Buying Cycle – the 4 Stages of Receptiveness

Sales reps traverse their way along the buying cycle; pushing, pulling, influencing buyers from one stage to the next, with the hopeful outcome a sale.

During that journey reps must discover when a buyer is ready to buy, really ready: when they’re not just a polite pitch bucket, but when they become buyers with pressing problems to fix or impatient with improvements to be made.

If not, reps are wasting their time and missing real opportunities elsewhere.

In compliance situations, sales reps need to know if they’re being roped into a hollow RFP or not. They need to know if buyers are likely to make a change or are just going through the motions to stay put. Knowing who’s ripe and who’s not helps sales reps determine the money, time and effort to commit to responding to RFPs.

In the Buying Cycle, It’s Not What They Say

The confusing thing is that buyers can say they’re ready to buy when in reality they’re far from it. They’ll listen to pitches, accept brochures, and sit through demos. But they’re still worlds away from putting themselves front and center to make things happen.

What matters is the buyer’s state of mind relative to sales reps and buying – it’s about buyers’ receptiveness. That’s when buyers’ behaviors indicates they’re ready. It’s behaviors, not words that show how receptive they are to making a buy.

The Prickly Edges to Buyer Receptiveness

But buyers’ receptiveness has two challenges.

First, there are four stages to receptiveness, and a sale can’t occur until buyers are in the final stage. It doesn’t matter that sales reps get into the final stage of their sales cycle long before buyers do. Buyers have to be at their final stage of the buying cycle before they buy.

Second, each of the four stages have built in conflicts between buyers and sales reps. Buyers have a primary want in each stage that’s in direct conflict with sales reps’ wants at that time.

So let’s define the four stages of buyers’ receptiveness, point out the buyer-sales rep conflicts, and then hand over a simple solution to those conflicts. Here we go.

4 Stages of Buyer Receptiveness

These four stages are determined by buyers’ behaviors, not their words. Buyers’ receptiveness can be either:

  • Unaware
  • Indifferent
  • Motivated
  • Engaged

Unaware Stage

Buyers in the Unaware stage aren’t interested in fixing problems for their firm because they don’t see any – they’re unaware. Same is true for making improvements – “What’s so bad that it needs improving?”

They’re primarily focused on their job security and protecting what they already have. May be they’re unaware because they’re head-down working tactical day-to-day stuff, or learning on the job, or holding on until retirement. Whatever their motivations, unaware buyers are:

  • Unlikely to return sales reps’ calls/emails
  • Unlikely to give sales reps intro meetings
  • Unlikely to respond to marketing’s direct mailings
  • Likely to attend industry tradeshows & seminars (gets them out of the office)
  • Unlikely to use sales reps to keep current with their industry trends because they don’t want to feel beholden or compromised
  • Likely to contact peers outside their firms or in industry associations to learn about what their bosses expect them to know

Indifferent Stage

It’s as if buyers in the Indifferent stage have a rock in their shoes but it’s not painful enough to stop and get it out. They’re aware something needs fixing or improving but it’s not compelling enough to do anything about it – yet. Indifferent buyers are:

  • Likely to see fixes & improvements as strategic work for later down the road
  • Likely to return sales reps’ calls/emails for political reasons, i.e. referred by boss or colleague
  • Unlikely to give sales reps intro meetings
  • Likely to attend industry tradeshows & seminars (checking if that rock in the shoe is as bad as everyone else’s)
  • Likely to respond to direct mailings that have free incentives, which they’ll accept & then do no more
  • Likely to accept proposals for compliance reasons
  • Likely to use external sources to keep current with their industry trends (typically not sales reps but colleagues at other firms, industry associations, trade journals, etc.)

Motivated Stage

Buyers in the Motivated stage are aware they have rocks in their shoes and are going to do something about it – but they just haven’t sat down in public to get the rock out.

They’re ready to make fixes or improvements but haven’t made their intention known within their firm, such as engaging Procurement to begin a purchase process, or other visible moves. Motivated buyers are:

  • Likely to be clarifying & defining their problems & desired outcomes into a business rationale to be used when they do go public
  • Likely looking for best solutions to their situation, budget, company politics, etc.
  • Likely seeking knowledgeable & trustworthy sales reps capable of delivering solutions
  • Highly likely to use external sources to keep current with their industry (benchmarking groups, sales reps, colleagues at other firms, etc.)
  • Highly likely to search the Internet for info on solutions, case studies, & to vett suppliers
  • Highly likely to attend industry tradeshows & seminars
  • Highly likely to return sales reps’ calls/emails though busy schedules may cause delays
  • Likely to give sales reps intro meetings
  • Likely to provide limited information regarding their (buyers’) situations
  • Likely to respond to direct mailings with or without incentives if the info is valuable

Engaged Stage

Buyers in the Engaged stage are past the point of no return, they’re sitting down in public and getting that rock out, in full view of everyone.

They are motivated and publicly committed to fixes and/or improvements. They’ve engaged their firms’ change process and have identified solutions they are personally backing. They have decided, and now it’s personal as their political capital and reputation is on the line with their selection.

In addition to the way Motivated buyers are, Engaged buyers also are:

  • Highly likely to trust selected sales reps who have earned that trust & to believe their claims
  • Highly likely to provide confidential & valuable insight into their (buyers’) situation to trusted sales reps, or before the RFP comes out in an RFP process
  • Highly likely to accept, consider & promote proposals that demonstrably fix or improve their situations

Buyer-Sales Rep Conflicts per Stage

In each stage of receptiveness there is only one primary want. As wants differ between buyers and sales reps, there are built in conflicts that must be resolved or no dice and no advance of the sale.

In the Unaware Stage it’s Relevance vs. Access

Buyers in this stage want Relevance before they can even imagine a change to their status quo. And it’s got to be almost life-threateningly compelling to shock them into awareness that everything isn’t good as is.

However, while buyers want Relevance in this stage, sales reps want Access to buyers. Sales reps want to meet and greet and build relationships. And these buyers are running away from that type of interaction as fast as they can. They’re too busy keeping on.

And that’s the conflict.

In the Indifferent Stage it’s Information vs. Insight

Buyers in this stage want Information without feeling they’re indebted to sales reps for it. They know they have things to fix or improve and so they’re monitoring their situations. They want to know about industry trends, technology advances and what’s happening to their peers at other firms. They want generalized understandings so that when/if the time comes to take action, they’re not surprised.

However, while buyers want Information in this stage, sales reps want Insight into what hurts, where and how much. They want to know the specifics of buyers’ individual pains and gains so they can consultatively develop their solutions. And sales reps can’t do that without Insight, and that’s exactly what buyers don’t want to part with in this stage.

And that’s the conflict.

In the Motivated Stage it’s Trust vs. Action

Buyers in this stage want to Trust selected sales reps before they go further. They want to believe, and have backup proof, that the reps’ claims are true and can be relied upon. Because if these buyers go forward and buy, they’ll be placing their jobs, even their careers at risk should sales reps fail to deliver.

However, while buyers want Trust , sales reps want Action. They want buyers to share inside, confidential information. They want buyers to push Procurement to get the RFP out now rather than waiting until the end of the contract term. They want buyers to introduce them to the influencers and decision makers, ahead of the curve. Sales reps are desperate for buyers’ actions to further their cause and give them advantages over the competition.

And that’s the conflict.

In the Engaged Stage it’s Commitment vs. Closure

Buyers in this stage want Commitment from sales reps. Now that they’ve either bought from that rep, or are about to, buyers need crystal clear, unambiguous commitment that sales reps will deliver. Buyers are out in public with their declarations or selections. They are only seeking the most absolute of validations.

However, while buyers want Commitment, sales reps want Closure. They’re now seeking the announcement of being selected, ink on the contract, or other proof that they’re the one. They want to be done giving in during negotiations, and want their anxiety abated.

And that’s the conflict.

Resolving the Eternal Buyer-Sales Rep Conflicts

Sales reps are the ones to resolve the above conflicts, because if they don’t, buyers always have other sales reps to go to. And these conflicts must be resolved in the stage in which they occur, or buyers don’t progress to the next stage of receptiveness. And if that doesn’t happen, buyers won’t buy.

Here’s the secret, simple resolution.

Sales reps give buyers what they need first, in order to get what they need from buyers. It’s give to get, in that order.


Sales reps must recognize the stages of receptiveness buyers are in, then guide them through being Unaware to Indifferent to Motivated and finally to Engaged. Only in that final Engaged stage can sales reps get the sale, and buyers can move their quickly, sometimes in minutes.

Also, sales reps must first give buyers what they need in each stage, before buyers will give sales reps what they need:

  • Unaware stage: Sales reps give buyers Relevance to get Access to buyers
  • Indifferent stage: Sales reps give buyers Information to get Insight from buyers
  • Motivated stage: Sales reps give buyers Trust to get Action from buyers
  • Engaged stage: Sales reps give buyers Commitment to get Closure (sales) from buyers

What are your thoughts? Does this align with your sales and selling experience? Post your thoughts online.

IMAGE by ben jones

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