Insights from the front lines.


Emotion in B2B Decisions

As human beings, we are emotional.  Further, so are our purchase decisions. This is true in our major purchases, such as automobiles (people don’t need a Mercedes-Benz; they want one).  It also is true in our small purchases (How many of us buy Heinz ketchup when other brands are significantly less expensive simply because we trust that it tastes good). 

What people often forget, however, is that it also is true in business-to-business decisions.  People assume that business-to-business decisions are rational.  However, the stakes are often much higher in business-to-business decisions, thus increasing the role that emotions can plan.  In business-to-consumer purchases, the impact of the decision typically is limited to the individual purchaser or that person’s family.  Switching from an American Express to a MasterCard is a relatively simple decision that affects no one but the person making the switch.  In contrast, the impact of selecting Microsoft over Oracle in a business setting affects many, if not most, of the people in the company.  Further, that decision is scrutinized more closely by others in the company who have a significant influence over the decision-maker’s professional success.  The success or failure of business-to-business decisions affects performance evaluations, bonuses, promotions and, ultimately, job security. 

There was a time when people said “No one gets fired for hiring IBM” (it still may be said in some settings today).  The statement goes to the heart of the role emotions play in business-to-business decisions.  Implicit in the statement is the assumption that, in some cases, IBM may not have been the best purchase decision in a purely rational world.  However, the world is not rational.  Selecting IBM or another number one player can be viewed as a safe choice.  There is a limit to the downside risk (getting fired) of such a decision.  Therefore, even if a purchaser believes that another choice may make sense from a purely rational point of view, they may select the safe choice to preserve their job. 

Some may argue that this, in fact, is a rational decision.  It is rational to preserve one’s job, after all.  However, choosing a smaller supplier does not mean that one will get fired.  In fact, it could increase one’s chance at promotion as long the purchaser made the right choice for the business.  It simply means that the purchaser made a “rational” decision based on personal factors rather than solely business factors.  But, the act of making a sub-optimal purchase decision because of the fear of a negative outcome when the rational factors suggest otherwise is emotional (and reasonable).

The impact of the role of emotions in business to business purchases needs to be factored in how companies create customer or client experience.  To some extent, that happens today.  Think of how sales people focus on developing and maintaining relationships with clients and prospects, hoping to tap into the emotional good will that affects purchase decisions.  It goes beyond the sales person, however.  Companies need to understand the role emotions play in business to business relationships just like business to consumer companies do.  Companies need to understand the pressures of the business and the decision maker and the impact they have, positive or negative, on that business’ success.  In a recent study of the customer experience delivered to health care providers, a Strativity study found that the two statements that had the largest impact on customer loyalty were emotional issues.  The one that had the greatest impact was “We receive the best service possible”.  Once the two emotional issues were satisfied, then a rational issue played the next most significant role.

Business to business leaders need to understand the role that emotions play in the purchase decisions of their customers and clients.  Even more importantly, leaders need to ensure that their employees understand this role and that they understand that everyone, not just the sales and marketing teams, factor the emotional impact of their actions on customers and clients.  In doing so, companies will enjoy the success that comes from successfully tapping into customer emotions.