Business Productivity

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Signs are growing that U.S. businesses are losing their nerve. The latest symbol of bureaucratic strangulation and inertia is the sizable jump in the number of people needed before a purchase decision can be made in companies these days. What’s the meaning of this trend? Is it another nail in the coffin of legendary U.S. business productivity? Is it one more mile in our grim journey toward a Rome-like decline and fall? Let’s take a closer look at what’s really going on and what it means to marketers.

GlobalSpec, the search engine for industrial buyers, published some research recently showing that 68% of purchases larger than $10,000 involve more than three parties. Similar trends were shown in 2007 by MarketingSherpa, whose “Business Technology Buyers Survey” showed that as many as 21 parties are involved in a $25,000-plus purchase decision at companies with more than 1,000 employees.

Marketers often refer to this gang of 21 as the “buying circle.” It’s our job to identify the members of this circle, determine their roles in the purchase decision and then figure out how to influence them in our favor.

Each of the 21 parties within the buying circle has a different agenda, so we must customize our approach to each. For example, if I am selling custom-engineered turbine generator sets to harness waste steam from industrial boilers and convert it to electricity, I have a buying circle that looks a bit like this:

  • The plant manager, who plays the role of “user” in the buying circle, is concerned with questions like “How will this disrupt my plant?” and “Will it make me look good?”
  • The plant engineer is the “specifier” and wants to know whether the turbine generator is really going to work.
  • The corporate energy executive, the “influencer,” wants to see specifics about the environmental benefits of the project.
  • The VP-manufacturing operations, the “decision-maker,” thinks it’s all about ROI compared with other capital investment options.

Selling into a buying circle is hard work. Marketers must craft messages that are maximally relevant to the needs and interests of each party. It’s a creative challenge, requiring considerable research and data collection. But it’s also one of the many reasons that b-to-b marketing is more fun, and getting more interesting every day. So even if we decline and fall as a society, at least we’ll go down smiling.

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, and teaches marketing at business schools in the U.S. and abroad. She can be reached at [email protected].

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