The Buying Equation

Nov. 1, 2004
There are typically two parties to a buying transaction—buyer and seller. While that seems like an obvious statement on the surface, the automation buying process can become a complex, many faceted affair.

Larger suppliers who have seen their hardware offerings generally turned into commodity markets now often bring in solutions consultants, software experts and even integrators to explain the new set of solutions offerings. On the other hand, buyers, especially in larger companies, bring a team of people to the table to discuss the potential purchase.

Before you all get cynical about the buying process, remember that you all need to make purchases of various types in order to keep your plant running. I appreciate buying something I need from a professional sales person. Unfortunately there are all too few—in the automation industry as well as in general commerce. My wife came home a few nights ago after browsing at some local furniture stores. She had a vague idea of some furniture she wanted for the family room. At the first store, a sales person approached and asked what she was looking for. She said, “I’m just looking, but I’m thinking about sectionals.” The sales person said, “They’re over there. Call me if you find something.”

Are you being served?

At the second store, the first part of the exchange repeated itself. The difference was with the sales person. She asked a few questions in a friendly, inquisitive way. “What color did you have in mind? Did you want leather? Do you want recliners with that?” When my wife came home and told me about the trip, I said, “You just experienced a truly professional sales person. Isn’t it great to do business with them?” She didn’t buy right away, but I just got home from a trip to be informed that our next night out will include a trip to the furniture store. Guess which one.

Automation World columnist Jim Pinto is fond of saying that the automation industry is full of poor marketers. I’d guess that’s true of many industries, but I wouldn’t paint everyone in our industry with that brush. I have run into my share of presidents of new companies who are going to take on the market share leader of their market segment solely on the strength of “a bright idea that’s technologically revolutionary.” I just ask questions such as, How will you distribute the product?, Do you have money for advertising and promotion?, Do you have a sales force plan?, and What is your pricing strategy? They don’t last too long.

On the other hand, many companies in our industry have sales and marketing people like that second furniture store sales person. They are truly interested in your success. There are many companies with many different strategies. From solution selling with a consultative position to providing hardware from sensors to programmable controllers over the Web, there are innovative companies trying to find a way to provide the right solution. If you are dealing with someone only interested in today’s transaction, I’d suggest you evaluate your purchasing.

On the buyer side of the equation, the trend toward involving many people in the buying decision seems to be accelerating. Ten years ago, I took a selling skills class where we were taught to identify the various types of buyers within an organization and make sure we had a strategy to answer each of their needs. There was the evangelist, the technical buyer, the economic buyer, analysts and the like. Everyone I have discussed this topic with over the past few years, whether seller or buyer, tells me that this is happening for more and more projects. If you are one of these buyers, your life is much more complicated than it used to be. You need to reach a broad consensus internally before proceeding with final negotiations. Better brush up on those people skills.

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