Emotions beat reason in B2B

It was a hot day in the middle of the summer vacation. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and there was not a customer in sight. I was having an informal meeting with a B2B Sales Director. As usual he was wearing a formal suit. I couldn’t resist asking him why he would wear a suit on a day like this? His answer: “When I put on my suit, I put away my emotions”. It was his uniform, he added.

We have a general conviction that B2B buyers make rational decisions instead of getting emotionally involved. In fact it is the opposite. Emotions beat reason. At least according to a new study “From Promotion to Emotion” by CEB Marketing Leadership Council in partnership with Google.

Business value does not differentiate:
Companies hope to differentiate their offerings from the competition by demonstrating how their products can provide business value to customers.

According to the study however, buyers perceive little difference between the business values that various suppliers can offer. The perceived business values hardly vary at all between brands, either within an industry or even across industries.

This lack of perceived differentiation has dramatic effects on willingness to pay a premium. Only about 14% of customers perceive a real difference in suppliers offerings and value the difference enough to be willing to pay for it.
Business value gets suppliers into a buyer’s consideration set, but doesn’t make them stand out. This leads to the “one of three” problem.

The “one of three” problem:
Today, customers typically learn on their own through digital channels. Through a simple search, customers can easily identify the leading suppliers in a field and evaluate if any can meet the customer’s needs.

As customers do their own research they conclude that the top three leaders in an industry all deliver business value and are acceptable options. This leads to the inevitable price competition where customers ultimately select the supplier willing to offer the lowest price.

B2B selling is not first and foremost about differentiating on business value, it is about offering the best personal value. Though B2B buying is often treated as a rational activity, emotions beat reason.

Emotions beat reason:
Despite our attempts to make purely rational decisions, we are in fact primarily driven by emotional motivations.
The tension between emotional and rational decision making is captured by the elephant-rider analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. Our emotional side is the elephant and our rational side is the rider. Perched atop the elephant, the rider may seem to be the leader. But in case the six-ton elephant and the – in comparison – teeny-weeny rider disagree about which direction to take, there is little doubt who is in charge.

Emotions also completely overmatch our rational decision-making although post-rationalization often make it looks just the opposite.

Personal value has twice as much impact as business value:

The CEB study assessed the impact on the two categories of benefits: the business value vs. personal value.

• Business Value includes appeal to logic/reason in areas such as functional benefits (e.g. high performance, improved structure) and business outcomes (e.g. achieving business goals).
• Personal Value includes emotional appeals in areas such as professional benefits (e.g. being a better leader, simplifying my life), social benefits (e.g. fitting in with colleagues, admiration from others), emotional benefits (e.g. confidence, excitement, happiness) and self-image benefits (e.g. doing good for society, feeling of accomplishment).

To assess the relative impact of these two categories of benefits, CEB analyzed 14 commercial outcomes including consideration, purchase, premium payment and advocacy. The study showed that personal value has twice as much impact as business value. Not only do emotions matter in B2B buying, they matter even more than logic and reason.

B2B is more emotional than B2C:
A greater proportion of B2B customers are emotionally attached to the brand they purchased than consumers are to B2C brands.

Initially this might seem like a surprise, because we in general have an understanding that when on job we act more professional in the sense that we use our reason more, whereas in our personal life we get more emotionally attached to brands. Apparently not so! It makes quite good sense that B2B purchasing becomes even more emotional. Why? Because it entails personal risk. And far more of it than when purchasing a B2C product.

According to the study B2B purchase stakeholders fear:
• Losing time and effort if a purchase decision goes poorly.
• Losing credibility if they make a recommendation for an unsuccessful purchase.
• Losing their job if they are responsible for a failed purchase.

When customers do not see personal value they are over three times less likely to purchase, and over seven times less likely to pay a premium. In fact, less than 10% of those who see no personal value will pay extra.

So how can you increase the emotional impact of your brand?:

CEB suggests three steps towards your brand having an emotional impact:

1. Understand Customers’ Personal Goals and Emotions. Apply Ethnographic Observation, i.e. study the customers in their natural settings to understand their personal needs and frustrations. Use Open-Ended Interview Questions and listen between the lines. While customers are happy to share their business needs and goals, they are not always willing or able to articulate their emotions. Try to spot non-verbal or contextual cues that reveal underlying emotions.

2. Craft Brand Messages That Convey Personal Value. Use Stakeholder Language Mapping, include personal values and priorities in particular. Use “Social Listening” where you focus on customer’s perception, such as how do customers feel about their work? Campaigns should be in the language customers use when they talk about personal interests or concerns. Use “normal language” as opposed to business communication to speak to the customer’s emotions.

3. Ensure Personal Value. Create Pain and Gain Messages. It is important to personalize not just the gain, but also the pain. Show how a purchase will deliver on the personal needs and eliminate frustrations by providing unique value.

But First: Acknowledge that emotions matter
Back to my talk with the Sales Director. I couldn’t help digging a little into his opinion on emotions. Did he really believe that emotions do not play a role when talking to customers? “Well”, he said while leaning over like he was about to reveal a secret, “people buy from people”. Then he told me more about how he worked with clients. In practice it turned out, he was using his intuitive understanding of emotions in every encounter with a customer. And a lot of the time he was very well aware that paying attention to the customer’s emotion was perhaps the most important thing. Yet, when he moved to a more conceptual way of describing how the sales team worked, he immediate shifted back to the rationality rhetoric. In the environment he was working in, there was clearly no outspoken acceptance and methodology surrounding emotions. The official opinion was that customers make rational decisions. But this leaves unique opportunities to really differentiate and connect with customers unexploited.

The best thing you can do in 2014 if working in marketing & sales in a B2B company? Reposition your brand around personal value.

“From Promotion to Emotion – Connecting B2B Customers to Brands”, CEB Marketing Leadership Council, 2013.

Mette Vesterager is a senior innovation manager. Combining 12+ years of business experience with philosophy and psychology studies, she also writes about Innovation & Leadership at . Twitter: vesteragerm.

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