Do business purchasers behave differently to retail customers (even when they’re the same person)?

Think about it. It’s a funny question. Do you behave differently when buying things for a business than you do when you’re making a personal purchase?

Let’s look at an example. How many women do you know who would buy the same dress as their friend, even though they thought their friend’s dress was wonderful? Sticking my neck out, I’d say none. [Can’t use the same story about men, because they never notice who’s wearing what].

Now then, faced with the same situation in a business setting, do the same rules apply?

Say a competitor had just bought a machine that halved the process time for a job and saved that company £250k a year for an investment of £50k. Would you copy them and also buy exactly the same machine? At a stroke.

But what if the woman who wouldn’t buy the same dress as her friend was the chief executive of that business?

Same answer.

So why the difference in behaviour?

We’ll come back to that, but, first, let’s take things one step further.

Do you think the lady with the lovely dress would tell her friends where she bought the dress?

Most probably (especially if it was an expensive shop).

Would the company that bought the cost saving machine tell their competitors about it? Unlikely.

Different competitions, different rules

In both scenarios there is competition going on, but competition of a different kind.

In the first instance, it’s about self esteem and status; being the first to have something, something better than your peers, something exclusive and more expensive. That’s why their friends won’t copy.

In the second scenario, it’s about making money, being competitive, survival. Is there humiliation in being forced to copy your competitors to stay competitive? Not a hint.

It’s pure business.

Does this difference in behaviour impact on how you market to these two sectors (business and consumer)?


In the consumer sector there is a greater element of ‘feelgood factor’ about the marketing approach. Does the purchase make you feel good/happy/rewarded?

(For this part of the discussion we’ll focus on the ‘nice to have’ consumer products, rather than the ‘essential to have’, such as cleaning products or cling film – which are bought for their function).

In the business arena it’s more about ‘does it do the job?’

The importance of word of mouth

In the consumer sector people are also quite willing to pass on recommendations to people they meet. “I went to this fantastic restaurant.” “This new car I’ve got handles brilliantly.” “You should use my dentist, he’s excellent.”

Conversely they are also willing to tell people when they’ve had a very bad experience.

With the advent of social media, this word of mouth recommendation or dissatisfaction has the potential to be amplified (for good or bad) many times.

In the business world, word of mouth recommendation (and even unhappiness with a product or service) is less likely to get aired in public.

OK, you might recount your experiences to your friends at the golf club, in the pub or around the dinner table, but you’ll be less likely to announce to the world anything that might help your competitors – for example, telling them which machinery is best to buy or give them clues about your business or marketing strategy (let them work things out for themselves).

Social media and B2B

For this reason, word of mouth marketing via social media for B2B unlikely to work in the same way as in the consumer sector.

On the upside, you’re far less likely to have a business voicing its displeasure with a product or service they’ve purchased (from you) via twitter or facebook. There are two reasons behind this: if they don’t do it carefully, they’re far more likely to face legal action if they say anything defamatory about a company or its products than a member of the public would for sounding off about a retailer. A big retailer suing a member of the public looks like bullying and risks being turned into even more damaging PR if the press gets hold of it, whereas two companies having a day in court is, well, just business.

Secondly, nobody in business wants everybody else to know that they made a bad purchasing decision. Although many successful business people are comfortable telling the world that they’ve made plenty of mistakes in getting to where they are, most people in business will never volunteer anything that suggests poor judgement.

[originally published: 18 May 2018]

Categories: Opinion Marketing