The Myth of the Impersonal Buyer

“Get out of the water! Now!” The cry came from a concerned father sitting on a blanket not far behind me on a Cape Cod beach. The sheer volume of his voice alarmed all of us nearby. There had been recent shark sightings along the Cape shores, so sharks were first and foremost on our minds when we heard him yell.

His two kids—a boy and a girl of perhaps 9 and 12—were in the water, barely up to their waists. When they didn’t respond, he jumped to his feet and yelled again. “I said get out of the water, now!”
I immediately thought of Chief Brody from the movie Jaws.

The kids turned and broke into a high-step run out of the shallows and up the beach to their father.

“How many times have I told you to wait 30 minutes after you eat before going back into the water?” he asked them. “You can get stomach cramps and drown. It happens every year.”

But he was wrong. It doesn’t happen every year. It actually never happens. Studies published in 2007 and 2008 by Rachel C. Vreeman and Aaron E. Carroll from the Indiana University School of Medicine debunked this myth about drownings caused by swimming too soon after eating. According to Vreeman and Carroll, there are no documented cases of drowning or near-drowning due to eating.

They couldn’t find one case. Zero. Zilch. Yet how many millions of us were given the same stern warning back when we were kids?

Every so often, science reveals myths that have long been taken as fact. We can’t remember the days when the world was thought flat, or when bloodletting was believed to cure illness. But most of us today will remember when coffee was bad for you and when Pluto was a planet, or when swimming after eating could lead to drowning.

The business realm is not immune to these myths.


“It’s not personal. It’s business.”

I wish I had a dime for every time that was uttered. This commonly used statement expresses the archetype of the ultimate business decision-maker: focused, unflinching and objective to the core.

We laud business leaders for their ability to keep calm and cool under pressure, and to maintain a laser-like focus on strategy and business objectives, where lesser people would be swayed by their emotions. In heroes like Steve Jobs, or in villains like Gordon Gekko of the Wall Street movies, we see steadfast steeliness, determination and objectivity—qualities, we believe, of the quintessential business decision-maker. And someone vastly different from the typical personal consumer.

We assume that while individual consumers regularly base purchase decisions on emotions, whim and personal desire, savvy business decision-makers base their procurement decisions on research, analysis, data, ROI calculations and strategic business goals. Personal needs and emotions, we believe, don’t play a major role in business decisions—especially for significant purchase decisions such as technology solutions.

Like the danger of swimming after you eat, this notion of the impersonal business buyer is being proven by researchers to be a myth. Research indicates that the personal value that buyers perceive in a B2B product has far greater impact on the decision process than most marketers thought.

A study conducted by CEB, now Gartner, in conjunction with Google (“From Promotion to Emotion”, 2013) found that the perceived personal value in a product had almost twice as much impact on the purchase outcome as the perceived business value. According to the study, the personal value perceived by the decision-maker includes professional benefits, social benefits, emotional benefits or self-image benefits.

On the consumer marketing side, most purchases are relatively low-dollar. The downside of a wrong purchase for basic consumer goods is some moderate frustration and annoyance, if that. Don’t like the new book you bought? Donate it. Don’t like that new desk lamp? Regift it. 

In contrast, business purchases—especially technology products and solutions—can have serious consequences. The stakes are high, so the accompanying emotions surrounding the buying journey may also be high. Rapidly changing technology choices add further stress. People’s careers can be made or broken based on a purchase decision. But, because of this “myth of the impersonal buyer,” B2B marketers often completely overlook the emotional side of the purchase.

The Personal Value Messaging Gap

The same study (which surveyed 3,000 business purchasers) found that buyers who see personal value in a product indicate a significantly greater likelihood of purchasing—three times greater—than buyers who do not see personal value. Those buyers who see personal value are also seven times more likely to pay a premium for a product.

But there’s a dilemma here: Buyers tend to believe in the personal value of a product only after purchase and use. The study found that, while 77 percent of customers believe in the personal value of the products they’ve purchased, only 31 percent of buyers believe in the personal value of products they do not own.

If buyers don’t see personal value, one likely reason is that B2B marketers aren’t effectively communicating the personal value of their products. Because of the myth of the impersonal buyer, we tend to overlook and neglect our personal value messaging, focusing most of our sales messaging on the business value of our products or solutions.

A typical messaging hierarchy focuses on desired business outcomes, strategic value, differentiating features and benefits, and supporting proof points. Inevitably, messaging is filled with common terms such as “intuitive,” “easy to use,” “robust” and “powerful.” Competing products of similar design or technology will often use similar descriptors. This can result in sales messaging that lacks differentiation.

Just visit a few of your competitors’ websites and you’ll see this. Most competing products of a similar nature and design (including technology) claim to offer many of the same business values. A good portion of the messaging for competing products is often virtually interchangeable. So, unless you have a clear and significant advantage over your competition (a rare situation in today’s global economy), the business value that your product offers is probably very similar to the business value that your competitors offer. Consequently, companies that build personal value messages into their messaging hierarchies can gain an edge over competitors who have yet to expand their messaging beyond the typical business value focus.

Identify Your Personal Value Messaging

To identify the right personal value messages for your products or solutions, start by talking with your customers—which is something many B2B marketers don’t do often enough. Use the following questions to structure the conversation and help identify the personal value your customers believe your products or solutions provide.

Has our product helped to accelerate your career in any way?
Perhaps your product has helped customers gain experience and skills in a hot new technology area, bolstering their résumé or helping them win a promotion.

Has our product helped you gain professional recognition?
Anecdotal evidence about how your product has helped customers gain recognition or awards can be extremely helpful in differentiating your sales messaging. Where possible, use real customer success stories and testimonial quotes to support personal value messages.

Has our product boosted your visibility in the company by impacting company success?
The purchase and implementation of your product may have required your customer to foster support and collaboration from teams across the organization. This can often boost their visibility and reputation within their company (and among important C-level management)—especially when the effort has resulted in recognized improvements in the company’s productivity, efficiency or quality.  

Has our product improved your reputation as a leader or out-of-the-box thinker?
The selection of your product may have required your customer to champion your product or service within their organization. In the process, your customer may have had to battle those who were skeptical, preferred the status quo, or wanted to go with a safe big-name vendor. Showcasing how your product can help a customer boost their reputation as a leader can add powerful personal value to your overall messaging.

Of course, there are some aspects of personal value that you may not want to ask your customers about directly, because you’ll risk, among other things, offending them. You don’t want to imply, for example, that they lack confidence or are in fear of losing their job. So the following questions are likely best answered indirectly through casual conversation, listening and observation (versus posing them directly to your customers):

Has our product helped the customer build personal confidence or pride?
Your customer may have had to overcome doubt and taken some professional risks to champion your product or service through their decision process and implementation. After all, failure could have meant a major career setback, if not a professional catastrophe. Success, on the other hand, can be a serious boost to the customer’s confidence and create a sense of personal pride.

Has our product helped the customer build or strengthen relationships with staff, peers or executives?
A decision team leader who successfully gains the buy-in, adoption and implementation of your solution may have had to reach out and forge new relationships, or strengthen current relationships, with their staff, peers or key executives. This may have resulted in improved respect and appreciation, fostered new friendships or acquaintanceships, strengthened interpersonal communications – or perhaps helped to reverse a previously negative relationship.

Has our product helped the customer spend more time working on the areas they prefer to focus on?
If your product or service helps reduce the amount of time spent on business challenges or issues—or otherwise improves your customer’s productivity or efficiency—it may allow your customers to shift more of their focus to the work that satisfies them more, professionally and personally.

Has our product given our customer peace of mind?
Your customers may find that the decision to purchase and implement your product or service has helped them strengthen their value to the organization, elevated their reputation within the company or boosted confidence in the security of their job. The emotional result is greater peace of mind, which can improve both work and overall life satisfaction.

Put Emotion into Motion

Once you’ve defined the personal value messages for your product or solution, the next step is to infuse your messaging—value propositions, elevator pitches, sales stories, etc.—with your personal value and emotion. This will enhance your customer appeal and both strengthen and differentiate your overall sales messaging.

The more personal the personal value message, the more challenging it is to build into general sales messaging. You may find some of the personal value messages are more suitable for specific sales plays to known, targeted decision-makers. And you will almost certainly want to communicate the personal values more subtly, perhaps through customer anecdotes and testimonials.

Back to the Beach

I was tempted to speak to that father on the beach who chastised his kids for going into the water after they ate. I would have liked to have told him about the researchers who couldn’t find a single known instance of someone drowning because they ate before they swam. But I didn’t want to correct him in front of his family. Short of depriving his kids of a little water time, he probably wasn’t doing much harm anyway. Some myths are relatively harmless.

But the myth of the impersonal buyer isn’t one of them. The customers’ emotions and personal interests can play a strong role in the decision-making process. Make sure you’re leveraging the power of personal value messaging to improve your differentiation and customer impact—and avoid becoming a victim of the myth of the impersonal buyer.

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Rod Griffith

Rod Griffith

Rod Griffith is co-founder and chief client officer of of MarketReach. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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