Editor's note: Peter T. Bürgi is vice president, qualitative, at Chicago-based Beall Research Inc. 

We often hear from clients that B2B customers live in a “rational” world and make decisions in a less emotional way than retail consumers. But is that really true? What if emotions are actually at the heart of B2B decision-making too? In this article, we argue that B2B decision makers are highly emotional and that identifying their emotional drivers will lead to insights that businesses can use to drive growth strategies. 

Common wisdom is that decision-making is a rational process, a weighing of facts or inputs, and that emotions somehow hamper or obstruct this rational process. The truth is just the reverse: decision-making is an intrinsically emotional process. The human emotional system evolved as a mechanism for quickly assessing a situation or environment (for instance, fear leads to avoidance of or retreat from a situation), so emotions are deeply linked to behavior. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown that the people who have experienced damage to the parts of their brains most deeply associated with emotions, but whose reasoning skills and other brain functions were otherwise unimpaired, either cannot make decisions or make very poor ones. These findings led Damasio to conclude that emotions are not what cloud decision-making but rather what enable decision-making.

Our approach to B2B market research has sought to uncover the underlying emotions that drive decision makers’ major purchasing decisions and we have found that identifying rational responses alone would have been a mistake.

For example, a major manufacturer of industrial electrical testing and measurement equipment wanted to learn about purchasing behavior of its equipment in the oil and gas industry, so we conducted a series of interviews. The manufacturer wanted to know who made the purchasing decisions and which f...