The Two Buying Processes: the Buy Side and the Sell Side

When I coined the term Buying Process in 1987 I was describing the change management steps people take between having a problem, going through their change/risk management decision issues, and finally self-identifying as buyers. In other words, the Buy Side.

Sadly, in the intervening years the sales industry has (mis)translated the term to refer to how people choose a solution (the Sell Side).

The Buy Side and Sell Side are wholly different: one manages risk; one sells solutions. They have different goals and journeys: before self-identifying as buyers, people/groups must assemble stakeholders, try workarounds, figure out the risk of disruption and get buy in (Buy Side); to make a purchase (Sell Side) self-identified buyers must figure out how, when and if to choose a product and make a purchase.

Buying is a change management problem (Buy Side) before it’s a solution choice (Sell Side) issue. When both are addressed it’s possible to both find and facilitate folks who WILL become buyers (the Buy Side) and help the now-self-identified buyers choose their solutions (the Sell Side).

By overlooking facilitating the (Buy Side) Buying Process; by narrowing the search for buyers to those who’ll listen to product details or seem to have a ‘need’ (the Sell Side); by ignoring what folks must handle on the Buy Side; the sales industry overlooks the 80% of potential buyers who could use help figuring out the many hidden elements that might cause risk before they self-identify as buyers. And while sellers focus on finding folks with ‘need’, they’re wasting an opportunity to prospect for folks in the process of figuring it all out and helping then where they need help. After all, they can’t define their real needs until they do. Nor do they consider themselves ‘buyers’ yet.

As a result, sales closes a small fraction of possible buyers, not to mention having a longer-than-necessary sales cycle as prospects address their internal issues privately. I believe the field is using the wrong metric and chasing the wrong target (‘Need’). Not to mention selling doesn’t cause buying.

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When the focus of a conversation is to sell, even when mentioning tasks prospects should be handling, the goal and focus of the query is still selling, skewering the conversation to the Sell Side and wholly ignoring the Buy Side – certainly not providing the real help buyers could need help with. In fact, long sales cycles are the result of the current sales model.

To actually enter and serve the Buy Side, the goals and skills are vastly different: sellers actually become consultants first before trying to place their solutions. This not only closes 6x more sales in half the time, but it takes sales out of the transaction business into a relevant, necessary profession.


Buyers aren’t where sellers are looking for them. It’s like that old joke about folks looking for lost keys where the light is instead of where they lost them. Sure, sales continues to find new and better ways to push solutions. But that’s not where or how people buy these days, especially with layers of decision teams and risks.

People become buyers when they have no other choice AND have buy-in for change AND can tolerate the risk of doing something different (a purchase); if the risk (the disruption, the change involved with bringing in something new/different) is too high they’ll stay the same regardless of need.

Here’s one of my MorgenismsPeople don’t want to buy anything, merely resolve a problem at the least cost to the system.

Selling and buying require two different sets of actions. By only focusing on one portion of the Buying Decision Process, sales overlooks the vast numbers of not-yet-self-identified buyers who really need help figuring out how to resolve a problem with minimal risk given their unique systemic change issues.

But the approach to facilitating the Buy Side Buying Process isn’t through any content details or presentation, needs assessments, or qualifying strategies used when selling a solution. Facilitating a buying decision (Buying Facilitation®) begins by seeking folks with need. Sellers should begin by seeking out folks trying to fix a problem their solution can resolve: before folks even understand their need they must know the full fact pattern they must address – the very reason sellers who enter too early believe their prospects don’t understand their problem. And sellers aren’t helping them.


Let’s think about ‘need’ for a moment, and why this is a flawed indicator of a buyer. Do you need to stop watching so much TV and exercise more? Do you need to shed 10 pounds? Do you need to be kinder to your employees? See? Need is NOT the measure used by folks who will become buyers! Your 5% close rate should tell you something is wrong. People buy when

  • everyone (even peripherally involved), and everything (policies, projects, leadership) agrees there’s a problem that needs resolving;
  • they’ve tried everything they know to resolve it and nothing worked;
  • they fully understand the risks – the cost – to the system and find them manageable;
  • everyone who will touch the final solution buys in to doing something different.

Here’s why a ‘need’ focus causes sales to fail:

    • You get few meetings with few in attendance, and then don’t hear back.

o  What ‘weight’ did the folks in the meeting have on the final decision team?

o  How many folks needed your solution but wouldn’t take a meeting?

o  Who took the meeting and why? Have they tried workarounds yet?

o  What will they use your presentation content for?

o  Where are they in their Buy Side Buying Process?

o  When you facilitate folks through their complete change process (Buy Side Buying Process), you’ll help them discover who to assemble, how to find workarounds to try, and how to assess risk and manage buy in according to their unique environments. THEN they all want to meet with you and bring 10 people to the meeting.

    • You’re posing biased questions based on what you sell and miss important data.

o  Your questions are biased according to what you think would make them a prospect, hence miss the underlying (systemic) reasons they haven’t resolved the problem yet and where they really need your help and your differentiation point.

o  Facilitative Questions help them uncover their own idiosyncratic route to a problem resolution and buy in without bias.

o  Your ‘need’ focus causes you to assume far, far more people are prospects and you spend large amounts of time chasing folks who will never buy. Remember: People cannot buy unless they understand the risk of change. It’s not about their problem or the efficacy of your solution.

    • With a ‘need’ focus you’ll get one person’s restricted viewpoint and mistakenly believe she’s a buyer.

o  It’s possible someone is speaking with you only because she’s the only one who wants change and using your call to collect data points.

o  When you only seek need, you really have no idea of the accuracy of the person’s answers, or their reason to speak with you.

o  When you only seek need, you miss people doing their discovery and not yet ready to self-identify as buyers.

o  When you only seek need, you don’t understand the entire fact pattern the problem sits in and don’t recognize folks who could never buy.

    • You have no idea if the person you’re speaking with represents a real opportunity.

o  Has he been directed to contact vendors because the team is ready to choose? or just doing research? Has the whole team self-identified as buyers?

o  By assuming folks talk to you because they have a ‘need’ you’re overlooking the systems/change management issues that must be resolved before they’re even buyers and wasting a lot of time pushing products they can’t buy.

o  By assuming folks have a need, you’re restricting your close rate to 5% and wasting 95% of your time.

    • You have no idea what stage folks are at in their (Buy Side) Buying Process?

o  Have they assembled all (ALL) the stakeholders? Know the full fact pattern of the problem (only happens toward the end of the Buying Process when all factors are discernable)? Have they tried workarounds? Do they know the type of risk they face if they purchase? Do the stakeholders buy in to the risk?

o  Until or unless they’ve gone through all change management stages (i.e. the Buy Side Buying Process), they are not buyers, regardless of what you think they need.

The sales model is so focused on placing solutions, on sharing information sellers believe prospects need to hear, that they miss the real Buying Decision Pathjust because you think they have a ‘need’ doesn’t mean they’re ready willing or able to buy.

Remember: Selling doesn’t cause buying.


Until they realize they cannot fix the problem themselves AND everyone recognizes that the cost of the fix is less than the cost of staying the same, they will not, cannot, buy. And when you don’t hear back, they’re not facing indecision: they’re merely involved in their change management process and not yet buyers. And unless the risk of the change is less than the cost of staying the same, they’d rather stay the same and avoid the disruption.

Sellers can help would-be buyers traverse their decision path – their Buy Side Buying Process – BEFORE trying to sell them anything and help them become buyers very quickly. After all, they must do this anyway, with or without you: until they accept the risk that a new solution brings, they aren’t buyers anyway. That leaves you selling to the low hanging fruit (the 5%) rather than helping the 80% manage their Buy Side decision process.

Before considering themselves buyers, all people must mitigate the steps between problem recognition and risk management. Until people manage their front-end change management piece (the first 9 steps of a 13 step change process, or, um, Buying Process) they ARE NOT BUYERS and will ignore any attempt at being sold to!

The sales industry must shift their thinking to facilitate the Buy Side as a precursor to selling. I know the field has recognized the need to do so, but uses the same tools and Sell-Side thinking to try to get there!


Buying is risk management. Selling is product placement – two different sets of things to handle for two different sets of problems.

Facilitating people through their discovery of risk is not based on a solution, or need, or features and functions, but on a different metric entirely: neither the sales model nor the solutions themselves can help with the Buy Side Buying Process. Buying is first about change:

Buying represents change in the underlying system that includes people, policies, initiatives, jobs, budgets etc.

Change represents disruption. It must be addressed and bought into by everyone it will disrupt.

A purchase represents an unknowable risk to the system.

And sellers, as outsiders, cannot ever understand what their idiosyncratic issues are.

I’ve written extensively on this for decades. Terms that I’ve coined as part of the Buy Side Buying Process (‘stakeholders’ buy cycle, buying patterns, buyer’s journey, ‘workarounds’ ‘Buying Decision Team’) have been mistranslated, and now endemic in the sales vocabulary as part of the Sell Side. Buying Facilitation® finds those on route to becoming buyers and leads them through their change steps.


When I started up my tech company in 1983 and became a buyer after being a very successful seller, I realized the problem with sales: as an entrepreneur with problems to solve, I didn’t even think of making a purchase until I assembled the full set of stakeholders and knew the full fact pattern, tried everything familiar to fix it, and understood the disruption an external solution would cause.

I invented Buying Facilitation® to facilitate folks through their change management steps on route to becoming real buyers. It works WITH sales but isn’t sales. It’s change based, not product sell based. In my Buying Facilitation® training programs I teach how to facilitate change as the precursor to selling. Participants close 40% against their control groups that close (on average) 5.4%. When I trained my own sellers to find folks on route to change, our closed business improved by a factor of eight.

Buying Facilitation® uses wholly different tools and goals, starting with prospecting for people seeking to resolve a problem – people in their Buying Process – that the seller’s solution can resolve. It includes:

      • Facilitative Questions: a wholly new form of question in invented (Took me 10 years!) that leads Others through their elements of systemic change.
      • Listening for systems: a way to listen for systemic problems (leadership, ancient corporate rules, etc.) instead of seek what I wanted to hear.
      • The steps of change: the 13 steps all people must traverse before they agree to any change. Sales enters at step 10 when folks are ready to buy. They can enter at step one and lead folks efficiently through their change issues.

Buying Facilitation® finds people on route to becoming buyers ON THE FIRST CALL when your goal is to find folks changing in the area you solution can serve. It’s a generic change facilitation model used also by coaches and leadership. It has nothing to do with buying or selling per se. And yet it facilitates real change.

Below I’ve included a few articles I’ve written on the subject. Go to, read the section Helping Buyers Buy, and go to the categories Sales, Buying Facilitation® in my blog section and start reading. Then call me. I’ll teach you.


‘No Decision’ is not Indecision

What is Buying Facilitation® and What Sales Problem Does it Solve

The Real Buyer’s Journey: the reason selling doesn’t cause buying

How, Why, and When Buyers Buy

A View from the Buy Side


Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including her new book HOW? Generating new neural circuits for learning, behavior change and decision makingthe NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. She can be reached at

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