This Steve W. Martin Sales Research Originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review. This is the first of a series B2B Buyer Persona Research articles. Follow Steve W. Martin to receive future research articles.
Put yourself in the position of the experienced evaluator who has met with hundreds of salespeople. What percentage of salespeople would you say are excellent, good, average or poor? I recently conducted an extensive research project of B2B Buyers to understand how they perceive the salespeople they meet. Overall, study participants rated 12% excellent, 23% good, 38% average, and 27% poor as shown below.
Think about those figures for a moment. What are the implications of nearly two-thirds of B2B salespeople being considered as average or poor? This situation creates an aversion to risk because evaluators have been conditioned to be skeptical and not to trust salespeople in general. Therefore, they’ll make every vendor respond to immense RFPs and complete laborious spreadsheets—each product feature and operation has to be fully documented to prove it exists. They’ll require meticulous hands-on evaluations of each product and painstakingly documented findings. The goal is risk mitigation and reducing the uncertainty associated with selecting a vendor and making the purchase.
They won’t buy until they are completely satisfied, and when they meet with salespeople, they become proctors who are cross-examiners as opposed to collaborators. For example, a purchasing manager will punish vendors who violate the selection process. This obviously creates a challenge because the salesperson’s goal is to implement a strategy that changes the selection process to his or her benefit.
When you look at ratings of salespeople from the perspective of departmental buyers, a pattern emerges. Evaluators who are part of IT, engineering, and accounting are more critical of the salespeople than those from lesser scientific or process-oriented departments such as marketing. Since these analytical buyers have advanced degrees in the sciences (computers, finance, engineering, etc.) they are more likely to be skeptical and consequently more demanding of salespeople. This should not be a surprise since they’ve had years of systematic education followed by a business career that was heavily focused on scientific methods and data analysis.
Another interesting pattern occurs when tolerance for risk is analyzed by department. There seems to be a correlation between the ratings of salespeople and tolerance for risk. Specifically, the higher negative rating of salespeople is inversely related to the department’s tolerance for risk. For example, IT personnel rated 37% of all salespeople as poor and their risk tolerance average was the low at 5.0. Conversely, marketing rated 18% of salespeople as poor and their tolerance for risk rating was much higher at 7.1. It can be inferred from these metrics that these two departments will interact with salespeople and analyze vendors in different ways with varying levels of due diligence. The figure below shows how buyers’ poor perception of salespeople is inversely related to their appetite for risk.
The tolerance for risk also varies greatly by industry as well. Dynamic, creative, trend-oriented industries such as fashion, entertainment, and real estate have the highest risk tolerance averages. More conservative, static, and process-oriented industries such as government, consulting, and healthcare have the lowest risk tolerance averages. Again, this validates that different industry types interact with salespeople and analyze vendors in different ways with varying levels of due diligence.
Evaluators will go to great lengths to reduce the risk of buying. They might list their needs in documents that are hundreds of pages in length. They might hire consultants to verify that they are making the right decisions. And they’ll conduct lengthy evaluations to test prospective products, talk to existing users of the products, and complete pilot testing to ensure the products work as advertised—all in an effort to eliminate their fears, reduce their uncertainties, and eliminate risk. The B2B buyer is fixated on risk mitigation.
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