Try this Method to Uncover Your Customer’s B2B Buying Process

By Aldwin Neekon

sales strategies, b2b buying process, people around a table

Your customer’s B2B buying process matters. If you know how your customers do business, you’ll be more successful selling to them.

That’s my assertion.  I have no infographics to back it up, and your experience may vary. 

But it makes sense. Better B2B customer research should lead to better sales and marketing results, right? It makes sense that if that customer research includes mapping out their B2B buying process it can pave the way to smoother sales, and it matches what I’ve seen happen at the companies I’ve worked with. 

How do people in your market segment want to buy what you’re selling?

Here’s a start:

  1. Take a day to clear your head of preconceptions about how you think your customers buy.
  2. Ask your best salespeople and your industry’s best salespeople how they guide customers toward a successful sale.
  3. Ask your customers and other people’s customers what needs to happen before your product can be purchased and successfully used at their company.
  4. Compare the first set of answers to the second.
  5. Test what you’ve learned.

How does this relate to the B2B buying process models you’ve read about?

It’s all in the details.

Take for example John Dewey’s 5 steps in the buyer’s purchase decision, first published in 1910 (we’ve been solving this problem for a while now).

  1. Problem/Need recognition
  2. Information search
  3. Evaluation of alternatives
  4. Purchase decision
  5. Post-purchase behavior

Here’s one way it could go:

  • Ask your biggest champion at a potential client how they buy.
  • Hear her say “Once you give me a firm quote on the price we’ve agreed on for the features we need, I just need to get a PO generated and we’re good to go.”
  • You seem to be in stage 4 of 5! Set the deal to 80% in salesforce and send her the quote.
  • Six months later the deal has gone nowhere.  Set it down to 5%.
  • Lose credibility with your boss and try to ignore the layoff rumours.

What about more recent models of the B2B buying process?

The more recent models of the buying process won’t help you avoid this scenario either.  Some describe the B2B buying process as a linear path. Some describe it as a B2B buying journey. Some describe it as a B2B buying cycle.

You’ll notice Gartner’s B2B buying journey stages sound familiar: “These buying jobs generally fall within four categories — problem identification, solution exploration, requirements building and supplier selection”

These are all decent models, but their job isn’t to point out the details that can ruin a sale. All models simplify a complex situation. In B2B sales, the details skimmed over by these models can make or break a deal. You need to figure out what the details of the B2B buying process are for each customer that you sell to.

(By the way, I’m not even 100% comfortable calling it a “B2B buying process”.  Calling it a “process” makes it sound like one step leads to the next.  In a lot of companies, it’s a lot messier than that.  Maybe we need to call it a buying checklist.  A list of requirements have to be met, but the order may vary.)

Here’s an example.  A colleague was telling me about a sale they lost.  They had a champion, the “users” wanted the solution, the CFO issued a PO, all they had to do was install it.  But the IT team wouldn’t install it because their leader felt slighted.  They hadn’t shown him the respect he felt he deserved early in the project.  So he delayed and delayed.  He always found more urgent things to occupy his team with.  End result: the customer lost interest.  The PO lapsed.  The deal was lost.

Most B2B buying process models don’t have a step called “Respect the IT team’s authority.”  But it’s this kind of thing that will sink your deals, or even worse, put them in limbo.

If you skimmed the rest, here’s the main thing:

“Ask your customers and other people’s customers what needs to happen before your product can be purchased and successfully used at their company.”

It’s the “successfully used at their company” part, enlightened by a cautious respect for company politics and human nature that could have saved my colleague’s deal.

How do you map out a B2B buying process?

You get your team together and ask how we first met the customer, or any contact at the customer. Then you ask “And then what happened”? You ask this again and again and write down the answers. Then you repeat the process for a second and a third and a fourth customer. By the time you’ve done a few of these you’ll start to see patterns emerge.

Pattern 1: Where does the customer get stuck?

When the customer gets stuck is it because you were missing collateral? Did you have to run to marketing and ask for a rush update to a presentation? Did you have to beg someone senior to intervene?

A lot of the time you can anticipate and avoid this obstacle in two steps:

  1. Create whatever content you need to address the problem that leads get stuck on
  2. Warn the lead that they’re going to get stuck.

It might sound like this: “When we work with companies like yours, what we find is that sometime in the first 2 months your CFO will ask for these numbers. We have those right here. I can take you through them any time. When your CFO asks, either we can present the numbers, or I can equip you with our deck so you can share them yourself.”

You reduce their stress, and you reduce delays.

Pattern 2: When do they loop you back to the start?

At one of my clients, this was happening after the second more detailed demo call. The lead would watch the first demo and say they wanted to see a more detailed demo illustrating their specific use cases. My client would create the demo and book the time in a few weeks. The client would watch the demo, be really impressed, and say “You know who else should see this? Bob in accounting.” And my client would get looped back to the start of the demo process, wasting weeks waiting to get onto Bob’s calendar.

We started avoiding this in a few ways. One way was to let them know that at other accounts like theirs, someone from accounting usually wanted to see the demo. That would sometimes get them to invite Bob, avoiding the delay.

Patterns like these will reveal themselves when you go through the Buyer Journey mapping exercise.

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