Murder, mystery and comparison – helping B2B customers to pick you

There are many factors at play when a customer picks a B2B product or service. Here (in an article that was originally published in B2B marketing magazine), I explore one of the key ones, presenting the important consequences for B2B marketers. I share some lessons that I believe are both timeless and will help us become more effective marketing communicators. But before I get to that, I thought it might be useful to start with a little bit of Hollywood…

A mysterious difference in taste?

The most recent cinematic adaptation of The Murder on the Orient Express hit movie theatres late last year. A self-confessed Agatha Christie fan (#TeamMarple), I rushed to see the film in a state of near-giddy excitement. Alas, I thought the film was pants. OK, that’s a bit harsh. I thought it was a visually sumptuous affair, with amazingly beautiful costumes, set design, lighting and effects. I had a lovely evening too, washing down some delicious salt & pepper cashews with a perfectly chilled Brewdog Punk IPA at the luxuriously appointed cinema. But other than that, I left the cinema a tad disappointed (ie ‘I thought the film was pants’). So consider my shock when someone I know – someone that is pretty similar to me – told me that she absolutely adored it. “Sacré bleu!” I exclaimed at her feedback, in my pathetically clichéd Hercule Poirot accent.

Of course, that’s just one trivial example of something we’ve all experienced. Simply put, people don’t agree on things… She loved the seafood linguine at the new Italian restaurant in the village – but he thought it was distinctly average; She thought the supplier pitch was rotten – while he thought they’d be perfect for the job; He thought the agency’s creative concept had the wow! factor, while you thought it had the snooze factor.

Reaching different conclusions about things happens all the time, and there are a variety of reasons why it happens. Just one of them is an increasingly well-understood psychological phenomenon. A phenomenon that has fundamental implications for us marketers…

How people make choices

One of the ways in which people make choices and reach decisions is through comparison. Simply, when considering choices, people compare ‘this thing’ with ‘that thing’ and decide whether ‘this’ is better than ‘that’. People make comparisons between both things (e.g. cars or B2B tech products) and experiences (e.g. hotel stays or B2B trade shows). This product looks a better fit for my needs than that one. Your experience of this service was far better than your experience with that one. That sort of thing.

Comparing things makes decision-making easier for people, so much so that it often happens automatically, within our brains, without us consciously being aware of it. And there’s a lot of behavioural science, research and theory that supports that. Here are three examples:

  • Anchoring is a well-documented decision-making process where an initial piece of information will inform someone’s subsequent judgements. For example, if I tell you the price of a new product I’ve launched is £10,000, you may not be able to decide whether that presents good value for money or not. But if I had first told you the standard list price was £18,000, perhaps the £10,000 now sounds like a pretty decent deal. People compare the £10,000 with the £18,000 to help make a decision. The £18,000 is referred to as an anchor, and it provides a powerful point of reference – a point of comparison – that, in turn, influences decision-making. (Beyond pricing, it’s also one of the reasons why distinguishing facts and figures still have an influential role in B2B.)
  • Expectations and experiences. In his seminal book The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz explains that when people evaluate things, they perform one or more of the following comparisons: 1) they compare an experience with what they hoped it would be; 2) they compare an experience to what they expected it to be; 3) they compare the experience to other experiences they have had in the past; and/or 4) they compare the experience to the experiences others have had. Looking at a B2B marketing example, if you licensed a B2B tech product on the basis of a great sales pitch, only to later discover the killer feature you really wanted isn’t coming until a future release, you might be disappointed enough to exclaim “Sacré Bleu!” Comparison with expectations counts, and because we all have different experiences and expectations, people reach different conclusions about things.
  • ‘Prospect Theory’. This Nobel Memorial Prize-winning theory describes another way in which people make decisions. Simplifying heavily, people evaluate potential losses or gains when making a decision. In particular, people have an aversion to loss, and would also typically rather accept a small but certain reward over a small chance at a larger reward. Insurance policies are a classic example of this in practice – should you spend £100 on insurance for a £1000 visit to Edinburgh? People (consciously or subconsciously) evaluate the potential losses and gains – the pros and cons – of that purchase. And you might reach a completely different conclusion if the £100 insurance policy was for a £1000 trip to Colombia or Congo (two of the top-20 most dangerous countries in the world). Looking at a business example, think about a B2B buyer considering telling their board they should switch from a known, incumbent supplier to a new, untried and untested supplier. Is the likely gain of switching suppliers sufficiently high to compensate for putting their reputation and career on the line? Comparisons between ‘this choice’ and ‘that choice’ abound.

It’s worth noting I’m not a trained psychologist. I’m interpreting the research of others – and so I highly recommend reading first-hand accounts of these topics – but I think it’s clear that comparison plays a key role in decision-making. And that certainly resonates with the lessons I’ve learned in 20 years trying to persuade customers to choose specific B2B brands, products and services. Lessons that have led me to the following conclusions about B2B marketing…

What us marketers need to remember about comparisons

Firstly, I think it’s helpful for each of us to remind ourselves that customers are comparing our respective B2B brands, products and services with those of our rivals. We are likely just one of a range of options available to our target customers – which leads to the ultimate marketing question – “Is my product the best option?

Assuming the answer to that question is ‘yes’ (because we have different problems if it is ‘no’), other, pivotal questions follow:

  • Are we absolutely 100% sure that we make it clear to prospective customers why we are the best option (and why your rivals are inferior)?
  • Does our answer to “what is better about us?” hit prospects in the chops within seconds? Do we spell it out so clearly that it makes comparison easy for the customer?
  • Have we outlined the likely gains (and also provided assurances that there will be no potential losses) in a clear, unambiguous and unmissable way?

Those points are critical, because if we make it hard for customers to compare our products and services with those of our rivals, there’s a good chance they’ll miss why we’re better and why they should choose us. Or saying that a more straightforward way, if we’re not making it easy for customers to immediately know why they should choose us, we’re making it harder for customers to buy us.

Dull marketing = dreary outlook

On a related note, it is also important to reflect on whether our respective marketing communications (eg our campaigns, our content, our sales messages and our websites) are sufficiently different to our rivals. Do we truly stand apart from our rivals? Is our brand more or less familiar to our target market? Are we doing the same things in the same way as our rivals? Do we even keep a constant eye on our rivals?

It’s obvious of course, but if our communications and brand personality are indistinctive (which is just another word for ordinary, and possibly even ‘dull’), it again makes it harder for customers to compare us with – and distinguish us from – competitors. It’s an ageless truth of B2B marketing communications that if it’s not distinctive, it’s not optimal. Being distinctive – and by that I mean actually distinctive – is one of the foundations of effective marketing communications. Without it, you’re probably rowing against the tide, in a storm, with a hole in your boat. (And, being blunt, running marketing communications activities without keeping an eye on our rivals is akin to overtaking someone on the fast lane of the motorway without using your mirrors. I assert that if researching rivals was good enough for Steve Jobs, it’s probably good enough for us).

The importance of expectation-setting

Lastly, referring once more to Barry Schwartz’ excellent book – The Paradox of Choice – customers will compare us in real life with their expectations of us. Expectations formed based on what they’ve read, what they’ve heard, what they’ve seen and other more subtle cues, such as our brand’s tone of voice. All of which promotes the importance of a range of things:

  • Is our marketing helpful, provocative and/or likeable?
  • Have we made adequate use of customer testimonials and other social proof?
  • Are there enough good stories about us out there?
  • Do we have a higher or lesser share of voice than our rivals?
  • How is our brand sentiment faring?
  • Do we even know what our share of voice, brand awareness or brand sentiment is?
  • What promises have we made about our service levels relative to those of our rivals–- and does the actual experience of using our service match those promises?
  • Have we monitored customer satisfaction with our performance and post-sales care?

Questions like these provide a strong reminder of the need for regular customer satisfaction monitoring, a good PR team, a brand strategy, and brand health KPIs to monitor how well that strategy is working.

That’s all easy to say, but not always practiced in B2B marketing.

The mystery revealed

To close, I thought I’d return to the adventures of Hercule Poirot. Again, I mentioned above that there are a whole host of reasons why people disagree on things. In the scenario of seeing a movie, those things might include: is your favourite actor in it; how comfy your seat was; how long you had to queue for popcorn; how hot the cinema was; how fidgety was the 7ft dude with huge hair sitting in front of you; how stressful your day was before you went to the film; and a whole heap of other things.

Comparison is clearly not the only factor at play in making decisions and reaching conclusions. That said, comparison turned out to be the pivotal factor influencing the mysterious difference in opinion between my pal and I when evaluating The Murder on the Orient Express.

It turned out that the biggest difference in our perspectives was whether or not we had seen the original 1974 version of the movie. I had seen the original (not in 1974, I say solely for the benefit of my millennial teammates), and had loved it. I thought its handling of the film’s core narrative – the evil kidnapping of a helpless infant – was far more atmospheric, for example. And I also didn’t know the film’s surprise ending when I first saw the original – so Hercule’s unmasking of the cunning murderer was a thing of wonder to me.

Of course, I did know the ending by the time I saw the new version, which dampened things a little. And so, because our brains work by comparing things – whether consciously or subconsciously – I compared my enjoyment of the new film with my enjoyment of the old, and found the new film coming up wanting. My pal, on the other hand, hadn’t seen the original and also didn’t know the ending – and so just loved the newer version of the movie for what it was.

Conclusion: the lesson for marketers is that comparisons always count

Comparisons counted for my pal and I when judging the movie. Just as comparisons count when B2B buyers make decisions about B2B suppliers. Buyers make judgements between rival suppliers based upon expectations, past experiences, potential gains or losses (whether financial or personal), pricing, how well value propositions are delivered, and a host of other things. B2B marketers can’t always or easily influence all of those factors, but we sure as heck can influence some of them. In fact, I see it as a basic role of all B2B marketing communicators to help customers make comparisons in a way that favours us – presenting our case in a way that makes it easy for customers to buy us.

I believe it is an ageless truth of B2B marketing that comparisons always count. And I believe that the B2B marketer that is in control of competitive comparisons is the marketer that is in control of her destiny. And there’s no Agatha Christie mystery about that.

Further reading

I hope you found that helpful. There’s a wealth of fascinating research online about this topic, and the books of Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman will provide far greater depth than I ever could. But if you’re looking for a short, practical example of comparison in practice in the world of B2B, here’s an earlier post about a B2B salesperson using comparison to great effect >

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