I coined the term Buying Patterns decades ago to explain the route people take to becoming buyers: Buying Patterns: the sequence of 13 steps people take between discovering a problem and choosing/buying a solution as they seek to resolve a problem in a way that minimizes disruption to their culture.
A buying decision is a change management problem well before it is a solution choice issue. People don't want to buy anything; they want to resolve a problem in the least disruptive way. Indeed people only become buyers when they’re certain they cannot resolve the problem using familiar resources, and explore every avenue to fixing the problem themselves first. Buying anything is the very last thing people do.
In case you’re one of those sales folks who try to motivate a sale by pushing your information, or lowering the price; or you’re wondering why your prospect isn’t returning calls or in the pipeline for so long; or thinking they’re in pain; this is what’s going on: they’re doing necessary work behind the scenes to find the most efficient route to resolving their problem in a way that ensures maximum buy-in and the least disruption.
I can’t say this enough: people buy only if they’ve determined they cannot fix a problem themselves with known resources AND a purchase will ‘cost’ less than the cost of the disruption they’re facing in their status quo.
This article lays out what people go through en route to buying anything, regardless of need or the efficacy/size/price of the solution, whether buying a new car, choosing an external trainer, buying software or a new phone, or deciding on family therapy. And because they’re recurrent and generic, I consider these steps to be a pattern.
I don’t understand why ‘pain’ is so often paired with why/how buyers make buying decisions. Indeed, the ‘pain’ issue has been invented by sellers who assume potential/targeted buyers would function better if they bought the seller’s solution, and by not buying they’re obviously in pain. This is bogus.
A buying decision is a systems issue; it’s not a pain thing. If adding an external/new solution causes too many problems that the stakeholders believe will leave them worse off, they will not buy regardless of their need or the efficacy of your solution. They must weigh all the issues involved and get buy-in from the stakeholders before any action is taken or not. And the sales model doesn’t enter into this Pre-Sales, hidden, unknowable area as it’s not product/solution-related. But with a different hat on, it’s quite easy to be involved and facilitate the route to a purchase.
David Sandler called me in 1993 to buy me out before he died. He said he’d made an error stating that ‘buyers are liars’ and saying ‘buyers are in pain’, stating that after reading one of my books, and looking at the problem from the buying decision/change management side, he finally understood the focus should be on facilitating the buying steps. “I thought I had gone outside the box with Sandler Sales; I realize now I was still considering sales from a solution placement perspective. I didn’t understand how far outside the box I needed to go to include the buying decision process.”
Think about it. Before you buy a new car, you try to fix the one you have; make sure you’ve got the funding; try to sell the current one; make sure your spouse is in agreement, etc. You don’t start off with a purchase, regardless of the problems with your current car. Or in business, if you need a new CRM system, for example, you don’t begin by buying a new system: you begin by meeting with the managers and users to determine why the current system is problematic; trying to get the current one fixed; finding workarounds to try to resolve the problem easily; and making sure that there’s a process in place to manage any user, technology, training, time disruption that might come with bringing in new technology. Again, buying anything is the very last thing that happens.
Choosing a new solution is a systems problem that involves careful orchestration, even when some of the process is unconscious. As a frustrated sales person, I developed a new model called Buying Facilitation® to make the journey through the steps of change, choice, and buy-in, conscious. I’ve identified each step and carefully defined what’s involved in each step to make it possible to intervene in any segment so sellers can assist people in navigating the journey first, before trying to sell anything. This sequence – Buying Facilitation® first, sales second – ensures you’ll find (and quickly close) a much larger number of people who WILL buy (rather than those who SHOULD buy) and keep you from wasting time on those who will never buy (but you think they ‘should’ because you think they’re ‘in pain’).
People who may become buyers must do this anyway, and due to the solution-placement focus of the sales model and avoidance of all things ‘change management’, do it by themselves as we sit and wait. But we can find the people who WILL buy on the first call, and help them traverse their journey. But we need a different hat on before we begin selling. Again, we wait while they do this anyway – why not add a new skill set before selling, and then just sell to the ones who will buy?
Here’s a simple story to explain what’s going on behind the scenes.
In 1995 I was running a Buying Facilitation® training at IBM. One day my client asked me to help enlist a new Beta site for one of their new systems. There was a small ‘Mom & Pop’ shop (i.e. family run business) located nearby, and from their records they knew this company was using a system far too small for the growth they’d incurred over the past years, causing very slow response times. Letting them have a free new system in exchange for IBM having them close by to test, would be a win/win. But even after two sales folks had visited them with the promise of a new, free, system that would substantially speed up their response times, the company had no interest. Could I try to get them to become a beta site?
Here was our conversation:
SDM: Hi there. I'm a trainee calling from IBM and have a question for someone who is using your computers.
SON: Hi. I'm Joe. I'm one of the owners. Maybe I can help.
SDM: Thanks. I wonder how your current system is running?
SON: It's OK.
SDM: I know our folks were out there, offering you a faster system to beta test, and you weren't interested. I'm curious now what's stopping your current system from being better than OK?
SDM: DAD? I don't understand.
SON: I know our system is very, very slow. But my father is in charge of the technology here, and he's 75 years old. He'll be retiring in a year or so, and I don't want to overwhelm him with learning anything new. So I'll make whatever changes necessary after he leaves.
SDM: Ah. So what I hear you saying is that your main criteria is not to overwhelm Dad and don't mind how slow the system is in the meantime.
SDM: You already know we want to give you an upgrade in exchange for being a beta site for us. From what I know about it, they've made it very simple to use and easy to learn. Maybe you and Dad could visit another beta site here in Rye to see if Dad likes it and finds it easy to use? I'd be happy to pick you up and take you there. And if Dad is happy, then maybe you'd be comfortable accepting it to beta test for us?
SON: Oh. I wasn't aware we could do that. Your colleagues were trying to sell me on the features of the new capabilities, and that wasn't my problem. Sure, Dad and I would be willing to go to the beta site. Thanks. Having a quicker response time would be great for us if we could make that happen, and Dad is comfortable with it.
Focused on placing a solution through the strength of the product, through assumed needs and pain, the emphasis was ‘features, functions, and benefits’ instead of the real, unknowable criteria; there was no way an outsider could guess that Dad was the problem that had to be solved. Offering product or price (free) details were moot. The group’s Buying Patterns were systemic, focused on ensuring their culture remained operational. And every buying experience uses the same process, obviously in different scales of complexity.
By overlooking the full set of Buying Patterns to focus merely on placing solutions, sellers automatically restrict their full set of prospective buyers: people who will become buyers haven’t yet decided to go outside for a solution and have no reason (other than research into different ways they can fix the problem themselves) to heed your content/pitch. That’s why content marketing is spectacularly unsuccessful (close rate 0.00059%).
Please understand this: there is no way for outsiders to fully understand what’s going on behind the scenes in any person or group’s route to a decision. We don’t live in the prospective buyer’s environment; we cannot know the system, the relationships, givens, rules or priorities, of the people involved. Until they figure out how they need to resolve their problem, there is no way a seller can determine how, or why, your solution would benefit them; even they can’t know the full fact pattern until they’ve gone through their steps. And your pitching and biased questions, will only uncover the low hanging fruit who have managed the first 9 of their Buying Patterns and already become buyers.
Obviously when it’s time to buy, buyers take very specific actions as they choose one solution over another, choices based on price, reputation/brand of the solution, decision makers, etc. This is when the conventional sales tools of pushing information and content details, explaining features and functions, finding optimal demographics etc. are vital. Selling depends on information sharing. But selling doesn’t cause buying.
I’m aware that many sellers believe Buying Patterns are how buyers buy. But by focusing merely on the final stages when they actually choose a solution, you restrict your ability to facilitate those who will buy but haven’t completed their process and could use your help.
Once you understand and recognize
you can facilitate them through the process to become buyers. Then you can employ your sales strategy as well as your marketing and digital offerings to target each stage. By ignoring this, you’re severely restricting your market.
Here are the Pre-Sales areas folks go through as they become buyers. And note: as outsiders we cannot be directly involved in their internal process, but we can use our knowledge of these steps to facilitate the progression so long as our first focus is to facilitate change:
until or unless every element of the status quo is understood by the prospective buyer, they cannot identify exactly what’s missing. In the Dad example, what was missing was not the computer issue, but the ability to have Dad learn how to support a new one; a delay in purchasing new software is most likely not a technology issue, but might be a recent reorganization, or a merger, or a change in leadership. And an outsider can never, ever understand because they’re, well, outsiders. It’s like asking someone to know if any pieces are missing in a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle by looking at the picture on the closed box. Sure, an outsider can know what it will look like when completed, but cannot know if anything is missing until the puzzle is almost completed by the users. This stage includes meetings, research, identifying stakeholders.
RULE: a seller can facilitate someone through the process of recognizing the full fact pattern of givens within their status quo, including the people, culture, and rules, to help them learn what is keeping them from having an optimal environment. In other words, help people, in a way that does not bias their discovery, recognize if anything is missing from their status quo. Until or unless they can see this in an unbiased way, they will prefer to maintain their status quo. And posing questions biased by a seller’s need to place a solution cannot do this. The focus must be to facilitate change, first.
Until or unless everyone involved with creating the problem and using any new solution is brought in, the full problem set cannot be understood. Too often only recognized leaders take the lead, or only one person recognizes a problem and fights with the status quo to be willing to change (This is often the one person we speak with, and we can’t really know if s/he’s speaking for the entire Buying Decision Team or just for him/herself, even if we ask.). Everyone’s voice must be included – Dad, and Joe in accounting. This stage includes meetings to determine who will touch the final solution and agreement as to how to involve them.
RULE: a seller can facilitate a prospective buyer through a discovery to ensure every single stakeholder is included to buy-in to any change. Until all folks who will touch the final solution are included, there is no way for them to understand their needs. Speaking with anyone about needs before this has occurred is a waste of time (i.e. all those names on your call back list and pipeline].
Speaking with anyone about needs before all folks who will touch the final solution are included is a waste of time (i.e. all those names on your call back list).
Until it’s fully understood that the problem cannot be resolved with anything that’s already been accepted by the culture – other departments or items, familiar vendors or products – and all workarounds have been tried, they will never consider bringing in anything brand new as it will be disruptive to the culture. It’s a systems thing: systems work hard at maintaining their status quo (homeostasis) as anything new runs the risk of creating problems by not fitting in. This stage includes internal research, and delegating folks to outreach for familiar resources: can our old vendors fix this? Do our colleagues know anyone they respect? Can the other department help? Until a workaround is sought and dismissed, there will be no initiative to make a purchase.
RULE: people never start off seeking an external solution but must try to fix the problem themselves. Sellers can help folks discover how to fix their own problem: What’s stopping you from using the vendors you used last year? Have you tried getting help from other departments? They are going to do this anyway as it’s part of their process. They’ll do it when you hang up, in fact. Either you help them through this, or are relegated to sitting helplessly while they do it themselves as you continue to think they’re prospects and put them in your pipeline. By helping them, you can provide further support and help them speed up their own process. In reality, this is the simplest stage, as if they could fix it, they would have done so already.
Once folks realize that :
1. They have a problem that all stakeholders have fully defined and agree is a problem;
2. They cannot fix it themselves;
then it's necessary to go "outside" for a solution.
This is the most problematic step in the Buying Pattern because anything new will cause some sort of disruption: technology might not integrate; users must agree to use and get trained; familiar patterns of use will be scrapped for new routines; people fallout must be managed.
The cost of the new must be calculated against maintaining the status quo – if they are going to have to fire a whole department when bringing in new software, is it worth it just to speed up their output? When they figure this element out, they’re ready to choose a solution. This stage includes lots of research within the group/company/family to ferret out problems that change would incur, and figuring out the cost of each.
RULE: facilitate people to recognize what might be in jeopardy if something new is brought in. Until they weight the risk between the status quo vs a fix, and can calculate that bringing something new is has a lower cost than maintaining the status quo, they cannot buy anything as the risk is too high.
This is the last stage - where sales usually enters! Once it’s calculated that it will cost less to bring in a new solution than maintaining their status quo, AND there is buy-in from the stakeholders, they become buyers. This is the low hanging fruit. These folks are ready for a pitch because they know how to manage the change and understand the costs of buying something. This stage involves sellers pitching, content marketing, website design, etc.
These elements comprise Buying Patterns. And to lead folks through these stages I my ‘new sales paradigm’ Buying Facilitation® uses a new form of question called a Facilitative Question that avoids any bias from the Asker and leads people through their Buying Patterns steps to design their own, unique, solution criteria that can then be easily matched by our products.
So one question for the Managing Change phase might be “How will you and your Buying Decision Team go about identifying the elements a new solution would need to include, to avoid disrupting your status quo?” instead of “Let me tell you how my product can help you fix that.”
First facilitate their journey through their Buying Patterns, facilitate Buyer Readiness – and THEN sell to those who are ready. You’ll avoid chasing people who will never buy, and speed up the buy cycle for those who will buy. And you’ll get results: my students using Buying Facilitation® close 40% against the control groups closing 5% using the same list and the same solution. By focusing on the tail end of the Buying Decision Path, sellers restrict their close rate by a factor of 8.
I always ask: Do you want to sell? Or have someone buy? They are two different activities. People become buyers ONLY when there is no way to resolve their own problem AND they know the cost of bringing in something new. There will be NO purchase until the entire series is handled somehow, even on a small item purchase. It has nothing to do with pain, or the marketing efforts, or the pitch deck, or the product. You’re products are great. The problem is you’re only focusing on those who already show up as buyers and ignore managing the full set of Buying Patterns where a far larger group of real prospects reside.
Note: trying to understand these yourself is a frustrating exercise, as we can do little more than pose questions biased by our own curiosity and generally have no way to even consider the unique situations within each potential prospect’s environment, i.e. Dad.
I understand that the sales industry doesn’t consider these elements part of the sales process. Sales continues to assume a purchase is based on how we position our solutions, when in fact that relegates us to picking off the few who show up. Let’s help those who will/can buy, facilitate them through their Buying Patterns, and when it’s time, THEN pitch to those who are ready to buy it.
I know you’re all getting accustomed to the definition of Buying Patterns now circulating. But by forgetting the original intent of the term, you overlook the change management portion of Buying Patterns: by merely focusing on the low hanging fruit, you’re missing an opportunity to prove your value by facilitating them through the process. By focusing on this small group, you’re losing the opportunity to facilitate that percentage of people on your lists will become buyers once they get through their Pre Sales change issues. You can speed it up with them, help them get it right, and then be there when they are ready to buy.
Shift the focus from selling based on the value of the solution, to first managing change: It’s a wholly different initiative and strategy using different terms, different goals, different outcomes and a different set of skills (i.e. Listening for systems Facilitative Question, etc.) . Because net net, until people understand the entire range of internal issues that will be activated as a result of adding something new, nothing will be purchased. It’s not about your solution. And as long as you continue to merely focus on that final element, you’ll only close the 5% you’re currently closing.
People who will become buyers must go through this process anyway, regardless of their need or the efficacy of our solution. But they do this without us, as we wait, hope, push, and pitch, and lose an opportunity to both serve and differentiate ourselves. We assume they’re in pain because they’re not responding to our efforts.
Instead of the time and resource we use pushing content, why not use a different skill set (i.e. Buying Facilitation®, or some form of facilitation model that’s manages change) first to help them become buyers. Using a change management focus at the beginning you’ll even be able to recognize who WILL become a buyer on the first call, reducing your prospecting time to one quarter the time you’re now using, and close 40% of the list you’re now closing at a 5% rate.
Membrain note: In the next article on this topic, we'll dive deeper into the 13 steps all buyers must take before they make a purchase, whether you want it or not.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is an original thinker, inventor of Buying Facilitation®, Facilitative Questions, 13 steps of systemic change, and the HOW of change. Author of the award-winning blog sharon-drew.com and 9 books including the New York Times Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity, Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell and WHAT? Did you really say what I think I heard? Sharon-Drew trains, coaches, speaks in several industries, including sales, healthcare, communication, change, Servant Leadership. She lives on a houseboat in Portland, Oregon, USA.
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