Why B2B Customers Don’t Buy

Why B2B Customers Don’t Buy

Note: This Steve W. Martin Sales Research Article Originally Appeared in the Harvard Business Review

The real enemy of salespeople today isn't their arch rivals; it's no decision. That's according to the several hundred business-to-business salespeople I contacted recently.


What is it that prevents a prospective customer from making a purchase even after they have conducted a lengthy evaluation process? The reasons may surprise you.

Regardless of the prospective customers' confident demeanor, on the inside they are experiencing fear, uncertainty, and doubt while making their selection. The stress this creates serves as the key factor in determining whether or not a purchase will be made. Therefore, all salespeople need to understand this lowest common denominator of human decision making. They need to understand the nature of stress.

From a psychological perspective, stress shortens attention spans, escalates mental exhaustion, and encourages poor decision making. From an organizational perspective, when anxious buyers experience too much stress it typically results in analysis-paralysis. They are too overwhelmed with information and contradictory evidence to make a decision. It's the salesperson's responsibility to anticipate and diffuse the main sources of customer stress during the selection process: budgetary stress, corporate citizenship stress, organizational stress, vendor selection stress, informational stress, and evaluation committee stress.

Budgetary Stress

The question here: Is the money available and justified to be spent? Whether a purchase is actually made is directly related to the perceived risk versus the anticipated reward. A company's budgeting process is not only designed to prioritize where money is to be spent but also to remove the fear of spending it. Here's a quote from a senior executive decision-maker I interviewed as part of a win-loss study that explains this point:

"There are two main criteria for deciding on whether or not to make the purchase. One is value to the company as measured by return on investment and how it compares to the other projects being considered. Then there are strategic projects that are critical to our long term success such as protection of our brand or improving customer satisfaction. While projects may be approved initially for further evaluation, a cross functional team of senior executives reviews the final recommendation and whether the money should be actually allocated and released."

Every initiative and its associated expenditure is competing against all the other projects that are requesting funds. Purchases are continually reprioritized based upon emergencies and in response to changing conditions. For example, when new executive leaders join organizations, one of their first acts may be to freeze major expenditures and reevaluate all requests. The bad news is that a salesperson may have worked on a deal for most of the year only to find out that it was never truly budgeted.

Corporate-Citizenship Stress

Before finalizing an order, executives will always ask: Is this purchase in the best interest of the company? While customers inherently want to do what's in the best interest of their company and to be good corporate citizens, the fundamental dynamic of corporate-employee loyalty has changed.
Today, business is a "survival of the fittest" world where employment is never guaranteed and loyalty frequently goes unrewarded. In some situations, prospective buyers can feel continual pressure to put their individual needs before the company's. For example, I remember one information technology decision-maker telling me, "There's no such thing as picking the wrong solution so long as it helps you land your next job."

Even after a formal evaluation process, the likelihood that a purchase will not be made jumps tenfold when the solution recommended is not aligned to company's goals and direction. This is frequently the case with projects and purchases that are instigated by lower levels of an organization as they bubble up the chain of command for review. There is not a compelling business case to drive the purchase forward so it never garners senior level support.

Organizational Stress

Buyers care about how colleagues perceive him. Peer pressure is a powerful influencer of group dynamics and evaluators are constantly worried about how the purchase decision will reflect on them. Senior executives are worried about what investors, the board of directors, and members of the leadership team think about them. And of course, they want their employees to respect them as well. Mid-level managers suffer competitive pressure because all are striving to advance in their careers and move upward in the organization. Lower level personnel are continually seeking to prove themselves to their managers.

Whether from above, below, or the same level in an organization, coworkers are continually evaluating the behavior, success, and failures of those tasked with the decision-making process. Obviously, this exerts pressure on the evaluators to make the right decision and not to make a decision if there isn't an obvious choice or clear-cut direction.

Vendor Selection Stress

One of the biggest problems during the sales cycle is that the difference between most products is extremely small. Compounding this problem is that everyone is presenting the same basic messages to the customer. Take a moment and visit the home page of your company's website and those of your two biggest competitors. Often you'll see that the words and claims are basically interchangeable.

There tends to be a higher no-decision rate where product differentiation is extremely small. Since all the competing products share the same basic features, functions, and benefits, evaluation team members may take longer to make their decision or postpone it indefinitely.

Informational Stress

As you make your pitch, buyers are inevitably asking themselves: Is the information being presented truthful? We live in very skeptical times in which information presented by the media and experts is continually challenged and constantly debunked. In addition to being subject to the general cynicism of our society, most customers have had negative experiences with some salespeople sometime in the past. Therefore, customers are always in the stressful position of separating fact from fiction. Meanwhile, even the most ethical salesperson carries the burden of proving he's telling the truth.

Worse yet, as the sales cycle progresses competing vendors may try to escalate FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the customer's mind about the wherewithal of the competitors' and the capabilities of their products. For example, competitors will try to sabotage one another with facts such as unfavorable performance metrics, missing functionality, and tales of unhappy customers. In turn, the attacked competitors will provide the customer with believable information that contradicts the original attacks. Therefore, the sales cycle naturally disintegrates into a quarrel between salespeople and this scenario helps set the stage for no decision to be made.

Evaluation Committee Stress

Whenever a company makes a purchase decision that involves groups of people, self-interests, politics, and group dynamics will influence the final decision. Tension, drama, and conflict are normal parts of group dynamics because decisions are not typically made unanimously. As members promote their own personal favorites, the interpersonal conflicts can cause the decision-making process to stagnate and stop. Other selection team members may not be 100 percent certain they are picking the right solution. All of this uncertainty encourages no decision.

Salespeople need to keep in mind a basic fact: Customers are stressed out. They don't know whom or what to believe. They are under immense peer pressure, and they are torn between doing the right thing for the greater good of the company and acting in their best personal interest. To make matters worse, the vendors increase the pressure by injecting claims of their superiority and accusations about their competitors' inferiority. For all these reasons it's no surprise that no decision is the top competitor today.


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