The Equation That Matters

I sing this song a lot: "You sell, I buy, tra la tra la." But that's what it all comes down to. Whatever you're doing, you'd like me to take advantage of it. You're selling. I'm buying.

You've got a process in place to manage the transaction from your point of view. Meanwhile, I have my own agenda, and you want to find a way to convince me you deserve line item space on that agenda!

That's where an understanding of sales topology really pays off!

Sales situations readily lend themselves to categorization - folks describe them using words like business-to-consumer, business-to-business, simple sales, complex sales and peer-to-peer sales, among others. To my way of thinking, though, none of these labels really describes what is important about the transaction taking place.

As our company was growing, we tried responding to these pre-defined categories of business activity. We'd get questions like, "You use lots of retail examples, but you almost never talk about what I'm interested in, which is business-to-business. What should I be doing differently?"

So we'd couch our language in terms of "considered sales." Of course, this suggests there are unconsidered sales. Yet even a customer's most impulsive purchase incorporates a buying decision process that involves some level of consideration.

Eventually, we gave conventional sales topologies the boot. What really matters most is thinking in terms of your persuasive process. Whether a decision needs to be made by a committee, a couple or a solitary person, you still need to persuade one individual at a time.

And the cognitive models for the sale of a pack of gum have much in common with the sale of commercial aircraft engines - the process simply involves a greater degree of complexity.

The four dimensions of sales complexity

We've come to think about a sale - any sale of any stripe - in terms of need, risk, knowledge and consensus.

You'll notice these qualities suggest sales topology is focused on the customer's perceptions and experiences, not the role the business occupies in relation to the customer. And that's exactly how I believe any discussion of sales topology in the context of designing persuasive systems should be framed.

Not a single one of these dimensions is shockingly new. Marketers have always been sensitive to them. It's just that folks have never really worked with them systematically.

Need. We can describe need on a continuum that ranges from critical to necessary to luxury. Through uncovery, we want to understand how urgent the felt need for the product or service is. How quickly are customers likely to make their decisions to buy? Will the need be satisfied by a one-time purchase (either impulsive or momentous) or is the need ongoing? Customers might be willing to compromise their thoroughness for a casual one-time deal, but if that one-time deal is something like a house or if they are choosing a long-term business relationship to satisfy an on-going need, things get significantly more complicated.

Risk. Risk can be perceived as affecting a physical body, a career, self-esteem or self-actualization. In essence, the dimension of risk echoes the levels of human needs described in Maslow's hierarchy. We want to understand how financially risky the sale is. While price may not be an ultimate decision factor in a purchase (in many cases, safety and trust trump price), increasing financial risk requires a more intricate persuasive structure.

Risk may also be associated with compromises to health, as when individuals or medical professionals have to make treatment choices. Or even, for that matter, when someone simply evaluates the safety of an herbal remedy.

Knowledge. Knowledge contains depth and breadth, which can widen and deepen. Changes in knowledge can redefine the perception of need or risk, and often, acquiring knowledge can lead you to realize you know considerably less than you thought you did. Uncovery helps reveal how difficult is it for customers to understand the nature of the product or service, or the procedures for buying. What do they need to know? A persuasive process must eliminate the friction of confusion or ignorance.

Knowledge dimensions for the buying decision can differ based on who is doing the buying: Is the customer buying for herself (she will be the end user) or is she buying on behalf of another (as in the case of a purchasing agent)? The knowledge assumptions and language - especially jargon - that work for one may be totally inappropriate for the other.

Consensus. We can understand consensus issues as decisions that are made anonymously, personally, or by groups. You need to know how many people you have to persuade and at which point in the process you have to persuade them. An individual? An individual and her significant other? Several end-users and heads-of-department? Consensus is the dimension most people fail to define well when they design persuasive systems.

I make an anonymous decision when I pick up a candy bar at the airport and eat it. No one else influenced my choice. (And I have it on good authority that since no one saw me eat it, I can't possibly put on weight!)

However, consensus is not always about who makes the decision; it's also about who influences the decision. I go online and buy a shirt. It arrives. I carefully unpack it and put it away in anticipation of its debut. The morning I decide to wear it, I iron it so it looks crisp and fresh.

I'm standing there in the office in my brand new shirt, all green and suited, my tie impeccably arranged, beaming, and Bryan comes up to me. One look and he intones, "Ditch the shirt, Grok. We want to make a favorable impression on the client today!" That scene, acid-etched on my memory, will now influence my personal shirt-buying decisions until kingdom come.

A group decision is required when the partners, the accountant, and the attorney must agree on a business investment. Individuals within the group will have their own ways of interpreting the dimensions of need, risk, and knowledge as they pertain to the decision, and the persuasive system will have to acknowledge those needs as well.

Tackle your sale's complexity

Start by asking yourself some important questions. These require thought. Important thought. You have to consider all the possibilities, so take lots of time answering them.

  • What's the nature of a customer's need for my service or product? Under what circumstances will customers require my service or product? How often will they need me?

  • How many ways is it possible for my customers to perceive risk? Is this risk confined to the service or product? Does it apply to the transaction process?

  • What do potential customers already know about my service or product? Do I need to clarify misconceptions? Do I need to reassure? What do I need to teach them?

  • Who will be involved in making the buying decision? What concerns, different perspectives and varying (or potentially competing) needs will come into play?

Your answers start to provide the framework for your persuasive system!

When your efforts are focused on these questions, it doesn't matter whether you are working business-to-business or business-to-consumer. In the You Sell I Buy Equation, it's understanding the dimensions of your sales' complexity that really makes the difference.

Volume 134: 7/1/06

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