[STUDY] What Do B2B Buyers Want?

In which departments are B2B buyers more likely to give upstart products a chance?

Which selling style do B2B buyers prefer?

When should a salesperson challenge a buyer’s assumptions about a product, and which industries don’t like to be challenged?

In the retail space, the answers to these questions are well known. Ecommerce and brick-and-mortar stores spend millions of dollars influencing B2C buying behavior: indirect lighting, relaxing music, mirrors, and a host of other factors all affect a customer’s purchase decision. B2B buyers are not immune to such influence, either – but much less research has been conducted on the influence on B2B buyers and purchase decisions.

We partnered with noted sales linguist and author Steve W. Martin for a deep dive into the candid thoughts of B2B buyers and what kind of sales experience they prefer. Sales development reps, account executives, and other sales professionals will find a trove of actionable insights in this comprehensive study.

A Deep-Dive into B2B Buyer Preferences and the Implications for Salespeople

From Steve W. Martin: 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.

Research goals of the B2B buyer study

The impetus to conduct this buyer persona research project was to identify and quantifiably measure these hidden factors. The research goals were to 1.) understand how buyers perceive the sales people they meet with; 2.) explore the circumstances that determine which vendor is selected; and 3.) 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:

Steve Martin study buyer industry and department

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 decision-making hypotheses.

The following topics are covered in this report:

  • Risk: Only 35% of buyers have a favorable view of salespeople – and those buyers are likely to take more risks in the buying process.
  • Group dynamics: 90% of the time, salespeople only need to convince one person in a buying committee: the dominant influencer.
  • Vendor market position advantages: Sales and marketing are more likely to give upstart products a chance, while IT is more risk-averse and brand sensitive.
  • Website: Reviews, testimonials, and competitor comparisons top the list of what buyers want to see on a vendor website.
  • Selling style: Most buyers prefer friendly and moderately knowledgeable salespeople over those who are personally cold but highly knowledgeable; and charismatic but not very knowledgeable.
  • Buyer’s regret: Buyer’s remorse is real – but 92% of the time, it’s not the salesperson’s fault.

1. Buyers’ risk aversion

Only 35% of buyers have a favorable view of salespeople – and those buyers are likely to take more risks in the buying process.

sales people ratings by buyers

Put yourself in the position of the experienced buyer 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: What are the implications of nearly 2/3 of B2B salespeople being considered as average or poor? Buyers have been conditioned to be skeptical and not to trust salespeople in general. Therefore many buyers have immense RFPs and laborious spreadsheets that vendors must complete. They require each product feature and operation to be fully documented, and meticulous hands-on evaluation of each product. The goal is risk mitigation: 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, cross-examiners rather than collaborators. For example, a purchasing manager may 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 less-scientific, process-oriented departments such as Marketing. Since analytical buyers are more likely to have advanced degrees in hard science, such as computers, finance, or engineering, they are more likely to be skeptical and consequently more demanding of salespeople.

An interesting pattern emerges when tolerance for risk is analyzed by department: There’s a correlation between the ratings of salespeople and tolerance for risk. Specifically, the higher negative rating of salespeople is inversely related to a department’s tolerance for risk; for example, IT buyers rated 37% of all salespeople as poor – higher than any other department – while their risk tolerance average was a low 5 out of 10. Conversely, Marketing rated 18% of salespeople as poor – the lowest “poor” rating in the group – while their tolerance for risk rating was much higher, at 7.1 out of 10.

b2b buyers avoid risk by department

It can be inferred from these metrics that these two departments interact with salespeople and analyze vendors in different ways, and with varying levels of due diligence. The figure below shows how B2B buyers’ poor perception of salespeople is inversely related to their appetite for risk.

The tolerance for risk varies greatly by industry as well. Dynamic, creative, trend-oriented industries such as Fashion, Media, 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 demonstrates that buyers interact with salespeople and analyze vendors with varying levels of due diligence based on the buyer’s industry and subsequent tolerance for risk.

Buyers go to great lengths to reduce the risk of buying. They may list their needs in documents that are hundreds of pages long; they hire consultants to verify that they are making the right decisions; and they conduct lengthy evaluations to test products, talking to existing users and doing pilot tests—all in an effort to eliminate fear, uncertainty, and risk.

The B2B buyer is fixated on risk mitigation – and your reception as a sales professional depends on the department you’re selling to.

some buyers are tolerant of risk

2. Buyer group dynamics

90% of the time, salespeople only need to convince one person in a buying committee: the dominant influencer.

Whenever a company makes a purchase decision that involves a team of people, self-interest, politics, and group dynamics influence the final decision. Tension, drama, and conflict are normal parts of group dynamics, because purchase decisions are not typically made unanimously.

Of the hundreds of sales cycles I have analyzed, I’ve found that one member of the selection team is able to exert his or her will and determine the vendor 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 their cause in order to get their way. This person isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect or ruffle some feathers to ensure their personal desire is met.

Simply put, this person has charisma and is a natural leader. These B2B buyers are not always the highest-ranking people involved in an evaluation, but they are usually on the winning side. Typically, only one member of the customer’s evaluation team fits this description. Single-handedly, they impart their 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 buyers who are accommodating. They are more apathetic about whatever solution is purchased and less likely to advocate for a single vendor during the selection process. The degree to which people are assertive or accommodating may depend on the effect the purchase decision has on them, their span of control, their position in the company, or their ability to perform their jobs. A buyer is more likely to act in a dominant way when they have an elevated status, such as domain expertise or title, within the evaluation team.

In order to quantify the frequency of when a single personality, or “bully with the juice,” dominates the evaluation, 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.

a dominant personality

The occurrence of this dominant, influential person varies based upon vertical industry. Finance and Technology industries have the highest response rate indicating there is always one committee member who tries to influence the decision; while Entertainment and Consulting have the lowest.

How often is the dominant person, or the “bully with the juice,” successful in getting the outcome they want? Eighty-nine percent of participants said this person is successful most of the time, while 11% selected “some of the time.”How often does a single b2b buyer

In practicality, it can be said that a salesperson doesn’t have to win over the entire selection committee; they only have to win over the right person.

One of the most formidable enemies facing salespeople today is no decision. What 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 requesting funding.

What is the ability of different departments of a company 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 leadership ability as a predictor of their department’s ability to promote their internal agenda.

Beyond their formal titles and position on organization charts, people take on specific roles when they are part of a selection committee. Some take control of the group and steer the decision toward their preference.

Based on the research results, you might expect Sales, Information Technology, and Engineering to have more internal clout to push through their projects than Marketing or Human Resources. Therefore, they’re better departments to sell into from the salesperson’s perspective. As a president of a company once told me during a win-loss interview, “At the end of the day, a project will or won’t get approved depending upon who is pushing it.”

3. Vendor market position advantages

Which b2b buyers are open to start-ups?

Different industries and departments are more likely to buy from underdog vendors rather than the goliath of their industry.

In most industries, a single company dominates the market. Compared to their competitors, they have a much larger market share, top-of-the-line products, greater marketing budget and reach, and more company caché. For salespeople who have to compete against these industry giants, life can be very intimidating indeed.

Download the entire study to see which departments and industries are more inclined to buy from newcomers and upstarts, and which like to play it safe with established brands – and more.

Take a deep dive into buyer preferences - and the implications for salespeople.Download the Full Buyer Persona Study
Katie Bullard

As Chief Growth Officer (CGO), Katie brings 15 years of marketing, product, and strategy experience in global, ..read more

  • Richard Harris

    Fascinating study.

    I don’t recall seeing this, but do you know the title of the “bully with the juice?”

    My hypothesis, that person is often ranked above the actual end user of the product or service being considered.

    Consequently, if 1 person has that much weight to say “yes”, does that mean that person has equal weight to say “no”?

    Therefore is it necessary to get the rest of the team to help drive the “bully with the juice”?

    All things considered, this is an awesome study and thank you for doing it.

  • cntactmax

    This is a great breakdown. I’ve read Steve’s book while back and would highly recommend.

    Buyer risk aversion was a good one to revisit again!