Beyond reason: Overcoming buyer inertia for b2b sales success

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No matter how compelling your proposition looks on paper, simply winning the argument is unlikely to be enough to close the sale. Leader Marketing Communications Director Marc Sanderson looks at how overcoming the hidden challenges of risk aversion and buyer inertia is the key to unlocking b2b sales growth.

Most of us would like to think that we are cool and rational decision makers, especially in the workplace.

We might admit to being swayed by brands and advertising when we buy consumer goods and services, but surely in the business environment we are all focused purely on the facts?

Unfortunately, and however difficult it might be for us to accept, this simply isn’t the case.

An established and mounting body of evidence from neuroscience, psychology, and behavioural economics, as well as simple day-to-day experience, points to the fact that few, if any, of us are economically rational in any of our decision making, whether at home or at work.

This has profound implications for business-to-business (b2b) sales and marketing.

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Consumer vs business sales

Traditional sales and marketing theory, put simply, says that consumers buy with emotion and businesses buy with reason.

Hence all those evocative and aspirational advertisements for consumer goods from cars to cosmetics, alcohol to electronics. And all those dry, factual (and let’s face it, dull) business sales emails.

But what if business buyers are actually as emotional (and even irrational) as their consumer counterparts? Then surely a lot of that b2b selling would be missing the point…

Would this mean, for example, that b2b sales and marketing should become more ‘sexy’, emotional, and aspirational? Well, perhaps that wouldn’t hurt on occasion, but it’s a difficult trick to pull off without looking frivolous.

And good luck with making office supplies or business accounting look sexy!

Risk aversion and inertia

In fact this is almost certainly the wrong lesson to draw from the science. While imperfect and non-rational decision-making is evident in both consumer and business purchasing, the actual causes – the balance of biases and instincts at play in each – is different in each.

In consumer markets, those beautiful adverts are targeting our known preference for products which we believe will impress those around us; items are already popular among our peers; or brands which aligns to our existing self-image and beliefs.

But this kind of signalling, herding and self-affirmation is far less a factor in b2b market (although by no means absent).

What is likely to be much more significant in the b2b environment is a cognitive bias known as risk aversion.

Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking and decision-making which everyone makes when people are processing and interpreting information. Dozens of biases been identified, tested, and documented, building on the pioneering work of behavioural economic Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tverskey (resulting in their Nobel Prize winning paper Prospect theory: an analysis of decision under risk, and Kahneman’s seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow).

The bias of risk aversion means that people are generally more risk averse when considering a gain than they are when considering a loss.

This sounds simple, but it has profound implications in b2b purchase decision making.

In this context it means that buyers will be more risk averse than is strictly rational when considering whether to improve their current product or service outcomes.

(Conversely of course, it also makes them much more likely to risk a switch if faced with a loss of benefit or utility, which explains why maintaining the quality of the customer experience is critical for client retention – this is a subject for another day though).

In other words, all other things being equal, your sales prospect is much more likely to prefer the status quo – ‘the devil they know’ – than to taking a chance on something new – even if the logical argument for making the switch looks compelling on paper.

This tendency towards buyer inertia is a fundamental challenge for b2b sales and marketing professionals.

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How to overcome buyer inertia

So, what on earth do you do when the prospect’s own subconscious mind is screaming at them not to switch to your product or service?!

Well, first it’s important to remember that risk aversion is just a bias which affects decision making – it is not the entire decision-making process in and of itself. So to be in with any chance at all, you must still take care of the basics by making sure your core proposition is clear, competitive and – yes – logical. 

But as we’ve seen, simply winning the argument is unlikely to win the sale. To do that, we need to step up a gear.

  1. Be distinct. Of course you will need to offer something better or different than the competition. But the ideal is to work towards a so-called Blue Ocean positioning, whereby your proposition isn’t just superior to others but stands you completely apart in clear and distinct ways. By reducing the points of comparison between you and the competitors, you diminish the impact of risk aversion.

  2. Be startling. In a risk averse environment, your first challenge can be to get a foot in the door. Creative presentation can help open that conversation and at least start the momentum towards change. Not for nothing is A for Attention the first part of the enduring AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) sales mnemonic.
  1. Be relevant. Make sure that you are targeting a problem or opportunity that your prospect really cares about. Overcoming inertia on marginal matters is likely to be extremely difficult – those are easily left as they are with no real damage done. To really put yourself in with a chance, make sure your offer makes a difference in an area of real strategic priority to the prospect.

  2. Be positive. As we mentioned earlier, risk aversion is just one of the many cognitive biases which affect our ability to make a sound, rational decision. Another such bias is generally known as Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), and this can work as effectively in b2b and b2c markets. While it’s generally not a great idea to try to frighten prospects into buying by focusing on the shortcomings on their existing solution (since they may well be emotionally invested and loyal to that supplier), FOMO means you can still use fear to your advantage. By remaining positive, focusing on your added value, and using case studies to show how competitors are already benefiting from this value, FOMO can help buyers see notswitching as a bigger risk than switching.

  3. Be reassuring. With the prospect looking for any reason not to buy, it’s vital that you don’t give them an excuse. Make sure your end-to-end presentation and branding, from initial contact (almost certainly including your website) through to sales encounters, collateral, and presentations, is as good as it can be. And again, make sure that you make plenty of testimonials and case studies available to help reassure them that the buying decision they are about the make will be a good one.

  4. Be helpful. Finally, do everything you can to remove the practical as well as the emotional pain of transition. The potential hassle of making a switch contributes greatly to risk aversion, so make offer whatever you can to reduce the psychological, time and effort costs of switching. There are many ways to reduce this ‘friction’, from a freemium or no-cost trial offer through to free staff training and induction to onboard the new team, or even a commitment to bear some of the costs of switching.
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So no matter how compelling your b2b proposition looks on paper, simply winning the argument is unlikely to be enough to close the sale.

No matter how much better you believe your product or service to be than the prospect’s existing solution, their natural risk aversion is likely to be creating a powerful inertia effect which is working against you.

The first bit of good news is that by becoming aware of this problem, you have already taken the first step towards tackling it!

The second bit of good news is that, as we have seen, there are plenty of proven sales and marketing techniques which, if used properly and consistently, can help you encourage, reassure, and help your prospect through their inertia and over the line.

To discuss how Leader can help you achieve your b2b sales and marketing goals, contact us today. 

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