What Flavor is Your Buyer Collective?
The atomic unit of ABM and B2B Marketing is the target account. The sub-atomic unit is the Buyer Collective, the group of stakeholders at a prospective account involved in the buying process.
The Buyer Collective includes a champion who often leads the buying process and typically initiates the need. Multiple influencers can shape the purchase decision. And a decision-maker who is responsible for approving the recommendation. There may even be multiple of these.
As we plan marketing strategies, we all tend to think of a typical buyer collective with a champion person, a small group of influencers, and a clear decision-maker.
The reality is something else.
Typical Buyer Collectives Are Rarely Typical
In 2012, I founded a healthtech firm. We sold a clinical communications solution that improved provider-to-provider communication. This solution was adopted across 50+ hospitals and used by over 50,000 clinicians.
The sale was incredibly complex as our customers wanted to minimize the number of communication solutions they used. It had to meet the needs of physicians and nurses across all facilities, and IT had to feel confident that we could meet their security and integration requirements.
Sales cycles averaged nine months. Some deals lasted more than 18 months. And while the buyer collectives included the same cast of characters (IT leadership, nursing executive, physician executive, CMIO, innovation lead), the cast of influencers varied.
The biggest challenge was that the Buyer Collective was not predictable. There was variability in who the champion would be and who the influencers were. Moreover, there were often cases where the roles shifted through the process.
Here are some examples.
Four Buyer Collective Examples
Large Regional Healthcare System (16 Hospitals)
This was the biggest deal we sold. We were introduced to the Chief Innovation Officer of the newly merged organization. He was a physician and a leading light in the Oncology world. He looked at everything through a clinical lens. He handed us off to the VP of innovation. She was a fantastic champion. She coached and navigated us through the newly merged organization so that we met the right people at the right time, leading to a pilot.
IT leaders, the Chief Medical Officer, and nursing leadership were influencers but not decision-makers.
Her timing was impeccable. At the end of the process, a new CIO and new head of digital experience joined the organization just as the deal was about to be converted. They were not fans and wanted an Epic solution rather than ours. Despite their resistance, our champion got us over this last hurdle by getting the highly influential Chief Innovation Officer to push the deal through. He had bought into the improvements we could make from a clinical operations perspective, which tipped the deal over the edge. This converted to a seven-figure contract.
Large Tertiary Hospital (600 Beds)
This was an early opportunity for us. My partner had worked for the Chief Medical officer. This CMO loved our application and got us in front of the hospital leadership. Nearly all were on board.
There was one holdout, the CIO. He wanted to bring another solution he had used at a different organization. He took control of the process and handed this over to the Application Director to run the process. The Application Director became our quiet champion. He was trusted by the whole organization and ran a disciplined vetting process that involved meeting with influencers, including the Medical Executive Committee, Nursing Leadership, and other IT team members. Through this process, he became a fan of our solution, and he persuaded the CIO to get on board.
They became a longstanding customer who still uses the app today.
Small Regional Healthcare System (Three hospitals)
This was the closest to a “typical” Buyer Collective that I believe we ever experienced. The IT executive was the champion, and the influencers were managed through a structured process.
We met the CIO and his team, who liked our solution. They vetted us against the competition. He then had us present it to the Medical Executives, and once they endorsed our app, we presented it to the CEO and his Leadership team, who gave the green light.
Regional Healthcare System and Academic Medical Center (2 Hospitals)
My last story is about a loss. In this case, we were introduced to the CEO by our chairman, who was his trusted advisor. The CEO spent much time with us to ensure we could help him make a solid business case before recommending us to the rest of the organization.
The CIO then took over the process. He ran a highly structured process where several options were evaluated. Despite strong support from the CEO and many physicians, the nursing staff wanted a different solution. We were unable to sway the nursing executives. They convinced several key physician influencers why they should go with the competitor. In the end, they opted for the competitor. The CIO made the recommendation to the CEO, who accepted the proposal.
Two Flavors of Buyer Collective
After a couple of years of selling our solution, we started to see a pattern of two Buyer Collective Archetypes, two flavors, if you will.:
- Clinically-led – The initial champion was a clinician, typically a physician, and IT was an influencer. They would often hand off to IT to manage the process, but the decision was based on the impact on clinical operations. We would win most deals if we could check all of the IT requirement boxes.
- IT-led – The champion was the CIO or VP of Applications. Typically, the primary requirement was technical (e.g., HIPAA-compliant texting), and the process was structured. Clinicians were involved and highly influential, but IT was in charge throughout.
Implication for Marketers
Revisiting these stories was interesting for me. Several things stand out to me as I look at them through the lens of account-based marketing.
- Different Buyer Collectives = Different Playbooks: It took time for us to figure it out, but when we realized there was a pattern to the Buyer Collectives, we developed different strategies. We adapted to this by creating different playbooks for each. My partner, a physician (and an amazingly great sales guy) would manage the clinically-led deal, and I took the IT-led deals.
- Champions are not always whom you expect: As you can see, someone in IT was typically the champion, but not always. In some cases, the champion changes. As a marketer, you have to market to a larger group of stakeholders than you expect. If you use personas, it’s essential to have personas for each possible champion and a few influencers who may also be champions.
- Buying processes are not always structured and logical: The process can be amorphous and unpredictable, which can work to your advantage. When you are early into the buying process with a target account, the buying process will be much less likely to be well organized. Using ABM and intent data can help you get in early, but at that point, the buyers will still be figuring out what they want. You can get an inside track by educating them on what they should be looking for.
- You must build a fan base for your solution: Brand awareness and reputation matter. The most significant resistance we faced was that we were not Epic or one of a handful of well-known competitors. We were told that we had the better solution by our champions, but many influencers were predisposed toward other solutions, and they had yet to hear of us.
- Go narrow and then broad in generating demand: One of the key principles of ABM is to focus on a defined Target Account List. Ideally, you’ll want to focus on a narrow list of best-fit accounts. Within each account, you need to market more widely to a large group of stakeholders, possibly fifty or more in larger accounts. You have to do this to build awareness across all the stakeholders who may be involved later in the buyer collective. You need to blitz the Buyer Collective. Again this is about building fan bases across the buyer collective before the buying process begins.
- Keep marketing to the buyer collective throughout the sale cycle: Once you have a deal in the process, double down on marketing to the organization. This may sound counterintuitive when a deal is already in play, but there is good reason to do this. Firstly, sales processes last a long time. Competitors may come into play. In addition, the buyer collective changes over time, and new influencers get involved late in the process. In some cases, the champion changes. You improve your chances of winning the deal by ensuring that anyone involved in the long period you are being evaluated knows who you are and what you do for them.
By the way, a fantastic book on this topic is The Challenger Customer. It’s well worth reading.
This post was also posted on LinkedIn.