Ray Collis

What Science Tells Us About The Speed Of Buying

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Today’s buyers are slower to decide and that makes sales cycles longer. That sounds like a statement of the obvious, but it is actually grounded in our most up-to-date understanding of the workings of the human brain.

The Slow Buying Decision

Scientists Reveal The True Speed Of Buying

You don’t need to understand cognitive science in order to know that buyers are slower to make decisions than ever before. Quite simply buyers want more information, analysis and justification before they will decide. Yet science does shed some light on why some sales techniques are no longer effective in the face of today’s ‘slower-to-decide’ buyer.

…why some sales techniques are no longer effective in the face of today’s slower to decide buyer.

Science tells us that there are are two speeds of thinking or modes of decision-making. One is fast and the other is slow. This has profound implications for how buyers buy and what is required to sell to them.

The Fast Decision

The fast decision involves impulse and emotion. It relies heavily on intuition and attitudes, or other habits. The result is a pretty much spontaneous ‘yes’, or ‘no’, ‘like’, or ‘dislike’, ‘want’ or ‘don’t want’ reaction delivered.

The customer instantaneously decides if he, or she wants to deal with the salesperson and or wants the solution. It is almost automatic and often sub-conscious, being shaped by impressions, gut instinct, rules of thumb and so on.

…shaped by impressions, gut instinct, rules of thumb and so on.

It is fast because the buyer arrives at the decision first and then sets about building (often quite selectively) the arguments to support it. It can be insulated from what is traditionally considered rational analysis and therefore is at risk of being subject to bias, or error. Our instinct can after all let us down.

For the salesperson however, assuming a positive response, this is nirvana – there is no waiting around, no providing detailed information, building a business case and so on. In the realm of the fast decision the seller’s traditional closing and other sales techniques can be potent. The sale is instantaneous!

The only problem is that fast decision making in the B2B world is frighteningly uncommon. Indeed, in large organizations fast buying is being treated the same way as nutritionists treat fast food. It is quite simply off the menu, with procurement policies, procedures, systems and processes designed to ensure that it stays off.

…fast buying is being treated the same way as nutritionists treat fast food.

The fast mode of thinking is also called System 1, or Type 1 thinking and involves those parts of the brain that have been around for the longest time in terms of human evolution – the limbic regions that are the home of our emotions.

The Slow Decision

The slow decision involves deliberate thought and analysis. The reason it is slow is because it entails activities such as; doing the research, gathering the information, completing the analysis, weighing various factors, building the case and so on.

The slow decision involves deliberate thought and analysis…

There is a cognitive process, or journey to be completed by the decision maker and it won’t be rushed. The decision maker wants information and detail, or facts and figures.

The slow decision (also called System 2, or Type 2 thinking) is the exercise of logic and reason – it is classic rational – economic man in action. That is how the text book says the decision should be made, but of course that does not mean that it is purely rational.

Decision Making Is Never Completely Rational

The fast-slow dichotomy is not simply black and white. Here are just two examples:

  • Decision making does not take place in a vacuum, but is context and environment dependent. A buyer will act differently if under time pressure, or stress for example. Indeed the term cognitive strain is used to describe the effect:
    ‘When you feel strained you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you are also less creative than usual.’ (1)
  • There can be fast and slow aspects of any decision. For example, how we gather and analyse information in a slow decision is heavily influenced (even prejudiced) by our intuition, attitudes and so on. Put simply we are more open to information that supports our existing beliefs and past experiences – something that we have examined elsewhere in terms of ‘the glass half-full’ approach to pipeline management.

…we are more open to information that supports our existing beliefs and past experiences.

Two analogies are often used to explain the interplay of system 1 and system 2 aspects of the brain, the first is the lazy teenager (system 2) who is reluctant to get out of bed and shy of making any effort and preferring to let system 1 do all the work.

The second analogy is that it is system 1 that drives the car, with the hope that system 2 is awake at the wheel for at least part of the journey. These two analogues are another way of saying that a buyer’s decision making is never 100% rational.

Different Degrees Of Slow In Selling

Our analysis of modern buying decisions supports the fast – slow dicotomy, but extends it to cover four types of decisions with which salespeople will be familiar.

  1. Fast fast – this is classic shopping online or via an approved vendor catalogue. This is simply a matter of closing the sale.
  2. Fast slow – this can happen when the manager has decided he or she wants something but is slowed by internal systems, processes and procedures. The challenge for the seller here is to know and follow the organization’s procurement process.
  3. Slow fast – where a protracted evaluation process is followed by a swift and decisive decision. The challenge here is for the salesperson to get involved earlier, rather than simply arriving when the decision is ready to be made.
  4. Slow slow – where spend is tightly controlled by the application of strategic procurement principles or bureaucratic buying procedures. The challenge for the salesperson here is to coach the buyer in the role of trusted advisor/expert.

The problem for sellers arise where they misread the speed of the decision and apply the wrong sales approach as a result.

Using Brain Science To Sell

So, how can sellers use ‘brain science’ to boost their sales performance & success? Well, here are just some implications:

  1. Don’t get frustrated by the slow buyer – it is simply a matter of brain chemistry. Brain scans show that depending on whether it is fast, or slow – intuitive or cognitive – different parts of the brain will light-up. Of course it is also a matter of organizational buying systems, process and procedures.
  2. Update your sales techniques. Impulse and emotion are playing less of a part in how today’s corporations buy. Yet one could argue that it is still the focus of much of the sales literature and sales training. No more clearly can this be seen than in respect of the over-emphasis on traditional closing techniques.
  3. Sellers can help buyers to build the momentum of even the slowest of decisions by providing the buyer with access to more and better information and analysis ideally with 3rd party validation in order to ensure its credibility. The seller’s new role is to encourage and support the buyer’s information gathering, analysis and evaluation. This requires that the salesperson acts in the role of an expert, or trusted advisor.
  4. The seller’s job is to create an environment that makes thinking easier, or to use the scientific expression to create a state of cognitive ease when the buyer is ‘probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar’ (1).
  5. Don’t underestimate the buyer – remember they are increasing hard-nosed, cautious and sophisticated. The problem is that the reality of the sophisticated self-assured buyer has not reflected itself in how most sales organizations generate their marketing literature, structure their sales process, recruit and train their salespeople, or write their sales proposal/tenders.
  6. The seller should guard against the risk of sudden de-acceleration of a ‘fast decision’ ensuring that the buyer does not find him, or herself standing naked before senior management when looking for approval. In particular they must exercise care in selling to the maverick buyer.

1. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, Penguin, 2011 – Click here to buy a copy from Amazon.

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