How Buyers are Different When Other People are Involved

iStock_job interview.jpgWe human beings can be a strange lot when in our role as consumers. As just one example, we tend to behave differently as buyers when other human beings are involved in the process of selling to us. Some new research has now quantified the degree to which fear of embarrassment, or fear of being wrong, has an impact on buying behavior.  

The research comes from a team led by Ryan McDevitt of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business; it involves two studies and several tens of thousands of actual transactions (involving pizza and booze, no less).

When Pizza Buyers Choose More Calories

First, the researchers compared online orders to phone orders at a pizza chain during a four-year period.  

The online orders had, on average, 14 percent more special instructions (such as combining or dividing toppings). The online orders also contained about 100 more calories than did the phone orders. I suppose that customers wanting triple bacon were freed from any fear of disapproving looks from order-takers if they went online. Prof. McDevitt added, “Online, you’re not making anyone wait while you place your special order. No one is judging you.”

When Liquor Buyers Choose Difficult Brand Names

The team also studied sales at 14 liquor stores in Sweden during a multi-year period, after those stores had introduced a self-service option. In this instance they were looking for any differences in purchases of products whose names were difficult to pronounce. The hypothesis was that people who might be interested in those products would have less fear of embarrassment when trying to say the name to another human being. The result? Market share of the products that were hardest to pronounce increased by more than 8 percent when the stores changed to self-service.

Judging from these numbers alone, we might conclude that people are just getting in the way of sales. Of course, there’s much more to this marketing story. Professionals in sales, customer service, and similar roles can lead, inform, motivate, reassure, and otherwise help buyers make good decisions.  

Make Your Human Selling Interactions Count

How can the humans in your business improve buyers’ experiences, and otherwise ease the buying process rather than impede it?

  • They can share what similar customers are doing, and why. One of the most powerful forces shaping human behavior is that of social comparison—our innate anxiety about how we compare to relevant others. Arm your teams with information about the products and services that are most popular, along with who is buying.
  • They can recommend products and services that go together (maybe pairings of pizza and liquor?) One friend who owns a liquor store makes it a point to help his customers match wines and beers for an event to the foods being served—and at times will share ideas for how to serve and store, too.
  • They can inform buyers of the factors that lead to more satisfaction (or, stated differently, less regret) from buyers. For example, if the vast majority of your customers who buy service contracts are satisfied, then that’s a useful data point.
  • They can help buyers wade through the many options (often, too many) available in terms of feature sets, ways of paying, and return/exchange policies.

None of this should happen in ways that would raise a buyer’s fear of looking foolish. I recently heard a retail clerk say to another customer, “You look like you could use some help!” The clerk’s intentions were probably noble, but there are other ways to express a desire to help (“This is a crazy time of year isn’t it? Let’s make this easier for you.”).

I say that if you really want that triple bacon, then go for it.

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