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It's time to reduce enterprise buying complexity - a dialogue with Gartner's Hank Barnes

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 14, 2019
Gartner's Hank Barnes regularly shares provocative ideas and research on enterprise buyers. Our first-ever podcast brought the question of how buyers are changing to a head. Here's the highlights.


When we started diginomica, I didn't expect the most interesting clash on enterprise buyers to come from Hank Barnes of Gartner.

As for the dilemmas of the modern enterprise buyer - the subject of our first-ever podcast - Barnes and I agree.

You can throw out the old sales funnel cliches. Buying is no longer linear; external sources continually shift buyer thinking. But Barnes and I have some differences too.

These two views aren't incompatible - we both lean into the other side as well. But it keeps us busy enough that we had to issue two podcasts to get the conversation nailed down. We wound up in a place I wasn't expecting.

A couple older diginomica pieces frame the dialogue:

As a VP Distinguished Analyst at Gartner, Barnes and his team provide research services to technology providers, focusing on go-to-market advisory.

Our first podcast kicked off with the problem of information overload:

Barnes worries that the so-called informed buyer is struggling to digest the onslaught of data. A more consensus-driven approach to buying is also a challenge to manage. Barnes spoke to the low amount of "high quality deals" reported. What does Gartner consider a high quality deal?

That's when the customer says that the purchase is meeting expectations. Gartner surveyed customers: 

Is this purchase failing, or did it fail to meet expectations?

The answers come in on a seven point scale. A high quality deal must score on the top two - with the buyer "strongly disagreeing" that the deal is failing. As Barnes told me on our podcast, the results weren't encouraging:

I think everyone should be aspiring for high quality deals, right? It ought to be a given. Well, we surveyed 1464 different people that were involved in buying decisions. We asked them about the project they were on where the most money was spent on technology. Only 27 percent of them fit the criteria of a high quality deal.

Buyers and the problem of cultural complacency

Perhaps the most concerning post from Barnes' research was this one: New Research: Many Enterprise Buyers Resigned to Failure. I asked him about what he called "buyer complancency." Turns out even with the decision is graded highly, the project might flatline. Barnes:

In this study, we dove in pretty hard into the idea of the biggest project people were on, and what things they were facing. We saw that 46 percent of them fit into the group of: "this is the biggest thing they were involved in, and it was failing to meet expectations."

But we also asked them, "What was your feeling about the overall buying experience?" And "What was your satisfaction with the experience during the buying process with the lead vendor?" And the percentages were like 90% and 92, like, "We're incredibly happy, the buying experience was great. But then they're failing.

Barnes put it bluntly in his blog post:

It’s indicative of a culture of complacency.

But it's not just complacency. It's also the internal complexity of juggling teams and agendas:

A significant portion of them say that within their own team, it was difficult. There were conflicting objectives, and there were lots of disagreements - and not necessarily productive disagreements. And a big struggle to use consensus.

High quality decisions rely on trusted networks

So where do we go from here? We talked in detail on how vendors - and customers - can respond. For buyers, it's about two complementary approaches:

  • Deepen "trust networks" outside the vendor relationship.
  • Further vendor relationships. Challenge vendors to re-earn future business with a high caliber relationship through sales, go-live and support.

Barnes' data indicates those "trust networks" matter.

The other thing that helped buyers significantly was using independent sources in combination with anything else, or even by itself -  whether that be Gartner, diginomica, review sites, whatever.

If they just stayed within the world that the vendor was trying to control, their likelihood of a high quality deal diminished. And those that didn't use any independent sources, only about 20 percent of them had a high quality deal.

But there is an art to getting independent info, without getting bogged down in complexity:

Part of being a smart informed buyer is leveraging diverse opinions. Go to independent sources to validate claims, and to test and get clarification. Embrace those different perspectives, but also be clear on what you're trying to learn from each of them. Because if I just go out free form, that's when I get lost and into that rabbit hole we talked about.

But if I'm looking to validate, is this as easy to roll out as the vendor is saying? What are the tricks for adoption? I go looking for specific information to confirm those claims.

My take - better projects require collective change

The implications for vendors are profound. That goes back to my stump speech on changing sales and marketing. But the good news, which Barnes frequently covers in his blogs, is that vendors have plenty of productive ways to respond - despite losing a type of buyer control that isn't coming back.

Part of that vendor response is producing expert/helpful content throughout a prospect/sales/customer relationship. You also need content "beyond the brand" that earns trust - even when the prospect isn't a prospect yet. Even when they aren't buying. As Barnes puts it:

Be open to pursuits where the budget does not exist.

After I finally cracked a Magic Quadrant joke, Barnes made the case for applying a "customer success" approach:

Frankly, half the stuff that customer success [teams] are doing are things that if I bring forward into the buying process, I'm actually giving people confidence they can succeed. That is stuff like implementation guides - it's the details of how. And that's what gets them the win.

But if we're going to get beyond the win into better decisions and better projects, there's a response needed from Gartner and diginomica also. As we closed the podcast, I said to Barnes:

I'd like to think in the end we have the same goals in mind, so it's nice to be able to reach across and do this.

He added:

There's so much need for tech, right? But there's so much need for us, everyone in it to be better.

No more complacency:

If that idea of being complacent - about half our projects failing to meet objectives - and we're saying, "We're okay with that." I don't think anyone should be okay with that. And that's what we've got to get past.

A worthy challenge.

End note: podcast part one is embedded above. Part two, Serving the modern buyer - how do we reduce buying complexity and troubled projects? is below. Both can be downloaded in multiple players and formats.

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