The Customer Buying Process

I was the guest speaker at a business networking group last night where I gave a presentation on how strategic marketing planning can help small and medium-sized enterprises to identify opportunities and to project a consistent image to potential customers.

During the question and answer session at the end of my talk, one of the attendees firmly stated that there was no difference between how consumers and businesses purchased goods and services.  He stated, with no doubts in his mind, that everyone bought as a result of their emotions.

My response, without going into great detail, is that things are more complicated than relying solely on emotion.  Emotions and consumer attitudes play a part in what and why consumers buy, but things are a bit more complicated.

For many years it was assumed that businesses and consumers bought goods and services using structured, logical thought processes.  The pneumonic AIDA was one attempt to described the thought processes of consumers and it was used to develop marketing communications.  First, consumers had to be made aware of a product or service.  Then they must be informed as to the features and benefits of the product.  The next stage in the communication process is to develop a desire for the product in the mind of the consumer.  Finally, there must be a call for consumers to act.  So AIDA, Awareness, Inform, Desire, Action.

Systematic approaches to consumer buying behaviour have been criticised as the presume that consumers must always take a logical, step-by-step approach to buying which ignores their state of mind and their emotions.  Later studies stated that rather than focusing on a sequential buying process amongst consumers, marketing communications should focus on aspects of buyer behaviour:

  • The Cognitive or how consumers learn about a product
  • The Affective or how consumers feel about a product or the sales process; and,
  • The Conative or how the consumer does the purchase.

This change of approach led to many promotional campaigns shifting from Unique Selling Points (USPs); functional aspects and information about a company’s products or services; to Emotional Selling Points (ESPs); brand values based on emotion and imagery.  Communication in consumer markets is now less about logic and fact and more about brand awareness, consumer desire and aspirational involvement; a process of driving consumers’ emotional response.

Then there are business-to-business markets.  Whereas it is now assumed that consumer buying is largely based on emotion, when organisations buy it is still recognised that a structured, formal buying process will take place.

It is highly unlikely that a single individual will buy on behalf of a business.  It is far more common for organisational purchasing decisions to be made by a buying group or decision-making unit.  This unit is made up of several individuals with different roles in the buying process:

  • Users – Those in the organisation that will actually use the item being purchased
  • Influencers – Who set the buying process, set technical specifications and who evaluate alternatives
  • Buyers – Those who actually do the buying
  • Deciders – Those who have informal and formal power to approve final suppliers.  This could be members of a company’s board, financial officers or, in public services, politicians.

Gatekeepers exist to control access to all of the above members of a buying group.  These can be receptionists, executive assistants or secretaries who decide which messages group members receive and who control their diaries.

Although emotion plays a part in business buying decisions the formal structured process of buying makes it a background matter.  For instance, a consumer will likely not buy from a salesperson they dislike.  An organisation is more likely to buy on the functionality and value of the product on sale than the personality of the seller’s representative.

In truth, both the systematic approach of structured approaches to buying such as AIDA and the emotional approach of ESPs play a part in buying both by consumers and businesses.  Often the approach taken will be affected by the importance of the item being purchased.

If you are going to buy a new house or a new car, it is far more likely that you will take a structured approach to making the purchase decision.  If you are buying lunch in a supermarket, you’re emotional state will have an increased effect on your decision.