“People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

What factors influence B2B buying decisions? Are B2B buyers merely driven by rational factors, such as product features and price? Or do emotions matter as well? These questions stand at the very core of B2B marketing and market research. While it’s long been accepted that consumers succumb to cognitive biases and irrational behaviors when making buying decisions, to date the perception prevails that decisions of B2B buyers are purely driven by rational thought. But is that so?

To shed light on the matter, B2B International conducted a study among 2,000 decision makers in the U.S., Europe and Asia.1 Within the study, we analyzed factors that influence the buying decision along the different stages of the B2B path-to-purchase and ultimately, the factors that matter most in the race for gold. What we found was remarkable: 56% of the final purchase decision is based on emotional factors. Rational factors need to be satisfied for a supplier to enter the consideration set but what really counts in the end is the emotional connection to the supplier and its brand.

Number of people in the decision-making unit (chart)

What makes B2B markets special?

Before delving deeper into the specific factors that determine B2B buying decisions, let’s look at some of the key characteristics that differentiate B2B from B2C markets:

  • Higher risks. B2B purchases tend to entail higher personal risks for the purchaser. They are often associated with significant business investments and therefore bear a strategic and financial risk for the whole organization. If buyers make a bad purchase decision, they run the danger of not only sacrificing their time and credibility but potentially also their job. Due to this risk, trust in the supplier plays a crucial role.
  • Larger decision-making units. Decision-making units (DMUs) in B2B markets tend to be larger than in consumer markets. According to our research, the average B2B purchasing decision is made by a group of three to four people. The bigger the company, the wider the sphere of influence. More than half of all B2B enterprise businesses (with more than 250 employees) in our research had a DMU of four or more people. Therefore, it’s key to emotionally connect with the whole influencer network.
  • Longer buying cycles. Considering the risk involved with many B2B purchasing decisions and the size of the DMU, it’s no surprise that B2B purchase decisions tend to take longer than most consumer decisions, particularly those in FMCG markets. Our research found that the average B2B buying decision takes just over 12 days. While dealing with suppliers, B2B buyers often heavily engage with their brands and sales teams. So, a connection develops that, like any relationship, involves an emotional component.

Those characteristics are some of the fundamental reasons why decision makers are in fact heavily influenced by emotions when making buying decisions. But which emotions play a role?

Emotions as differentiators

Our research revealed that four distinct emotional factors play a role in the final purchase decision. While the early stages of the customer journey are mainly determined by rational factors (more on those shortly), the final decision is an emotional one. Using regression analysis, we examined the relative importance of certain rational and emotional criteria. Evoking these four emotions alone increases the chances of winning business by 50%:

  • Trust (in the supplier’s credibility): Trust in the credibility and authenticity of the supplier is paramount. Those who succeed in building trust during the first customer contact and bid often have a clear lead in the final purchase decision.
  • Confidence (in the supplier’s ability to deliver): The second important emotion is confidence in the supplier’s ability to deliver the service or product offered. As mentioned, there are risks associated with many B2B purchases. Therefore, it is up to the provider to convey that the agreed terms will be met in full.
  • Optimism (about what they could do for the buyer): In addition, the provider should make the customer optimistic about their partnership and make them feel that they will thrive working with the supplier.
  • Pride (in the prospect of partnering with the supplier): Finally, a B2B customer should feel proud of partnering with a supplier. Larger brands might find it slightly easier to create this sense of pride due to their high awareness levels; however, even smaller companies can succeed in evoking pride by positioning themselves as a true expert in their category.

How to elicit the four key emotions

The research revealed a number of different factors that play a role in forming these key emotions.

Meeting the rational hygiene factors. Following the regression analysis which identified the key emotions, we carried out driver analysis to find out more about their origin. The analysis revealed that the four emotional factors are in fact almost entirely based on rational factors (see below). However, while they play a crucial role in the earlier stages of the path-to-purchase (particularly during the research stage), when it comes to the final decision they are merely hygiene factors.

Trust is driven by consistent reliability, demonstrated expertise, a seamless customer experience and the ability of the supplier to support the buyer in all locations. Confidence in the supplier’s ability to deliver is mainly determined by scale, reliability and a solid brand reputation. Optimism is again the result of a supplier’s expertise in their market, including their ability to understand and solve any issues the buyer might face, and reliability. Finally, the golden rule to elicit pride is to make the customer look good in front of their peers and to be reliable and proactive.

Providing an excellent customer experience. According to our research, the incumbent experience with a supplier is the single most important factor influencing the B2B purchase decision. Delivering a customer experience that not only satisfies but also delights customers is therefore the safest way of ensuring repeat business. Organizations operating in B2B and B2C markets also need to ensure that their brand experience is consistent across both, as consumer experiences heavily influence B2B supplier choices.

Building an emotional brand connection. Creating a strong emotional brand connection is key for any B2B brand. In our survey, 95% of B2B decision makers stated that, even before contacting a supplier, feeling a sense of connection to a supplier’s brand is as important as feeling confident about what they do.

Focusing on emotionally resonating content. One of the most effective ways of forming an emotional brand connection with the target audience is to publish engaging content. In our study 40% of the respondents said that they had shortlisted a provider because of their excellent content. Effective content should:

  • Focus on stories that keep decision makers up at night and cover stories they can relate to.
  • Position the supplier as a thought leader in their industry.

For content to resonate emotionally, it shouldn’t just list product features and benefits. The best content strategies are those that cover a wide range of subjects that customers care about. Content research can help identify what those subjects are.

Head or heart?

How are B2B purchasing decisions made – with the head or with the heart? Clearly with both. In order to enter the consideration set, suppliers need to satisfy the rational requirements: offer a good product at a reasonable price and be reliable. However, in the end, successful suppliers are the ones that go one step beyond and convince decision makers on an emotional level by evoking trust, confidence, optimism and pride.


1 B2B International, in association with B2B creative agency gyro, surveyed 2,000 decision makers across a variety of functions ranging from IT, marketing and HR to procurement and business management. The sample included small, mid-sized and large B2B and B2C businesses. Respondents were based in the U.S., China, Spain, the U.K., France and Germany. The research was carried out in 2019.

Judith Wieghardt is marketing manager, B2B International