The Playing Field has Moved, and We’re Not on it

The Conference Board recently did a study of more than 1400 B2B organizations and found that on average, those companies completed 60% of their purchasing process—researching solutions, ranking options, setting requirements, benchmarking pricing and so on—before having a conversation with a supplier. I read several reports from numerous sources over the past few months that make a similar claim.

Sales organizations get a bad reputation for being too reactive and not proactive enough. While I think it’s an unfair stigma, in the cases when we are truly reactive, this dynamic might explain why. Have buyers gotten that far ahead of sellers? An effective seller used to meet a potential buyer early in the process—helping identify an opportunity, explore options and so on. According to this research, it suggests that the playing field has moved and we (sellers) are not on it. Are we relegated only to the final stages of a customer’s buying process?

My wife Donna happens to be a procurement executive for a leading pharmaceutical company—we often talk about the evolving enterprise buying patterns. Donna supports the fact that a shift has taken hold. However, she goes on to say that purchasing is no longer a straight line or sequential process—rather, it’s a journey that can move in any direction until a purchase is finalized. A buyer might do research online and then rank and stack options before calling a prospective supplier. However, that does not mean they won’t revisit decisions which have already been made. The key is to give a buyer what they are looking for, exactly how they are looking for it, before trying to move them off a solution or consider an alternate approach.

This is a shift, in my book. Enterprise buyers want what they want—and they want it immediately. Accenture nicely captures this trend with a one-liner saying “The B2B experience and industry is being highly influenced by the B2C market.” Would we tolerate the B2B buying experience in our personal lives?

The implication to sellers is that we need to quickly understand where, exactly, buyers are on their purchase journey. We also need to be flexible. We must be prepared to take a step back or be ready to quickly move forward. In this new paradigm, sellers need to carefully strike the balance between inquiry and advocacy and pivot in one direction or the other when necessary. If a client wants a quote in a first meeting/call—should we give it to them? In this new model, a quote/proposal does not necessarily mean you’re at the end of the sales cycle.

Let’s face it. Most B2B companies are too difficult to buy from. I’ve worked for and with some of the highest-performing companies in the world. I’ve advised some fast-growing B2B upstarts. We’re all painted with the same brush. We’re not transparent enough, agile enough or fast enough until later in the selling process. Many B2B organizations are stuck in a very traditional style of selling where information is closely guarded and regarded as its most valued asset. The philosophy goes something like this: I have information or access you need, and you must go through me to get it—on my terms. In the new style of buying, information is an easily acquired and traded commodity while a positive purchase experience is a highly valued currency. Buyers have changed the rules and they moved the playing field. If we don’t quickly adapt, we won’t get in the game anymore.

What do you think?