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Measuring the role of emotion in B2B decision making

By Andrew Dalglish -

I received this question by email recently.

“B2B marketers don’t target companies, they target people who make decisions for these companies.  People being people, these decisions have rational and emotional components.  Research often focuses on the rational part but forgets the emotional bit.  How can we ensure both dimensions are represented?”

Let’s first define rational and emotional.  Rational relates to a considered comparison of potential suppliers often in relation to ‘hard’ factors such as product specification and price.  Emotional relates to ‘soft’ factors such as gut feel or a sense of prestige from buying a particular brand.  It’s of note that emotional does not always necessarily mean irrational.

We typically find that the relative weight of rational versus emotional components differs according to eight core decision dimensions:

  • The tangibility of the product/service
  • The complexity of the decision
  • The level of engagement with the decision
  • The level of risk (financial or reputational) attached to the decision
  • The level of scrutiny the decision will come under
  • The culture of the company and industry
  • The expertise of the decision maker
  • The personality of the decision maker

When researching the decision process key is identifying all the decision variables that matter, e.g. price, ease of doing business, leadership position.  As we don’t know what we don’t know, this is best done through in depth, open ended interviews or focus groups.  This qualitative approach also brings the benefit of more subtly eliciting emotional dimensions (it is more difficult to do so through structured quantitative approaches).  In these discussions there is sometimes, but by no means always, a tendency for the decision maker to focus on rational factors in the first instance.  The role of the interviewer is to establish rapport and ensure emotional dimensions are explored fully.  There are various techniques to do so but it often helps to make the decision real rather than hypothetical.  Ask them to describe their last decision in the area, explain the key reasons they chose a particular supplier or solution and challenge them (sensitively) regarding the real drivers of choice.  In these discussions two further considerations are essential.  First, each decision variable needs to be classified as a hygiene or differentiating factor.  Second, any segmentation of buyers based on their decision process or criteria needs to be identified.

So, research can provide excellent guidance to ensure organisational focus is on what really matters to customers.  One caveat however.  Each individual is unique and will apply their own weightings between rational and emotional factors.  In one-to-one sales situations then, individual judgments need to be made.

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