The time it takes to make a buying decision

I was lucky enough to be part of a client sales meeting a few weeks back. 40 or 50 salespeople in the room and a handful, maybe seven or eight, corporate customers. I was a small part of the agenda but I was fortunate to be able to ask questions about the sales process. I handed each of the customers a sheet with five short questions to be completed without showing any of the salespeople in the room. One of the questions asked them how long various stages of the buying process typically took.

buy_now_ecommerceFirst off I asked how long from first agreeing internally that a new external purchase was required until first contacting potential suppliers. At the level of a $10-25k expected purchase that period typically varied from two to five months depending largely on the degree of pain experienced and the company bureaucracy.
Secondly I asked how long it generally took them to get down to a preferred two or three suppliers once they’d finally made contact with each candidate supplier. They all agreed less than two hours, though it may take up to two weeks to invest that two hours.
And the third question on timescales, how much time it took them to get back with a “thanks but no thanks” message. They all agreed that only those shortlisted would be contacted “expediently”, that for the majority it may take an additional two weeks and to those who were seen to have made only a poor attempt then there may not be a proactive attempt to contact at all. Those suppliers would only find their fate once they’d bothered to follow-up.
After the customers had left I asked the same questions publicly to the salespeople.
To question 1 they averaged four weeks to three months. So buyers knew they had a problem for much longer than expected before contacting suppliers.
To question 2 the salespeople rarely thought shortlisting occurred inside two weeks, and four to six weeks was more likely. So buyer decisions were actually being made much more spontaneously than expected.
To question 3 it was clear that any supplier considered a ‘no-hoper’ would still be thinking themselves in the frame until they proactively called the prospect. Clearly many salespeople for prospective suppliers are still listing the prospect as ‘in the pipeline’ when in fact they have long since been discarded. They just don’t know it. Just think of the wasted effort cost here.
Question 1 really got me thinking. There’s a clear opportunity for salespeople to articulate a problem the buyer may be having, even before the buyer may have formalized the issue and taken it public. Since getting in early gives the salesperson first-mover advantage why do vendors place so little effort on articulating the initial problem?
I hear that this can be an advantage of ‘social selling’, that salespeople trawling through Tweetdeck or the like each day could have eavesdropped on the early-stage problem. I can see the possibility of this, though the hit-rate I imagine is low.
I just don’t recall much marketing that leads with ‘The first five early warning signs that you have a problem with …’. There’s a big difference between “Call us when your car breaks down” compared to “When one of these three things happen your car’s about to break down. You’ll need our number.”
I wonder if most salespeople in your company intrinsically know what those early signs would look like? I bet your marketing people don’t.

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