John O' Gorman

Tips On Selling To The Bureaucratic Buyer

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Selling to Bureaucratic Buyers

If buying is becoming more bureaucratic, then what are the implications of this for sellers? We asked sellers to share their tips on how to sell more successfully to bureaucratic buyers.

“All buyers are bureaucrats!” proclaimed one sales manager in a statement that seems to reflect the dominant view of procurement professionals at this time. But is procurement really the new byword for bureaucracy?

Are All Buyers Bureaucrats?

We asked a range of sellers what words they most associated with today’s professional buyers. Here are the most common terms they mentioned:

  • Rigid
  • Strict
  • Bureaucratic
  • Procedural
  • Rules-driven
  • Inflexible
  • Conservative
  • Risk-averse
  • Cautious

Other terms, though less widely used, included demanding, combative, prickly, standoffish and price-obsessed. Some exasperated sellers offered a selection of less flattering descriptions – which we have decided to leave out!

In Search Of The Dynamic Buyer

Of course, sellers draw important distinctions between buying in the public and private sector; buying in large and small organizations; and the procurement of lower-value items versus the buying of complex solutions in areas such as IT.

They also distinguish between what one sales manager called “those who buy for a living” (i.e. procurement professionals) and “those who live to buy” (i.e. business managers and assorted others involved in the buying process).

“The dominant view of buyer as bureaucrat seems to be gaining in prominence…”

Putting these various distinctions aside, however, the dominant view of buyer as bureaucrat seems to be gaining in prominence. Every bit as interesting – if not more so – as the terms used to describe buyers were the terms that were not used. For instance, we found no sellers who described today’s professional buyers as being:

  • Innovative
  • Creative
  • Flexible
  • Dynamic
  • Results-driven

As far as most sellers are concerned, therefore, bureaucratic buying is neither innovative nor dynamic.

So, with the results in from our jury of sellers, the question is: Are sellers too harsh in their assessment of modern buying? And following on from this, if sellers are indeed right, then is the type of selling they describe the type of selling that is really needed in today’s competitive marketplace?

While you can explore these issues at your leisure in related insights, for the remainder of this article we shall be focusing on what more bureaucratic buying means for sellers.

Sellers Get To Grips With Buying Bureaucracy

Whatever way you look at it, bureaucratic buying means slower selling; it also means selling that is less predictable and more costly. So, how can sellers adapt to this new reality? Here are some of the implications for sellers of more bureaucracy in buying:

The Bureaucratic Buyer

  1. Beware the maverick buyer– more often than not it is an illusion: Don’t assume that the buyer can sign the purchase order. Rather, ask questions about the various steps involved, as well as about any relevant information requirements, and whatever consultation, buying team and sign-offs may be required.
  2. Know the rules…and follow them: Engage with procurement early on in the buying process – and if they are nowhere to be seen, then ask why.
  3. Become a student of buying: Stay ahead of the curve in terms of prevailing trends in modern buying. What is it that buyers are focused on? What is buying best practice? What are the rules and regulations that must be put in place?
  4. Recruit different salespeople: Being blunt about it, most salespeople don’t really ‘do’ bureaucracy! They don’t like reports, updating the sales system, preparing expense reports, or most other forms of administration and paperwork.  It is generating leads and delivering sales pitches, as well as nurturing relationships, that they are mostly focused on. However, in the more bureaucratic approach to modern buying these skills are no longer enough. If, for instance, more of your selling is going to be done by competitive tender, then you are going to be needing people who like – and are good at – typing-up tender responses. If you cannot recruit new people to selling, then enlist the support of those already in your organization to support salespeople in meeting the requirements of the complex sales process. More bureaucratic buying requires a more team-based approach to selling – one that draws upon the diverse areas of expertise of different members of your team.
  5. Sellers must adjust their idealistic sales processes to comply with the demands of their customers’ buying processes. Clearly the sales process required for a process-led or, indeed, bureaucratic buying organization is much different than what has gone before. The reality is that many so-called ‘traditional’ sales steps (needs analysis, relationship-building, etc.) will have to be sidelined
  6. Happy businesswoman bureaucratic buyerGet involved before bureaucracy takes over: Bureaucratic buying processes often have the effect of marginalizing sellers, with the result that they, for example, delay their involvement until the specific has been set and a tender is issued. The key challenge for sellers is to become involved earlier on, and that requires a new demand-generation and nurturing role for your marketing.
  7. Think risk: One of the key drivers for more bureaucratic buying is the perceived level of risk. It is the seller’s role to help the buyer manage and reduce the various forms of risk (supplier risk, project risk, etc.) associated with the purchase.
  8. Walk if you cannot talk: There will inevitably be situations in which the processes and procedures around buying simply won’t suit your organization, and are likely to preclude you from winning. This is particularly likely to be the case if you are not satisfied that you can get the access required to prepare an effective bid. In these cases, it is usually best to decide to walk away.
  9. Change the specification, change the result: Bureaucratic buying changes many aspects of selling, but the fundamentals remain the same. The role of the seller is to communicate how his/her solution will impact on the buyer’s key metrics and, in so doing, to influence the most important thing of all – the specification.



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