How Customers Buy...& Why They Don't

Thursday, June 18, 2020
Martyn R. Lewis

Martyn R. Lewis



The variety of sales philosophies that have been created to improve revenue and grow business is a vast and disparate collection that all have one thing in common: they are nearly all based on the activity of selling. Very few touch on the activity of buying, let alone make understanding the buying process the priority for the salesperson looking to improve the bottom line. This stems from the common misunderstanding that "the fundamental purpose of a business is to make a profit".

Martyn R. Lewis, who has spent a career in sales and has consulted with Fortune 500 companies and businesses in over 44 countries, explained how this misunderstanding could be corrected by taking a different perspective on the purpose of business. He offered a popular quote from Peter Drucker to illustrate this perspective:

"Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two, and only these two, basic functions; marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce the results; the rest are costs."

Drucker elaborated that profit is to business as breathing is to life. Profit is essential for the survival of a business, but it can't be its purpose. Seeing each new potential customer as part of your purpose is the first step to developing the right frame of mind for an effective sales approach that can accommodate different customer behaviors.

The modern world of business is an extremely complex, multinational landscape of companies competing for sales and attention. Everyone is a consumer with a great deal of choice and information available to make buying decisions. Many consumers are overwhelmed by choice, and prefer to avoid making buying decisions if possible, instead basing their decisions on other factors such as the company's purchasing procedure, or a seller's reputation in the industry. Other obstacles to the traditional sales methods are:

  • Fully deployed resources - The customer has already spent all of the time, money, and resources that can be spent on new products or services.
  • Bets are placed - The customer has convened at various levels throughout the company to create a plan that has already been set in motion.
  • Networked - The customer has a wide network that they can rely on to provide any need or help solve any problem.
  • Organizations avoid change - The customer is averse to changing procedures, relationships, or habits.
  • Multiple decision makers - The decision-making process involves several people who are difficult to identify.

The buying journey for the customer has five basic stages:

  • Awareness
  • Interest
  • Commitment
  • Acquistion
  • Adoption

For the buyer, the amount of effort required to progress to each subsequent stage is different. Awareness requires the least amount of effort on the part of the buyer, and the effort increases slightly as the customer progresses to the stage of interest. At this point, the customer may be doing independent research, or proactively calling a brand to obtain more information.

Commitment requires a drastic increase in effort for the buyer. The amount of thought and consideration the customer usually makes during this stage is the largest obstacle to selling. This stage can also involve multiple people in an organization who must all reach some type of consensus before the sales process can move to the next stages.

Acquisition requires moderate effort, as the customer must agree on terms of the sale, and the negotiation must result in a satisfactory exchange for both parties. Adoption of the new product or service requires additional effort on the part of the customer, as the new product or service will usually require a change in procedure that must be adopted.

Typical sales efforts progress through the five stages with much different levels of required effort. For the seller, Awareness requires the most effort, as the seller must advertise and market their product or services just to make potential customers aware of their existence. Interest takes slightly less, but is still a significant investment of resources to assure customers of the superiority of the product or service they are offering.

The Commitment stage for sellers, in stark juxtaposition to the same stage for buyers, requires minimal effort, since at this point the buyer is making the commitment independently of the seller. The buyer may consult with the seller on specific questions, but Commitment is entirely up to the buyer.

Acquisition requires equal effort for both parties as it represents the period of negotiation. For most cases Adoption will find the buyer spending more effort becoming accustomed to using the new product or service. In some cases, the seller may need to assist the buyer through the Adoption stage, but the buyer will be expending more effort becoming accustomed to something that is new to them.

The Commitment stage is the sticking point for many salespeople, and it arises from the disconnect between the buyer, who is spending a great deal of effort to make a commitment with which they can be comfortable, and the seller, who can't do much of anything during this period other than answer the customer's questions. At this stage, the buyer is often wondering what the customer is thinking, and trying to make logical sense of their behavior.

It is here where sellers get stuck in the trap of thinking that the customer buys because they either understand the value of the offering, or they don't. The seller often assumes that a customer who doesn't buy just doesn't see the value of the offering. This couldn't be further from the truth, because the customer's buying journey is based on far more than their understanding of what the seller is offering.

The Buying Journey DNA is based on six fundamental factors:

  1. Triggers & Dependencies - What event or realization starts the buying journey, and what does the customer need?
  2. Activities & Touchpoints - What are the activities customers engages in, and who do they consult for information?
  3. Key Players - Who gets involved in the buying journey, and how do they figure in it?
  4. Buying Style - How does the customer make buying decisions?
  5. Value Drivers - What does the customer want to gain from the buying journey?
  6. Buying Concerns - What can stop or impede the buying journey?

Martin emphasized that it is more important to focus on buying concerns than value drivers, although most salespeople focus on value drivers. However, the most important factor to start with is the customer's buying style, as this will be the basis of the sales strategy.

The buying style is based on two customer concerns: "What do I buy?" and "Where do I buy?" Each question will be answered in one of two ways with no middle ground. Customers deliberating what to buy either know what they want (product-focused), or they don't know and need help (solution-focused). Customers deliberating where to buy either have a preference (value-focused) or are open to buying from anyone (commodity-focused).

Combining these two binary scales creates a matrix of four possible buying styles which comprise every possible customer.

The Commodity/Product-focused buyer knows what they need, are open to buying from anyone, and usually buy through a Request for Proposals (RFP). The RFP buying process is one where the buyer lists their requirements, and invite multiple sellers to submit a proposal which states their capabilities and price.

The Commodity/Solution buyer is open to buying from anyone, needs help to find what they need, but is willing to perform most of the research independently using the internet, or by calling various sellers or suppliers proactively and asking questions.

The Value/Solution buyer needs help determining what product or service they need, and are looking for someone they can trust with a strong reputation to solve their problem.

The Value/Product-focused buyer knows exactly what they want or need, and have a preference which may be based on convenience, habit, or the seller's reputation.

Martyn observed that companies can only successfully sell in one of these quadrants at any given time, and that he has yet to find a company that has managed to be successful in two quadrants simultaneously. How a business is fundamentally structured is strongly related to these quadrants. Each quadrant represents a different type of buyer, and a different market, even if the product is exactly the same. Companies have to change how they sell to each different market.

Martyn touched on buying concerns, which play a significant role in determining whether the buying journey reaches a successful completion, or is stopped in its tracks. The primary buying concerns are:

  • Process - How do they buy?
  • Priority - Do they need this now?
  • Individual - Who is buying, and what is their motivation?
  • Organizational - What are the politics of the company and competing agendas in it?
  • Alternatives - Who is the competition? What other projects are competing for resources?
  • Business - What is the ROI for the customer?
  • Implications - What does the sale imply for the customer after it is concluded?
  • Fit - How does the product/service fit with company culture or operations?
  • Change - What changes will be required of the company and employees as a result?

Martyn noted that the Business buying concern is the only one that most salespeople can or do address. The final three are seldom addressed by the conventional sales process, but can be crucial to achieving sufficient customer confidence to complete the sale.

Salespeople need to shift their focus from what they are offering to what the customer is trying to obtain through their purchase. It is far more valuable to ask why a customer doesn't buy than asking why they buy. Similarly, focusing on how a customer buys will be more empowering than why they buy, since focusing on why a customer buys usually results in focusing on the product rather than the actual process the customer goes through when buying.

Salespeople need to manage the entire buying journey to be successful selling to the modern buyer. Buyer concerns and priorities are far more important than the product being sold, because the product is not the only factor that makes a buyer commit to the purchase. This does not necessarily mean that the seller can only respond to customer behaviors. Companies can change the way customers buy a product, but only with a comprehensive understanding of existing behaviors. Starbucks changed how consumers bought coffee by observing the buying behaviors in other industries, and accommodating some of those preferences and behaviors for the coffee consumer.

When companies become more focused on the buying process rather than what they are selling, they open up a world of possibilities that they may not have noticed before. Discovering why customers refrain from making a purchase can reveal untapped markets, and new business models that are entirely structured on the behaviors of the buyers in these markets. The question is no longer, "How well do you know your product?" but rather, "How well do you know your customer?"

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