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Trendy discussions- How irrational is the B2B buyer?

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

I noticed many discussions and advocacy recently, sometimes even evangelism, about B2B being an emotional buy similar/equal to B2C. This includes statements from marketing consultancies and agencies (that I will not name) such as "B2B buyer first makes an emotional decision and then tries to rationalize it".

Well, I consider this statement misleading, if not wrong. It could be true for small businesses making simple purchases, but it is definitely wrong for a serious purchase made by a mid to large-sized organization. But then, even though I have never seen clients purchase software or services without a strong, dominating rational aspect of the deal, I also consider wrong the opinion that a B2B purchase is entirely rational.

It is not one or the other; we must learn to think in shades of grey.

The one reason I do not label B2B an emotional buy

To me, for a purchase to qualify as an emotional one, it needs to fit two criteria:

  1. An emotional trigger results in a want.

  2. The decision-making has a strong emotional aspect.

It is pretty difficult for a B2B deal to pass both, especially the first one (for the sake of discussion, let's talk deals north of 20k). And to me, that's it, it is all about the reason businesses buy, not how they choose and decide between the alternatives.

Sure, there is much more to this and there are many more things at play. Especially if you are a marketeer, you should be interested in understanding the impact of the irrational because it is critical for selecting proper marketing techniques

The influence of emotions is different across different B2B buying phases

To understand it, we need to take a look at every B2B buying stage separately (see image below)- because they have different goals, they are influenced by the irrational differently.

As for the "a B2B buyer first makes an emotional decision and then tries to rationalize it". statement. I think this is actually what a B2C buy looks like- I have no need for it, but I really want the Apple Watch 8, and now I am trying to rationalize that it can save my life one day.

Watches used to be about status and lifestyle, pieces of jewelry, and art. And by today it seems they emerged as health and even life-saving devices. This is what I would call an emotional play.

So, let's take a look at the different stages of the B2B buying cycle to see how marketing can impact the choice and decision-making by addressing the rational and irrational.

Phase one - The problem. The reasons why businesses buy are different from B2C.

While in B2B, we mainly talk about a problem and a solution to a problem, in B2C, the problem is not mandatory. Usually, a want is all it takes. An expensive watch is an excellent example of what I would call an emotional trigger and an emotional reason for purchase- there was no need for a watch, but I still bought it due to the printed ad in one of the magazines. The magazine promised instant status satisfaction.

In contrast, the triggers for B2B buys are mostly rational. It can start with technicalities such as an existing system getting obsolete or business reasons such as we need to consolidate client data and should start looking for a CRM system. Regulatory compliance, digitalization of sales channels, and productivity tools for different internal functions are all rational reasons.

It is safe to say that the rational element dominates the problem identification phase—round one to the rational.

Phase two and phase three- looking for alternatives and scoping the deal.

Especially when we talk about more high-end B2B buys, because of the complexity of decision-making and the impact of the purchase, the B2B buying process is quite structured, and the decisions are thought out. I have also seen, mature B2B organizations understanding and avoiding the powers of influence (quite frustrating).

But there is a place for emotion here as well. WIth B2B prospects' preference moving towards independent research rather than talking to sales, it is up to marketing to guide the prospect through the buying process. This is an excellent opportunity for not only communicating solutions, values, and differentiation but also to use behavior and influence-based techniques to strengthen the emotional connection.

Let us call this round a tie.

The strong rational elements across all B2B buying activities.

Phase four- the selection. Making the decision.

After researching all the options, defining the requirements, and setting the project charter and the budget, it is time to decide. Final decision-making can have a strong emotional element. And how would it not? Trust is one of the major aspects of the B2B business, and trust is an emotion. The trust required to make a decision is not only related to technology but also to the personal risk of the individuals making decisions. There is much at stake in big, complex B2B projects, from fear of losing internal status to losing a job.

Yes, emotion is an essential part of a Business customer's decision-making. But, still, it is a decision about a very rational benefit.

Round four, also a tie.

Phase five- indecision. B2B organizations prefer not to buy.

Projects considered risky can make the status quo the preferable option and even cause decision paralysis. According to DCM insights, decision paralysis (Indecision) is caused by three dominant factors:

  • valuation- the struggle with what option to choose

  • lack of information- a feeling of not having enough done homework

  • outcome uncertainty- fear too not achieve the expected benefits

The list is another argument in favor of the rational nature of B2B buying. The feeling and fear are emotional states, but all are based on valid rational points- there is a need for guidance about what to choose, there must be a business case ROI, a clear expected outcome, and sometimes even cancelation options. These are all areas that must be addressed rationally.

Round five goes to the rational.

Phase six- the strong argument for early funnel activities and B2B branding

As several cited research suggests, also in B2B, buyers will select a brand that they connect with and which obviously succeeded to establish some excitement and anticipation for not only professional but also achieving personal goals.

And this is why it is essential for B2B companies to invest in early funnel branding activities, to establish an emotional connection with not only the promised tangible business outcomes but also about "what is it in for me?" such as status and success.

Round six goes to the emotional for a final score of 4 vs. 3 in favour of the rational.

Even though B2B buying decisions can be highly emotional, the B2B purchase is still highly rational.

As our final score tells (a quite close call), emotions play a role also in B2B decision making and therefore also in marketing across different B2B buying phases:

  • Branding. Top B2B players know the importance of brand-sales balance. The goal of marketing is to establish a relation even before we move to buy. It is about a Compelling Story to build an emotional connection toward our Solutions.

  • Triggers and reasons to buy. The key reason is almost always about meeting organizational (regulatory compliance, improved competitive position, etc.) or one of the team's goals (easier work, improved productivity, less operational cost).

  • The buying process (problem identification, vendor evaluation). It is about an information/content-driven buying experience where we can use behavior and other B2C-like techniques to steer the buying process in our favor.

  • Vendor selection. Trust is one of the most important (emotional) aspects of a B2B relationship. It is essential to address it properly, so customers' professional and private concerns do not stand between us and the deal.

Hope this helps to clear some of the misconceptions about the difference and similarities of emotions influence in B2B buying. I am eager to hear your view and experience, especially in case we do not agree on the main points.

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