Complex Buying Team Personas for Capital Equipment Sales

Ed Marsh | May 26, 2021

From the Company to the Contacts....ALL of Them

Once you have clearly defined your ideal customer profile (ICP) which codifies attributes of your ideal customer company, the next step is to dig in a bit deeper to identify the personas that are involved.

Adele Revella's Buyer Persona Institute offers great insight into real-world, functional personas (as distinct from the  sophomoric, fictionalized sociographic thought experiments that normally pass as personas.) A persona must be based on qualitative research with actual buyers.


Here's a fascinating study done by Canon (the camera people) that illustrates the seductive and risky process of creating personas based on cursory impressions and projected assumptions.

from PetaPixel

This is particularly true in the manufacturing marketing arena where there's often uncertainty about the role of the internet, referrals, social media. industrial trade shows, association recommendations, and other channels of research.

Industrial companies often say "Our industry is different. Our buyers are more traditional." Therefore audio recordings, transcripts, and verbatim quotes can be eye-opening and help to quickly overcome naive understandings of the capital equipment buying process.

Further, one of the elements of persona research is understanding all the stakeholder roles involved. This often challenges traditional industrial sales assumptions and can be particularly enlightening.

Beyond Engineering and Purchasing

Many capital equipment sales teams that I speak with focus almost entirely on the buyer's project management team - the local and corporate engineers and purchasing people that are responsible for collecting quotes and comparing vendors.

That overlooks many of the folks involved in a large capital project, as well as many of the project stages. The truth is that it's hard and uncomfortable to identify the others because we may not know from experience (since we primarily work with engineers) and might not be comfortable chatting with them (since their considerations are rather different from the technical product details on which we focus.)

Both are real though.

And neither excuse failure to engage all manufacturing buyers.

It helps to back up and think about the capital equipment buying journey. 

Five Phases of Capital Equipment Purchasing

Most sales teams get involved once a project is identified and the vendor comparison process is underway. But there's a lot that's already happened by then, and many people involved. Let's look at a more complete journey.

  1. Issue/Awareness Phase - What's the problem? Opportunity? Magnitude of loss/gain? Who's driving it internally? Is it feasible? Should it be investigated and considered for capital? This results in a decision to ignore it, study it further for the future, or seek capital allocation to resolve it.
  2. Evaluate / Stack rank / Commit Phase - What's it going to cost to fix it? Capital? Disruption? Change Management? What other requirements are there for capital? Opportunity cost to defer this?  Likely return? This results in a decision to allocate capital, deny capital, investigate alternatives, or carry it over for a future period.
  3. Solution & Vendor Comparison & Selection (the focus of many sales teams) - Once a project is approved and capital is allocated then there's a process to create a spec/requirements document, identify vendors, solicit quotes, compare quotes, select a vendor, negotiate details and contract the project.
  4. Implementation - Although sales aren't involved here in many cases (vendor project managers take over) it's a critical phase to long-term success and satisfaction. All the implementation details from detailed specs, samples, installation, commissioning, scheduling downtime, overlapping shifts for training, etc.
  5. Review & Analysis - While sales teams are often off to find the next deal, buyers will conduct reviews to measure the actual outcome (savings, etc) against the projection and take remedial action and incorporate lessons learned into future projects.

Obviously, this is a broad generalization and each company/project is different. But with those capital equipment sales phases clarified, let's look at the various roles that will likely participate at each stage in the journey.

All The Buying Roles - Behind the Scenes

Phase One - Issue/Awareness

During phase one you might find the following folks involved:

  • plant & corporate engineers
  • strategy planners
  • plant management
  • owners
  • boards of directors
  • quality assurance
  • supply chain
  • finance
  • marketing & product management
  • sales
  • maintenance
  • purchasing
  • other specialty roles like chemists, food scientists
  • other 3rd parties like ingredient/raw material suppliers

It's anyone who identifies a potentially material opportunity to reduce costs, improve operations, open new markets, or secure a competitive edge, who then has to rally support among colleagues and stakeholders.

Strong capital equipment salespeople help buyers identify many of these opportunities. But they're also triggered by internal audits, customer requests, market research, competitor actions, and other circumstances.

Phase Two - Evaluate, Compare, Commit

What's important to one factory location, one department or function might not be a priority for the company as a whole. At this stage senior management is allocating capital based on strategy, comparing priorities (e.g. regulatory compliance, new products, aging plants, labor costs, etc.), and making decisions on which projects to fund.

In this phase you might find:

  • senior executives
  • boards of directors
  • capital investment committees
  • finance
  • supply chain
  • consultants 

Very few capital equipment sales organizations have any insight into this process beyond what they might hear from local contacts - who in turn probably don't have much insight into it themselves.

And it's entirely possible that projects with higher theoretical returns (e.g. shorter payback period) are deferred to enable investment in more urgent projects.

Phase Three - Solution & Vendor Comparison & Selection

This is where most machinery sales teams are involved. Whether responding to an RFQ or helping define the specific requirements and suggesting solutions, this is where most vendors focus their efforts.

In this phase you'll find buying roles including:

  • local and corporate engineering
  • maintenance
  • local & corporate purchasing
  • local management
  • consulting engineers
  • purchasing
  • regulatory & compliance
  • quality

This phase focuses on finding the best vendor, solution, price, and terms that will satisfy the requirements that were established earlier - often deep in the organization and far removed from the actual implementation and sales team.

Phase Four - Implementation

Once a selection is made and a purchase order issued there are countless details, and many people involved whose lives are substantially complicated by the decision to proceed.

Participants include:

  • engineering
  • scheduling & planning
  • supply chain
  • quality
  • maintenance

Timelines and logistics for sampling, site prep, scheduling training, scheduling production around disruption, local permitting, and many other details are involved.

Phase Five - Project Review

Was it a good decision? Did the project deliver the expected returns? Was implementation more or less complex than projected? Did the vendor meet/exceed expectations? Do the financial models need revision?

This phase will include various roles:

  • engineering
  • stakeholders in the original problem/opportunity (e.g. product management, finance, process control, supply chain, etc.)
  • corporate finance
  • capital committee
  • and potentially others

Although the sales team has long since moved on, this step will determine the lifetime value - receptivity to up & cross-sales, value and credibility of commitments, etc.

Huge, Hidden Buying Teams

Challenger, Inc.'s most recent research finds that complex buying teams average 10.2 people.

Large capital equipment purchase teams are often larger. 15-20 different roles are involved at different stages. Many (most!) are unknown to the industrial sales teams.

That's a problem because if it happens in the dark, there's no opportunity to sell. There's not even an opportunity to learn about how decisions are made, what factors are considered, what solutions are compared, and what other capital projects are likely to receive limited capital spending allocations. And as noted above, in many cases the other roles and players are likely not well understood by the primary project contacts either.

Is it any wonder so many capital equipment projects end in "no decision"?

Is it a surprise that pipelines are so absurdly distended and unpredictable?

Research, Business Savvy & Team Selling

This is daunting for sure. But it's not insurmountable with an understanding of the various personas and a commitment to help each do their job.

It does help to answer the common question of why companies lose capital equipment sales.

This involves various steps that we'll look at individually in more detail in future articles. Quickly, though, it means:

  • Traditional sales process models like BANT qualification are ill-suited for the requirements of complex capital equipment sales
  • Technically knowledgeable sales reps who aren't conversant in finance and business topics will fail
  • Local contacts value a vendor's help in navigating internal processes to get projects approved since the internal processes are often opaque to them as well
  • Manufacturing marketing and sales enablement are critical functions to help put the right ideas, insights, and content in front of the right people in each role of the buying team and at each stage in the buying journey
  • Team selling is critical with salespeople playing coordination roles and using empathy and business savvy to coordinate resources to match the topic, function, and seniority of players

In other words, the traditional model of marketing managing trade shows and sales reps selling products to engineers and purchasing is very poorly suited to today's complex capital equipment sales environment.