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The Decision to Buy

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How often has a sale been lost after we believed that the customer clearly understood his or her problem and would make a logical, quality decision?

As sales professionals, we have been taught that we must seek out and uncover our customer's decision process. We are to clearly determine who will be involved, what they are looking for, what criteria they will be using to evaluate the situation, how much money they will be willing to spend, etc. Once we have uncovered the customer's decision criteria, we are then advised to present our solution strengths, our added value, to match that decision process.

But what happens when your customer does not have a thorough decision process—or seldom, if ever, buys your type of solution? You may find yourself presenting good information into a sub-optimal process. All too often, after the presentation, we find ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief and saying to ourselves or our team, "I just don't understand! We clearly had the best value," or... "They just ignored the superiority of our service," or... "We thought they understood the flexibility of our software," or... "The (insert your best feature here) - they just didn't get it."

Research tells us why they didn't understand. In the absence of a high-quality decision process, customers are unable to sort through their complex problems and the competitive clutter surrounding them. Consider this question: "What percentage of your customers have a high-quality process to make a decision regarding your unique technology or services?" As we survey customers, the overwhelming answer is, "Not very many." The lack of a good decision process appears to be the norm, not the exception.

There are three primary reasons your customers may not have a thorough decision process and may not be able to comprehend the true value of your solution:

  1. The ever-increasing level of complex products and the similarities of the top, highly competitive solutions. In a complex business arena, the customer may lack the technical sophistication to differentiate between options that look similar on the surface. Additionally, the problems to be solved and the complexity of the solutions being offered today are constantly evolving. It's difficult or simply impossible to keep up.

  2. Customers' limited experience in making major decisions regarding this type of product or service. The more critical or significant the purchase, the less frequently the customer is going through the process. Downsizing and re-engineering of organizations has left many junior managers having to cope with decision responsibilities once held by seasoned and experienced managers.

  3. A shift in the decision-making hierarchy. Simultaneously, in other organizations, decisions are moving higher (rather than falling to more junior execs), and more people are becoming involved who now influence areas of their business that previously were not their major concern.


The net result of these factors is that your high-value solutions are presented into a less-than-optimal decision process, resulting in the customer's being unable to discern the respective values of various alternatives.

In this environment, the decision outcome is, at best, random and unpredictable. At worst, decisions will degenerate to the lowest common denominator, which typically is a combination of price and specifications.

A solution provider can solve this predicament by guiding customers through a process that will help them make a high-quality decision. This process will bring together both the customer and the seller to make a sound business agreement. Note the emphasis is on a decision process, not the selling process itself.

Consider for a moment the parallel between sales professional and customer, on the one hand, and physician and patient, on the other. One of the major values that a physician brings to the patient is a diagnostic decision process. The process is designed to position the physician and the patient so that they can make a quality decision regarding the patient's condition and reach an agreement on the treatment. Again, the objective of the diagnostic process is not to "sell" surgery, it's to guide the patient. Similarly, it is the responsibility of a sales professional to diagnose the customer's situation and together make a quality decision about the product or service to fix the problem.

There are many advantages to building your strategy around the decision process. First of all, you will be differentiating yourself by your approach. Customers themselves say why: While interviewing our clients' customers in the area of differentiation, we frequently received feedback that they seriously considered the solution presented and eventually bought from the account manager who appeared to "really know what he was doing" or "had the most thorough approach" or "asked the questions we hadn't considered."

Sales professionals should pay serious attention to this feedback. Your questions should support the customers' decision process by inviting them to think about areas of the problem or the solution they would not have considered without your guidance. You will, after all, gain more credibility through the questions you ask than the stories you tell.

So, how do you guide your customers through a high-quality decision process that will help them understand the value of your solution and be willing to invest in it?

The first step is to assemble a group of people within your organization and, if possible, a few of your best customers. This group should include those who understand the critical characteristics of the types of problems you solve and are able to understand the unique way in which your solution addresses those problems.

Next, explore the six major focus areas required to arrive at a quality decision process: thoroughly diagnosing the problem, determining the financial impact of the solution, establishing measurable outcomes, understanding solution alternatives, defining investment parameters, and establishing the decision criteria. In each of those areas, ask the following questions to help prevent decision mistakes:

  1. What types of mistakes do customers tend to make while making this kind of decision? Make sure the decision process avoids these mistakes.

  2. What do customers most frequently overlook or not consider? Make sure the decision process brings these elements into consideration.

  3. What are the most difficult things for a customer to understand? Determine ways to communicate these elements precisely.

  4. What must a customer understand to reach a fully informed decision? Make sure the decision process brings these to the customer in an orderly fashion.

  5. What level of professional education or experience is required to understand each specialty area of the decision? Make sure that you engage in the decision process those people who have the required experience or professional background.

If you observe and model what the top 10% of professional salespeople are doing, you will find this approach is the norm, not the exception. Top-performing sales professionals are guiding their customers through a high-quality decision process.

You will find qualified opportunities sooner and spend less time and money on the "resource drains." You will also find your cost of sales dropping and your sales revenues and proposal to sales ratios increasing. The end results: very profitable sales and completely satisfied customers.


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Jeff Thull is president and CEO of Prime Resource Group (www.primeresource.com) and the author of Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales (September 2006), The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2005) and Mastering the Complex Sale (2003).

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