Think about the last major decision in your life. Maybe you bought a new house, or a new car. Maybe you decided to shift your career into a new direction. Or maybe you started a new relationship.

Now, just for a moment, think about how you made that decision.

Did you rationally go through all the pros and cons ? Weigh all your options carefully ? Develop a scoring grid to help you see which option would be best for you ?

If you’re honest with yourself, and if you’re anything like me (and 99% of all people) chances are the answer is “no”. Chances are that, just like the rest of us, you made most of those decisions primarily based on emotions – not rational logic.

Where we try to trick ourselves into thinking that we behave rationally, there is ample research out there that shows us otherwise. In “Decisive” by Chip and Dan Heath, the authors point out the “four villains” when it comes to making decisions:

  1. We have too narrow of focus. We are guilty of “spotlight thinking.” We focus on the obvious and visible. We miss important facts outside our immediate view.
  2. We fall into confirmation bias. We develop a quick belief about something and then seek out information that confirms that belief.
  3. We get caught in short-term emotion. We are too emotionally connected to the decision and struggle with being appropriately detached.
  4. We are guilty of overconfidence. We assume that we know more than we actually do know and jump to conclusions, thinking we can accurately predict the future.

Now let me ask you this: if you and I are both guilty of being caught up in short-term emotional factors, why would our clients be any different ? Why would things somehow be different just because we put on a suit and tie and sit around the boardroom ?

The biggest problem with understanding customer buying behaviour is this: we assume it’s mostly rational. It’s not.

People make decisions for all sorts of reasons, and logic tends to be pretty far down the list. Personally, I recommend looking at decision-making as involving four main dimensions – think of these as lines on a four-box grid, and you’ll get the picture.


In reality, even though the emotional factors outweigh the rational ones, we still use both our decision-making process. Emotional factors in business-to-business buying include things like the level of liking you have for a particular vendor salesperson, how attractive or prestigious their brand is to you and whether or not to have a strong relationship with an influencer and thought leader inside your firm.

Rational factors include things like the return on investment (ROI), business case and objective measurements of performance.

Note that in rational factors, I did not include things like “scoring grid”. Even though at first glance it seems objective, the scoring grid still reflects the individual preferences (and emotions) of the people that contributed to it.


The second dimension to consider in understanding customer buying behaviour is whether a decision impacts the personal and/or collective. Personal factors tend to focus on the individual, mostly answering the question “What’s In It For Me ?” – things like impact on personal career progression, how failure might impact a buyer’s position within the firm and how a particular choice might impact their long-term options.

Collective factors focus on the firm itself – how a particular purchase will benefit its employees, shareholders, management, leadership, board, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

In B2B sales, we tend to focus almost exclusively on collective factors – it’s what we discuss in meeting rooms and include in our proposals – to the exclusion of the personal. Yet, as research has shown, personal factors and preferences tend to have a disproportionate influence on the sales process at particular key moments, often clearly swaying a decision towards one vendor versus another.

In their sales efforts, most sellers focus almost exclusively on two dimensions: the rational, and the collective. A disproportionate amount of time is spent on understanding, addressing and winning in those areas – often at the cost of virtually completely ignoring the other two.

Yet, research and my own experience clearly show that decisions are not only – not even primarily – made according to those criteria.

If you want to get better at understanding customer behavior, make sure you cover the emotional and personal dimensions as well. Here are a few questions to help you do just that.

  • “Imagine this project were successful, how do you think that might benefit you personally ?”
  • “At this point – if I asked you straight out – how are we doing so far ?”
  • “How do you think management would evaluate the success of this initiative ?”
  • “At this point, how do you feel about the possibility of working together on this ?”
  • “Off the record – what’s your worst fear or concern about this right now ?”

When asking questions like the ones above, it often helps to start by introducing something called a “softening statement” – a short statement that prefaces your question, and “softens it” is not seen as abrasive or overly direct. Examples of softening statements include “I was wondering”, “Could I ask … ?” or “I wanted to get your thoughts on something”.

Many sellers are fearful of discussing personal and/or emotional factors in the sales conversation – we’ve all been taught that there is a clear division between the personal realm and the professional.

Nothing could be further from the truth: as a former manager and executive with three Fortune-100 corporations, I can tell you that the vast majority of all decision-making is highly emotionally charged, and fuelled by competing and/or aligned personal agendas. If you want to get better at understanding customer buying behaviour, the first step is to develop a broader perspective, thinking across the four dimensions of decision-making: rational/emotional and personal/collective.