One of the most dangerous mistakes we can make as sales people is believing that our customer – and particularly the sponsor we have been working with – knows how to buy.
This might be a reasonable assumption if our prospective customer is buying a familiar solution in a familiar way – for example a repeat purchase from a well-known source.
But if our prospective customer is looking for an unfamiliar solution: something they have not had to buy before – from an unfamiliar source: a vendor they have no previous relationship with, the assumption of buyer expertise is very dangerous.
Buyer unfamiliarity can represent either an opportunity or a threat – depending on how we choose to respond to it...
There are two key dimensions to this buyer unfamiliarity effect, and either or both may be at play: the prospective customer may be unfamiliar with what they need achieve their goals, and/or they may be unfamiliar with how to navigate their own organisation’s buying decision process.
There is a third, less-common class of unfamiliarity: no-one in the buying organisation may have any experience of buying this class of solution before. This used to be common when - for example - organisations had only ever bought on-premise software and were now considering a SaaS based solution for the first time.
Although this is now an increasingly rare scenario, the contractual differences between acquiring on-premise and SaaS based solutions are profound, and many legal and procurement teams used to struggle to get their heads around the radically different commercial and contractual mindsets.
If we find ourselves in a similar situation, we need to identify the challenge early in the sales cycle rather than be hit with an unpleasant surprise at the end, and we need to need to engage and educate the customer’s legal and procurement teams sooner rather than later.
When an individual, a decision group or an organisation is buying an unfamiliar type of solution for the first time, they are likely to be on a steep learning curve. They may assume that the buying behaviours that have stood them in good stead in the past are going to be applicable in this new scenario.
But it is just as likely that they may feel like they are “running in the fog”. They may not have a clear idea of what they really need. Despite their attempts to conduct research over the internet or by asking their peers and colleagues, they may not be clear about their requirements or how to prioritise them.
This may prevent them from achieving stakeholder consensus about what they need to do or to agree on what their shortlisted options should include and thus increase the likelihood that they will ultimately decide to stick with the status quo.
This is where we can and should step in and help. This buying decision may be unfamiliar to them, but we can share how we have helped dozens, hundreds or thousands of similar people in similar organisations to master the complexities and arrive at the right decision.
Without having to resort to “hard-selling” our solution, we can help our prospective customer to shape their decision criteria based on the experiences of others like them. We can educate and inform them and earn ourselves a position as a trusted advisor.
It’s sometimes harder to identify the fact that our potential champion is unfamiliar with their organisation’s own decision-making and approval processes – and if this is unfamiliar territory for them, they may make some unjustifiable assumptions about how easy it is going to be.
Our champion may innocently assume that they are familiar with their organisation’s buying decision processes. But unless they have regularly and recently bought similar solutions, it is very likely that even if they believe they understand the general principles, they may not understand the finer details that can derail the decision process.
This is not just a matter of identifying all the gates in the process or all the people who will be involved. It’s also about ensuring that our champion understands what’s expected from them in the form of a business case or other requirements.
And – in particular if our champion is an inexperienced buyer – we need to help them to recognise that their pet project is likely to be competing for attention and funding with a range of other potential investment opportunities, and that they need to ensure that their project is positioned with the appropriate degree of urgency and relative priority.
Once again, this is where our experience can help. We may not understand the full detail of their organisation’s decision and approval processes, but we have probably got a pretty clear idea where projects like these can potentially go astray and by asking the relevant questions and sharing the relevant insights, we can equip our champion for the journey they are about to undergo.
And, as is likely, if this is the first time that their organisation has bought from our organisation, we need to recognise that questions are going to be asked not just about the suitability of our proposed solution, but also of our credibility as a potential supplier.
Even if we have convinced our champion of our bona fides, we need to recognise that others in the decision loop will want to satisfy themselves of this. And we need to factor in the time taken for us to be verified as an approved supplier into our projected close dates.
If we don’t know how these factors are likely to play out, it is very dangerous to assume that things will evolve smoothly. I expect you can think back to opportunities that you thought were a sure thing to close, only to find that an unanticipated factor or factors emerged at a late stage in the process.
In this, as in so many other aspects of selling, ignorance is not our friend. If we don’t know, we mustn’t assume. We need to make sure that we have the clearest possible picture of how and why our prospect makes buying decisions. And if, as is highly likely, they are not expert buyers, we must make sure that we share our experience and help them.
Isn’t that what being a “trusted advisor” really means?
CEO at Inflexion-Point, the UK-based B2B sales and marketing performance improvement specialists. Inflexion-Point helps B2B organisations to design and implement highly effective customer acquisition systems based on a combination of the winning habits of their top sales performers and the latest industry best practices.