American Business


Buying-center concept

The buying-center concept is the idea that in businesses and organizations, many people with different roles and priorities participate in purchasing decisions. Unlike consumer buying, where the consumer, alone or with assistance or influence from acknowledged opinion leaders, makes his or her own purchase decisions, in business buying a group often determines which products or services are purchased.

The typical business buying center will include a variety of participants:

  • initiators: people who start the purchase process by defining a need 
  • decision makers: people who make the final decision 
  • gatekeepers: people who control the flow of information and access to individuals in an organization 
  • influencers: people who have input into the purchase decision 
  • purchasing agent: the person who actually makes the purchase order 
  • controller: the person who oversees the budget for the purchase 
  • users: people who use the product or service 

In many situations, people play more than one role in business purchasing decisions. Sometimes, buying centers are formal committees created to make a purchase decision, but more often they are defined by organizational relationships. Depending on an organization’s structure and the importance of the decision being made, there could be many or few layers of management involved in a buying center. Some members of a buying center will participate throughout the decision-making process, while others will only be involved briefly.

Marketers attempt to define who is involved in buyingcenter decisions. For example, in the 1990s it was often difficult to determine which people made purchase decisions for business computer systems. In many organizations there was no formal computer-systems department. Often important influencers were individuals within an organization who had taken the time to learn about and analyze computers, even though it was not part of their job requirements. Influencers were often also initiators of computersystems purchases and upgrades but sometimes were thwarted by gatekeepers resisting changes in technology. For a marketer of computer systems, it was important to identify who played which roles in business buying centers.

Marketers have also recognized the importance of “champions”—advocates for a company’s products or services within an organization. During the latter 1990s and early 21st century, many organizations expanded the use of outsourcing—contracting for specific products or services from outside the organization. The jargon term pilot fish refers to individuals and businesses created by former employees now providing outsourcing services to the companies they previously worked for. These pilot fish know the company’s structure and the buying-center process in the organization and depend on their champions to continue to influence and send business to them.

Further reading

Dwyer, F. Robert, and John F. Tanner, Jr. Business Marketing, 2d ed. Boston: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 2002.