Blog post

The High Cost of Buying Complexity

By Hank Barnes | October 24, 2017 | 3 Comments


Last week, I attended the CEB Sales and Marketing Summit.  This was my first chance to see my new colleagues in action, with clients.   The event was excellent, with a great spirit of collaboration that develops based on the model of leadership councils.   I will  be sharing some of my thoughts from the event in a few upcoming blogs, starting with this one.

I share a passion for understanding the challenges that B2B companies face when making buying decisions.  Its fundamental to becoming a more effective B2B provider.    And the research from the event continues to shine a light on the challenges for buyers.  Yes they have more power, more information, and more knowledge.   But they also have more people wanting input into the detail, more uncertainty about what information to trust, and more challenges building consensus.

In fact, as the figure below shows, on average, it takes B2B buying teams twice as long as they anticipate to complete a purchase decision!


Furthermore, and this is really important, it also takes them almost the same amount of time to make a purchase as it does to decide to do nothing (see figure).


Both of these facts are alarming–and not just for vendors.   For B2B buying teams, it means that they are likely spending twice as much to make a buying decision—spending valuable resources that could be applied elsewhere.   And, in many cases (our research shows that 94% of buying teams have made the “no decision” decision), they are spending resources that ultimately result in nothing.  A case could be made that something was learned during the no decision experience, but I suspect that, in many cases, it was just an inability to get everyone to agree to progress, with little true, reusable knowledge gained.

I spoke to one attendee about this.  She was in a sales enablement leadership role for a large financial institution and spoke about when the shoe was on her foot–trying to purchase technology for her organization.   The frustration in her voice was palpable when she described a purchase that took two years.   I asked when she knew the direction that she wanted to go.  It turns out that her team knew what they wanted after about 3 months.   It then took another 21 months to get everyone else on board and jump through all the organizational hoops to make it happen.  One of the most challenging parts for her—the vendor risk assessment.    But there were other challenges.   And, there was not much her preferred vendor could do about it with traditional tactics.  Discounting would not help.   More demos would not help.   Special terms would not help.  More competitive positioning would not help.  The “battle” was against organizational inertia and process complexity.

Some of these buying challenges can’t be solved by vendors, but there may be ways to help.  If, we as vendors, can identify buying challenges that other customers have experienced and learn how they overcome them, we can take that to prospects.   We can recognize that just because we’ve convinced they buying team of the value of changing, we have not done it for all the influential parties.   To help, we can provide tools to our supporters that make the case for change–and highlight the opportunity costs of delays.  We can offer to accelerate things by running activity streams in parallel, building momentum in multiple areas versus trying a sequential approach.

To accelerate our sales cycles, we need to help customers ease the pain of buying.  It won’t be easy, but it’s a critical focus area.

Leave a Comment


  • Hi Hank – thanks for documenting something that many B2B companies already felt was the case. Curious – how are you defining the stop and end point of your timelines? Are you starting at initial interest, budget or engaging vendors? Are you ending at supplier decision, contract negotiation or contract signing? I’ve seen many cases where the procurement/legal process timeline can exceed the vendor selection timeline.

    • Hank Barnes says:

      Thanks Matt. This research comes from CEB, so I am not familiar with the exact definitions. In my mind (and I suspect their model would agree), the buying cycle ends when the contract is signed. And then what we call the owning cycle begins. Agree that the procurement/legal timeline can take that long–but that is still time where the customer is not getting value from the solution. And, it could be a source of the problem. Many buyers may not be aware of the details of the “last mile” of buying and think that once they make a choice and get budget approval, they are done. Then they are surprised by the further delays. On the other end, the buying process starts conceptually when there is an inspiration to do consider making a change. This definition does make for long buying cycles, but that is the key measure vs. sales cycle length. And anyone who says a sales cycle ends when a supplier decision is made has not experienced the pain of last minute changes of heart.

      • Matt T. says:

        Thanks Hank – I fully agree. That last mile is usually more painful than many early miles of the journey. I find there are still many large companies that elongate the procurement/contracting process – even if the business organization thinks they are empowered to make the decision on their own. This can be even more rigorous for technology buyers. All good insights – thank you.