Selling to Purchasing Managers

It used to be, as sales professionals, that the purchasing or procurement manager was the unseen force that stood in the way of a sale. Wielding sharp scissors and a red pen, and with the weight of the company’s expense budget on their shoulders, it was this last hurdle that could make or break us. With the budget-churning discord created by the COVID-19 pandemic, purchasing managers no longer lurk in the shadows – instead, they have joined the front lines of negotiation, and represent a visible and present force in the deal-making process.

This tends to represent a new role for someone who is used to being underappreciated, and viewed as part go-between, part gatekeeper, part risk manager, and part cynic. Now, they’ve been elevated to the role of key decisionmaker, and in addition to ensuring budget and need are in alignment, they also want to understand your product, your value, and whether your company will be able to fulfill what it promises.

How do you make an ally out of someone whose very mission is seemingly at odds with ours?  And is there any hope of clearing this last hurdle with our dignity – and profit margin – intact? 

In this article, we’ll show you how to apply your best value-selling discussion, and a dose of sympathy, to placate even the most cynical purchasing managers.
 

1. Building Rapport

Salespeople often perceive purchasing managers as being excessively demanding or even unreasonable. But a deeper look at this type of prospect reveals that their unreasonable demands may simply be the result of the pressures they face in making buying decisions for their organizations. As you approach prospects who are purchasing managers, it’s important to realize that their perspective is fundamentally that of a rank-and-file employee – of someone who’s paid to perform a particular task.

Obviously, their job involves representing the company in making purchasing decisions. But the real struggle for a purchasing manager often has more to do with being a “go-between.” That’s because purchasing managers make buying decisions about products and services that they don’t personally use. 

In some cases, they may not have a clear understanding from the end-users of what exactly is needed. And they may not have the technical background needed to evaluate all of the products they buy. This puts them in the unenviable position of having to run between sales representatives and the end-users in their own organization. 

The “go-between” role can create a no-win situation for purchasing managers. While they often feel that they’re overlooked and undervalued, they also bear the brunt of blame whenever there’s a problem with any purchase.

Ultimately, their goal is to gain the approval of the end-users. But most express a sense of frustration that while approval is rarely expressed, they’re sure to hear plenty of criticism if there’s a problem.

At the same time, purchasing managers are often left with the “less important buying decisions” while executives and higher-ups make the big buying decisions. So, when purchasing managers ask for information from the end-users in order to make better buying decisions, they are sometimes characterized as constantly nagging and pestering about trivial matters. This can compound their perception of being unappreciated and targeted for blame.

What this means for you is that your purchasing manager prospects are likely to have a personal buying agenda that favors:

  • Getting recognition for their contribution to the organization
  • Products that are easy to understand and not overly technical
  • Reliable service and delivery
  • Safe, dependable products
  • Gaining respect and acceptance

Salespeople often claim that many purchasing managers are so obsessed with price that they seem to place little importance on quality or value. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that something else is going on.

Consider these research results:

Over 62% of the purchasing managers studied in so-called “lowest price” environments admitted to legally adjusting their specifications/calculations in order to award a favored provider whose price wasn’t the lowest. In another study, on-time delivery superseded price as the major buying criterion. Other typical reasons for purchase have to do with the issues such as useful product life, anticipated benefits, compatibility, upgradeability, and a number of other factors that could “fudge” the issue of price.

When asked what made a provider “favored” the factors that appeared, again and again, were “sincerity,” “making the purchasing manager feel respectable and important,” “a lack of technical obsession,” and “patience.” 

Clearly, your ability to successfully sell to a purchasing manager may hinge solely on how you treat that prospect. In other words, if you can’t satisfy the purchasing manager’s need for importance, they’re going to create their own importance by becoming tough buyers. With this perspective in mind, a good bonding statement to use with a purchasing manager might be something along the lines of: “My sense is that finding solutions that are reliable and not overly technical is important to you. You probably want to make buying decisions that will contribute to your company’s success. To see if we can help you achieve that, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

 

2. Positioning Your Product or Service

The desire for a salesperson who is “sincere” and “patient” illustrates that this type of prospect frequently feels vulnerable and highly self-conscious in the buying process. Much of their wants and fears in making buying decisions are tied to their being non-technical. Despite whatever knowledge they might have of technical products and services, they can’t really understand all the particular ones they’re buying.

However, they are in a position of power – because they can issue purchase orders. It’s absolutely crucial, therefore, that purchasing managers perceive any product or service they buy as being “easy to understand.”

With this in mind, you’ll want to position your product or service using phrases similar to these:

  • “Easy to understand”
  • “Not technically challenging”
  • “Doesn’t require a lot of technical education”
  • “A solid and safe purchase”

An example of a product or service positioning statement: “Let me stress that our product is easy to understand. It’s not technically challenging and it certainly represents a solid and safe purchase.” 

 

3. Positioning Your Organization

For reasons that are both real and perceived, purchasing managers often consider salespeople to be “less than sincere” from the outset. Frequently, they’ve dealt with other salespeople who’ve tried manipulative tricks and tactics on them in the past.

Prospects who deal from a position of strength, like entrepreneurs and CEOs, rarely worry about how sincere you are. Yet sincerity is very important to the purchasing manager because they often harbor a fear that they’re not quite up to the task. And because they don’t always have a full understanding of what they’re buying, purchasing managers have nothing much to rely on but a salesperson’s sincerity.

Your patience with the purchasing manager is yet another vital ingredient in the relationship. There are two important pitfalls to avoid here:

  • Resist the temptation to “educate” purchasing managers (or any prospect) on the technical details of your product.
  • Don’t come across as being more interested in your products than you are in the prospect.

Remember that your prospects have no desire to become technical experts on your products. For the purchasing manager, it’s simply a matter of knowing enough to avoid embarrassing mistakes. Also, be aware that anything that’s depersonalized makes the purchasing manager feel uncomfortable.

When talking about your organization to a purchasing manager, always refer to your organization as “people.” You’ll score a major positioning victory if you can create the perception that you’re actually a group of people and your competitors are merely companies or organizations.

When talking to a purchasing manager you’ll want to use phrases like these to describe your organization:

  • “Sincere”
  • “We’re people who are more interested in our customers than in what we’re selling”
  • “We’re people who aren’t obsessed with the technical details of our products”
  • “Patient”

For example, here’s a provider positioning statement that you might use when speaking to a purchasing manager: “Let me tell you a little about our company. We pride ourselves on being patient, not obsessed with the technical details of our products, and far more interested in our customers than in what we sell.”

 

4. Describing Your Benefits

When you’re selling to purchasing managers, keep in mind that it’s far more common for this type of prospect to be recognized for poor performance than good. For example, when a provider doesn’t deliver on time, it’s likely the blame will be pinned on the purchasing manager who selected the provider. A bad purchase is never hung on the user’s door – it’s always dropped right at the feet of the purchasing department.

As a result, one of the chief benefits that a purchasing manager is seeking is the ability to avoid making mistakes. They generally need a tremendous amount of decision-making certainty to avoid coming under fire.

With this in mind, you might want to position the benefits of your product or service in the following terms:​

  • “Things should run smoothly for you”
  • “Quietly”
  • “No crises”
  • “Decisions that are certain and sure”

Here’s an example of a benefit positioning statement that might appeal to a purchasing manager: “Our product will allow things to run smoothly for you. I guarantee that with us you can make decisions that are certain and sure.”

 

5. Positioning Your Price as a True Good Value

Of all the prospect types, purchasing managers probably have the most notorious reputation for price sensitivity. In reality, they personally care very little about how much you charge for your product or service. It matters only when it becomes an issue with their superiors or the finance department.

In the case study mentioned earlier, you’ll recall that purchasing managers will often actually go out of their way to do business with the provider they favor. But that can only happen when your price is comparable to that of your competitor’s or – if it’s higher – can be translated into benefits that justify paying the higher price.

For the purchasing manager, you’ll want to position your price with terms like these:

  • “Directly related to the benefits you’ll receive”
  • “Justified by the benefits”
  • “Easily translated into the benefits you get”

You might position the price of your product or service by saying something like:  “Let me emphasize that the price for our product is directly related to the benefits you’ll receive. In fact, it is more than justified by those benefits. I’d also like to make sure you understand everything that it includes…”

Though it may be hard to get used to the participation of the purchasing manager in your sales activities, they invariably can be an asset to you, rather than an obstacle, if you are simply mindful of these few key steps. If we at The Brooks Group can help upskill your sales professionals to face a changing sales landscape, please contact us.

 

 

WRITTEN BY

Josh Winters

Josh Winters is a Group Vice President/Director of Sales at The Brooks Group, where he serves as the first point-of-contact for organizational stakeholders looking to improve their teams’ sales effectiveness and overall talent management.

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