Buying is a dynamic process. As stakeholders explore solutions, they develop a deeper understanding of their needs. They change their priorities. More decision-makers enter the picture. The customer’s initial definition of value rarely matches their final one.

Sales professionals’ challenge is to follow this iterative process. To do so, they must understand the factors driving the buyer’s behavior, and they need to track and engage the buyer’s journey. The ability to follow this path leads to a “20 percent increase in customer leads, 10 percent growth in first-time customers, and a speedup of as much as 20 percent in the time that elapses between qualifying a lead and closing a deal,” according to research from McKinsey. There are five key factors that influence the customer’s buying decision.

1. The Risk and Reward of Change

Companies pursue a solution because they face a challenge or want to improve. In either case, they must determine if the upheaval of change is worth the solution’s outcomes. In this early stage, customers are defining the extent of the issue and determining if viable solutions exist.

Customers understand that even pursuing a solution carries costs. They consider the potential high-level value and risk and ask, “Do we need to act?” Risks include:

  • Disruption to the business
  • Unsuccessful implementation
  • Insufficient ROI
  • Diminished internal buy-in

Customers fear that they will exacerbate a problem with an ineffective solution. The risk of change may grow as the customer travels through the buying journey and the scope of the challenge increases. The larger need might require a larger solution. This scenario amplifies risks because, in such a case, the cost and implementation intensify.

2. A Solution’s Relative Value

As customers begin to form relationships with partners, they ask themselves, “Is there proof of value?” and, “Whom do we trust?” The process can change as decision criteria change and the customer weighs several solution providers.

At this point, customers engage sales professionals for an in-depth evaluation. They refine requirements and their vision for the solution. Doing so means engaging all stakeholders and gaining clarity on partner capabilities. The process involves collaborating with providers on their solutions and then drafting a shortlist of potential partners. The strength or weakness of the available solutions will either advance or slow the process.

It’s not enough for a solution to have value. It must have more value than what’s already in place and whatever the competitor is offering.

3. Stakeholder Consensus

Stakeholder consensus determines if the investment is worth forgoing other uses for the capital. Here, the customer dives deeper into implementation details, revealing if the best path forward is to buy or build. In some cases, customers will determine that they can craft a solution on their own.

Each person on the customer side of the sale must be confident in the solution’s value. The list of needs grows as more stakeholders find a seat at the table, and fear of uncertainty and risk will rise as each new decision-maker enters the discussion.

The buying journey is dynamic because so many stakeholders exist. For example, one stakeholder may be ready to move forward, and another may still be uncertain. Sales professionals need to bring the group together. The longer it takes to achieve consensus, the greater the likelihood for halted momentum.

4. Negotiation Leverage

The customer’s most powerful tool in negotiations is another solution provider. Customers often attempt to triangulate the best deal by encouraging sales professionals to compete on price. This strategy illustrates the customer’s drive to reduce his or her financial exposure.

At the same time, the sales professional negotiates directly with the customer. At this point, a new set of needs enters the discussion. The buyer considers what he or she is willing to trade or concede, if anything, to obtain the best value. Sales professionals face a large group: Procurement, finance and other stakeholders involve themselves to some degree. Each compares the implicit and explicit costs of the solution.

Customers understand that they won’t know the full value of a solution until it’s implemented. Therefore, they often seek a level of affordability that limits their risk. Ongoing negotiations are the means of reaching affordability.

5. The Solution’s Ongoing ROI

Sustainment matters. Customers want to know that the solution will represent ongoing value. Implementation does not signal an end. In fact, this stage is when communication becomes critical. Customers are looking for a clear commitment from all sales professionals involved.

Monitoring progress and risks requires a continued dialogue. New needs emerge. Customers and sales professionals must address new solution challenges. When the customer reflects on the solution’s performance and asks, “Are we receiving the expected value?”, the sales professional must be able to respond. To do so, sales professionals need to define roles and responsibilities for regular customer support and cross-selling opportunities.

Today’s buying journey is a path that changes direction with each step. Effective sales professionals watch for these changes before they put the next foot down. Sometimes, this means that the path ends or loops back into itself. Sales professionals who understand this dynamic don’t let the twists and turns throw them.

The buyer’s journey is not a straight line. Changes occur throughout it, and sales professionals must anticipate these changes for two reasons. First, anticipation helps set reasonable expectations. The sales professional must have a realistic outlook. Second, anticipating changes means that the sales professional can take a more active role in the journey. With so many changes unfolding, the sales professional needs a way to trace and guide the customer’s thinking.