[STUDY: PART 3] What Buyers Want from Salespeople

Technology has drastically altered the buying landscape and journey, and successful salespeople have to keep up with the changing requirements. That’s why we partnered with noted sales linguist and researcher, Steve W. Martin, on a comprehensive study of 270 business buyers to discover why people with purchasing power choose the vendors they do and what they are REALLY looking for when they engage in a sales process.

Insights from this study include:

  • Which elements do buyers want to see on vendor websites?
  • Which buyers stick with the herd when purchasing – and who is willing to take a chance on a startup?
  • Few buyers have a favorable view of salespeople. Which industries are most and least favorable?
  • When selling to a committee, which individual should the salesperson focus on?

This is Part 3 of the study “Why Didn’t They Buy?”

  1. Read Part 1: What Do B2B Buyers Want?
  2. Read Part 2: The B2B Vendor Advantage
  3. Or Download the entire study for free

Buyers’ preferred selling style

Given the choice between salespeople who are 1.) personally cold but highly knowledgeable; 2.) friendly and moderately knowledgeable; or 3.) charismatic but not very knowledgeable – most buyers prefer the second style.

In some sales situations, it is necessary to align with the buyer’s thought process in order to win; these buyers are experienced and knowledgeable about their business and technical fields. In other situations, the buyer’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 buyers in order to help them.

What selling style do prospective buyers prefer?

The survey shows 40% of study participants prefer a salesperson who listens, understands, then matches their solution to solve a specific problem. Another 30% prefer a salesperson who earns their trust by making them feel comfortable, like they will take care of the customer’s long-term needs. Another 30% want a salesperson who challenges their thoughts and perceptions, and then prescribes a solution that they may not have known about.

There were significant differences in selling preferences by industry. While Finance 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. Technology 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.

From a departmental perspective, under 20% of Accounting and Information Technology members want to be challenged, while 43% of the Engineering department does. Over 50% of Marketing, Information Technology, and Engineering prefer a salesperson who would listen and match their solution to solve their specific needs. The Sales department equally preferred a salesperson who listened and solved their needs and to be challenged; while Human Resources was equally split across all three selling styles.

There’s an interesting explanation for selling styles preferences which is based on whether the buyer is comfortable with conflict. Seventy-eight percent of participants who preferred a salesperson who would listen and solve their specific needs agreed with the statement: “I try to avoid conflict as much as I can.” Conversely, 64% of participants who preferred a salesperson who challenges their thoughts disagreed with the statement and are more comfortable with conflict.

buyers don't like salespeople to challangeDownload the entire study for free.

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 professional salesperson who knows their product inside and out but is not necessarily someone you would consider befriending.
  • A friendly salesperson who is likable and proficient in explaining their product.
  • A charismatic salesperson who you truly enjoyed being with but is 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.

While top selection of buyers from every industry was the friendly salesperson, it is interesting to note that the Media and Fashion industries selected the highest percentage of “charismatic salesperson” responses, and Manufacturing and Healthcare industries had the highest percentage of “professional salesperson” responses.

The reality is that prospective buyers will choose to do business with someone who is likeable over one who is solely considered professional or another who is more charismatic. That’s because they want to feel comfortable communicating with the person, and they value this characteristic the most. For instance, 81% of buyers would rather talk with someone who has the same mannerisms as they do.

Buyer’s regret

Buyer’s remorse is real – but 70% of the time, it’s not the salesperson’s fault.

buyers remorse isn't salesperson's fault

To better understand the impact of human nature on buyers, 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 purchase, or assume it was caused by the pressure tactics of a salesperson. When each example was laboriously analyzed, a pattern emerged. The source of buyer’s remorse can be categorized into nine different root causes. However, it is the buyer’s action which actually caused remorse in over 70% of the examples – not the salesperson or the product that was sold.

Sixteen percent of buyer’s remorse scenarios recounted a scenario in which 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.

It is the collection of these negative sales experiences over the course of a buyer’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.

Coping mechanisms are psychological and behavioral strategies people use to manage stress and threatening situations, a psychological strategy for avoiding buyer’s remorse. Here’s a list of the common buyer coping mechanisms salespeople encounter on sales calls:

  • Attack. Some buyers categorize all salespeople as unethical evildoers. Generalizing all salespeople into a single group helps them handle the ordeal of buying, and a salesperson should not take this attack personally.
  • Avoidance. Certain buyers seek to avoid the people and situations that cause distress. They keep the conversation solely at the surface level and won’t answer tough questions. Confronting buyers who use this coping mechanism causes them to avoid the salesperson even more.
  • Business-level conversation. Some buyers instinctively try to keep the conversation at a business level with the non-favored salespeople. They do this to protect themselves, because they don’t want to let anyone down. This is one of the more prevalent coping mechanisms buyers use to deal with salespeople.
  • Compensation. Buyers sometimes make up for a weakness in one area by overemphasizing another. For example, a prospective buyer may fixate on a unique feature of a competitor’s product even though their product is less capable overall.
  • Intellectualization. Some buyers avoid showing any emotion and focus instead on facts and logic. However, even the most analytical and unemotional buyers have a sentimental favorite that they want to win.
  • Passive aggression. Some buyers project a friendly superficial presence but are secretly plotting against the salesperson. This is one of the worst predicaments to be in.
  • Rationalization. Certain buyers use logical reasons in an illogical way to publicly validate their emotional favorite. For example, they’ll say they can’t use a product because it doesn’t support international monetary conversions, even though they don’t conduct any international business.
  • Reaction formation. Some buyers take a polar opposite position to everything a salesperson says. They simply don’t want to buy from him or her.
  • Trivialization. Some buyers trivialize a favored vendor’s major deficiency while maximizing the minor shortcomings of another. This is a sure sign that they have a favorite vendor.

Download the entire study: Why Didn’t They Buy: A Deep-Dive into Buyer Preferences – And the Implications for Salespeople

However, buyers 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.

Do salespeople truly understand the impact of human nature on the sales cycle? In a recent study, I asked over 1000 salespeople to answer the following statement : “I would say that most buyers base their final purchase decision on ___% logic and reason versus human nature (emotion/politics/personal biases).”

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 human nature?”

A comparison of answers shows that salespeople intuitively understand how prospective buyers behave in general. The only difference is that buyers are slightly more instinctive than salespeople believe. Furthermore, their responses can be divided into logical and instinctual decision-makers.

Two very important points need to be made regarding 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 decision-maker is far more open to selecting the lesser-known brands. A theory behind this is that instinctual final decision-makers 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.

However, there is another facet of personality in which salespeople and buyers are quite different. These salespeople were next asked, “Which of the following subjects was your favorite when you were in school?” Their answer reveals a lot about how they process information, think, and make decisions. Salespeople prefer history, science, math, physical education, language and composition, and art.

  1. History is based on the study of important events, times, people, and places from the past. In essence, history is based on a form of storytelling; this favorite is indicative of a person’s high level of verbal orientation. Therefore, it should not be surprising history was the top selection. (By the way, salespeople talk for a living.)
  2. Science is the process of discovery and exploration based on a systematic methodology of observation, measurement, and testing. Through this process, science-lovers attempt to organize the chaos that occurs naturally during the sales cycle.
  3. Math is based on formulas, frameworks, and regimentation. Math lovers have an analytical orientation that is consumed with predictable outcomes based upon concrete terms.
  4. Physical education is indicative of someone who is action-oriented and likes being part of team.
  5. Language and composition and the arts are based on self-expression and tend to be associated with mental, spiritual, and out-of-the-box thinking.

how buyers buy

Now let’s look at buyers’ and favorite subjects. Thirty-nine percent preferred math (there’s a big difference between historians and mathematicians!). Twice as many buyers as salespeople prefer language and composition and art; while half as many prefer physical education.

Unfortunately, salespeople are taught to deliver the same message in the same way to everyone, even though buyers learn, process information, and communicate in vastly different ways than they do.

Download the entire study for free.

Salespeople viewed as trusted advisors enjoy significant advantages

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 buyers were asked to evaluate the salespeople they met over the past year, they said that 54% of salespeople could clearly explain how their solution positively impacted their business; 31% were able to converse effectively with the senior executives of their company – and only 18% would be classified as trusted advisors whom they respect.

Final thoughts from Steve W. Martin

Steve Martin DiscoverOrgIn every company, each department has its own “buyers.” For example, Marketing defines product requirements for Engineering; Engineering builds a prototype for Manufacturing; IT provides the systems Manufacturing needs; and Finance provides funds for IT. For the most part, each department’s buyers are internal to the company, both physically and culturally. The Sales department is unique. Sales is focused solely on external buyers who are geographic and cultural outsiders to the organization.

Within many companies, buyer persona profiles are created by Sales enablement to provide messaging and information on how the salespeople should interact with the various types of prospects they meet.

While most of these buyers personas are predicated on the customer being a rational decision maker, in reality, it is human nature that determines how buyers evaluate and who they ultimately select. There is an entirely intangible, human side to the sales process . And it is the mastery of the intuitive human element of the buyer relationship that separates the winner from losers.

Justin Withers

Justin is the Vice President, Product Management and Product Marketing at DiscoverOrg and brings a decade of experience ..read more