Rewind 20 years. Fresh out of business school, I was managing procurement for a small business unit of a big company. To understand this story, you have to understand the two senior executives I worked with in my buying process. They were both named Dave.

Dave #1 ran the business unit and was a rockstar in our industry, smart and polished. You could slice cake with the crease in his slacks. Every morning, he arrived at the office with five ideas about how to make the business bigger and better. His vision of where our revenue numbers could go made my head spin. I worshipped the guy. I was in awe of him.

Dave #2 ran purchasing for the parent corporation and he was old school. He wore perfectly starched white shirts. He tied his tie so tight around his neck it made his head a sort of reddish-purple color. This came in handy every time someone walked in his office for a purchase order to spend our money on something the company didn’t need. He could shoot your ideas dead before you even thought of them. Our cash flow and capital expenditures were the envy of the industry. I worshipped the guy. I was in awe of him.

Both Daves were great mentors. My only problem was… I was always buying the wrong thing.

Twenty years ago B2B referral software did not exist. You see, every time I tried to save money, it seemed the businessman working in the officestuff I procured would turn out to be crap, whether it was parts for our product or even just office supplies. When this happened, Dave #1 would give me a look like I just threw his brand out the window. Every time I bought the fancy alternative, Dave #2 would give me a look like I just flushed his money down the toilet. The internal conflict was killing me. I remember wanting to throw up in the men’s room of the skyscraper where we worked.

As time went by, I resorted to a couple classic hacks to improve our purchasing decisions…

First, I simply tried buying stuff priced in the middle – seemed pretty safe. But… I quickly learned that price and quality are loosely correlated at best.

Next, I tried the good ‘ol classic RFP buying process – writing up requests for quotes that included all kinds of specs and industry standards. This helped a little, but I still ended up with a lot of crap. Vendors don’t always deliver exactly what they quote. Even checking with references supplied by the vendors didn’t help. Sure, I could have returned the crappy stuff, but that doesn’t save you when you have a rapidly growing business unit and a six-month lead time for scoring a replacement from another vendor.

So after all this experimenting, I was still buying the wrong stuff. I’ve read that a lot of people have recurring dreams about forgetting to study for tests or falling off cliffs or being naked. Not me. Even today I dream about the two Daves signing my purchase orders, the flickering fax machine like a roulette wheel at the end of my dysfunctional buying process, and the horror of what I’d find when the pallets arrived on the trucks.

Fast-forward twenty years. Everything has changed. My buying process is totally different thanks to B2B referral software. Now, I rarely buy anything without advice from my friends at other companies. In the past, getting some quick advice wasn’t as easy as it is today. I couldn’t go on LinkedIn to see who was working where and who was the best source of relevant advice. I couldn’t just ask for a great vendor referral and get an answer in a matter of minutes.

Marketers selling to businesses must understand the gravity of this change. Purchasing decisions are totally social now. But, participating in social conversations where procurers are seeking advice is difficult. Merely posting content on social networks won’t interrupt the conversations I have with my friends about what to buy. To participate in such conversations, brands must engage and provide incentives to participants. Incentivized brand advocacy in the B2B purchasing process allows this to happen.

The most powerful tool any B2B marketer has is a referral program where customers are compensated to advocate on behalf of their brand. I don’t have a problem if my friend is getting a kickback when they recommend a product to me. I trust their recommendations just because I trust my friend. In fact, if the incentives have helped them to be better informed about what they are recommending, and it saves me time with my research, I am grateful for it. Incentivized referral programs are going to change the way we do business. And the best products and services will still win. We’ll just know where to find them more quickly and we’ll buy them faster because we trust the recommendations we get from people we trust.

Today I have more nightmares about showing up naked, and fewer about opening pallets of junk.