Three Ways to Track Buyer Thinking and Close More Sales

Blog118_BuyerProcess_rev_2-1CSO Insights tells us sales organizations that consistently follow a standard sales process dramatically outperform those who don’t (71.8% of sales reps achieve quota compared to only 59.9%).

Of course, all of us know the sales process is important. But there’s another process taking place in the sales conversation that’s often overlooked.

The buyer’s purchase process.

As a sales leader, I tell my salespeople, “Remember you do not know what you are selling until you know what that prospect is buying.”

It’s not my intention to be too simplistic, but I can’t tell you how often I run into sales situations where the reps involved have not figured this out. We discussed in our last blog what we call the buying influence’s or prospect’s concept or vision for a solution.

It is what they are trying to fix, accomplish or avoid. Nobody buys a product per se; what people buy is what that product is going to do for them; we buy a hammer not to pound a nail but to hang a picture on the wall.

The Purchasing Process

Every buyer goes through a fairly predictable purchasing process. Buying is an exercise in decision making. In last week’s blog, we discussed that decision making starts when some external event has triggered a possible need to change.

By example, a human resource manager receives a 30 percent premium increase on employee medical insurance. Her first instinct─ “This is too high, we need to see what alternatives there are to lowering the cost.” Before that increase, she wasn’t thinking about shopping the company’s health insurance plan.

One of the things we do well at MHI Global is to understand the decision-making process and how and why people make decisions.

Through the clinical research work years ago by the noted University of California, Los Angeles psychologist, J.P. Guilford, we found that human decision making involves three distinct but interrelated thinking processes. He reported these findings in his landmark book The Nature of Human Intelligence. MHI Global applied Dr. Guilford’s research and findings to the complex sale.

Source: MHI Global, Miller Heiman Conceptual Selling®

Source: MHI Global, Miller Heiman Conceptual Selling®

Note that the circles in the images above are not all the same size. This design fact is not accidental. The size of the circles corresponds to the ideal amount of time a decision maker spends on each of the three steps. This process follows the way our minds work. In every sound decision-making process, Cognition Thinking comes first. Divergent Thinking next, and finally Convergent Thinking.

When you approach an organization to uncover needs and match your solution to those needs, you absolutely must know where the organization (or its multiple decision makers) is in its decision making process. By combining Dr. Guilford’s work with the process in Conceptual Selling®, we will arrive on firm ground for this understanding.

Cognition Thinking

When faced with a situation, often because of a triggering event, prospects need to consider taking some action. But they can’t until they gain a clear understanding of the situation.

Dr. Guilford calls this Cognition Thinking.

During this phase, your prospect applies sense and structure to his situation; he no longer feels like a person locked in a dark room, fumbling and stumbling into furniture. Cognition Thinking flips the lights on. The clearer his understanding, the more informed the decision he will make.

n Cognition Thinking salespeople need to ask questions like What? How much? Where? When? Why?

At this stage in the prospect’s thinking you may hear statement such as:

  • Our situation today is . . .

  • An important thing we are trying to accomplish is . . .

  • The budget is . . .

  • We have been struggling with  . . .

  • Because of new legislation, we need to  . . .

If you approach a prospect with an idea based on your homework─ say, saving money on the company’s utility bills─ you must spend time in Cognition Thinking to make sure he fully understands the issues, and develops a vision for the solution, and then decides he wants to look at alternatives.

But here’s where most sales people trip up.

The salesperson is thinking: “It’s obvious this company is spending too much money on utility bills, and I have a way to reduce its cost. He told me what he is spending and I know what I can do. So let’s move forward and let me show them how my product works.”


This approach is why 60 percent of sales opportunities end up in a no decision. You’re selling too fast. You’re running when you need to stroll past the bakery to pick up the fragrant scent of croissants.

Cognition Thinking is so important to understand and honor; it frustrates me to see salespeople ignore the research and strategic questioning required to move through this stage. When you sell too fast, even when you can bring so much value as stated in this example, prospects freeze and end up in no decision. There are two reasons for this.

  1. They do not believe their problem is significant enough to take action, if they  recognize any problem at all, or

  2.  They do not believe the solution you are proposing will work.

Spend the time in this stage developing the prospects concept or vision for a solution and have them see how unsafe it is to stay in the status quo.

When in Cognition Thinking, the prospect is asking himself, “Is this problem big enough for me to focus on now; if so, who should I include in evaluating alternatives and should we do it now?”

Divergent Thinking

We reach Divergent Thinking in the second stage of the decision-making process. Here you generate possible solutions to the problem. Of course, one cannot do a good job of thinking through possible solutions without first clearly understanding the situation. That is why you can’t really explore alternatives until the prospect sees a need to change─going through Cognition Thinking.

The prospect just doesn’t see the issue and then decides to select the first solution offered. Divergent Thinking triggers questions like: How about . . ? Could we . . ? What if . .? Let’s Consider . . .

At this stage of the prospect’s thinking, you may hear statements such as:

  • I’ve thought about . . .

  • Another solution we have looked at is . . .

  • I’ve ruled out . . .

  • We have considered . . .

In this stage, the prospect has already recognized the problem and brainstorms possible solutions that will fix, accomplish or avoid his situation. Hopefully, you played a part in the Cognition Thinking stage to help them form the vision. If you didn’t, you must understand his thinking before discussing alternatives.

Too many salespeople get the prospect to see the issue, or approach the prospect when they have uncovered the issue before you arrive, then go right into the product pitch. Again, if you jump in to talk product, you will frustrate the prospect, who then may go on the defensive─he’ll know you’re only interested in selling your product.

Prospects minds don’t work that way. They want to understand all of the possible solutions before they make a decision. If you work well in this stage, your prospect self-discovers your solution which makes closing the sale a fait accompli. You need to lead the prospect to your solution─not lead with your solution.

Convergent Thinking

Once the prospect has considered all the options, the final stage is to select the best fit for his particular situation. This stage is called Convergent Thinking: The prospect converges on a solution as he narrows, focuses and zeros in on the answer.

When converging the prospect might say: We should . . .The logical choice is . . . It’s obvious the right solution is . . .

At this stage of the prospect’s thinking you may hear statements or questions like:

  • The final solution will have to . . .

  • I will only be satisfied if . . .

  • How long does it take to implement your solution . . ?

What if, however, you get an RFP (request for proposal) in the mail. Where is the prospect in his decision-making process?  Correct. He is in Divergent Thinking or possibly Convergent Thinking needing one more bid to finalize their decision. You need to get a full understanding of his thinking, and that of all decision makers, when they were in Cognition Thinking. You need to probe to understand how or who helped them create a vision for a solution.

If you’re truly following the prospect’s thinking, the Convergent Thinking stage will kick in, and prospects will see your products and services as the best solution. It works. I experience it in the field regularly.

Oh.  And if you’re not convinced about the Cognition, Divergent, Convergent thinking process, use your own method to track your buyer’s thinking. There are many. The most fundamental follows:


Whatever buyer’s model you prefer, use one in your sales process to help you remain clear about where you are at any given point in your buyer’s thinking. Honor the stages. Make them work to your advantage. I have seen prospects completely shut down on salespeople because they became so exasperated with being drug around by a formulaic presentation that didn’t honor their thinking, they threw their hands up and walked out. (Amends were made in the hallway.)

Just check yourself.

You may think you’re selling in alignment with how the prospect buys. It’s easy to lull ourselves into thinking we’re doing all the right things.

Be aware.

Be adaptable.

Be consistent.

Follow the prospect’s thinking process.

See you on the upside,

For more information on how to simplify the complex sale, go to Or call William L. MacDonald in San Diego at PleinAire Strategies LLC at 760.340.4277 or 213.598.4700

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