B2B Buyer Persona Research
How B2B Buyers Select Between Vendors and Salespeople
I’ve had the privilege of interviewing over 1000 decision makers as part of the win-loss analysis research I conduct on behalf of my clients. It’s always fascinating to listen to these buyers share their honest thoughts about how they made their decisions and why they selected the vendors they did.
One of the most interesting parts is learning why the competing salespeople lost. There’s a tendency to assume that the salesperson lost because their product was inferior in some way. However, in the majority of interviews, buyers rank all the feature sets of the competing products as being roughly equal. This suggests that other factors separate the winner from the losers, with some being out of the salesperson’s control.
The impetus to conduct this buyer persona research project was to identify and quantifiably measure these hidden factors. The research goals were to:
- Understand how buyers perceive the sales salespeople they meet with
- Explore the circumstances that determine which vendor is selected
- Learn how different company departments and vertical industries make buying decisions.
To accomplish these goals, over 230 business professionals who evaluate the products and services their companies use participated in this research project. The survey group was 59% men and 41% women, who work within the following industries and departments shown below
Study participants completed an extensive 76-part survey on subjects including how they interact with salespeople, the dynamics of team evaluation, their opinions on real-world sales scenarios, and a variety of questions surrounding personal beliefs. The questions differed from traditional buying-behavior questions because I wanted to discover underlying psychological and behavioral tendencies. In other words, participants were asked unusual questions in order to test a variety of customer decisionmaking hypotheses.
The following topics are covered in this research project:
1. Risk tolerance - Two-thirds of B2B salespeople were rated as being average or poor and this impacts how customers interact with salespeople and their propensity to take risks
2. Group decision making dynamics - Nearly every selection committee has a “bully with the juice” who dominates the decision making process.
3. Vendor market position advantages - Different buyer personas tend to buy from underdog vendors versus the goliath of their industry.
4. The real influence of the Internet on the B2B Sales Cycle– Vendors’ websites definitively impact the customer’s final decision.
5. Preferred selling styles – Buyer personas react to different customer selling strategies.
6. Vendor selections insights – Human nature and past buying experiences determine how evaluators act and which vendor they ultimately select.
1. RISK TOLERANCE
Two-thirds of B2B salespeople were rated as being average or poor and this impacts how evaluators interact with salespeople and their propensity to take risks
Put yourself in the position of the experienced evaluator who has met with hundreds of salespeople. What percentage of salespeople would you say are excellent, good, average or poor? Overall, study participants rated 12% excellent, 23% good, 38% average, and 27% poor.
Think about those figures for a moment. What are the implications of nearly two-thirds of B2B salespeople being considered as average or poor? This situation creates an aversion to risk because evaluators have been conditioned to be skeptical and not to trust salespeople in general. Therefore, they’ll make every vendor respond to immense RFPs and complete laborious spreadsheets—each product feature and operation has to be fully documented to prove it exists. They’ll require meticulous hands-on evaluations of each product and painstakingly documented findings. The goal is risk mitigation and reducing the uncertainty associated with selecting a vendor and making the purchase.
They won’t buy until they are completely satisfied, and when they meet with salespeople, they become proctors who are cross-examiners as opposed to collaborators. For example, a purchasing manager will punish vendors who violate the selection process. This obviously creates a challenge because the salesperson’s goal is to implement a strategy that changes the selection process to his or her benefit.
When you look at ratings of salespeople from the perspective of departmental buyers, a pattern emerges. Evaluators who are part of IT, engineering, and accounting are more critical of the salespeople than those from lesser scientific or process-oriented departments such as marketing. Since these analytical buyers have advanced degrees in the sciences (computers, finance, engineering, etc.) they are more likely to be skeptical and consequently more demanding of salespeople. This should not be a surprise since they’ve had years of systematic education followed by a business career that was heavily focused on scientific methods and data analysis.
Another interesting pattern occurs when tolerance for risk is analyzed by department. There seems to be a correlation between the ratings of salespeople and tolerance for risk. Specifically, the higher negative rating of salespeople is inversely related to the department’s tolerance for risk. For example, IT personnel rated 37% of all salespeople as poor and their risk tolerance average was the low at 5.0. Conversely, marketing rated 18% of salespeople as poor and their tolerance for risk rating was much higher at 7.1. It can be inferred from these metrics that these two departments will interact with salespeople and analyze vendors in different ways with varying levels of due diligence. The figure below shows how buyers’ poor perception of salespeople is inversely related to their appetite for risk.
The tolerance for risk also varies greatly by industry as well. Dynamic, creative, trend-oriented industries such as fashion, entertainment, and real estate have the highest risk tolerance averages. More conservative, static, and process-oriented industries such as government, consulting, and healthcare have the lowest risk tolerance averages. Again, this validates that different industry types interact with salespeople and analyze vendors in different ways with varying levels of due diligence.
Evaluators will go to great lengths to reduce the risk of buying. They might list their needs in documents that are hundreds of pages in length. They might hire consultants to verify that they are making the right decisions. And they’ll conduct lengthy evaluations to test prospective products, talk to existing users of the products, and complete pilot testing to ensure the products work as advertised—all in an effort to eliminate their fears, reduce their uncertainties, and eliminate risk. The B2B buyer is fixated on risk mitigation.
2. GROUP DECISIONMAKING DYNAMICS
Nearly every vendor selection committee will have a “Bully with the Juice” who dominates the decision-making process
Whenever a company makes a purchase decision that involves a team of people, self-interests, politics, and group dynamics will influence the final decision. Tension, drama, and conflict are normal parts of group dynamics because purchase decisions are not typically made unanimously.
One finding from hundreds of sales cycles I have analyzed is that one member of the selection team is able to exert his or her will and determine the vendor that was selected. I have coined the term “bully with the juice” for this person. This is not necessarily a negative term, nor does it mean that the person is physically intimidating. It is simply a description of a person who will tenaciously fight for his cause in order to get his or her way. This person isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect or ruffle some feathers to ensure their personal desires are met.
Simply put, the bully with the juice has charisma. But even this definition is too simple. Some people are natural-born leaders. They have an aura hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. These evaluators do not necessarily act like prima donnas, nor are they always the highest-ranking people involved in an evaluation. Instead, they are the ones who always seem to be on the winning side. Typically, only one member of the customer’s evaluation team is the bully with the juice. Single-handedly, he or she imparts his own will on the selection process by choosing the vendor and pushing the purchase through the procurement process.
At the other end of the spectrum are evaluators who are accommodating. They are more apathetic about whatever solution is purchased and less likely to strongly back one vendor during the selection process. The degree to which people are bullies or accommodating depends on the effect the purchase decision has on them personally, their span of control, their position in the company, or their ability to perform their jobs. An evaluator is more likely to become a bully with the juice when they have an elevated status within the evaluation team. The status could be the result of their domain expertise or their title and the authority it commands.
In order to quantify the frequency of when there is a bully with the juice from the perspective of evaluation team members, study participants were asked about their selection committee experiences. Overall, 90% of respondents confirmed that there is always or usually one member of the committee who tries to influence the decision their way as shown below.
The occurrence of the bully with the juice varies based upon vertical industry as shown below. Banking and computer industries had the highest response rate indicating there is always one committee member who tries to influence the decision while manufacturing and government had the lowest.
The real enemy of salespeople today isn’t their archrivals; it’s no decision. What is it that prevents prospective buyers from making a purchase even after they have conducted a lengthy evaluation process? Every initiative and its associated expenditure is competing against all the other projects that are requesting funds.
Do the departments of a company have different abilities to push through their purchases and defeat the company’s bureaucratic tendency not to buy? Let’s look at the profiles of the various departments in terms of how they ranked their group leadership ability as a predictor of their department’s ability to promote their internal agenda. Below, are the department profiles in order of the most responses that they strongly agreed with the statement, “I am often a leader in groups.” Based on the results, you would expect sales, IT, and engineering to have more organizational clout than accounting and human resources.
3. VENDOR MARKET POSITION ADVANTAGES
Different Industries and departments are more likely to buy from underdog vendors versus the Goliath of their industry
In most every industry there is a single company that dominates their market. In comparison to their competitors, they have a much larger marketshare, top-of-the-line products, greater marketing wherewithal, and more company caché. For salespeople who have to compete against these industry giants, life can be very intimidating indeed.
However, the study results provide some much needed good news in this regard. Evaluators aren’t solely fixated on the market leader and are more than willing to select second tier competitors than one would expect. In fact, only 33 participants indicated they prefer the most prestigious and best-known top-of-the-line brand with the highest functionality and cost. Conversely, 63% said they would select a fairly well-known brand with 85% of the functionality at 80% of the cost. However, only 5% would select a relatively unknown brand with 75% of the functionality at 60% of the cost of the best-known brand.
Not surprisingly, the answer to this question was different based upon industry. The fashion and banking verticals had the highest propensity to select the best-known top-of-the-line product while manufacturing and healthcare had the lowest.
The information technology and engineering departments had the highest respondents who would who would select the best-known top-of-the-line product while manufacturing and sales had the lowest.
Conversely, manufacturing and sales would be most likely to buy lesser-known brands with slightly reduced functionality if they were priced accordingly.
4. THE REAL INFLUENCE OF THE INTERNET
Vendor websites definitively impact the customer’s final decision
Every major B2B purchase progresses through four different sales cycle stages and there are different types of influencers that determine which vendor is in the lead at each stage. Customer research is most influential at the beginning of the sales cycle. Conversely, the influence of internal politics and the group dynamics of the evaluation committee making the selection become more important as the sales cycle progresses.
- Customer research stage -The customer conducts independent research about the various vendors, underlying technologies, and the methodologies they are considering via the Internet, analyst reports, product reviews, industry news, member associations, and so on.
- Product stage - Based upon their research, the customer will contact a select number of vendors and meet with their salespeople to learn more about the products. The customer is validating his initial research and augmenting his knowledge of the respective products through interactions with each of the salespeople competing for the business.
- Business stage - As the sales process progresses, the evaluators will assess which vendors offer the best business value and are a philosophical fit to their business.
- Political stage - The last stage is making a final decision from the top two or three vendors. The final decision is typically influenced by many political factors beyond the attributes evaluated in the product and business stages.
During each stage, the importance of the vendor’s website varies. Early on, the website plays a pivotal role as evaluators decide which vendors are qualified. In the product stage the majority of information is transmitted from the sales teams directly to the customer and the website serves as a validation check point. The website’s importance increases during the business and political stages as senior-level executives who weren’t part of the evaluation team review the findings and recommendation as shown below.
With these four stages in mind, study participants were asked, “Do vendor websites influence the final vendor selection you make?” Overall, 61% of study participants said they definitely influence their final decision, while 37% indicated it somewhat influenced their final decision. Only 2% said it had no influence at all. In addition, this ratio was nearly identical across each department.
What aspects of a website do evaluators consider most influential, and does it differ by industry? Study participants were asked to rate how eight different website topics influence their purchase decisions. The top three items for banking, computers, and consulting industries were the same; customer testimonials and success stories, competitive comparisons by industry analysts, and positive news/reviews by press and periodicals. The top three items for entertainment and fashion industries were the same; the look and feel of the website, competitive comparisons by industry analysts, and positive news/reviews by press and periodicals.
Manufacturing and healthcare were also the same; the look and feel of the website, customer testimonials and success stories, and positive news/reviews by press and periodicals. The top three aspects for government were unique and included company background and history information, detailed technical information such as data sheets and manuals, and competitive comparisons by industry analysts. Finally, real estate was the only industry to include quality of the leadership team and interviews with key execs in their top three.
The full list is shown below with the top three aspects highlighted (one-hundred point scale where the higher number is more important and the top three ranked items shown in red).
5. PREFERRED SELLING STYLES
Buyer personas react to different customer selling strategies
In some sales situations, it is necessary to align with the customer’s thought process in order to win. These customers are experienced and knowledgeable about their business and technical fields. There are other situations where the customer’s thought process must be transformed and gently shaped over the course of the sales cycle. Finally, just as a doctor must sometimes prescribe a painful treatment to heal a patient, in some sales situations you must control prospective customers to help them.
What selling style do prospective buyers prefer? The survey shows 40% of study participants preferred a salesperson who listens, understands, and then matches their solution to solve their specific problem, while 30% like a salesperson who earns their trust by making them feel comfortable that they will take care of their long term needs. Another 30% want a salesperson who challenges their thoughts, perceptions, and then prescribes a solution that they may not have thought of or didn’t know about.
There were significant differences in selling preferences by industry. While banking and manufacturing preferences were fairly evenly split among all three styles, the government vertical solely selected a salesperson who would listen and solve their specific needs. Computers preferred a salesperson who would challenge their thinking or someone who will work with them successfully over the long term. Only 20% of the consulting industry wanted a salesperson to challenge them; the real estate vertical doesn’t want to be challenged at all.
Now let’s examine how buyers responded to this scenario:
Three salespeople gave you a presentation about the product their company offers. After the presentations you determine that each of the products are very similar in functionality and price. Which salesperson would you rather do business with?
- A) A professional salesperson who knows their product inside and out but is not necessarily someone you consider yourself befriending.
- B) A friendly salesperson who is likable, and proficient in explaining their product.
- C) A charismatic salesperson who you truly enjoyed being with them but they are not the most knowledgeable about their product.
Sixty-six percent of survey participants selected the friendly salesperson, 23% the professional salesperson, and 11% the charismatic salesperson.
6. HOW VENDOR SELECTIONS ARE MADE
Human nature and past buying experiences determine how evaluators act and which vendor they select
To better understand the impact of human nature on evaluators, study participants were asked to recount the last time they experienced significant buyer’s remorse. Buyer’s remorse occurs after the purchase is made when the buyer feels a sense of regret, guilt, or anger, and they second-guess their decision. Most people mistakenly associate buyer’s remorse with an impulsive, spur-of-the moment buy, or assume it was caused by the pressure tactics of a salesperson. However, the research results define and prioritize ten different root causes.
Sixteen percent of buyer’s remorse scenarios recounted where the product or company did not perform to their expectations. Thirteen percent of buyers felt they over-bought more features or capacity than they needed, while an equal percentage thought they under-bought less than they should have. Eleven percent faulted themselves because they didn’t do enough research during the sales cycle and another 11% felt they bought too impulsively. Nine percent later experienced remorse because they didn’t negotiate the best price or found out there actually was a price decrease. Eight percent blamed their salesperson for pushing them to buy and another 8% thought they were too focused on short term outcomes and should have had a longer term perspective in hindsight. A critical deadline or event pressured 7% to buy when they weren’t ready and a fundamental situational change caused 4% to question their decision. When all of these root causes are totaled, it is the buyer’s action which caused them to regret their purchase, not the salesperson or the product that was sold.
It is the collection of these negative sales experiences over the course of an evaluator’s lifetime that shapes how they buy and who they prefer to do business with. As a result, buyers experience a mental tug-of-war when deciding which product to select and confusion about whether they should even make a purchase at all. Therefore, they adopt coping mechanisms facing the stressful situation of selecting between salespeople and their solutions.
However, customers are never 100% sure they are purchasing the right product. Regardless of their confident demeanor, on the inside they are experiencing fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Therefore, all salespeople need to understand this lowest common denominator of human decision making.
Now let’s compare the results to what buyers actually think when they were asked, “Let’s say you have to choose between two similar vendors with products that are very similar in features, functionality, and price. Would your final decision be based on logic or instinct?” The results are in the figure below. A comparison of answers shows that salespeople intuitively understand how prospective buyers behave in general. The only difference is that customers are slightly more instinctive than salespeople believe. Furthermore, their responses can be divided into logical and instinctual decision makers.
Two very important points that need to be made between the groups of logical and instinctual final decision makers. First, both groups conduct their evaluations in the same basic manner with the same level of due diligence. Therefore, it is difficult for the salesperson working on the sales cycle to determine which type of decision maker they are dealing with beforehand. Second, the groups gravitate to different types of vendors.
The instinctual decision maker has a higher tendency to select the better-known top-of-the line goliath vendor while the logical final decision maker is far more open to selecting the lesser known brands as shown below. A theory behind this is that instinctual final decision makers will play it safe and follow the herd within their industry. Conversely, reason and common sense motivate the logical decision makers to purchase the most efficient solution.
In the final analysis, it is the quality of the salesperson that should be considered the deciding factor that determines which vendor wins the business. Because the salesperson sets the tone for the relationship with the prospective buyer. The buyer can think of a salesperson as someone who is trying to sell something, a supplier with whom they do business, a strategic partner who is of significant importance to their business, or a trusted advisor whose opinions on business and personal matters are sought out and listened to. Obviously, a trusted advisor enjoys significant advantages over the competing salespeople. When study participants were asked to evaluate the salespeople they met over the past year, 54% could clearly explain how their solution positively impacted their business, 31% are able to converse effectively with the senior executives of their company, and only 18% would be classified as trusted advisors whom they respect.
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Steve W. Martin
Steve W. Martin is the foremost expert on Sales Linguistics and the Human Nature of Complex Enterprise Sales. He is the author of the "Heavy Hitter" Series of books for Senior Salespeople.
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