How the Customer Makes a Decision

Let’s think about some of the choices you may have faced in your life. These choices can span from the very serious – should I change my college major, relocate, take a new job, or get married – to the not-so-serious – what restaurant should we go to tonight?

Obviously, all but the last of those decisions would have a great deal of impact on your life. But how often have we looked back after we made the decision and questioned why it was so difficult? There is a good possibility that the vision and decision were not clear at the time. There were unresolved issues, uncertainty, and doubt. These are some of the elements that go into making a decision and cause a decision to be delayed. For the most part, the person did not have a habit or ritual available to help make a decision. The decision process was new, with no history or decision tree to rely upon.

The same is true in selling a product or service. Your customers may have the same concerns, especially if they have not previously purchased what you are selling. You can look back and determine without hesitation that moving, taking the new job, choosing your college and major was a good or bad decision. But at the time, it was a difficult choice. Why? Because it may not have aligned with your habits, knowledge, or the technical term called schema.

The key in selling is to get the person on the other side of the desk comfortable, break his/her schema, and try something different if the customer is a frequent or moderate user of the type of product or service that you sell. If the customer is an occasional or first-time buyer, you are in a position to help craft the schema.

How the Customer Thinks
All of us have an autobiographical memory that we call upon when we make a decision. We think about the past to give us an indication of whether the decision we are about to make (in the future) will be a good choice. Will the decision, based on my current knowledge, be accurate and reflect well upon me, my work, or my project? The customer fears making a wrong decision that would cause a setback or maybe even negatively affect his or her status.

Remembering this information about your customers provides insights into their personal histories and contributes to understanding how they arrive at decisions. This is especially pertinent if the customer is a frequent user of your product or service and can recall an in-depth history of his/her experiences. The term “neuro association” has been given to this circumstance.

For example, when you were younger, you may have burned your finger or hand on the stove. Once this happens, you remember not to put your hand or finger where it can be burned again. The same could be said when your customer makes a decision. Did the customer have a good or bad experience with the purchase of a particular product or service? Or does he/she have a track record with your company. If he/she did have a bad experience, it will certainly be more difficult moving him/her forward and changing the way he/she thinks.  Uncovering customers’ predisposition or history can help you to get a sense of understanding of how they will react to things in the future, that is, how they go about making decisions. 

Many theories of decision making draw from cognitive psychology and stress the importance of psychological aspects of the decision-making process, namely, the importance of schemas. Schemas are mental frameworks that help individuals to organize knowledge and experience and to provide a platform from which to interpret and process new information. Once the customer forms specific schemas, they are difficult to change. This may contribute to why salespeople experience difficulty getting customers to consider new and different purchases. Even with repeated visits and multiple communications about a new product or service, unless the salesperson can trigger a discussion that challenges the customer’s current schema and associated scripts for action, change in the selection or purchasing decisions is either unlikely or delayed.

As customers are exposed to new information, they may incorporate this new information into their schemas. This could lead to a modified or new decision-making process. When a request is made to a customer, it is important for the salesperson to assess (to the extent possible) what the customer’s current schemas are with regard to the request at hand. In addition, the salesperson should realize that the information presented needs to be novel enough that it challenges the customer’s current related schemas and is worth evaluating. For example, if the salesperson is asking the same boring questions and giving the same boring presentation, the possibility of the customer’s schema being altered or changed is remote.

Charles Brennan Jr. is founder of the Brennan Sales Institute, a leading provider of advanced sales training programs. To learn more about BSI’s live and Web-based programs on: advanced questioning, listening and closing skills contact the Brennan Sales institute at 610-449-6110 or visit them online.

Get our newsletter and digital magazine

Sales & Marketing Management

Stay current on learning and development trends, best practices, research, new products and technologies, case studies and much more.