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Buying Behavior – What You Need to Know to Sell More Effectively

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
21 min read

Sure, you can continually improve your selling skills, but none of it matters if you’re focused on you. What matters is your clients and what they want. Do you know what drives them to buy in the first place?

In this episode, I’ll cover:

  1. Why understanding buying behavior will unlock 10x more of your selling potential
  2. Drivers of buying behavior and how they’ll affect your selling strategy
  3. How to understand why a specific person is interested in buying
  4. Comparing rational and emotional buying drivers from your client
  5. Your action plan for having a deeper understanding of your clients’ buying behavior

If you’re looking for more in-depth training on this subject, I’d be happy to chat about bringing specific training to your company. Email me at to start the discussion.

For further information on asking questions during discovery, check out Episode 4, “The Power of Questions in Discovery”

Mentioned in this episode:

“Yes, Shopping Can Be Addictive” from Elle Magazine
“Cost Conscious? The Neural and Behavioral Impact of Price Primacy on Decision-Making” by Karmarkar, Shiv, and Knutson
The Secret of Selling Anything by Harry Browne
Price Theory: A Provisional Text by Milton Freedman
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman and Tversky
“Of 2 Minds: How Fast and Slow Thinking Shape Perception and Choice” by Daniel Kahneman

For more information on remote selling and a complete list of links mentioned in this podcast, visit this remote selling article on our website.

Buying Behavior – What You Need to Know to Sell More Effectively:

Full Transcript

Hello, and welcome to the Show. My name is Liston, and I am here to help you build a better consulting business, a better agency, a better professional service business. In today’s episode, I’m going to be talking to you about buying behavior.

Look, I talk to business owners all the time, individual consultants, AEs, business development people. They all want to know, how can they be better at selling. It’s a great question because selling is really what drives your revenue. I mean, you could argue that your marketing does because the number and quality of leads you get will influence how many sales opportunities you have, of course. You may argue that your delivery is the most important thing, and businesses that survive exclusively on referrals always argue that. I would also say, yeah, of course that matters. Being better at delivery, delivering more effectively, delivering better work, delivering better outcomes, all of that has to do with how effective you are at selling, but all of this really comes back to selling. There’s no way to avoid it.

A lot of people are asking me, how can they improve their selling skills, how can they have better conversations, how can they change their mindset. What I want to start with is this, before you can think about improving how you sell, forget entirely about what you sell, because no one really cares. What they care about instead is what’s in it for them. What’s in it for them really begs the question, what is motivating people to buy in the first place. Look, sure, you want to sell more, but no one wants to buy more from you. All they really want is what buying from you can provide for them.

You know, I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s new book, This Is Marketing. I have some problems with the way it was written, and maybe one day I’ll get to talk to Seth about why he made some of those choices. That would be great. But he talks about this famous analogy that was used, I think by a Harvard professor where he says, “No one is buying a drill bit, they’re buying the hole that the drill can create.” Seth goes farther than that and says, “Well, no one’s really buying the hole. What they’re buying is the ability to hang a shelf, which would then allow them to display,” I forget exactly what he says, but he goes on this long analogy where it comes down to what’s on the shelf is self-reinforcing for the person’s identity. That’s what they’re buying.

Now I absolutely subscribe to this line of thought. Just going down the line and asking why, over and over again, really gets us closer to why people are actually buying something. What I want you to take away from today’s episode, and this is pretty deep one, you may have to rewind a couple parts, I’m gonna be covering a lot about human behavior, and how the brain works. But what I really want you to take away is first focusing on the other person. You may have the greatest thing in the world to sell, but I promise you, no one really gives a shit. All they care about is what you’re selling can do for them. That’s it.

This is where a business starts to emerge, where you say, “Hey, there’s this group of people who need this thing. They have this problem and they need a solution. I think I can provide the solution at a price that they’re willing to pay. Let’s come together.” Then trade takes place. This is the basics of price theory. If you really want to nerd out on this subject, go ahead and fall asleep in the textbook by Milton Friedman called, and this is linked in the show notes, Price Theory: A Provisional Text. I had to read it in undergrad and it will put you to sleep, but good information in there.

Let’s get right to it. Understanding buying behavior, it’s going to unlock 10 times more of your selling potential. The reason is, if you give other people what they want, you’ll get a whole lot more of what it is that you want. See, people are buying for their own reasons. They don’t care about you. What they really want is the outcome that you can provide them, or at least help them with.

Really easy example, if I go to buy a car from the car dealership, I’m not really going there to help the person selling me the car. I mean, sure, if she’s really nice, and she’s helpful, and she gets me a great deal, then yeah, great, she’s gonna get her commission. But that’s not why I’m buying the car at all. The only reason I’m buying the car is I want the new car, and what the new car can do for me.

For me, it’s take me to the gym, go buy me food, go to Costco, go on trips with my wife, cart the dog around and the cat around, and all the other things that I need to do. It represents freedom and convenience, ultimately. That’s why I want to buy the car, but I don’t want to buy it to help the woman selling me the car. Yet, in services where our brains often go when we talk to people in a sales conversation, is to just list out, as a consultant, here are all of the things that I can do. Well, okay. That’s great and there are times when you may want to let someone choose off of a menu, but only after you’ve done the homework and really tried to figure out why they want to buy.

As a roadmap for the rest of this episode, I’m gonna be covering the drivers of buying behavior, and how they’ll affect your selling strategy. I’ll also be comparing rational and emotional buying drivers from your client. I’ll cover a little bit about how to understand why a specific person is interested in buying (i.e., how to apply this to your next client conversation), and also I’ll be giving you an action plan for having a deeper understanding of your client’s buying behavior.

The first thing to really discuss is generally why do people buy. There is this wonderful book that was recommended to me by my friend, Philip Morgan. It’s called The Secret of Selling Anything by Harry Browne. I don’t know Harry’s background other than he was in sales for many years, but the book is really a distillation of pricing and trade theory. What Harry says is, “People buy to improve their condition.”

The way I would say that is people buy to have a better tomorrow. They want tomorrow to be better than today. If you look at the way things are marketed and sold in really base emotional type markets, so I would think about the beauty market, or health and wellness, or weight loss is a great one, what they’re really selling is that better tomorrow. You’ll be thinner, you’ll have more energy, you’ll not miss out on your kids’ activities, you’ll be able to participate more, you’ll feel confident in yourself. All of these things. But all of those things really tie to one simple idea, which is I’m not totally happy with today, and I want tomorrow to be better. That really is the most basic summation of why people buy. They want tomorrow to be better. Okay, this is so obvious.

Now every purchase is a trade. They want tomorrow to be better. If I come to you, and I say, “I’m the one to give it to you. I can help you achieve that tomorrow.” Essentially, I am the bridge between where you are today and where you want to be in your better version of tomorrow. I can create that bridge for you. Every purchase is a trade. In B2B sales, every trade involves a combination of time, money, and resources.

If I’m selling you my services, then I’ll get some of your money, some of your time, and perhaps some of your resources, and you’ll get an equivalent amount or greater amount of time. That’s why we do this in the first place, because you think you’ll be better off having parted ways with your money, and I think I’ll be better off because I’m applying my service to you, and maybe there’s marketing impact for working with you, maybe there’s my personal motivation and interest in what you have going on, and of course, I want to get paid for my work. All of these things will facilitate a trade.

Now one thing that a lot of service providers get wrong is they’re often looking strictly for ROI. I’m gonna cover ROI more when we get into the next section, comparing rational and emotional buying drivers. But one thing to note is, ROI is not a primary driver of why most people are buying. Yes, this does apply to B2B sales included.

If you think of basically any luxury good, so I’m not really into luxury goods, but recording this podcast I record on a nice mic, and I have nice equipment going in. What is the ROI of that equipment. I didn’t think about it in those terms. What I thought was, “I think it’s valuable to have a better sounding podcast. I think that will leave a more professional impression, and a lasting impact on the people who listen to this.” I hope it does, by the way. I don’t know. You know what else, I want it. I like having nice equipment, I like having gadgets, I like all of the blue lights and red lights everywhere in my office from all of the different things that are buzzing about helping me execute on all of these things that I like to make, like the podcast. I personally just like it.

I can’t really tie in ROI to that. What I do know, and I can tell you anecdotally, is a lot of people have told me, they enjoy the quality of this podcast. Now I didn’t know that until after I bought this stuff. It’s validating, and it helps me go back and justify my purchase. But there was no way for me to know that at the time. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “Everything is about ROI.”

Back to this idea about facilitating trade. As a consultant, let’s say I sell you some of my training and consulting, and you’ll get a combination of my time, and resources, and intellectual property in that process. Collectively, my time, and service, and intellectual property, those are resources. But you’re not really looking for resources, you’d be looking for outcomes. If you buy training and consulting from me, what will that do for you? You maybe want to be able to scale your sales team, you maybe want to feel more confident when you and the rest of your team sell. You want to reduce the risk and uncertainty of doing the wrong things. You want a third-party opinion just to challenge some of your thinking on the things you are doing. All of these things, they’re much beyond resources. This all ties back to outcomes. That’s a general term that I use to refocus and call a better tomorrow.

If you say, “I want a third-party objective opinion in order to reduce the risk of uncertainty,” certainly that’s an outcome. But if we go a step beyond that, it may look something more like you can move faster in your sales efforts because you have more confidence in your team’s ability to execute afterwards. It could be lots of different things, but it all starts like this.

Let’s go back to the beginning here. We know that people want to buy in order to improve their condition, which means they have a problem today. Then they think, “I could fix that problem, or at lessen the impact of that problem.” They go around and they start looking for ways to make the problem better, to make it better, to fix it. Then they’d probably find several ways to fix the problem, and they need to choose the best way. Eventually, some of them will choose you. That’s the buying process.

Why people buy? They want to improve their condition. Why do they want to improve their condition? They think they have a problem or there’s something that they want to improve in their lives now, or improve in their business now, as it were. Then the process is, once they identify the problem, they think they can make it better, they look for ways to make it better, they need to choose the best way, which comes in the evaluation or consideration stage. Then eventually they’ll choose someone, and hopefully that’s you, which is why you’re here, I’m guessing, is you want to be chosen more often.

This is how people will think about buying just about anything. What I would challenge you to do, as an exercise, is think about the last slightly significant purchase you made in your life. In the hundreds of dollars, or low thousands of dollars, it doesn’t need to be a house, or a car, or anything like.

One example for me is, first of all, I’m a research nut. I’ll do a lot of homework on reviews, and watch videos, and do all kinds of things to hopefully make the right choice when I buy something significant. My wife just bought a new phone, something like that. Think about the process that you went through. What was nagging you about your existing phone? Why did you need a new one in the first place? What was the moment when you decided, I have a problem? Then, as you started to think that you could make it better, obviously a phone is an easy one. You go, “Well I could get a new phone.” Okay, which phone are you gonna get? You go out and look for all the options. Once you find all the options, you’re probably going to narrow them down, and then you need to choose one.

In some cases, people will hire three phones to figure out which one will get the job, and then return the other two, or sell the other two on eBay. That’s a perfectly rational way of doing it too. But the bottom line is, everyone goes through some version of this process when they buy anything. Again, I’m gonna repeat this probably 10 more times, the reason people buy is because they have a problem today, and they want to improve their condition.

Let’s talk about comparing rational and emotional buying drivers. This influences is lots and lots of different things, but I want to start with a story about consumers, people buying stuff. In a 2007 study, researchers measured the brain activity of buyers. Here’s what they did. The researchers showed their subjects a range of product while measuring brain activity. They had all the little stickers, and wires, and things hanging off their heads. It was going into a computer, measuring brain activity, and in particular, which areas of the brain were the most active while these people were seeing a range or products. What they found was that the nucleus accumbens, or the pleasure center, increased in activity when people were shopping and comparing these products.

When those people were shown prices of the products, the prefrontal cortex lit up, and that’s associated with executive functioning and decision making. No surprise there. People see the products, their pleasure center lights up because they start to imagine how their better tomorrow could be, and then their prefrontal cortex lit up because they need to make a decision about which of those things that they want. But then something interesting also happened. The insula increased in activity. That’s an area associated with pain. In particular, that happened when people were shown the prices.

The data clearly show that people are using both rational and emotional parts of their brain in order to make a buying decision. It’s absolutely crystal clear, we know this. The pleasure center lights up, the pain center lights up, and our executive decision making functions start to kick in. This goes back to the model I gave you. I have a problem, I start to imagine ways of making it better, I look for ways to make it better, I need to choose one, and then I do.

If we’re selling anything, we really need to appeal to both rational and emotional drivers, with a caveat. You may have heard the term, fight or flight response. It’s short-hand for the fact that our lizard brains still dominate our thinking. Our most basic, basic functioning, things like drive for survival, drive for food, drive for sleep, drive for sex, all these basic human and animals needs, they’re driven in what’s called our lizard brain. That’s slang, of course. But it’s our limbic system, and this is the oldest part of our brain.

We have a lot in common, with yes you guessed it, lizards and other creatures who don’t have self-awareness or cognition. This part of our brain still really dominates our thinking. There’s a book that I highly recommend, if you haven’t read it, called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In that book, Kahneman points out that there are two systems that work in our brains. One is that limbic system, that lizard brain that I mentioned, which he calls System 1. That part of our brain moves quickly and acts on gut or instinct. The System 2 is much more deliberate, it’s thinking, it’s plotting. It’s the part of our brain that we think of i who we really are.

Now in an article in Scientific American, Kahneman writes, and I quote, “I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.” Which is to say, System 1 is responsible for our gut feelings and instincts. It’s going to be the drivers of a lot of our decisions.

Now if you’re anything like me, I enjoy candy occasionally. I’m a bit of a health nut, but I sure do like to eat. When I’m standing in line at the supermarket, and I see some candy, or cookies, or pack of gum, or something like that, that really comes with a promise of instant gratification, I go ahead and buy it. It’s called an impulse purchase. I didn’t engage System 2. System 1 said, “Ah, candy, Kit Kat. I really want a Kit Kat.” System 2 probably said something like, “You haven’t had a Kit Kat in a while. Go ahead and treat yourself.” That is how this works.

Our decisions are often guided by our basic human drives, namely to survive. Remember, people make decisions to buy in order to make tomorrow better than today. I have a problem, I want a better tomorrow. That is, they’re gonna solve a problem to increase their chance of survival.

Now I know, this can all sound a bit mellow dramatic. We don’t actually live in a time when our buying decisions have any impact on our survival 99.9% of the time. Maybe if you buy your house in a flood zone, that will impact your chance of survival. Maybe if you buy your house or decide to move right on top of a fault line, which is where I lived during the Northridge Earthquake, but still survived. Those kinds of things can affect your survival. But 99.9% of the time, whether you buy that new phone, whether I get a new pair of sunglasses or a pair of shoes, or whether you buy my sales training and coaching, none of that is going to affect your survival, literally. However, this limbic system, it’s so much a part of us that that’s still how we think about a lot of things in our lives, including the things that we buy. The science is really, really clear here.

Now the one thing to note, and maybe you’re thinking this already, consumer purchases are a bit different than B2B purchases, because B2B purchases typically take a lot longer. If you are going to buy anything from me, there’s probably going to be a fairly long period where you consider it. If your clients buy anything from you, there’s probably a long period when they’re going to consider it. There are probably other people involved in that consideration. The chances of someone acting on impulse during a B2B purchasing decision are much lower. This is really impacted by what I call the physics of a sale.

The physics of a sale is just a fancy way of saying that there’s a direct relationship between the length of a sale, and its complexity and cost. The bigger the project, the more expensive it is, the more people are involved, the longer it’s going to take. The less, generally, people will be driven by impulse.

Now that is not to say emotion is unimportant or a non-factor. Of course, it’s important, and of course, it’s a factor. But the longer things take, the less likely we are to act impulsively. That’s just the way it is. There are lots of different studies around this that I could share, but I won’t bore you on that in today’s episode.

But look, your clients, they’re still making emotionally driven decisions. If you think they’re buying strictly on ROI, you would be wrong. I want you to think again about what Kahneman said, and I quote, “I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.” Yes, we make decisions using our rational brain, but typically those decisions are only being rationalized after they were made by System 1, we wanted something.

Okay, so here’s what we know. We know that people buy things in order to improve their condition. They want tomorrow to be better than today. Once they come to that conclusion, they’ll go out, and they’ll look for ways to make their condition better, then they’ll need to choose one way, which is to compare the choices that are in front of them. Then they need to make a choice, and choose one. Sometimes that’ll be you. One of the ways that they’re actually making those choices is with their System 1, limbic system, lizard brain, which is highly emotional and driven by “instinct”.

What we need to understand from each person is why they’re interested in buying something. Because the purpose of marketing is to identify those people who have already acknowledged that they have a problem, and that they understand that they can make it better. Typically, that’s the job of marketing. Once you get into a selling situation, you’re talking to people who are looking for ways to make the problem better, to alleviate the problem, to lessen the problem, to eliminate the problem, to increase their gains.

Now a quick side note on gain versus loss, there is a lot of research around this topic. If you’re interested in learning more about it, just Google the term “loss avoidance studies”. What’s for sure is people are three to five times more motivated to avoid a loss than to seek a gain. Just keep that in mind. The reason I’m so focused on peoples’ problems is we want to eliminate or alleviate their losses because it’s going to be a much more powerful motivator for them.

Why a specific person is buying is really how this theory moves into the realm of usefulness for you. You want to know, when you’re talking to someone, why are they interested in buying? What’s motivating them? That’s where this whole thing comes together. You already know it’s because they want to improve their condition somehow. Your job is to find out two things, what is their problem as they see it and as they perceive it, and how do they want things to be different? There are lots of tips, and tricks, and techniques that I could give you to figure this out, but I want you to pick up on this. I didn’t say, “Find out what services they want, find out what ROI they’re seeking.” What I said was, “Find out their condition, and find out how they want things to be different.”

The bridge between the two, your solution, it’s your job to figure that out. It would be a disaster if you had health problems and you went into the doctor, and you said, “I’m sure it’s appendicitis. Remove my appendix.” The doctor didn’t even bother to do an examination. That’s not how it works. That’s not how it should work for you either.

What you really want to find out is what their condition is, what’s going on with you right now, and how you want things to be different. Typically, once you identify, and help them verbalize and articulate what their problems are, their better version of the future is just going to be the opposite of whatever today is.

I’ll give you an example. If I were working with an agency that had several sales development reps, and they weren’t getting enough replies to their outbound outreach, and what’s that’s causing is low pipeline, they’re gonna want the opposite of that, more replies, more pipeline. Of course, we can go deeper, deeper, deeper. Why do you want more pipeline? What would that do for you? How does that change your business? But that’s essentially the exercise.

Of course, the only way to figure out these two critical things, their condition now and what they’d like it to be in the future, is to ask them questions, and then shut up and just listen. Because remember, you’ll want to get a deep understanding of their rational and emotional drivers along the way. The only way you’ll be able to figure that out is by asking good questions and listening.

I’ll give you an example. I was working with a prospect who is now a client. I was asking him, “Why do you need sales training? You guys seem to be pretty successful already. What is it about this?” He gave me many, many reasons. But the one I wanted to seize on that felt very emotional was, he said typically his business came from going around and meeting people in person. I said, “Well how does that work?” He goes, “Well, I get on the plane.” I said, “What’s that like?” He goes, “Well you know travel, it sucks. You have to go there, you’re away from your family, it’s exhausting.” He ends up working extra long days, and it’s not something that can be easily duplicated because he’s the one doing it.

When I found that out, in the proposal stage of my sales process, that was something that I brought up again. I said, “I’ll help you scale up your sales and log less frequent flyer miles every year.” That spoke to both the rational reason, he wanted a bigger business, he wanted something more predictable, he wanted to be able to bring in other people to create a predictable pipeline. But it also spoke to the emotional, he didn’t want to be away from his family, he is exhausted by the travel, he’s just had enough of that. That is something that if you pay attention, if you ask the right questions, and if you listen, people will tell you how to sell to them. They’ll tell you what they want.

As a professional, it’s going to be your job to honestly assess, are you the one to provide that for them? If so, you should tell them. If not, you should tell them, “Ah, I can’t help you with that,” or, “I can actually help you with that, here’s how it would work. Would you like to learn more?”

But it all starts with understanding why people buy. This is the key. Of all of the things I have told you over time, on this podcast, in my writing, on LinkedIn, wherever you see me, in my newsletter, it’s all really contingent upon understanding this. It starts with the mindset, what the client wants is more important than what I want. Then it goes to the implication, therefore, I must understand why clients buy. Then we get to action, what do I need to do in order to understand how this particular person is going to buy?

Here is your action plan for having deeper understanding of your client’s buying behavior. This is what I recommend that you do to really understand why people buy, and why individuals buy.

Number one, internalize that successful selling is more about your client than you. They’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to sell to them. All you have to do is listen.

Number two, a slight continuation of number one, don’t ever, under any circumstance, pitch during discovery. Discovery is all about them, it’s not about you. Stop talking about yourself during discovery. I have a full in depth outline of how your discovery should go, but basically 80% of the time you’ll spend listening, and your client will spend talking. The other 20% of the time, you’ll fill them in and tell them enough about what they need to know, and talk enough to build rapport, so that there’s trust and credibility. But outside of that, it’s really about learning from them.

Number three, be prepared to ask open-ended questions early in the process, and ask plenty of follow-up questions. If you haven’t already heard it, go back, listen to Episode 4 of this podcast, it’s called The Power of Questions and Discovery. It’s linked in the show notes. It will give you some really concrete ideas about the types of questions to ask, and how to ask great follow-up questions, which is really, really a key.

I know I covered a lot in this episode, but I really wanted you to be left with some ideas about how to better understand what is motivating people to buy, why do they buy? Because I can’t emphasize this enough, this is going to be the key to you selling. There is no sale without a buyer. Of course, that’s extremely obvious, but what I’ve noticed is not everybody really fully embraces this notion. Focus on your client, focus on what it is that they’re seeking out. Therefore, and only then could you say how you can help them.

I hope this was helpful. Thanks so much for listening, and I hope you have a fantastic day. Bye.

Modern Sales Podcast