David Freedman: Keep your enemies close – learning to love procurement

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Selling to a procurement department is like playing tennis against a giant octopus: if one tentacle doesn’t block your shot another one will. At least, that’s how it can feel.

Modern procurement has become a strategic weapon, as companies use impenetrable processes, reverse auctions and external consultants to force down the price and manoeuvre suppliers into unfavourable terms. This often squeezes internal budget holders out of the purchasing process, and replaces them with steely-eyed procurement professionals – especially in the final stages. These individuals are trained to consider price and quality but may be blind to the wider value a supplier can bring. Above all, they appear positively hostile to traditional sales techniques.

However, as Huthwaite International’s latest research highlights, their hostility is partly a cry for help. Responses from more than 100 procurement professionals revealed that many felt undervalued, and that colleagues viewed them as a source of delay and inconvenience – even in companies where procurement had been given a strategic, board-level mandate. Dissatisfaction was reinforced if their role was restricted to the ‘downstream’ phase, when most strategic decisions had already been made and price remained the only issue.

Faced with alienated, possibly hostile, procurement professionals, how do salespeople turn the situation to their advantage? The wisdom of Sun Tzu, the Chinese General and author of The Art of War, seems appropriate: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Bring procurement into the fold early in the sales cycle by engaging with them and demonstrating that you appreciate their expertise. Ensure they understand the strategic value your company can bring to the relationship and how your product or service is different – and do so well before negotiations begin in earnest. This applies both to individual purchasing decisions and, more broadly, the on-going relationship between the two companies.

This approach involves leg work and intelligence gathering, but will manoeuvre you into the best position to win business. It won’t guarantee success but is a lot smarter than pretending the procurement bogeyman doesn’t exist.

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About David Freedman

David Freedman, Sales Director, Huthwaite International

David joined the board at the end of 2009 as Sales Director.

He joined Huthwaite in 2002 as Business Director for the information and communications technology industry, overseeing the acquisition of clients and growth of business in the sector from companies across the software, services, solutions and hardware segments. These are the types of companies David served for many years as managing director of Hill Murray Public Relations, and before that as head of marketing services consultancy The Business Works.

Before founding The Business Works in 1989, he worked in Paris for three years, at IBM's European headquarters, and before that worked in the engineering secretariat of the UK National Economic Development Office.

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