Blog 2: Who holds the cards?


by Mark Erskine, Director of Seller Performance & LIFO® Master Trainer

Sales people used to hold all the cards – they knew more about their product and service than the user buyer.  This allowed them to control the selling process and use honed selling skills to persuade, influence and close deals.

But the sales world has changed. Information is easily available via the internet. A simple web search reveals a range of possible solutions and suppliers.  Suppliers are selected and shortlisted with ease. What used to be an extended qualification process, now takes minutes.

Being local and paying regular personal visits to target prospects is no longer an advantage.

Further more the buyer prefers this logical, objective process.  It suits their behavioural style as it lacks subjectivity and emotion. And of course those suppliers can now be sourced on a global basis.  Being local and paying regular personal visits to target prospects is no longer an advantage.

A “user buyer” may still like this personal hands-on approach but too often now has to apologise to the seller that any buying decision has to go through a dreaded procurement process.  That of course means “three quotes” territory as a minimum. (as an aside I have always wondered whether it is written in the CIPS buying manual that the magic number is three?)

Once into the procurement process then there are likely to be multiple hurdles to overcome and stages to work through. Often the first stage is an R.F.I. – request for information.  If we were cynical as sales people we may suspect this is just a time saving technique to avoid trawling webs sites to gather information!  We may also suspect that this is just a way of gathering the latest market intelligence – with little or no real appetite to buy.

We then move on to Request for Quotation (R.F.Q.) or Request for Proposal (R.F.Q), where an extensive response is required. At this juncture the opportunity to engage in the buying process is often limited to technical questions with any written response shared with competitors. The ability to uncover prospect needs and identify problems through personal dialogue is restricted if not eliminated.  This of course allows the procurement function to compare apples with apples. The downside of course is it may restrict innovation and a bespoke tailored solution.

It always amuses me how excited some sales people get when an RFQ or even an RFI lands on the desk.

It always amuses me how excited some sales people get when an RFQ or even an RFI lands on the desk. They rub their hands with glee especially if it is a well known and valued prospect.  Research into the decision making process by psychologist J.P. Guilford in his book “Understanding Human Intelligence” demonstrated that the first step of the decision process is to understand the situation through “cognitive” thinking.

In this step, the Buying Influence must understand that a situation exists, the business implication of the situation, and that the situation should be addressed. This is followed by the “divergent” thinking stage when options are considered evaluated and finally “convergent” thinking where the best option is selected. The first stage takes the vast majority of the time. Historically this is where the sales person engaged in the long game, meets the prospect and influences the process – ideally of course so that their ideal solution is the desired outcome for the prospect.  This long term “courting” of the client enables the sales person to build strong relationships and trust.  It puts them on the front row of the grid, when the race is about to start. Even if it is a formal process they start ahead!

Now with the rise of professional procurement, this stage of “cognitive “ thinking is often done without supplier engagement by detailed research of the market.  Rational objectivity, rather than subjective emotional decisions swayed by skilled sales professionals, wins the day.

Sales people of course want to create differentiation; to show their product or service is superior to create value in the mind of the buyer. It is an ideal world for the buyer where there are three submitted bids, each of which meets the defined specification. If no differentiation can be created then the buyer can choose on the one very objective and quantifiable basis – price. Now the seller, of course, doesn’t want a decision to be based on price, as that means tighter reduced margin. And if their personal reward is based on margin not revenue or even a combination of the two, then that means more deals to win and more work to put in!

So… should sales people still be excited by an RFP landing on their desk? Or do they need a different set of skills or a different behavioural style to combat this?

Still to come…

Tomorrow we will be dissecting the ‘Changing Skills of Buyers and Sellers’. To view all the posts in this #Capitalise blog series, please click here. For any direct  enquiries please email

One week to go. Sales Innovation Expo 2017. 28-29 March, Excel London. Seller Performance exhibiting and Mark Erskine guest speaking. Theatre 9, Tuesday 14:45, Wednesday 12:30. Free tickets still available. 


Mark ErskineBlog 2: Who holds the cards?

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