B2B buyers are human too

Recently I interviewed a successful, highly skilled IT professional. The discussion was technical and I was worried my lack of knowledge would quickly be exposed.

As I focussed on his description of a specific purchase decision, I realised he’d confidently but unknowingly described it using a set of mental short-cuts. While this had simplified the process, when we dug a little deeper it was clear his decision-making had not been entirely rational.

This surprised me. But should it have? Are business buyers always more rational than consumers? In some cases not. B2B marketers who recognise this can use it to their advantage.

Professionally irrational

Many companies have systems and processes in place to ensure decision-making follows a clear logic and is as rational as possible, for example when it is someone’s specific role or when a process is designed to evaluate options in a way that can overcome our human biases.

But not all companies make decisions this way. The decision-maker I described is an expert in his field, so our assumption was that this would translate into detailed knowledge and a thorough review of all the options available to him. But it didn’t. He used something he knew, discounted something he thought he knew and didn’t fully consider some other stuff he was aware of.

This is more common than you might think. Aside from the usual list of cognitive biases, two other dimensions determine how likely it is for business buyers to rely on less rational, more human heuristics to make decisions:

  • Engagement with the category
  • Knowledge of the category

If the products or services in a category are seen as part of the job that’s less interesting, this reduces the incentive to invest time and effort in a purchase decision.

Equally, we cannot assume a buyer’s knowledge will be up to date or extensive. The category may be on the periphery of their day to day role.

Even in scenarios where the buyer is engaged, the competition for time and attention when juggling other responsibilities or the belief that their prior knowledge is sufficient can become a barrier. Nobody wants to make a bad decision at work and in these scenarios loss aversion and herding can bias buyers towards ‘safe’ choices.

Sound familiar? In some cases, business buyers are not all that different to the rest of us. Which is a good thing: we can design interventions the same way we do for consumers.

First, think about the context: both the place your category holds and what’s happening in the moment and environment when the decision is made. Also consider which biases are more likely to affect the buyers in this context.

Second, in order to maximise appeal, think about the following:

  • Frame the proposition: what’s the incentive, how can you tap into the cues they rely on to make the decision easier
  • Engaging people: when is the right moment and what or who can make a successful intervention?
  • Message: is it reassurance, social dynamics or industry norms that will convince?
  • Tone and language: is there an opportunity to bring in more empathetic or exciting language without undermining credibility?

Which brings me back to the IT professional at the beginning of this piece. Our client has a great product and benefit story but realised its target audience was not investing effort in a way that would lead to its discovery. What they learned is that you can’t leave engagement to chance; to override those mental shortcuts they must frame their proposition in a way that requires minimal effort to take the message on board and provides a clear incentive to act.

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