The world around us is shifting—in virtually every way. Savvy sellers have caught on to the fact that B2B buying behavior is changing as well.
The economic downturn has had a lingering impact on the market. Corporations have caught on to new ways of staying lean and reducing costs while maintaining productivity. Coupled with the rise of the Internet and the abundance of information available to buyers, business is being conducted differently than it was just twenty years ago.
As a former buyer, corporate executive, management consultant and trainer, I've been at the forefront of observing these changes as they happen. And make no mistake: the world of buying (and selling) will never be the same again. If you're still longing for the "good old days," perhaps now the time has come to move on and embrace the new reality.
So what exactly has changed? Here are 5 changes in B2B buying behavior you need to know about and how you can deal with each.
- The Rise of Procurement
In the past, it was simpler.
Buyers and sellers interacted directly with each other, without much involvement from anyone else—with a possible exception of an economic decision-maker who good-naturedly put a (rubber) stamp of approval on the deal.
Procurement was a function on the margins of corporate reality, mostly put in place to facilitate the buying of commodity goods and services.
In today's cost-sensitive, buyer-driven markets, many corporations have caught onto the potential for significant cost savings by involving procurement in the purchasing process, and giving it a central, strategic role.
This seems like bad news for sellers. It doesn't have to be.
Many procurement professionals understand there is only so much pressure you can put on price before something has to give (usually quality). They recognize their responsibility to not only pick the cheapest, but the best solution. Some of the more advanced professionals even turn out to be pretty good partners if you manage to win their trust and build a positive, mutually rewarding relationship.
- The Quest for Collaboration
In our research, What Sales Winners Do Differently, we discovered that the number two factor that makes buyers decide to work with one firm versus another is because "the seller collaborated with me."
Today's buyers are well-educated and often aware of the various options available to them. They tend to have a clearly articulated opinion about what it might take to address the challenges they’re facing.
What they seek, therefore, is not simply information, which they already have in abundance. They're looking for a sparring partner—someone who can help them find the best way to move forward, and cut through the complexity of the decision making process itself.
In today's market, sellers who win have a broader "bird's eye" view of the situation, and can act as external, independent advisors to counterbalance the buyer's own views.
If you're still holding onto a command-and-control take on the sales process, I encourage you to see things differently: today's buyers fiercely resist any attempts to control them, instead seeking collaboration and peer-to-peer exchanges.
- The Changing Nature of "The Act of Selling"
The term "selling" used to be synonymous with things like delivering a pitch presentation, pleading your case, and convincing a buyer to see your point of view—which was that they needed to buy, and they needed to buy from you.
A sales career was often forged on the ability to convince and persuade above all else.
When I closely observe the very best of sales professionals today, an alternative picture emerges: that of a trusted advisor, a peer, equal in every way to the buyer. Many are highly educated with extensive track records and degrees from leading business schools. They provide insight and speak with credibility and gravitas about emerging industry trends, the global economy, and the context in which their clients operate. They're knowledgeable about the latest trends in technology and business.
They are more like high-end management consultants than salespeople.
There is little doubt in my mind that in response to trends in B2B buying behavior, the sales profession has raised the bar, producing a new breed of knowledgeable, elite sellers who rise above the rest.
- The Rising Role of Risk
About a decade ago, the notion of risk in any corporate purchasing decision—though present—was a minor factor.
Buying decisions mostly came down to selecting the right partner to work with and perhaps putting in place some service level agreements or KPIs, alongside a contingency plan if things went wrong.
Today, the notion of risk is front and center in virtually every buying decision. The more sellers try to sweep it under the rug, the more buyers become suspicious about their true motivations and trust goes out the door.
Savvy sellers not only discuss the notion of risk openly, but they are proactive in bringing it up. They will often highlight potential areas of risk before the buyer does, and suggest ways of mitigating, eliminating, or somehow reducing the impact of the risk.
Contrary to popular wisdom, risk is your friend. If you can demonstrate how you are able to reduce the amount of risk in a buying decision, you not only have successfully differentiated yourself from the pack, but you are likely to stand out as a shining example of a professional, reputable, and trustworthy seller.
- The Commoditization of (Virtually) All Industries
A day hardly goes by without me hearing from a client about how their margins are increasingly under pressure. Their services have turned into mere commodities in the eyes of prospects. Their profits are being squeezed in a thousand different ways—and often by the very clients already doing business with them.
Many of them think this is new, or in some way unique. It isn't.
Virtually every industry I work with is experiencing these same challenges. From management consulting to staffing to technology to banking to legal services, life seems tougher than before. Buyers are more demanding, negotiate more fiercely, and put more pressure on price (down) and scope (up).
But let's take a different perspective: what if we were to think of this as simply a normal evolution towards the next stage of business? An invitation to reinvent ourselves, and come out with a range of truly new and differentiated products or services? An exciting opportunity to develop a value proposition that sets us apart from our competitors in a crowded market?
It might be time for sellers to face the truth: if every buyer on the planet fails to see how you are different from your competitors...maybe you simply aren't.
There is no doubt that B2B buying behavior is changing and will continue to do so for years to come. The sooner sellers face the truth and change the way they sell, the sooner they will start to keep up.