Buyer Decisions Are Not What You Think

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by Gregor Črešnar

When marketing and sales leaders often think about how buyers make decisions, they are viewed through a prism of buyers making rational and process-driven decisions.  Leading to many strategies and tactics devoted to attempts to market or sell to the rationale behind decisions and buying processes.  Of late, the term “buyer’s journey” has come into vogue.  Essentially another name for mapping the buying process.  It is yet another example, however, of the search to understand the process of decision-making.

There is a significant problem with this prevalent perspective that exists in the world of marketing and sales: humans, thus buyers, do not make decisions in near-perfect rational, systemic, and predictable ways.

Steps, Stages, Phases, And Journeys

Particularly in B2B, marketing and selling organizations have attempted to map out buyer decisions in steps, stages, phases, or journeys.  For example, when a new technology solution is considered for managing warehouse inventories, the tendency is to see the purchaser going through five, six, or seven neatly defined steps.  Acting rationally with defined criteria and evaluation processes.

Obtaining such viewpoints are very helpful.  They can help lay a foundation of how organizations and people will consider decisions.  What marketing and sales leaders must guard against is taking a very literal approach to this type of understanding.  And, guard against applying such a perspective generally across all customers.  People, as buyers, do not always make decisions in rational and literal ways.

Content Deluge Is Counter-Productive

Nobel-prize winning research in the fields of psychology and sociology have proven people, and buyers within organizations, are not fully rational when it comes to decision-making.  A contributing element, found in behavioral research, is people (buyers) having the capacity to only retain a small amount of information to use specifically for decision-making.

Marketing leaders enamored with content marketing in an overzealous manner should take note of this element.  In my qualitative buyer research with several hundred buyers, in the past few years, findings show a counterproductive trend is occurring.  Buyers are being overwhelmed and deluged with information (content), which is causing new behaviors we may call simply avoidance.  Here is a voice from one interviewee:

“The amount of information I get from email and even from just searching is basically too much.  Sorting through it all is just not practical.  I just no longer do anymore.  I will do enough to pick out a few suppliers.  But, I am more relying on suppliers coming in and showing me and then discussing if it fits.” 

Senior Director, Supply Chain Operations

If not careful, marketers can cause this counterproductive behavior to occur amongst its customer base and buyers.  Whereby, they become simply avoided.

The Importance Of Understanding Biases And Mental Framing

During the past forty years, research has been uncovering the powerful influence of goals, biases, and perceptions on decisions.  Including the accepted notion recently found in a study by the Forbes Knowledge Group, which found 67% or greater of business executives relied primarily on intuition and subjective elements when making decisions.  These biases and perceptions are formed from experience, culture, and acquired knowledge.

A way in which both buyers and marketers can make sense of such elements as bias, perceptions, intuitions, and experience is through the concept of understanding how buyers frame their goals and problems mentally.  Sometimes referred to as mental framing or mental modeling, this refers to how people incorporate goals, biases, perceptions, intuitions, culture, social, context, environments, and experiences into a framed world view.  By which they subconsciously filter choices and decisions through.

How buyers “frame” their goals and problems, according to research dating back to the 1950’s, will influence their decisions.  Let us take a simple, yet commonly referenced business decision example to illustrate.  At one time IBM enjoyed superiority in the industry simply due to mental framing more than anything else.  Whereby IT leaders chose IBM over any other providers because it was the safe choice, which could be defended.  Although other suppliers may have met criteria in a superior fashion, the influence of a bias towards defending decisions and minimizing personal risks were of the larger concern.

Reaching The Deeper Second Layer Of Customer Understanding

For years, marketers and sellers have been at the first layer of attempting to understand how buyers make decisions.  The first layer being at the rational level.  Buyer research intended for buyer personas specifically is designed to help organizations develop deep customer understanding at the underlying layer – the deeper second layer of behaviors and influence.  Unfortunately, due to the rise in popularity, the term buyer persona is being used incorrectly to represent the first layer.  Casting rational information and facts, such as buying criteria, as buyer personas.

The implications for marketing and sales leaders are they will need to improve efforts in attaining deep customer understanding.  This may mean relying on third-party expertise in qualitative buyer research with the competencies to uncover goals and mental framing.  (A topic for another day is the amount of bad advice circulating on how to interview buyers for buyer personas.  Which do not follow accepted practices in qualitative research and are more biased on what marketers want to do as opposed to understanding buyers.)

Helping Buyers Make Better Decisions

By understanding how biases, perceptions, and mental framing are influencing choices, companies can be in a position to help buyers actually make better-informed decisions.  That is, to account for such biases and mental framing by structuring their conversations, and information, in ways that fit within the “frame” of how buyers are thinking and attempting to accomplish goals.

The real intent of buyer persona development and in-depth buyer research is to understand the effect of goal-directed behavioral and underlying influences on buyer decisions.  The so-called second layer.  By doing so, organizations can best position themselves as helping customers to make better-informed decisions on how they can achieve their goals.  And, do not fall victim to the trend of buyers avoiding their information – or them entirely.

(What follows is a fascinating talk by noted professor and researcher of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, Dan Ariely.  The talk is entitled “Are we in control of our decisions?”  Ariely describes how irrationality affects and influences decisions we make in everyday life and in different settings.  Enjoy and learn!)

Tony

Article by Tony Zambito

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