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Business Journal

Get Better at Knowing Your Client's Decision-Making Process

by Marco Nink and John H. Fleming
Get Better at Knowing Your Client's Decision-Making Process

Story Highlights

  • Blind spots about a buying center can have fatal consequences
  • Three key steps help you understand and manage buying centers
  • Knowing buying centers better boosts customer engagement

Buying centers -- or groups of people from different functional areas in a company -- often jointly make decisions to purchase products or services from business-to-business (B2B) companies. Building strong relationships with key members of these buying centers is crucial to a supplier's success.

But for too many B2B companies, understanding the buying center's makeup -- and its members' engagement levels -- is a critical blind spot. Ensuring that your company fully understands the composition, function and health of its buying centers enables you to better position and allocate internal resources to serve those centers -- and to do so more effectively and with better results -- helping you protect and strengthen crucial relationships.

Avoiding Blind Spots

Blind spots about a buying center can have fatal consequences. For example, if a computer manufacturer asks buyers in a client's purchasing department about various aspects of their business relationship, buyers might report being highly engaged with the manufacturer because of the stellar service they receive. But as we noted in our first article, buying centers are complex, and buyers represent only one of four distinct players in a typical buying center. Other players are decision-makers, who commit funds; influencers, who set standards or play an advisory role; and end users, who interact with your company's representatives or its products or services.

Graphics for use with the GBJ article

If the computer manufacturer only asks buyers for their feedback, the manufacturer might assume that everything else is running smoothly. But what if the customer's IT administrator -- a key end user -- is dissatisfied with the company's product quality and is actively disengaged as a result? What happens when she communicates her frustration to the company's senior management who are the decision-makers? If the computer manufacturer doesn't ask end users for their opinions, this creates a critical blind spot that could put future orders at risk.

To avoid potential pitfalls, B2B companies must systematically analyze their client's decision-making process and identify the key contacts and the roles they play in the buying center. Addressing the needs of decision-makers, influencers, buyers and end users is necessary to understand and improve the supplier-client relationship.

And B2B companies can't assume that their account teams understand the roles members of their clients' buying centers play. Gallup's work with a B2B technology services company demonstrates how account teams sometimes classified buying center members as decision-makers, when they only influenced a decision or had no effect on it. In other instances, account teams failed to identify people with decision-making authority or those who could strongly influence a purchase decision. And knowledge of their clients' buying center varied among account teams. Some teams had a strong understanding of their clients' buying center members, while others struggled to identify key players.

What's more, B2B companies' account teams are often unaware of the buying center's customer engagement levels, as Gallup's work with a B2B pharmaceutical company has shown. Gallup surveyed customers to determine their level of engagement with this pharmaceutical company. We also asked members of each customer account team what they thought their customers' responses would be. In a perfect world, the customers' evaluations and the account teams' estimates would match.

The reality was far more disturbing: There was almost no correlation between the two sets of ratings. That's right, the account teams had no idea how their customers actually felt about the company. This result is far too common, and it demonstrates that B2B companies urgently need objective customer feedback to manage those critical relationships at the account team level.

This type of variance in buying center knowledge is typical for most B2B companies, but it doesn't have to be. To improve customer engagement and strengthen relationships with key buying center members, companies should systematically measure and manage buying center knowledge and relationships at the account team level.

Step 1: Assess Your Company's Buying Center Knowledge

To understand how well your company's account teams know each of your client's buying centers, ask account teams to list every member of their buying centers and classify each one by role (decision-maker, influencer, buyer or end user). Each account team should answer these questions: Who makes up the buying center for this client? What are their titles and functions? What are their roles in the buying center: are they decision-makers, influencers, buyers or end users?

Next, determine how buying center members actually classify their roles. Rather than having members identify their roles directly, ask them a series of questions and sort them into the appropriate role category based on their responses. These questions should delve into their level of involvement in decision-making, the types of decisions they make and their level of authority to commit funds to a purchase.

Finally, compare buying center members' classifications of their roles with the account teams' descriptions. Give company leaders, managers and account teams a report showing the differences. After receiving the report, company leaders, managers and account teams can discuss how they will improve their buying center knowledge and strengthen key relationships.

Teams should start by comparing the roles account teams assigned to each buying center member and the respondents' self-assessments of their roles. The closer the match, the more knowledgeable the account team is of its buying center. As Gallup's work with a B2B technology services company shows, there can be considerable variance in how account team members classify buying center members' roles and how buying center members describe their own roles. The account team in this example classified 75 people as decision-makers, but only 43 buying center members described themselves as serving in this role. Of the remainder, 24 were influencers with no actual decision-making power, while three were buyers and five were end users with little or no role in the purchasing process. Though the account team members were confident they knew this buying center well, the data suggested they did not.

Step 2: Analyze the Drivers of Customer Engagement

Correctly identifying a buying center's members and their roles is a prerequisite for optimizing the customer relationship. The next step requires an in-depth understanding of customer engagement at the buying center level. A detailed analysis of customer engagement data by role can determine strengths and weaknesses and help account teams identify and prioritize actions to improve customer relationships. Each buying center role has different needs, and account teams must understand which aspects of the business relationship are most important to driving higher levels of engagement for each role.

The client team can use the in-depth analysis to determine the factors with the strongest influence on customer engagement. If buying center members perceive the account team is performing well in a given area, then it's a strength that should be maintained. If buying center members believe the account team is performing poorly on a key factor, the team should begin work immediately to improve performance. These weak points represent significant opportunities to improve customer engagement.

Step 3: Take Ownership of the Customer Relationship

Developing a relationship map can help improve customer engagement. A relationship map shows the relationships account team members build with buying center members at the client company. Using this map, the account team can determine who "owns" maintaining and improving each buying center relationship.

Buying Center Relationship Map

By definition, not every role in the buying center has the same influence on the purchase decision. Given that decision-makers generally have the most influence, account teams can use the relationship map to prioritize the conversations and actions that should take place to improve and maintain the client relationship. An account team should begin the dialogue with decision-makers, followed by influencers, buyers and, finally, end users.

Further, dialogue with a buying center's members is crucial for setting targeted actions that will address customer needs and drive engagement. Armed with the customer driver analysis results, each account team member should ask his or her buying center contacts a series of open-ended questions about the key factors that most strongly influence customer engagement -- both the strengths and the weaknesses. Some of the most important questions during this conversation should be: What are we doing well? How can we build on this strength to help you create impact for your business? Where can we improve our business relationship? What is missing in our business relationship? What can we do better?

Each account team member should listen, make notes and present his or her findings to the account team. The account team members should consolidate the information for each role, brainstorm follow-up actions and design an improvement plan. Teams should not base their ideas and solutions on gut feelings but rather on what they've learned from their conversations with buying center members.

To ensure sustainable change, account teams should follow up regularly on the plan to assess their progress toward meeting agreed-upon goals. They should also talk regularly with their client contacts to determine whether buying center members notice and appreciate the changes. Thinking of ways to improve their client relationship should become part of account team members' daily work routine.

The Bottom Line

B2B companies can better understand the key players and their needs by using a disciplined approach to thoroughly assess, manage and improve buying center relationships. This approach provides a targeted, systematic method for improving business relationships that pays off. Gallup research shows that as a company's level of knowledge of the buying center increases, its proportion of fully engaged customers increases -- and its proportion of actively disengaged customers decreases. These fully engaged customers buy more, buy more often and give the company a greater share of their purchasing requirements. Understanding the buying center is a critical to optimize B2B business relationships and drive sustainable organic growth.

Marco Nink is a Senior Practice Expert at Gallup.
John H. Fleming, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist -- Marketplace Consulting and HumanSigma at Gallup. He is coauthor of Human Sigma: Managing the Employee-Customer Encounter.
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