The Role Of Emotions And Goals In B2B Buying Decisions


Share on LinkedIn

For most of the past few decades, leading up to the advent of the Internet and digital technologies in the 21st century, there has been an accepted paradigm regarding B2B buying decisions.   This paradigm consisted of an unquestioned notion that B2B buying decisions were disciplined, rigorous, process-based, and rational.   In essence, a prevailing belief B2B buying decisions were exclusively very rational and based on comparative options.

This is truly not the case – anymore.

What we are learning over the past decade, in which the thousands of buyer interviews I have completed appears to confirm, is emotions are very much a significant part of B2B buying decision-making today.  Playing an increasing role, as more decisions become high stakes, personalized, and emotionally charged.

Consumer Behaviors Transference In B2B

In the world of B2B, supporting the rational decision-making notion, is the belief consumers radically changed their buying behaviors once they walk through the door of their B2B employment.  Becoming rational decision-making buyers using criteria and comparative analysis almost exclusively.  Such generalization no longer works in the digital age.   The Internet and digital technologies have now made such a wall of separation nearly impossible to maintain.

We are seeing new ingrained consumer behaviors being transferred into the context of business situations.   Where buyers are bringing emotive thinking and motivations into the context of making B2B purchase decisions.  For example, consumers have become quite accustomed to finding user-generated reviews and content.  Now transferring such expectations into the context of business.  Riding the ups and downs of an emotional wave of hope for finding the right path towards fulfilling specific goals.

The Connection Between Emotions And Goals

In a previous article on goal-directed behaviors, I mention the strong evidence pointing towards the notion that the pursuit of choices and decisions are largely driven by goal-directed behaviors.  There is also strong evidence emotional elements are often accompanying the pursuit of goals and goal-directed behaviors.  The story of pursuing goals and choices, within a business context, is often filled with an emotional charge.   For instance, emotions around trust could become a major influence in how and why B2B buyers choose a specific solution in pursuit of a goal.

In the past couple of years, we have begun to see some discussions appear regarding emotions.  The CEB, for example, focused on the impact of emotive advertising and promotion in a B2B context.  Finding B2B buyer resonated more so with emotive promotions. In a survey study conducted by the Fortune Knowledge Group, sixty-five percent of nearly one thousand executives indicated they used subjective and “irrational” emotions as their primary basis for making decisions.  In my nearly fifteen years of conducting qualitative research with thousands of buyers, my observations indicates the tie between emotions and the pursuit of goals, in a business context, is more evident than ever.

Out Of Balance With The Elements Of B2B Buying Decisions

Many organizations are finding themselves today out of balance with buyers due to years of operating on the paradigm of buyers, in a business context, only engage in rational decision-making.   We see this paradigm’s influence on marketing and sales strategies continue unabated.  Whereby communications, content, and sales conversations are focused on comparative analysis, criteria, and requirements.

This paradigm, embedded into the DNA of organizations, also causes B2B marketers and sellers to go down the path of a rational paint-by-numbers approach to buyers.  Even with knowledge of shifts in buying behavior towards emotions and goals, systems and processes are still oriented towards rational processes.  For example, marketing and sales automation attempts to force fit fields for rational quantitative analysis.

We have seen a growing degree of importance placed upon the priority of understanding customers and buyers.   At the same time, we have seen a rise in what can be called rational profiling of customers and buyers.  For instance, many of the buyer persona templates and methods I have seen are truly rational profiling in disguise.

A big reason why buyer personas have not been successful for organizations is due to being based on rational profiling as opposed to understanding underlying goals and goal-directed behaviors, as well as, their link to emotions.  Lacking in the use of foundational goal-directed research methodologies essential to persona development.  Rational profiling characteristics typically include a checklist of rational elements such as initiatives, buying criteria, objectives, information sources, success factors, KPI’s, risk factors, and etc.  These are not much different than the rationality-based sales training and profiling of the ‘70s and ‘80s.  As I have written about and mentioned many times over the years, putting a picture on a buyer profile does not make it a buyer persona.

A New Balance Equation For B2B Buying Decisions

If recent studies, such as that of the Fortune Knowledge Group as well as my own qualitative research directly with buyers, are any indication, B2B organizations will need to recalibrate their views on how B2B buying decisions are made in the digital age.  No longer can there just be a group of nodding heads acknowledging the role of emotions and goals.  Yet, rational decision-making based profiling, processes, and systems remaining in their place untouched.

The role of emotions and goals in B2B buying decisions can account for nearly two-thirds of the elements going into pursuing a choice.  Whereby a third is the use of a rational logic and criteria based element.  B2B organizations that cannot engage customers today on these most important two-thirds elements will face an uphill battle.

The rationale may be there as to why one organization’s offering is the logical choice, but, it will be missing the bridge to the emotions and goals driving decisions on the part of buyers.  Without this bridge, B2B organizations will not be able to cross over to be on the same side as customers and buyers.  Relegated to a destiny of forever being on the outside looking in.

(What follows is a short and concise perspective I like, similar in nature, from Rich Palatini, Creative Director for Delia Associates.  Learn and enjoy.)

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Tony Zambito
Tony is the founder and leading authority in buyer insights for B2B Marketing and Sales. In 2001, Tony founded the concept of "buyer persona" and established the first buyer persona development methodology. This innovation has helped leading companies gain a deeper understanding of their buyers resulting in revenue performance. Tony has empowered Fortune 100 organizations with operationalizing buyer personas to communicate deep buyer insights that tell the story of their buyer. He holds a B.S. in Business and an M.B.A. in Marketing Management.


  1. Great thoughts, Tony. Often emotions/hunches that can be rationalised are not, such as:
    will the supplier short me, shaft me or renege on terms, and impact our business. This happened to Nissan when Nippon Steel starved them of steel
    Will they truly be reliable in a crisis?
    Will they honour quality complaints, Continental Can lost a billion dollar account because they argued about the quality complaint (and they were right), The client got out of the contract and did no business withe them for a few years
    So the lines between what is emotional and what is rational when you are making decisions get blurred.
    But as much as purchasing guys want to say they are rational and measure everything, the truth is everything, the truth is the non measurables often win in decision making. I agree with you, Tony

  2. Hello Gautam,

    Thanks for your insightful comment. I appreciate the examples too! I couldn’t agree more, the non-measurables, the intangibles, and the irrational aspects of emotions tied to goals are very powerful influences on decisions.

    Thanks Gautam!

  3. Whether B2B or B2C, isolation of emotional impact on memory, and the creation of customer personas, is essential to understanding drivers of customer behavior. Emotions and memory form levels of trust, and trust is core to a customer’s relationship with a vendor:

    Even where functional, rational, and tangible elements of value are concerned, our studies have proven that there is an emotional subtext, i.e. the assumption of quality and performance, in delivery. This is where satisfaction will not deepen the relationship, but dissatisfaction with experiences and transactions (the erosion of trust) will undermine it.

    Similarly, trust is essential when an organization brands its customer experiences, builds brand/corporate image and reputation, and looks to generate positive downstream WOM, brand favorability, and narrowed consideration sets: and

  4. “If you build a compelling business case, then your buyer will [fill in desired result here].” That’s just one artifact of the paint-by-numbers approach you referenced. There are three reasons I believe “prove the ROI!” or “make the business case!” has endured in B2B sales:

    1) it seems safe and clean – especially compared to dealing with emotions.
    2) we know how: input -> calculation -> output
    3) execs like to say these things because it helps us appear tough as nails

    How about, “be empathetic and make sure to connect closely with your prospect’s emotional needs.” Nah. That doesn’t cut it at a highly-caffeinated sales kickoff. And teaching or mentoring these skills? Who has the time, let alone any practical knowledge? Better to stick with numbers. So, while I wholeheartedly agree with the need to recalibrate our views, I expect our prevailing B2B selling naivete to endure.

    Early in my sales career, a senior VP at IBM shared this thought: “people make decisions on emotions and back them up with fact.”

    If ever there was a reason to take notice, it was to consider the source: a decidedly not touchy-feely Sales VP selling a not touchy-feely product. Obviously, I never forgot what he said, and I continue to believe it.

  5. Hi Tony – great post and one I very much agree with. At the end of the day, whether you work in B2C, B2B or even B2B2C, there is one common denominator – people. Companies sell to people – whether they be individual consumers or representatives of companies. There is no doubt that some of these people (often at senior levels) walk through the invisible vortex at the front door of their office every morning which transforms them from an emotional human being into an irrational business machine!! The most irritating thing of all is that the business machines then start doing things to their customers (people) that would never dream of doing to themselves.

    I am delighted that the traditionally perceived soft and fluffy words of emotion and feelings are getting the attention they very much deserve in a business context. Ultimately, the emotional component of any experience is the one we remember – so coming back to the theme of your post, what do B2B organisations want the buyer to remember about the experience – something good; something bad; or nothing at all!? They can ignore this question….but at their peril!

  6. Thank you Michael, Andrew, and Ian for your comments! Much appreciated. Ian I like the focus on people and what the business machine can do to people. There is no doubt leaders today cannot ignore the level of emotions – doing so at their own peril.

    Andy, love the anecdote about the IBM executive. It is great at exemplifying the recalibration towards emotions, goals, and rational decision-making.

    Michael, the level of trust is one aspect of the overall experience B2B organizations must first understand and then must convey through experience.

    Thank you each for your valuable contributions to this discussion!


  7. Very interesting topic, Tony. The customer service manager of Royal Vopak (tank storage) tells his team: Remember, our interlocutors are clients over the weekend. What they like in interactions with, let’s say, a Starbucks partner, they also appreciate in a professional context.
    Emotions remain a difficult subject to discuss. However, if you reason the other way around, people find it easier to grasp: In B2C as well as in B2B: if the client does not like or trust you, chances are high he won’t like or trust your offer.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here