You can’t sell if you don’t know how they buy

Buying process

Sales process

It is one of the most fundamental and important propositions in major account selling – you can’t sell if you don’t know how people buy.   Ask any top performing salesperson and they will paint a comprehensive picture of the customer’s buying process.  Ask an average performers and they will provide only a sketch.

Because of the foundational nature of this idea, it is always a good idea to pay attention when someone adds new insight about how customers buy.  In a McKinsey article asked a fundamental question – Is the buying cycle linear?  Their short answer was – No.

According to a McKinsey & Co study, the traditional linear sales process – customers take in information; narrow down their choices; kick the tires, and submit the purchase order – is not really how customers buy. Rather, they talk about the Customer Decision Journey that is anything but linear.

The study found that more than 50% of marketing spend is misaligned because of a misunderstanding how customers make buying decisions – as they say that is a problem worth correcting. So let’s take a look at three steps a salesperson could take to start getting it right.

Stop assuming the buying process is a mirror image your selling process.  Most companies have a five or six stage selling process beginning with stages like need recognition and ending with stages such as resolution of concerns and proposal submission.  The processes are almost always linear in depiction.

The first problem, as the McKinsey authors pointed out, is the buying process is often not linear.  Second, the customer may not start at the beginning of your sales process. For example, they may expect that you have a good understanding of their needs hence not want to go through an extended series of discovery conversations.  Third, they may have placed additional emphasis on a stage like evaluation of options so they can engage more people and committees in the buying process.  So you are stalled at Stage 3 and don’t even know why.

Don’t get there too late with too little.  In an HBR article Steve Martin reported on a win-loss analysis study.  He found – “Approximately 30% of the time, the winner of the sales cycle was determined before the official selection process started.  Another 45% of the time, customers had already made up their minds about whom they were going to buy from about halfway through the process.”

This means that 75% of the time, customers make their final decision halfway through the selection process.   Consequently you have to determine early on whether you are chasing a bad business opportunity.  On the other hand, if it is the case where the race can still be won, you need to have a strong first half.

Stop assuming the present can be predicted from the past.  Today we are living and selling in a time of “compressed history.”  Changes driven by the global market and advances in manufacturing technologies make the past a bad predictor of the future.  Companies in many industries are going through transformational changes that are impacting their buying process and in some cases their basic business model.

As a result, competitive advantages that once lasted a long time now disappear quickly.  What you need to do and how you do it during the sales process has to be adjusted and fine-tuned to the new reality.  If you want to prosper assuming what worked in the past will work in the present is a risky assumption.

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About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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One Response to You can’t sell if you don’t know how they buy

  1. brian maciver says:

    “The study found that more than 50% of marketing spend is misaligned because of a misunderstanding how customers make buying decisions – as they say that is a problem worth correcting. ”

    The knack is know WHICH 50%!

    Great Blog, thanks Dick.

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