Using Softening Agents to Prepare the Customer for a Big Purchase

For organizations selling products or services intended for use by a large number of users within a single purchasing environment, such as a large corporation, completing the sale can be a confounding experience.  The sales cycle on these types of purchases can take months or even years to complete since input on the purchase may come from many areas of the company that normally would not be involved in purchase decisions that carry less impact.

Faced with this situation, members of the selling organization are taught to closely research the prospective buyer and seek out key influencers whose feedback and support may prove crucial.  Unfortunately, in too many instances the key influencers are not the predominant users of the purchased product and, consequently, they fail to appreciate problems that may occur as the organization transitions to the new purchase.  This is particularly the case in large-scale purchases where influencers, such as key executives, are sold on the good things the product has to offer for the entire organization but leave it up to organizational users to endure any pain associated with achieving the benefits promised when the purchase decision was made.

The greatest pain inflicted on users occurs when new products require the user to alter behavior (i.e., make adjustments to normal activities) in order for the new product to achieve its full potential.  For selling organizations no situation is more difficult than what occurs when a large number of users must change how they do their work.  If handled poorly the purchase may cause significant disruption in the purchaser?s environment, which almost always reflects negatively on the seller?s organization since the purchaser invariably looks for someone to blame.

Problems with Purchases that Change Behavior
Selling situations where changing behavior is required to reach a product?s full potential is faced in many industries.  The most notorious have occurred in large scale computer application deployments, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) products, where changing how a business is run has lead to well-publicized operational failures and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.  But software companies are far from being alone in facing such problems.  Here are a few examples of others facing similar issues:

  • An automobile manufacturer introduces new procedures that must be followed when dealers perform warranty service on the auto company?s vehicles.  The required changes create several extra steps for service technicians though the manufacturer believes the changes will reduce certain warranty issues in the future.
  • A supplier of housing materials to large residential builders uses new packaging methods designed to reduce damage that occurs during cross-country shipping.  However, to open the new packaging workers must use a newly invented but difficult to master tool and the opening process takes significantly longer.
  • Using scores and testimonials from several test schools around the country, a curriculum development company is able to convince a school board in a large public school district to change how mathematics is taught to elementary school students.  Yet the district faces intense criticism from teachers and parents, who find it difficult to follow the new approach and question why the school district is not using traditionally accepted methods for teaching math.

In each of these instances the triggers for problems can be traced to: 1) the selling firm targeting influencers with glowing expectations for the product but failing to highlight potential pain, and 2) non-influencers carrying the bulk of the burden to ensure the product reaches its potential.  Since selling organizations are in business to sell solutions for a buyer?s problems, many selling firms are reluctant to focus much attention on the negative effects that are likely to occur when a purchase is made.  Yet when selling a product or service that changes business processes, problems will occur and failing to properly prepare the customer for these problems is bound to create even greater problems as user complaints mount.

The Softening Agent
To deal with these situations, firms selling products or services requiring behavioral changes by users must learn to soften the impact of the purchase by anticipating and dealing with the pain the purchase may inflict.  Unfortunately, such efforts are not often undertaken since selling firms consider this an admission of weakness with their product.  Yet not addressing the pain may lead to the product not performing up to expectations, which may open the door to a host of other problems (e.g., lawsuits, negative publicity).

To lesson the pain associated with behavior changing purchases, selling firms may want to consider utilizing a softening agent.  Softening agents are education and communication programs selling firms establish WELL BEFORE users are exposed to the new way of doing business.  Some examples include:

  • A series of mandatory meetings or training sessions that gradually lay out what to expect when the purchase is fully implemented.
  • Repeated issuance of emails or intercompany website postings that update the progress of the new product and offers ?What to Expect? advice.
  • Television quality informational web-based videos that include an interactive menu allowing the user to choose among different scenarios in which the product is used.
  • Installation of information tables at high-traffic corporate locations, such as cafeterias or entry ways, to catch employees at times when they are away from their normal business routine and possibly more open to receiving information.

The key to softening the purchase is to use communicators who are trusted and considered credible in the minds of the users.  In the best case these communicators should not be seen as representatives of the selling company nor should they be viewed as key implementers of the purchase.  In both cases users will question the communicator?s motives and wonder if they really have the users? best interests in mind.  For instance, in ERP or CRM installations it probably will not work well to have a member of the implementation team be the softener since users may believe the communicator is already ?brainwashed? and cannot understand their problems.  A better option may be someone from outside the company who has gone through the implementation process and can empathize with the typical user within the purchasing firm.

No matter how softening is handled, conditioning users prior to purchase and implementation should not be considered a sign of weakness by the selling firm.  Rather it is a sign that they understand the market and know that changing behavior means they must first prepare the minds of those who ultimately will determine whether the purchase will be successful.