Mounting Dysfunction in the B2B Buying Process

Everyone is aware B2B buying is complex. But new research from Gartner suggests that things are even worse these days. It’s buying gridlock. I interviewed Brent Adamson, author of The Challenger Customer and The Challenger Sale, and got the skinny. He also has a set of good ideas for how “prescriptive selling” can help us get out of this mess.

How do you sell when your buyers can’t buy?

Everyone is aware that the B2B buying process is complex. It involves multiple parties over long decision-making cycles. In large enterprise, this can take months, if not years, and involve dozens of individuals in the buying circle.

But new research from CEB, now Gartner, suggests that things are even worse these days. It’s buying gridlock.

I interviewed Brent Adamson, sales principal executive advisor on sales, marketing & communications — also author of The Challenger Customer and The Challenger Sale — and got the skinny. He also has a set of good ideas for how “prescriptive selling” can help us get out of this mess.

Q. Your Research Found a Lot of Dysfunction in the B2B Purchase Process. Please Explain.

At CEB, now Gartner, we’ve been studying sales and marketing for years, which means that we have deep insights into the challenges within these functions. But interestingly, what we’ve been seeing is that it’s become difficult for customers to buy today. It’s certainly hard to sell, but when you look at it from the other side, it is actually harder for customers to make purchase decisions.

Based on CEB’s latest observations, here is a summary highlighting the dysfunction in the B2B purchasing process:

  • Bigger, increasingly diversified buying groups.
    It was only 2.5 years ago that we found the average buying group consisted of 5.4 stakeholders. This number is up 26 percent to 6.8 today, and the average buying group now consists of 3.4 different functions. Diversity also means different tiers within the corporate hierarchy, different geos and different teams. In many cases, these stakeholders have never worked together. Alarmingly, we’re seeing more and more purchases where the customer doesn’t even know who ultimately will be in the decision-making group.
  • Dysfunction runs rampant.
    As customer buying group diversity goes up, so does stakeholder dysfunction. They are having clear disagreements, avoiding key issues, and reporting that they weren’t being heard.
  • Decision-making takes longer than expected.
    A full 84 percent of customers report their purchase process took longer than expected — by nearly double.
  • Even indecision takes forever.
    The average purchase decision now takes 4.9 months, but shockingly, the average “no purchase” decision takes 4.7 months. So whether your average sales cycle is three months or three years, “doing nothing” takes just as long to decide as “doing something.”

Q. Why Do You Think B2B Buying Has Developed in This Way?

The world that we operate in — selling or buying — it’s a world of “more”: more information, more options, and frankly, just more people involved in a purchase decision.

Many observers wrongly conclude that all this “more” empowers customers. The problem our studies have uncovered is that this “more” is causing decision paralysis.

Q. What Can a Sales Team Do About It?

Sales teams often think they need to be more reactive. As customers demand more, they need to respond more completely and quicker than their competitors. So it’s a race to become the most responsive supplier.

However, if sales teams respond to all their customer’s demands and requests for more, when the customer is already suffering from information overload, this only makes things worse.

Author: Ruth P. Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, and teaches marketing at companies and business schools around the world. She is past chair of the DMA Business-to-Business Council, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain's BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She is the author of Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, and Trade Show and Event Marketing. Ruth serves as a director of Edmund Optics, Inc. She has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM and holds an MBA from Columbia University.

Ruth is a guest blogger at Biznology, the digital marketing blog. Email Ruth at, follow her on Twitter at @RuthPStevens, or visit her website,

3 thoughts on “Mounting Dysfunction in the B2B Buying Process”

  1. Ruth, great article! It reminds me of the Malcolm Gladwell story about how sales of jelly went up 30% when there were only 6 choices versus 24 choices. With so much content now available, mapping the buying journey with an eye to simplicity is really on point. It’s also reminiscent of Switch by the Heath brothers in which it’s essential to give the Rider specific instructions lest they over-analyze and to lay out a specific path to follow.

  2. Ruth, this is good content and a timely article from my standpoint. In fact, my upcoming article for Forbes talks about how to remove the barriers that slow or prevent B2B buyers from purchasing. And to add to Matt’s comment, we have also found that additional options usually impede sales. It is all about simplicity!

  3. Ruth, great stuff! In fact, I’m teaching B2B 3510 again this semester and I’m going to use your interview as an introduction to the rest of the course. Thank you!

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