B2B Psychology in uncertainty | Clarify

Psychology in uncertainty: Influencing factors in B2B engagement and decision making

“It is uncertainty which lends [life] its fascination.” The words of medieval Japanese author and Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenkō might not necessarily be heeded by the millions of people living in a state of not knowing what the future holds. The Covid-19 pandemic has severely disrupted our lives. Normal routines have been disrupted. Homeschooling children has become normal. Commuting is no longer a ‘thing’. Seeing friends and family has become a virtual experience. 

The way we do business, communicate, make purchases and get things done have all changed. Of course, the market has quickly reacted to the widespread move to digital. According to McKinsey, the world sprinted five years ahead of where it would be in just the first few months of the pandemic, with consumers and businesses embracing all things digital. Almost all major firms worldwide went through some sort of digital transformation in 2020, and most expect that investment to continue this year.

But our working lives have had to adjust to an indefinite and indeterminate state. New rules, unknown outcomes, curtailed human interaction and the pressure to transform has brought new waves of uncertainty and anxiety.

In this new context, understanding how and why people act in the way they do is crucial to driving your sales and marketing efforts. Typically, people find uncertainty to be repugnant; something to turn away from. According to studies, most are willing to pay to reduce levels of uncertainty, and their reaction to the unknown. 

Yet evidence suggests that some people find dubious, doubtful or not clearly identified elements of life attractive. Rather than turn their back on uncertainty, they lean into it. However, this makes navigating uncertainty even harder.

Using the principles of psychology can generate more sales value

If we can better understand why people do what they do, we will have a far greater chance of short-cutting rationality, and getting straight to a deeper and more valuable connection. Behavioural psychology can help us to understand why uncertainty can intensify or dampen emotions and decision-making, which is crucial for engaging with customers and building and nurturing relationships. As leading psychologists have noted, uncertainty can influence the emotional state of an individual, with people more inclined to simulate negative outcomes which lead to negative responses to uncertainty. 

Leading researchers, pyschologists and academics have long promoted the value of behavioural economics, and its application into the world of consumer influence and marketing. 

Harmonising some of this is McKinsey’s CHOICES framework, bringing together the thinking of Daniel Kahneman and George Loewenstein, amongst others, to look at how differing psychological contexts were able to short-cut behaviour change. 

CHOICES is just one articulation of many, depending on the desired outcomes, the context, and the market. However, one thing is true across all: understanding more about what causes people to do what they do is an obvious, and yet thus far, under-utilised element of driving communication success. 

Whether you’re looking to influence a nation during election campaigning, or a technology buyer in an enterprise organisation, understanding your addressable market in a psychologically uncertain world is the first thing to consider. Second, is what you can then do to best navigate it. 

Context is a superweapon

When the world has changed – and the common rules that apply to the way we do things have changed too – so does the decision-making process of your customers. Applying new rules to your processes, interactions, services and customer interactions should not be scary. In fact, realising and acknowledging that your customers don’t want or need to conform to what has gone before is critical in seeking out new customers, improving engagement, and generating more valuable sales.

Sentiment analysis, search and social listening, analysing intent data, and assessing – and acting upon – reviews and feedback will be useful tools in gaining an even better understanding of your customers’ current state of mind. Social listening can help to indentify public shaming of a brand, for example. This is crucial when customers do not want others to think they conform with the thoughts or actions of that brand, as evidenced by sociological research.

Making human intelligence from data, then using it to get as close as possible to the context of the buyer you’re targeting, is key. If you can understand their emotional and rational context, you stand a greater chance of navigating to a position of trust and engagement far more quickly.

Also, consider defining the behaviours of your buyers, rather than focusing purely on buyer demographics. What and how they are using your product is just as important as who is using it.

Based on a year of market interaction with decision makers across industry, we’ve found certain behaviourial biases to be more important than others when creating engagement strategies.

Some points to consider:

Distinctiveness: Buyers navigate to brands, and most importantly remember brands, who stand out and demonstrate a difference to other available options. The power of this is immense, yet is so rarely executed in the B2B technology arena. As Ogilvy advertising exec Rory Sutherland, notes, discarding logic and rational thinking is the best path to creativity.

Social proof: At a time when normality and certainty are still some way off, it’s a very brave decision-maker who’ll abandon consensus and recommendation. Core to being able to meaningfully influence buyer behaviour is to be able to create a circle of assurance from those they most trust – in this case key colleagues. This not only creates signifanct relevancy, but most importantly it short-cuts rationality as recommendation is coming from an inner-circle, satisfying the bias towards safety in numbers. 

Data hides the tears and smiles: David Ogilvy famously said: “People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.” Too much emphasis is often placed on adhering to what the data tells us, yet the data in itself is rarely telling the whole story. And it certainly doesn’t offer anything other than rational explanation, which we know is rarely effective in marketing. Analysing search data is the best source for understanding the psychology of a buyer. It gives away what they are thinking – more than they’re prepared to say. This has a real value to help deliver context and should always be used as a data set on top of other analysis.

Price relativity: As businesses continue to rebuild, and uncertainty still prevails, price sensitivity and value perception are even more fundamental to influencing buyer behaviour. It’s critical to control the frame by which your product or service will be compared, switching it away from the nearest competitors into a more unique offering. By creating a new comparison set, you’re more able to control the value equation, delivering higher perceived value to the customer, while realising higher margins for the business.

Primacy effect: As businesses have fragmented, and lines of communications have become more stilted, B2B buyers moved much more into a place of self-discovery to find solutions to their business pains. And smart brands have reacted, creating what they hope are hyper-relevant communications based on intent and insight. However, what many aren’t yet doing is understanding the critical primacy effect. Buyers are far more likely to have their opinions formed by the first two or three things a brand says or does. The rest will fall away into a sea of over-information. It’s therefore so important to complement relevancy with primacy, which will short-cut the positive framing of your brand and give you an unconscious competitive advantage in the minds of the buyer. First impressions really do last.

Stay in control

Uncertainty affects people in different ways. Our tolerance to being in a state of uncertainty can vary greatly, and our responses to it can’t always be controlled. 

However, we can control our chances of a positive interaction, and with it the chances of commercial success. While the world may still be in a state of flux, being able to form meaningful human connections remains the biggest untapped weapon in a brand’s armoury. Forget the idea that all decisions are based on rationale. Understand that sometimes it’s entirely right to go on gut, and most important of all make sure you’re as close to the context – human and business – as you can possibly be.

Clarify has generated hundreds of millions of pounds revenue for the world’s most impressive brands and brightest scale ups. We’ve done it by crafting differentiated propositions and intelligent go-to-market strategies that deliver highly valuable Sales opportunities, leading to very significant ROI.