Purchasing agents at large corporations need to buy from vendors, and vendors exist to sell their products and services to purchasing agents. On the surface, it sounds like a simple equation, but the reality is more complex. Some vendors view purchasing agents as obstacles to making a sale, whereas many purchasing agents are wary of vendors. Yet by making a few changes in how transactions are approached, both sides can establish a mutually beneficial partnership. We asked three sales experts to weigh in with their perspectives and solutions for achieving better outcomes.
Make it simple to understand
Vendors who want to get off on the right foot should respect the buyer's position and responsibilities within the business. "If you recognize that the purchasing manager is, in fact, a person and that they serve a valuable purpose in the transaction, you can get more out of the relationship," says Jeb Brooks, president of The Brooks Group, a North Carolina-based corporate sales training company.
Most, if not all, purchasing managers are trying to protect their companies from making mistakes about buying the wrong items. They must evaluate the merits of several competing products that, in many cases, they have likely never used themselves. Small business vendors who make their products easy to understand can make a clear, strong impression that helps buyers remember them.
Despite the reputation that some purchasing managers have for focusing solely on price, often it is not the deciding factor. "Instead, it's understanding the particular problems that the purchaser needs to solve and marrying the solution that your organization provides to that problem," Brooks says. "That's called value and that's different than price."
"Positioning your product or service as low risk is going to help you out," Brooks adds. Phrases like "We do our best to stay ahead of problems" or "We ensure that the decision you make is the right one" in the sales pitch can reassure the purchasing manager that they're buying from a reliable vendor who has their best interests at heart.
Keep it honest and transparent
Rather than concentrate on the features and benefits that their products possess, vendors should turn their attention to the needs of the purchasing agents themselves.
"Think of the purchasing people as customers—just as if they were the end user," says Charles H. Green, CEO of New Jersey-based Trusted Advisor Associates. "Vendors should ask themselves: who is this customer? What do they need? What can I do to make their life easier? Most [sellers] don't do this, but almost all purchasing people will say thank you and listen to your perspective."
According to Green, it's a myth that it takes a long time to establish trust. "The single biggest thing you can do is actually listen to what the purchasing agent is saying and what they need—and not listen with an ear to jumping on the key point when you hear it," he adds. "Really listen so that the other person feels heard."
Honesty and transparency are important, too. For example, earlier in his career, Green and a senior marketing colleague were giving a presentation before a client. When his colleague stated a lower price than what the pair had settled on before the meeting, Green gently but persistently confronted him right in front of the customer (for which he was disciplined later by the senior manager). But Green got an email from the client that night saying that he got the assignment—and at the higher price that Green had wanted originally.
"The client could see that we were honest and willing to talk about it," Green says. "We were willing to air the laundry. We weren't playing any games about price-cutting. We were being transparent in a collaborative way."
While many salespeople and vendors go into a meeting with the fear and pressure of having to get a sale, Green says that one of the biggest ways to get around that fear is to simply lengthen your time perspective—to go in and do the right thing in that particular meeting, whatever it happens to be—and recognize that this is one in a series of meetings in the sales process.
"Maybe you get a sale now and maybe you don't," Green says. "But you want to walk out the door every time with a better relationship than when you walked in. If you do that, you'll make out just fine."
Give different options
While Green recommends dealing directly with the purchasing department and treating them as the customer, other advisors suggest building a strong working relationship with the end user.
"I'm first going to prospect to the end user and let them refer me to purchasing if that's the case," says Mark Hunter, a Nebraska-based sales consultant who goes by the name The Sales Hunter. "I'm going to have a much better chance if the user moves me to purchasing because they want to purchase."
If a vendor must deal with the purchasing department first, one way to get around them is to ask specific questions that only the end user can answer. To increase the likelihood of getting the price they want, vendors should first try to find out the benefits and outcomes the customer is looking for. With that knowledge in hand, a proposal can be put together with a range of buying options, from the option that the vendor wants to more daring choices. Sometimes, the strategy can yield surprising results.
For example, Hunter worked with a Denver-based company that was skeptical about this approach. Nevertheless, they followed his advice and prepared three pricing options for one of their clients: one that they wanted, one above that—and a highest-priced option with all the bells and whistles, which was presented first.
"I told them they're going to condition the customer to this much higher-priced option. So that when they put the one they want on the table, that's a bargain," Hunter explains. "They immediately found less resistance to that, but they called to say that they actually had someone who took the really high option. As a result, they're going to take a price increase across the board because the strategy works."
Purchasing agents want to be respected, know what they're buying, and get honest value. That's a sale every vendor should strive to make.