    Behind many a transaction-oriented buyer is an unarticulated strategy. The more sellers learn to uncover what’s behind the transaction a buyer’s looking to conclude the more likely sellers will save buyers from themselves. As one exec put it to me: we have customers who are confusing a 10-year equipment refresh with a strategy and it’s costing those customers dearly. The trick to this, IMO, is the helpfulness, to the buyer, of their experience with the seller.

    As you put it, being genuinely helpful requires contributing to the buyer’s thinking process, doing so sooner rather than later, learning from what you’re doing [if I haven’t been helpful, for God’s sake at least let me see it’s so], and involving others whose contributions + perspectives matter [like Marketing].

    Want to spice it all up? Do all of the above with added agility.

    Performance analytics can be an accelerant. Use them to:
    – sharpen your read on how well what you’re doing is working
    – gain the curiosity and courage needed to test new approaches
    – design, with your friends in marketing, new conversation-gaining practices to test

    You don’t have any friends in Marketing? Use sales performance analytics to win some. These days, Marketing’s every bit as keen as sales to see sales efforts produce revenues. Marketing will be all over any new analytics that help them see what else they might do to contribute to sales’ successes.

  6. Based on the title, I thought this would be a much-needed screed about self-serving statistics within the sales blogosphere, and our frustratingly weak will to pick the assertions apart, let alone to even question them. I agree with Jill – the ‘57% percent’ finding doesn’t pass the “so what?” test. Never mind that 57% is impossible to really measure, since outside of government, a meaningful standard for what constitutes the beginning or end of a buying process doesn’t exist.

    Beyond this odd statistic – and others that are similarly shaky – are warped assumptions, namely: that the buying process is 57% complete means that knowledgeable, sound decisions have been made, that proper “buyer alignment” means that sales engages for the final 43% of the decision process, that because they have access to information buyers are less befuddled and confused, that salespeople are now marginalized and less important. The list goes on.

    By accepting statistical hype as truth, sales teams go speeding down the wrong pathways. It’s perilous to think that because “buyers have more information than ever” that that equates to more understanding, or even more power. It does equate to the fact that buyers have access to more information than they have had in the past. The key questions for sales strategists are, how does that change the way buyers and sellers engage, and where have new opportunities to create sales value been exposed?

  7. It’s dangerous to act based on a average developed across a variety of situations, industries, etc. If the 57% really reflects how much of the sales process is complete, then some cases are above and below that average.

    Kerry Cunningham, Research Director of SiriusDecisions, recently told me that they have found buyers are completing 67% of their journey online, but that doesn’t mean the buying process is 67% complete. He also noted that online research continues after the first sales contact.

    Furthermore, he said there were variations based on the type of solution under consideration. For established solutionw, more education is done online because there’s more info available. If a prospect is considering replacing an existing solution, or looking at something really leading edge, sales will be engaged earlier.

    Finally, Kerry said that higher level business leaders were less likely to self educate.

    Agree that statistics can be abused and misused, but it has served as a wake-up call to B2B sales that things are changing. Even in complex B2B.

    I would hope that sales leaders would do their own research and not bury their head in the sand and just ignore the statistic, “because it couldn’t possible represent my buyers.”

  8. Bob, great article.

    When I first saw that 57% statistic, I actually laughed. I could not believe anyone could be so precise about the B2B buying cycle, and that they had the nerve to print it.

    I believe there are two major issues for B2B companies trying to sell into complex situations today.

    The first issue is the lack of training for senior sales people, especially those who are now in executive positions, such as VP sales or VP marketing..

    I remember talking to a number of senior sales people back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, who were working for large ERP manufacturers, and they were making $300K to $500K simply by taking orders. All they did was sit by the phone and wait for companies to call.

    Then many of these people were hired by all sizes of B2B companies to become the senior executives for sales and marketing. So when Y2K finished and the Dot.Bomb era arrived, never mind the recession of 2008 to 2010, these people could not react and teach/coach their sales and marketing people how to sell, because they didn’t know how themselves.

    This, of course, produced a conundrum for them, as they didn’t want to appear incompetent to their superiors and their subordinates. So, they tried to teach/coach what they knew, which didn’t work anymore.

    And companies don’t teach people how to sell anymore, like when I was hired by IBM in the mid 70’s and went through a 9 month training program before I even saw a branch or a customer.They expect their new sales people should know how to sell right out of the gate.

    The result is that most sales people don’t really know how to sell in the complex sales situation.

    The second issue is similar to the first, except it is for B2B marketers. Until the advent of the Internet, especially in SMB companies, most B2B marketers were brochure producers, at best.

    They were not lead generators or nurturers, and never had any sales training to understand how the sales process worked, and how they should support that process.

    And now of course, everyone complains about the disconnect between marketing and sales, and how each retains their own silos, barely speaking with each other. That is why marketing budgets are cut when a recession or economic downturn hits.

    Thanks again for such great insight. I just hope buyers of complex products and services are reading these types of articles, and not just us old educated sales people.

  9. Rather than argue with the 57%, or dismiss the stat as a red herring in service of what many think is going on in the world of B2B decision-making, it might be helpful to consider some realities of what is really contributing to it.

    Much of B2B purchasing, especially in larger organizations, is done not by the ultimate user but by procurement groups or individuals. This buying function often extends to responsibility for acquiring multiple products and services, putting great demands on their use of scarce resources, particularly time and money. They still actively engage with vendor sales staff; however, like we are seeing with showrooming (in both B2B and B2C purchasing), procurement staff are frequently metering time spent in selection into reviewing and considering via devices such as readily available content.

    Content acquisition and review, largely on a self-managed basis, most typically occurs in the initial stages of the decision journey,:

  10. Spot on, Bob. As you said, it isn’t that the buyer’s journey is mostly over by the time they are in contact with potential providers. Rather, buyers continue to self-educate even when/ after they are in touch with providers. This suggests that marketing isn’t done influencing buyer journeys at the moment sales and a prospect interact. Instead, have the opportunity to influence buyer’s throughout the buyer’s journey (and beyond).


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