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Mike O’Toole of PJA and I recently gave a talk at a gathering of ANA members in Chicago.

During our talk, Mike made a point that I think bears repeating. Specifically, he said, “Companies in the B2B space all work under the same assumption: that their buyers have needs and that we have to align our messaging and our offerings to these needs.”

“But,” he added, “what if B2B buyers don’t know what their actual needs are?”

Buyers Are Vexed 

Between 30% and 60% (estimates vary) of B2B sales opportunities end in “no action.” What’s more, some 40% (according to a study by the CEB) of B2B purchases are followed by “second guessing.”

Why might this be?

Well, when Aberdeen and PJA surveyed over 230 B2B buyers last summer, and asked them why purchases didn’t get approved, the number one response was, “Lack of clarity around what we need.” (The next most common response was plain old “indecision,” which, to my mind is another way of saying, “We couldn’t figure out if we needed this thing or not.”)

Of course, you could say, “Heck. If a company doesn’t know what they need, then they should figure it out before getting our hopes up!”

And, of course, some companies do. For example, they hire consulting firms to come in, take a look at their operations, and make recommendations about processes they need to implement, people they need to hire, and technology they need to purchase in order to make it all work.

But, consultants are expensive. So, what do buyers do? They turn to their vendors for assistance.

What kind of assistance? Consider the following. When we asked survey respondents if they would be more likely to work with a vendor who questioned their way of doing business by, for example, highlighting an organizational pain point or weakness they weren’t aware of, 65% replied, “Yes.”

Indeed, 52.8% said they had often changed their purchasing criteria in order to work with a vendor who could address a pain point they couldn’t solve before. 

In other words, buyers don’t view vendors simply as a means for acquiring goods and services. They view them as potential drivers of business transformation.

Vendors Are a Window

Unless a company is the dominant player in its market, region, or category, the leaders of that company will always have a nagging feeling that they’re missing something. That feeling is accompanied by the fear that competitors somehow have it and they don’t (when, in fact, the competitors are often in the same boat).

But, finding out what other companies are doing is challenging. Sure, you can go to conferences where brands tout their success in this or that area, but you can never be quite sure if you’re getting the whole story.

Alternately, you can turn to the published findings of research firms or respected outlets like the Harvard Business Review, but even if you find an author or authors who seem to possess the insight you seek, you are going to have to pay if you want them to share it.

Which leaves vendors, as I said, who can indeed serve as a window into what other companies are doing. After all, they’ve actually spent time inside the walls of competing companies. They have to know something, right?

I think that the answer to that question is, “Yes, but…” That is, vendors can and should see themselves as valuable resources who bring a fresh, new, outside perspective to the table and, at their best, can get buyers to not only change their purchasing criteria, but even rethink their business, their industry, and their category.

Unfortunately, vendors rarely behave that way. In fact, among the leading complaints buyers have about vendors, “They don’t give me objective information to help me frame my decision” is chief among them.

What do vendors do instead? They talk about themselves and act more like, well, vendors than partners. And that just doesn’t help.

Remember: Buyers Want Your Help (Not Just Your Solution)

In our survey, we asked buyers about their primary considerations when making a purchase. The top answers were fairly predictable: total cost of ownership; ROI; alignment with company goals.

When we asked them about their secondary considerations, the responses looked like this:

When I found that buyers look to vendors to sharpen their competitive differentiation and help identify new possibilities and avenues for revenue, I was surprised. But considering that buyers see vendors as (potential) sources of challenging and transformative business insight, it makes sense.

Of course, it also makes you realize how frequently vendors are letting buyers down.

Instead, we as vendors should keep in mind what buyers actually want: to succeed as businesses.

And we should use the insights we gather from interacting with them and their competitors, along with any research we’ve done in the course of developing our products and services, to help them do exactly that.

Wouldn’t that be cool? And wouldn’t that give any vendor acting in this way, helping buyers in this way, a real competitive advantage?

I wonder.

Featured Image Source (Creative Commons): Tinou Bao.

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