If you sell a product, it probably happened to you long ago. If you sell services, it's probably happened to you more recently. And if it hasn't happened to you yet, just wait--it's coming to a customer or client near you.
I'm talking about having to sell to the purchasing department.
It's tempting to see this as a pure negative, particularly for those selling professional services. It represents the death of relationships, the triumph of price over quality, a barrier erected between you and your client--you've heard all these complaints, maybe even made them yourself. But there's another way to look at the situation, and it's this: The purchasing agent is your new client.
Your New Client Is Just Like the Old Client
Against the grain of commonly held truths, purchasing agents aren't all that different from the old clients we know and love. For example, despite their reputation, they aren't all about squeezing the lowest price out of you. If anything, purchasing agents are more motivated to get the right provider for their clients than they are to save a few nickels getting the wrong provider.
There are more similarities. If all you can do is cite features and benefits and argue over price, you're not going to have any better results with a professional buyer than you did with a "regular" client. While you may not be able to schmooze with a professional buyer, you'd still better figure out some ways to establish a relationship.
Don't Attempt the End-Run
When first directed to go through the purchasing department, a common reaction of B2B sellers is to do an end-run--going around purchasing and getting back to the good old client, so they can put pressure on the purchasing agent.
You already know how politically dangerous it is to end-run a gatekeeper to get to a friendlier, higher-up decision-maker. You're better off helping the gatekeeper get something he or she needs and keeping the game aboveboard. That's clearly true for "line" clients. Yet somehow we have no compunction about trying to end-run the purchasing department.
Now put yourself in the shoes of the purchasing agent; are you any less displeased by that tactic than is a "line" client? I didn't think so.
Worse, if you do try the end-run, you may find your client is not as predisposed to helping you as you thought. To talk to you, they probably have to go against the new policy. Few clients really want to do this; they prefer you work it out yourself with purchasing.
And worse still, they may find that they actually prefer letting someone else do the haggling; they'd never say so to your face, but frankly, it's a relief not to have to bargain with you. Ultimately, you're asking quite a lot of your client by asking them to intercede with purchasing, and they're not likely to appreciate it.
Quick Dos and Don'ts:
- Resolve to go through the purchasing agent.
- Don't complain unnecessarily--you're not likely to win every sale, so deal with it.
- Don't offer to do special services unless you suggest the agent seek the same services from all your competitors.
- Don't obsess over the confidentiality of your materials--assume the agent is a professional and let them know you assume it--once.
- Don't ask what the agent can do for you; ask what you can do for them.
- Be open, available and transparent. If you don't know something, say so.
The purchasing function in modern business is becoming more, not less, important. It's one of the faster-growing professions, and it's more central to corporate strategies now. The idea that people buy from those they trust--those who pay attention to them and care about them--extends to the purchasing department. Purchasing agents are people. It's important to treat them well. They are your new clients.