- Explain what a buying center is.
- Explain who the members of buying centers are and describe their roles.
- Describe the duties of professional buyers.
- Describe the personal and interpersonal dynamics that affect the decisions buying centers make.
The professors who form a committee at your school to choose textbooks are acting like a buying center. Buying centers are groups of people within organizations who make purchasing decisions. Large organizations often have permanent departments that consist of the people who, in a sense, shop for a living. They are professional buyers, in other words. Their titles vary. In some companies, they are simply referred to as buyers. In other companies, they are referred to as purchasing agents, purchasing managers, or procurement officers. Retailers often refer to their buyers as merchandisers. Most of the people who do these jobs have bachelor’s of science degrees. Some undergo additional industry training to obtain an advanced purchasing certification designation1.
Buyers can have a large impact on the expenses, sales, and profits of a company. Pier 1’s purchasing agents literally comb the entire world looking for products the company’s customers want most. What happens if the products the purchasing agents pick don’t sell? Pier 1’s sales fall, and people get fired. This doesn’t happen in B2C markets. If you pick out the wrong comforter for your bed, you don’t get fired. Your bedroom just looks crummy.
Consequently, professional buyers are shrewd. They have to be because their jobs depend on it. Their jobs depend on their choosing the best products at the best prices from the best vendors. Professional buyers are also well informed and less likely to buy a product on a whim than consumers. The following sidebar outlines the tasks professional buyers generally perform.
The Duties of Professional Buyers
- Considering the availability of products, the reliability of the products’ vendors, and the technical support they can provide
- Studying a company’s sales records and inventory levels
- Identifying suppliers and obtaining bids from them
- Negotiating prices, delivery dates, and payment terms for goods and services
- Keeping abreast of changes in the supply and demand for goods and services their firms need
- Staying informed of the latest trends so as to anticipate consumer buying patterns
- Determining the media (TV, the Internet, newspapers, and so forth) in which advertisements will be placed
- Tracking advertisements in newspapers and other media to check competitors’ sales activities
Increasingly, purchasing managers have become responsible for buying not only products but also functions their firms want to outsource. The functions aren’t limited to manufacturing. They also include product innovation and design services, customer service and order fulfillment services, and information technology and networking services to name a few. Purchasing agents responsible for finding offshore providers of goods and services often take trips abroad to inspect the facilities of the providers and get a better sense of their capabilities.
Purchasing agents don’t make all the buying decisions in their companies, though. As we explained, other people in the organization often have a say, as well they should. Purchasing agents frequently need their feedback and help to buy the best products and choose the best vendors. The people who provide their firms’ buyers with input generally fall into one or more of the following groups:
Initiators are the people within the organization who first see the need for the product. But they don’t stop there; whether they have the ability to make the final decision of what to buy or not, they get the ball rolling. Sometimes they initiate the purchase by simply notifying purchasing agents of what is needed; other times they have to lobby executives to consider making a change.
Users are the people and groups within the organization that actually use the product. Frequently, one or more users serve as an initiator in an effort to improve what they produce or how they produce it, and they certainly have the responsibility for implementing what is purchased. Users often have certain specifications in mind for products and how they want them to perform. An example of a user might be a professor at your school who wants to adopt an electronic book and integrate it into his or her online course.
Influencers are people who may or may not use the product but have experience or expertise that can help improve the buying decision. For example, an engineer may prefer a certain vendor’s product platform and try to persuade others that it is the best choice.
If you want to sell a product to a large company like Walmart, you can’t just walk in the door of its corporate headquarters and demand to see a purchasing agent. You will first have to get past of a number of gatekeepers, or people who will decide if and when you get access to members of the buying center. These are people such as buying assistants, personal assistants, and other individuals who have some say about which sellers are able to get a foot in the door.
Gatekeepers often need to be courted as hard as prospective buyers do. They generally have a lot of information about what’s going on behind the scenes and a certain amount of informal power. If they like you, you’re in a good position as a seller. If they don’t, your job is going to be much harder. In the case of textbook sales, the gatekeepers are often faculty secretaries. They know in advance which instructors will be teaching which courses and the types of books they will need. It is not uncommon for faculty secretaries to screen the calls of textbook sales representatives.
The decider is the person who makes the final purchasing decision. The decider might or might not be the purchasing manager. Purchasing managers are generally solely responsible for deciding upon routine purchases and small purchases. However, the decision to purchase a large, expensive product that will have a major impact on a company is likely to be made by or with the help of other people in the organization, perhaps even the CEO. The decision may be made by a single decider, or there may be a few who reach consensus. Further, deciders take into account the input of all of the other participants: the users, influencers, and so forth. Sellers, of course, pay special attention to what deciders want. “Who makes the buying decision?” is a key question B2B sales and marketing personnel are trained to quickly ask potential customers.