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Busting the Myth of the Rational Buyer

by Michael Harris  |  
December 17, 2013

After working on Wall Street for 14 years, I've always presented facts and figures to B2B buyers because that's how I felt serious business people made decisions. This belief was backed by 2,500 years of conditioning.

It started when Plato said that man is rational and that it's our emotions that interfere with rational decisions. But recently, I had an experience that called this belief into question. Shortly thereafter, I was presented with a compelling study from neuroscience that also refuted this belief. So when these two events collided, the myth that buying decisions were strictly rational was busted. I now understood why customers get stuck in analysis paralysis, and what I could do to help then to avoid it.

My experience began when I was about to make the most important buying decision of my life. My daughter, Isabelle, was leaving her small community school, and she was off to grade seven in the city. I had to make sure I made the right decision, so that she'd be on the right track to get into a good university. So, I created a selection matrix on Excel, and off I went to the school's open houses to make the optimal choice.

The problem was that all the schools seemed the same. I felt nothing. I was stuck in analysis paralysis.

When a good friend, Professor Pete, asked me how it was going, I said, "I can't decide. I've seen seven of the top private schools, and not one has inspired me." Pete suggested I check out Voice, a small performing arts school in the distillery district not far from my home. Although I didn't see how an arts school could help get my daughter into a good university, I agreed to go because I respected Pete's opinion.

The next week, Pete asked me how it went.

"Terrible," I said. "Within five minutes of visiting the school, Issy and I both decided on Voice because it felt right."

"Sounds great," said Pete. "But why is that terrible?"

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Michael Harris is CXO of Insight Demand, a sales-training company that helps sellers take the shortest path to more revenue—through the power of storytelling. He is also author of Insight Selling.

LinkedIn: Michael Harris

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  • by James @ Wishpond Wed Dec 18, 2013 via blog

    Michael. Great article. I had a similar experience when researching for a series of articles on the psychology of advertising. I was reading about a case study from 2003 in which a Harvard student worked with a South African bank, sending 50,000 letters offering short term loans. For many of the letters they varied the interest rate as well as included psychologically-influential cues. It turned out that having a wholesome, happy female picture in a corner of the letter had as much positive impact on the response rate as dropping the interest rate by four percentage points.

    People, completely unconsciously, react that positively to the picture of a smiling woman.

    I found similar studies about how we respond to color, other images, and certain words - how they have unconscious impacts on the decisions we make and actions we take.

    And no, I'm not sure I'm completely okay with it all. So I can completely commiserate with your initial response. Am I going to use it in my marketing endeavors? Absolutely. Am I okay with it? I'm not sure yet.


  • by Michael Harris Thu Dec 19, 2013 via blog

    @James, that's a great study. Do you have the source? I'd like to use it. I normally use how charities that send out donation letters that pull two times the donations when the letter is about one person vs. using facts and figure about many. But it was the self evident truth that really hit me. Trying to persuade with fact and figures is hard rock mining. And I stayed in the mine way to long, because I didn't think emotion belonged in business.

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