The Inquisitive Marketer Archives: B2B Buying is the New B2B Selling

By Aldwin Neekon

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This is the first in our series of posts that were popular on the Inquisitive Marketer website ( which now redirects here.

This one was originally posted on in March 2018. I’ve made minor edits.

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Executive summary: Groups of people are bad at working together to buy things. This article shows how to shorten your B2B sales cycles by figuring out how to help your customers buy from you. If you’re trying to close sizeable deals by selling to a group of people at another company, then the odds are already stacked against you, and you’re exactly who I wrote this article for.

B2B buying is the new B2B selling

I spend a lot of my time helping clients avoid ineffective B2B marketing programs. I do this with a technique that easily identifies which marketing programs are a waste of time and which are worthy of their resources. My technique is so straightforward that you can start with your own team today. Get your entire team involved in identifying the common obstacles your customers face when they’re trying to buy from you. In other words, improve your B2B selling by improving your customers’ B2B buying skills.

This is not about your lead gen, or sales and marketing alignment, or your sales process. This is all about the customer’s buying journey. It’s about taking an empathetic look at the difficult things groups of people at companies you sell to have to do to get their company to buy from you.

Your typical B2B customer needs to get an average of 6.8 people inside their company to agree to purchase from you. And that’s the easy part. The most difficult thing is to get those 6.8 people to actually agree to do anything at all.  The more diverse those teams are, in terms of roles, responsibilities, geography, and so on, the harder this becomes.

The more buyers there are, the less buying there is

If you sell things that one person can put on their credit card without asking anyone else for permission or support, then you have it easier than most. In fact, having only one person involved in a purchase decision makes it 47% more likely that a sale will be made than if two people are involved. The chances of making a sale plummet further if more than five people are involved on the purchasing side.

A B2B buying group is not a buying team

The group of people who work at your customer organization, and who need to agree to a purchase before you can close the deal, are not a team. They don’t have a coach, or a common goal to buy from you, or regular practices where they rehearse the best ways to send you cheques. In other words, they are not a team.

They are individuals who happen to work at the same company. They have their own goals, processes, preferences, headaches, ambitions, and grudges. And there’s absolutely nothing saying they have to even consider buying anything from you. Not only do they not have to play the game with you, they don’t have to play at all. In other words, they’re the opposite of a team. And they don’t have to work together or co-operate. They can save a lot of time by staying with the incumbent vendor, or doing nothing.

Despite all this, your job is to get them all to agree that they have a mutual need for a shared future that can only be achieved, in whole or in part, by purchasing what you’re selling.

It’s your job to turn them into a team whose goals will only be achieved if they buy from you.

What happened to covering your bases?

We’ve known about the group purchase dynamic for a long time. One of the more popular approaches to dealing with this problem, and one I’ve used successfully, is “covering the bases”.

We find out who the influencers and stakeholders are, and make sure we meet with each of them and get them to buy into our company’s vision. We get each of them to agree to buying from us. Each of them has different needs, goals, preferences, and priorities so you’ll need to have a different pitch, a different value proposition, for each of them.

I like this model and I’ve used it for years, but it doesn’t work as well as it used to. The problem is, even when you get a yes from each person individually, the group can decide to say no.

A B2B buying group has a mind of its own

The reason why they say “yes” individually and “no” as a group is because individuals behave differently in groups. A group is different than the sum of its individual parts. Five yeses can equal no, because the group thinks differently than the people who make it up.

There’s a lot of research out there about the way individual behaviour changes in a group setting.

Even more relevant to our goal of accelerating our B2B sales is the finding by CEB that when one decision maker is involved, the purchase likelihood is 81%. By the time we get to the average 6.8 decision makers who are involved in the average B2B sale, the purchase likelihood drops to less than 31%. This doesn’t mean there’s a 31% chance that they’ll buy from you, but that there’s a 31% chance that they’ll buy anything at all.

When we cover the bases by getting individual buy-in from the stakeholders and decision makers, we can make the mistake of dealing with a group sale as if it’s a series of individual sales. With each individual, we can on average set the purchase likelihood to 81%. But this is where the math gets weird. Six people, each with an 81% chance of buying get together and talk themselves down to a B2B buying rate of only 31%.

When Yes+Yes+Yes=No

In a company, one group member might lead the rest to a “no” decision for political reasons, or even personal reasons. Or maybe they’re distracted. We each have a finite amount of energy, focus, and willpower. They might be running low or burned out. Or it might be easier for them to say yes to a vendor than to their peers who are more likely to ask pointed questions.

Or maybe they said yes to you, then thought of an objection that hadn’t occurred to them. They share it with the group, and because you’re not there to address it, the entire group flips their votes from yes to no. The point is, there are nearly endless ways for things to go from an individual yes to a group no.

Do we turn a “B2B buying group” into a “B2B buying team”?

So what are we supposed to do about this? We need to find ways to get the B2B buying group to turn into a team, and make it so that team’s goal is to pursue a future that absolutely cannot be arrived at without purchasing what you’re selling.

The best description of how to do this that I’ve seen is in the CEB’s book “The Challenger Customer“. I’m not an Amazon affiliate, so I don’t make any money from you following that link. But I do think you should read it.

I’ll add a summary of their approach in another article. But right now let’s take a step back and look at the B2B buying journey method I use with my clients.

No matter what level of formalization or alignment you have in your sales and marketing processes I guarantee you will learn something new by doing this exercise. In most cases you’ll learn a few things that will help you prioritize what your marketing and product teams could do that will have an immediate impact on your sales team’s success.

Make the common case fast

The whole process is based on the computer architecture rule of optimization. When I was earning my Master’s degree in computer engineering they would tell us to “Make the common case fast.” In computer design we realize that there are tradeoffs to every design decision. You can’t optimize for everything, so you figure out what parts of the system are used most often, and make sure those are fast. That’s how you get the biggest speed increase in your entire system. You don’t spread your bets evenly. You focus everything on the few areas that are going to account for the majority of your work.

In the case of B2B sales acceleration, you focus on the few areas that repeatedly frustrate your customers while they’re trying to buy something from you. Again, this is not about your sales process. It’s about understanding that your customers have a very difficult time getting to “yes” as a group. You have to find out where they’re getting blocked and remove those obstacles. Each obstacle you remove will speed up every single deal of that type. Here’s how to do the B2B Buying Journey exercise.

The B2B Buying Journey Exercise

This is not the same kind of generic buying journey exercise you might have gone through with other consultants. My approach is actionable. It doesn’t spend time defining lots of personas and defining some kind of ideal buying journey. We look at how your customers buy, find out where they get stuck, and remove those obstacles. It moves quickly and gets results immediately.


    1. Pick a few recent challenging accounts that ended up in the win column.Why wins? Looking at lost accounts can get people on the defensive. You don’t want to spend time assigning blame. People tend to be more generous with their ideas and recollections when the story has ended well, and that’s what we’ll need. We can analyze losses later. We’ll have to do that. But for now, let’s start with wins.

    1. Make a spreadsheet with multiple tabs, one per account. On each sheet put the following in column A: Their Buying Stage, Our Selling Stage, Their People, Their Goals, Their Obstacles, Our People, Our Goals, Our Tools, Improvements. That’s one per row.

    1. Do some pre-work. Go through your CRM and fill in the spreadsheet, one column for each interaction with the customer. For example, if your first contact with the customer was a cold call to their CTO, that’s what you put in column B. Leave “Their Buying Stage” empty. Put “Cold call” or “Lead Gen” in “Our Selling Stage”. List their people etc. from the notes in the CRM. Don’t show this to anyone. This is just you doing your homework so in the workshop, if things slow down, you can prompt the conversation with some facts.

    1. Book a meeting room (or Skype or Hangout session) for about one hour per account. Try to keep it to less than 3 hours, with a 10-15 minute break per hour. You want people to stay fresh.

    1. Invite as many customer-facing people as you can. Sales, marketing, product management, account management, professional services, delivery and implementation…invite them all.

The Workshop

    1. Open the blank spreadsheet for account #1. Ask this question: “What was our first interaction with them?” Write down what you hear.

    1. Then say “And then what happened?”

    1. Repeat this until you’re caught up to today for that account.

    1. Each column is one interaction with the customer. Review the columns for interactions that got stuck. Look at the “Tools” row in that column. A tool could be anything that would have helped the customer reach their goal in that interaction. Maybe it’s a brochure, or an ROI calculator, or even a single sentence that sums up the answer to the customer’s burning question. What tools were available? What should have been available? For example, say you’re a private company and the customer’s obstacle at one stage was reassuring their CFO that you’d remain financially solvent, and your response was flying your CFO down to their offices, then a tool you could consider for next time might be to have a trusted accounting firm audit your private financials and share them under NDA.

    1. Repeat for other accounts.

Notice the obstacles and deficiencies that keep coming up. Prioritize these and you have your team’s to-do list. These are the things on which you can start running sales experiments. Validate with customers, provide the tool, and start measuring the impact it has on sales velocity.

This is absolutely transformative

First of all, it gets everyone involved. It’s not sales demanding urgent support mid-funnel. It’s your whole company coming together to figure out how to better prepare and enable your sales team to succeed. It gets marketing to shift focus away from top of the funnel activities to revenue generating activity.

This is a huge shift for marketing. How well does this following describe your marketing team?

    • They work incredibly hard to create qualified leads.

    • They hand the leads to sales.

    • Sales hits obstacles with the way the customer wants to buy, and asks urgently for marketing’s help.

    • Marketing does its best, but nobody does great work at the 11th hour.

    • The deal stalls. Or the deal fizzles altogether.

The verdict? Sales needs more and better leads from marketing! But this is misleading. Sales doesn’t need more leads as much as it needs the resources to close the leads it already gets.

B2B leads are finite

Great leads are finite. This is specially true in the B2B world. You don’t have millions or billions of consumers to target. You have thousands, maybe even only a few hundred companies in your target market. Because of this, it is worth much more to your bottom line if marketing can help turn the leads you already have into revenues.

Here’s another way to look at it: Leads are potential revenue. Revenue is actually revenue. Which would you prefer? My clients pick actual revenue over potential revenue every time. If you shift your marketing team to contribute more to actual revenue, they will get more respect and be happier. And your whole company will accelerate its success.

Shorter demos and faster pipelines

How does this buying journey exercise work in real life? I’ll publish a follow-up with some client examples, but feel free to call me in the meantime and I’ll tell you. Reach me at 647-479-5856 or contact me here.

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