4 Powerful Forces That Drive B2B Purchasing Behavior

By Andrea Hill –

It’s happened to all of us in sales and marketing. You’re working through the sales process with a prospect, and all of a sudden a competitor you’ve never heard of surfaces and you’ve lost the deal. Confused, you check out their site. It’s a niche product, not nearly as full-featured as your product. How could the customer want that when you offer so much more? Or even worse, they decide not to purchase at all and the lead runs cold.

Here’s the thing: Customers don’t actually care about features. They care about making progress. This is the core tenet of the “Jobs to be Done” approach. It focuses on understanding customers’ motivations. What is the better life they would like to have, and what about the situation is causing them to consider a product to help get them there? This approach helps product, sales and marketing leaders cultivate deeper insights into these “jobs to be done,” so they can address customers’ struggles, overcome their fears and win their business.

Customers Don’t Care

Jobs Theory was first widely popularized in Clayton Christensen’s classic business book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” Christensen surmised that customers don’t actually care about your product at all; they have progress they want to make. Your product has a chance of being “hired” if the customer believes your product can help them do so.

In this context, understanding the aspirational goals of your customer isn’t enough. It’s essential to understand the struggle your customer is undergoing at the time of purchase consideration. This framework is critical, as the progress a customer wants to make is tied to the situation. An oft-cited example is steak versus pizza. One is not necessarily “wrong,” it just depends on what you’re hungry for in the moment or where you are. Steak wouldn’t be the right choice for a child’s birthday party. You must consider the circumstances under which you’d “hire” one instead of the other to make progress.

When a customer makes a decision, he or she is balancing frustrations, excitement and anxiety. This translates to four forces at play in the purchasing process:

  • Dissatisfaction with the present (push of the situation)
  • Pull of the new idea
  • Anxiety of a new solution
  • Pull of habit (allegiance to current behavior)

The first two forces – dissatisfaction with the current solution and the pull of an alternative – are standard demand generation catalysts. The two other forces are commonly overlooked and deal more with the customer’s internal struggle.

How Customers Choose

Next time you talk to a prospect, spend some time understanding their emotional state. How is she feeling about the decision? When did she first decide to start exploring options? What prompted the investigation?

If a customer hires a product to help make progress, they may be faced with two types of anxiety:

  1. Will this new product really help me make the progress I seek?
  2. What could go wrong in switching away from my current solution to this new solution?

In his 2016 book “When Coffee and Kale Compete,” Alan Klement referred to these as “anxiety-in-use” and “anxiety-in-choice.” In addition, a customer may have existing habits that prevent him or her from adopting the new solution. Here too, a customer may struggle with “habits-in-use” and “habits-in-choice.” Anxiety and habits can be as debilitating a form of competition as any given product in the market.

If a prospect is out looking because their boss hates their vendor and they need to find an alternative, that’s a very different conversation than if the prospect saw your presentation at CES and wants to learn more. One is about assuring, the other is about inspiring.

In addition to understanding why the product is being considered, we also need to understand how eager or apprehensive the prospect is about the process of purchasing and implementing the solution. We used to talk about user experience in relation to the product itself, but now customer experience refers to every touchpoint and exchange with the company. Is the product easy to buy? Are the payment terms attractive? Is there support and a good warranty? Increasingly, products and services win in the marketplace not solely based on the product, but by being straightforward and easy to hire. When e-commerce first hit the scene, customers were apprehensive about buying things sight unseen. Free shipping and no-hassle returns helped customers overcome their anxiety about this new way of shopping.

So how can we unearth these emotional, convoluted forces in order to combat them? The short answer is “ask them,” but do it very carefully. Jobs Theory is about customer motivations and needs to be rooted in direct customer interactions, but there are definite limitations in attempting to glean this level of information on a sales call. Bob Moestra and Chris Spiek of The Re-Wired Group recommend running “Switch” interviews, interviews of customers who are encouraged to give you the “documentary” version of the story of their purchase decision. Giving a descriptive narrative of the circumstances around the decision surfaces much more rich insights than asking pointed questions.

While it may not be easy, gaining an appreciation for your customer’s motivations is absolutely worthwhile. Understanding your customer’s “job to be done” and the four forces impacting their buying consideration will help you better design and articulate a solution they’ll be begging to hire from you.

Andrea Hill is manager of innovation strategy at ReadyTalk, a provider of audio and web conferencing services.