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The Turning Tide – and why businesses buy

The emotions behind how we make our personal purchasing decisions as consumers are often very well researched by those who seek to sell to us. But professional buying-decisions in industrial markets have their emotional triggers too – and they are changing.

The focus of successful business-to-business sales teams has been moving rather subtly over time. Perhaps you may recognise the following sequence, of how professional selling has developed over the years?

‘Product Focus’
Most industrial sales people, and certainly those who have had any sales training worth its name, have known for years that detailed product knowledge is essential for success. (Even so, lack of product knowledge still tops many league-tables of industrial buyers’ greatest dislikes of the sales people they meet!)

Needless to say, the greater the complexity of a product or service, the more that really knowledgeable sales people can offer to support their customers most effectively and add greatest value. And of course, more corporately, the greater the embedded product knowledge, the easier it has been to know how to differentiate successfully one’s own products services, from all the other competitors.

‘Features – and Benefits’
However, the downside of such an exclusively ‘product-focus’ has always been that it has tended to be feature led. (You can still see this approach at work in many advertisements for some technical products, especially when aimed at technical buyers – and even when aimed at those who may not be technically skilled!) Yet most successful industrial-sales companies know that this approach can be strictly limited.

Accordingly, most professional sales teams have learned to build on their product’s features by making very strong links between each relevant feature and the benefits it may confer, as relevant to each prospect. This has led to a much greater focus on professional ‘benefit selling’, even ‘solution selling’, and quite rightly too. After all, most customers want to buy benefits and solutions to their problems – not ‘features’!

Getting Closer to the Customer
To sell benefits and solutions successfully, however, many companies have found it is essential to know at least as much about their customers’ use and application of their products and services as the customers themselves – and possibly even more. After all, a ‘customer benefit’ is only relevant if the buyer can actually take advantage of it!

Hence the rise of both product-specialist and key-account management teams.

With much greater customer-focus however, has also come the realisation that many industrial buying-decisions are not solely factually-driven, evidence-based alone. Many sellers are increasingly aware that even for their solidly rational, industrial buyers, emotions can have a key role to play in their decision-making, however covertly or implicitly.

Not the least, these emotions may be influenced by trust, respect, confidence, reputation and the quality of any past trading relationships. After all, you don’t see many buyers willingly buying from companies they actively dislike, if they can possibly help it, in any field!

And this is where buyers’ behaviours seem to be changing most dramatically.

Emotions and the Purchasing Decision

Not long ago, the kind of emotions that influenced many industrial buying decisions have typically been:

  • ‘corporate pride’, for example in spear-heading new processes, services or products; and ‘rivalry’, as in ‘let’s keep ourselves ahead of the game’;
  • ‘leisure’, such as ‘will this purchase make all our working lives easier and/or more effective?’; and ‘pleasure’, perhaps by being an early professional adopter of the latest gizmo or technology;
  • ‘loyalty’, most especially to past suppliers and technology; and ‘exclusivity’, for example, ‘we can make advances with this new purchase that none of our competitors can match’;
  • ‘authority’, through our own enhanced reputation and ‘street credibility’; or ‘envy’ – perhaps based on others’!

But especially in the last year, I observe these emotions that influence buying decisions have somewhat changed. Increasingly, the focus now appears to be on:

  • ‘security’, ‘confidence’ and ‘reliability’;
  • ‘safety’, and even (economic) survival.

What to Do?
If this is your experience too, without ignoring all the other elements above in your sales and marketing planning, I strongly recommend you run some simple customer surveys to establish:

  1. Are all our trading relationships in good repair; are we trusted?
  2. What do we want our reputation to be as a supplier, and what is it actually?
  3. Do we always do what we say we will do, right first-time, on-time, all the time and reliably?
  4. Do our products do what we claim they do; do our services support fully support these claims?
  5. What do we already do very well, and is it recognised?
  6. What must we do even better?

There is nothing very new about this, but the key focus has shifted.

So ask yourself:
How can we offer our customers even more security, confidence and reliability?

I wish you all good fortune!

By Jeremy Thorn

Jeremy Thorn has managed both small and large sales forces internationally and is the prize-winning author of ‘The First-Time Sales Manager’, ‘How To Negotiate Better Deals’, and the tips booklet ‘115 Essential Tips on Pricing’. He is a regular guest speaker to experiential business learning® organisation, The Academy for Chief Executives, and others on a variety of practical business topics, including ‘Bringing Home the Bacon’ on ethical sales skills, ‘How to Negotiate Better Deals’ and ‘Team Breakers and Makers’. Jeremy is the past founding-Chairman of QED Consulting and an experienced Non-Executive Director or Chairman of a number of technically-driven businesses in the UK and overseas.

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