Blog post

Critical Selling Skill – Learning (and Sharing) How Customers Buy

By Hank Barnes | April 17, 2018 | 3 Comments


In today’s B2B technology selling environment, there is a critical selling skill that can make the difference between success and failure.  While it’s easy to focus on why customers buy, in the face of increased competition it may be more important to understand how customers buy.


Competition, as I’ve discussed in the past, comes in many forms:  the competitors for the opportunity your are working is the obvious one, but the bigger competitors may be other projects and inertia (i.e. sticking with the status quo).

With more and more purchases being considered, and more and more people (in varying roles) involved in buying efforts,  understanding why a customer will buy is not enough.   Proving you can provide value and help them achieve the results they are looking for is not enough.

You have to help them complete the purchase.

To do this you need to study how they buy.    Work to uncover who is involved in purchases of things similar to what you offer.  Learn when they are involved and what they are responsible work.  Work to uncover the formal steps they must complete.

  • Do they have to do a security review?
  • Do they have to issue an RFP?
  • Do they complete a trial or a POC?
  • Does procurement and vendor management get involved?
  • Legal reviews?
  • Business case preparation (and adjustment)
  • and the list could go on and on.

In recent Gartner research, we presented respondents that had been involved in buying efforts with a list of 12 or thirteen common steps.  Most of them were things that logically should be done.  But only 4 or 5, on average of them were identified as “always performed.”  And that list varied.  Others were performed often or occasionally.

Fundamentally, we interpret this as buying teams not always knowing the exact steps that have to be taken.  And when uncertainty exists, delays happen.  When delays happen, priorities shift.  When priorities shift, opportunities can disappear.

You can help the customers that want your solution in these situations–help them avoid it happening.

How?  Study common buying patterns and guide them on what other customers (that have successfully completed purchases) have done.   Help them get in front of the situation.

Think about, when a customer is buying a solution like yours, they are doing it once every few years.  You are involved in buying processes for every one of your opportunities.  Study patterns and you become an expert.  Share things that work (I hesitate to call them best practices).  Collaborate with others on the sales team to continually refine this and embrace it as a key part of your selling process–teaching your customers how to buy.

Let’s face it, in technology, products increasingly have similar capabilities.   Any product that is worth it’s salt can produce value.   You can standout by making your customers’ buying efforts easier.

Make understanding how your customers buy a key part of your sales arsenal.  I’m confident you’ll win more deals and accelerate your sales efforts–and create a memorable, positive customer experience.  I’ll be discussing this in more detail at the Gartner Tech Growth and Innovation Conference later this month in San Diego.

Leave a Comment


  • Goron Hogg says:

    Great post. Nice to know that I’m not the only voice in the wilderness on this issue.

    Buyers are stuck How to Buy NOT What to Buy. Until the right voices on the decision team have weighed-in and agreed internally, they’re not buying anything.

    You’ll never hear a buyer say “we couldn’t figure out how disruptive your SW would be on peoples jobs, internal politics, historical decisions and cultural norms etc. but we decided to spend $500K now and manage the fallout later”.

  • The number one selling problem I witness is when the seller’s sale cycle is out of synch with the buyer’s buying process.

  • Great post. To your already broad scope of competitors, let me add one category: All vendors who can provide a solution to the pain area faced by the prospective customer. I use the example of a retailer facing pilferage problem to illustrate this point. A vendor selling RFID solution might consider only other RFID solution suppliers as competitors. But that’s not true. Just as there’s more than one way to skin a cat, the pilferage problem can be solved in many other ways that don’t involve RFID. A staffing services company may push doubling of warehouse security guards as the best practice to cut down pilferage. A CCTV provider may position better surveillance via CCTV mesh as the panacea to cure the pilferage problem. Ergo, the staffing company and the CCTV company both become competitors of the RFID company.