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Everyone is aware that B2B buying is complex. It involves multiple parties over long decision-making cycles. In a large enterprise, this can take months, if not years, and involve dozens of individuals in the buying circle. But new research from CEB, now Gartner, suggests that things are even worse these days: it’s buying gridlock.

I interviewed Brent Adamson, Sales Principal Executive Advisor on Sales, Marketing, & Communications, and got the skinny. He also has a set of good ideas for how “prescriptive selling” can help us get out of this mess.    

1. Your research found a lot of dysfunction in the B2B purchase process. Please explain.

At CEB, now Gartner, we’ve been studying sales and marketing for years, which means that we have deep insights into the challenges within these functions. But interestingly, what we’ve been seeing is that it’s become difficult for customers to buy today. It’s certainly hard to sell, but when you look at it from the other side, it is actually harder for customers to make purchase decisions.

Based on CEB’s latest observations, here is a summary highlighting the dysfunction in the B2B purchasing process:

  • Bigger, increasingly diversified buying groups: It was only 2.5 years ago that we found the average buying group consisted of 5.4 stakeholders. This number is up 26% to 6.8 today, and the average buying group now consists of 3.4 different functions. Diversity also means different tiers within the corporate hierarchy, different geos and different teams. In many cases, these stakeholders have never worked together. Alarmingly, we’re seeing more and more purchases where the customer doesn’t even know who ultimately will be in the decision-making group.
  • Dysfunction runs rampant: As customer buying group diversity goes up, so does stakeholder dysfunction. They are having clear disagreements, avoiding key issues, and reporting that they weren’t being heard.
  • Decision-making takes longer than expected: A full 84% of customers report their purchase process took longer than expected—by nearly double.
  • Even indecision takes forever: The average purchase decision now takes 4.9 months, but shockingly, the average “no purchase” decision takes 4.7 months. So whether your average sales cycle is three months or three years, “doing nothing” takes just as long to decide as “doing something.”

2. Why do you think B2B buying has developed in this way?

The world that we operate in–selling or buying–it’s a world of “more”: more information, more options, and frankly, just more people involved in a purchase decision.

Many observers wrongly conclude that all this “more” empowers customers.  The problem our studies have uncovered is that this “more” is causing decision paralysis.

3. What can a sales team do about it?

Sales teams often think they need to be more reactive. As customers demand more, they need to respond more completely and quicker than their competitors. So it’s a race to become the most responsive supplier.

However, if sales teams respond to all their customer’s demands and requests for more, when the customer is already suffering from information overload, this only makes things worse.

The better solution is to focus on clarity. Sales needs to help customers simplify the buying process. And there is a huge payoff to gain. For customers that report a high degree of “buying ease,” the suppliers selling to them are 62% more likely to win a high-quality sale—a bigger solution, at a wider margin.

Winning sales and marketing organizations have embraced this new reality by focusing significant attention on making it easier for customers to make decisions. They follow four key steps:

  • Map the customer’s buying journey. This goes beyond mere awareness, consideration, preference, and purchase. Instead, leading companies construct supplier-agnostic journey maps of the challenges the customer might face before, during, and after the purchase to identify, for example, when new stakeholders tend to get involved.
  • Uncover challenges and hurdles. Next, they proactively identify the challenges the customer is most likely to face at each of their key decision points. Asking “What is the biggest roadblock to agreeing on the problem? Why do customers fail to agree on a course of action? Why does analysis paralysis set in?” These questions bring up what is hard for the customer’s decision-making process, not what is challenging about buying your solution.
  • Identify fixes. Once potential hurdles are identified, leading organizations design tactical ways to help customers overcome those roadblocks. This might be decision support tools, workshops, diagnostics to help drive consensus, simple advice from sales professionals, or marketing content that helps customers anticipate these obstacles.
  • Track customer progress. Lastly, they track exactly where their customers are on their purchase journey so they can better eliminate obstacles, and help course correct.

4. What can marketing do to help?

Marketing teams often create the content that customers see first, and if this content isn’t in sync with the selling team’s offerings, it can contribute to customer confusion. Marketing teams can help by aligning with sales teams, whether that’s reoccurring meetings to discuss the newest sales offerings or having the sales team review marketing content for their feedback. When customers are considering a purchase, they receive an overwhelming amount of content from vendors. So designing information and deploying content in a way that makes buying easier can be just as powerful as prescriptive selling.

The prescriptive approach is not so much a solution for selling as a solution for buying. The common denominator here is not the sales organization or the marketing organization; it’s the customer organization. And as a result of that, a universal understanding across all commercial activities is established.


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Ruth Stevens

About Ruth Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, and teaches marketing at companies and business schools in the U.S. and abroad. Crain’s BtoB magazine named Ruth one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing. She is the author of Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, and Trade Show and Event Marketing. Ruth serves as a director of Edmund Optics, Inc., the HIMMS Media Group, and the Business Information Industry Association. Learn more at www.ruthstevens.com.

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