OPINION17 June 2016

Putting the P back into B2B

B2B Opinion UK

Business decisions are made by people – with all their emotions, oddities and biases − says Andrew Dalglish as he discusses the positive emotions at play in decision-making.

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Business-to-business (B2B) is a misnomer. Sure, Firm A is sent an invoice by Firm B and in that sense a B2B transaction has taken place. But Firm A didn’t decide to buy from Firm B. The people working in Firm A did, and often that decision would have happened after communication with some other humans in Firm B. Viewed that way, person-to-person (P2P) might be a better description of the transaction.

Putting the ‘P’ back into B2B has some important implications. A commonly cited feature of B2B buying behaviour is that it’s an objective process. Like some kind of supercomputer, the decision maker coldly weighs up alternatives and identifies the option most likely to deliver the best outcome. But in reality of course, it doesn’t work like that.  Business people are first and foremost, people. This means that they have emotions and these, alongside more ‘rational’ considerations, inevitably influence their decisions.  

The emotions at play can be divided into two broad types – positive and negative.

Decision making in B2B environments can carry a high degree of risk. Large sums of money are often being spent and if things go wrong the consequences can be far reaching. Imagine the impact if a retailer’s shiny new supply chain system fell over. 

Shelves would run bare, sales would be lost and some customers may never return.  Or what if their radical store re-fit programme was beset by delays and sub-standard work? Management would be distracted, footfall would drop and the ultimate vision for the in-store experience would be compromised. 

In situations like these where the stakes are high, fear can be a strong emotional influence. Decision makers may be inclined to take the ‘safe’ option (e.g. by opting for a large or well-known supplier brand even if a ‘riskier’ one offers a better solution) as this gives them a sense of comfort and a useful scapegoat if things do go wrong.  As the saying goes, you don’t get fired for buying IBM. 

Fear also takes other guises which can prevent the more rational choice being made. A fear of having difficult conversations can result in undeserved loyalty to poorly performing suppliers. A fear of change can lead to a perpetuation of the status quo. Or a fear of becoming victim to company politics can create a preference for the path of least resistance.

Positive forces are at play too though.

In B2B environments, people are often a core part of what is being bought. A person at the supplier organisation may be the ‘product’ (e.g. an accountant), they may form an important aspect of using the product (e.g. an engineering team that will maintain a technical system) or they may be a conduit through which a product or service is accessed (e.g. an account manager). 

This strong human dimension means that relationships matter in B2B and, just as in our personal lives, we prefer to surround ourselves with people that create positive feelings. People that we like, who are on the same wavelength and who we trust. Usually these emotions are created by individuals, but the brand, if imbued with the right values and personality, can have the same effect.

Another positive emotion influencing decisions is self-expression. Do you really need an iPhone to take work calls and check emails, or would an equally functional, but cheaper one perform just as well? Or what about that expensive but very pretty Moleskin note pad. Does it really help you to take better notes?  The answer of course is that people don’t always need items like these. Rather they want them and that’s because, even in B2B environments, people sometimes make decisions to say something about (or to) themselves or their company. 

So take heed. When explaining why they make the choices that they do, B2B respondents will often under-play emotional drivers. That’s not through any desire to mislead, but usually just the result of a post-rationalisation of their motivations so that they can be justified to themselves and others. The researcher’s job is to look beyond this and reveal the multitude of emotions at play alongside the more obvious rational considerations.

Andrew Dalglish is director at Circle Research

The Market Research Society is holding its Business-to-Business Research Conference in London on 30th June.