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Why You Should Teach Customers How to Buy

It’s not you, it’s them. Here's what you can do about it

Paying Cash in Euros Buying SalesIn many ways the single biggest challenge in B2B sales today isn’t so much a selling problem as it is a buying problem.

Today’s sales rep must deal with an increasing number of customer stakeholders involved in purchase decisions. While this might seem to be a new reality for sales teams, it’s been known about for a while. In a recent poll of CEB members, nearly 80% of sales leaders said that the number of customer stakeholders involved in a typical deal continues to rise.

The average B2B decision-making group includes 5.4 buyers. Salespeople need to get a “yes” from each of these stakeholders to be able to close a deal, and they don’t always know who all of those stakeholders are or what they care about.

To make matters worse, these stakeholder groups are now more diverse than ever before; 75% of respondents say that in any given purchase decision, the stakeholders involved come from a wide variety of roles, teams and locations. This means that each of the 5.4 people involved have, at best, different perspectives and, at worst, competing goals (a business-unit risk manager and a line manager for example).

The Psychology of Persuasion

To put this into context, consider a rep trying to sell an IT product and/or service. In the past they would have had to sell to the CIO and his or her team, but as almost all new IT products and services involve teams from all over a business, the rep must now also pitch to the chief marketing officer, chief operations officer, head of HR, and so on. Plus the fact that so many people will be using the product probably requires a chat with the CFO, the head of procurement, and the legal team.

Each of these stakeholders differs in their priorities, goals, perspectives and even has different levels of knowledge about whatever it is the rep is selling.

All of this can result in conversations where both sides are less sure of themselves than they would once have been in the same situation, and which means they’re less certain about making a purchase decision. According to Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” people exhibit several possible responses when they’re uncertain:

  • Freezing: A reluctance to act or make a choice until the uncertainty is resolved
  • Loss aversion: A tendency to prefer choices designed to prevent losses over choices designed to obtain gains
  • Heuristic choices: When choices are made, they are based on a single, relevant factor rather than a set of relevant factors

Each of these responses leads to “buyer dysfunction,” the inability of a diverse buying group to agree on anything beyond the lowest common denominator of minimal change at minimal cost. Dysfunctional groups are unable to agree on little more than “avoid risk,” “move cautiously,” “reduce disruption,” and “save money.” As any B2B supplier will tell you, good deals are rarely struck with customers who provide that kind of feedback.

What Reps Should Do

CEB Sales research shows that reps’ best response to these ever growing groups of decision-makers is not to sell differently, but to help the customers buy differently.

This seemingly ever-growing group of individuals need to communicate and agree on their shared priorities for whatever it is the product or service can help with. It’s the inability of stakeholders to agree on what problem they want to solve that leads decision groups to default to a common desire to either save their company money or avoid organizational risk.

Further, buying groups that are better at coordinating their individual goals, priorities, and metrics are more likely to interact successfully, and so purchase more ambitious offerings. So while stakeholders in dysfunctional buying groups have diverging mental models, stakeholders in functional buying groups have converging mental models.

Encouraging Convergence

The question then becomes, “How can sales reps encourage convergence among diverse stakeholders?” There are three things that encourage stakeholder alignment.

  1. Provide a common language: Help stakeholders who “speak IT” or “speak marketing” to communicate with one another. This is a crucial part of helping stakeholders identify common objectives and to create greater overlap between stakeholders.

  2. List a collective understanding of individual perspectives: Alignment will not be reached without ensuring that everyone understands not only what each stakeholder wants but why.

  3. Help overcome biases: Being open to consider new ideas requires abandoning both individual biases (e.g., “my team is not agile enough for this change”) and company biases (e.g., “solutions built in house always meet our needs better”).

In essence, convergence is achieved through the process of people learning from one another in order to establish common ground and collective expectations, well beyond simply avoiding risk and saving money. Behavioral psychologists often refer to this as “norming.”


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