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The Formal Buying Process: If the Rules are Made Against You, Break them - or Leave


"Power of estimating the adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers, and distances, constitutes the test of a great general."

Sun Tzu, The Art of War


Customers define standard buying processes to enforce compliance and governance, reduce their internal effort, and achieve economies of scale. But they also build them to allocate risks with vendors and drive down prices. To achieve this the process is geared for increasing competition and generating a compelling event for the seller: not joining the bidding process and thus accepting the customer’s rules will make you lose out on this opportunity. Forever!


The first realization a salesperson must make (the earlier the better) is that a buyer’s rules can be broken. It is not a natural law that a buyer can set the rules of the game. At the end of the day the process should result in a mutual agreement where the vendor provides his deliverables in exchange for the buyer’s money. It’s nowhere written that all the power sits with the buyer.


The first decision point in a sales cycle is when the buyer picks one of the standard buying processes they have established, e.g., a Request for Information (RfI) or Proposal (RfP): Will participating in this provide you with enough control over the process to win the deal?


If you or one of your strategic partners managed to significantly influence the requirements you can enter the process, otherwise you only should if your offering has clear and unassailable Unique Selling Propositions (USPs). In all other cases you should not enter the process as your chances to win are marginal.


Does this mean to just walk away? Not yet: you can still break the rules by going to the top of the buyer’s organization and demand either a different buying process, e.g. perform a Proof of Concept (PoC), or changing the requirements.


Besides the fact that you need to have access to the top of the buyer’s organization breaking the rules still comes along with a hefty price tag: All buyer staff involved in setting up the formal buying process will hate you and zoom in on any deficiency your offering displays versus the competitions’.


The next decision point is when you provide your answer: If we meet requirements, we will match them with our offering, otherwise we will try to question the justification of a requirement. If we are not successful in shaping the requirements in our favor after we entered the process, we must leave as chances to gain control over the decision-making process are neglectable.


The very last decision point is when the buyer asks us to provide a legally binding quote. In mature organizations a buying decision cannot be made without at least two valid proposals for governance reasons. If we believe the buyer’s team tends towards a competitive offer, we can disrupt the process by declining to provide a legally binding proposal and question whether the decision process is un-biased.


Most salespeople don’t consider breaking the buyer’s rules to be a viable option or shy away from the negative consequences of doing so. However, participating in a game where the rules are made against you is a waste of effort and therefor you shouldn’t play it.


Especially when selling a disruptive innovation, chances that the buyer’s formal buying process disfavors your offering are high as they prefer proven, low-risk mainstream solutions.


I strongly encourage Disruptors to perform a sorrow assessment of the chances to control the buying decision process and better pursue other opportunities than getting dragged into one where the rules are made against you.


For additional information on dealing with the formal buying process have a look at this narrative.

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