Are You Selling to Vulcans?

Nowhere am I so desperately needed as among a shipload of illogical humans.

Mr. Spock in ‘I, Mudd’

The iconic Mr. Spock from Star Trek was half-Vulcan, half-human. It’s the former we first notice in Spock – Vulcans are governed entirely by logic and rationality, unencumbered by emotions.

But it’s his human heritage that takes Spock from caricature to character. Spock mirrors our own schizophrenic, rational / emotional natures. He is the sock puppet for humanity, allowing us to look at ourselves afresh.

That much is evident to the casual sci-fi viewer, or any fan of The Big Bang Theory. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at economists, strategy consultants – or much of the B2B sales literature. They suggest that people – particularly smart business people – are mostly rational decision makers, persuaded by well-established rules of scientific evidence, logic, and the inexorable rules of mathematics.

In other words – they treat buyers like Vulcans. Only trouble is, at most, they’re like Spock – half-human. And truth be told, most B2B buyers are even less Vulcan and more human than Spock.

My Brain’s Bigger than Yours

I’ve now spent four decades working with B2B sales organizations.  Lately, I’m reminded even more of how much businesspeople have bought – hook, line and sinker – the idea that customers buy through rational decision-making. The economists’ models are live and well in sales training programs.

Feeding the ratiocinating Vulcan side of buyers is necessary. But it is almost never sufficient. The true role of the intellect in B2B buying is as follows: Buyers scan options rationally, but they make their final selection with their emotions – then rationalize that decision with their brains. In other words, buying is a sandwich – rationality is the bread, but the meaty filling is a rich, emotive set of feelings, finely honed over eons of civilization.

The cognitive role in buying is vastly over-stated. Brains don’t rule. Spock is not 100% Vulcan. Neither is your customer. Not even by half.

Your Customer is Not a Vulcan

Question: What do the following things have in common? Value propositions; challenger selling; strategic fit; problem definition; pricing; negotiation; objection-handling.

Answer: In B2B sales, they usually center around analytical economic value, assuming that the rational resolution of each issue is the key to helping a buyer achieve a decision. Look for these buzz-phrases; clients buy results, show the bottom line, demonstrate value, value proposition, business case, and so forth.

Nothing wrong with that list – it’s all necessary. But it’s not sufficient. What’s missing are the things that actually trigger a buyer’s decision – not just justify it. Those include, for starters:

  • confidence that the seller can deliver what (s)he promises, and
  • the resulting ability to sleep through the night
  • integrity
  • belief that the seller will adjust their commitment to accommodate changing circumstances
  • character
  • commitment to principle
  • a long-term relationship focus
  • a sense that the seller has the buyer’s interest at heart
  • the seller’s ability and willingness to defer gratification
  • vulnerability of the seller
  • a set of values beyond the purely economic
  • a sense that the seller is a safe haven for conversation.

In short – trust in the seller.

Your customer is not a Vulcan. Your customer is barely even Spock.

The Cognitive/Emotive Disconnect

I spend my time with smart, complex-business, B2B professionals. Every single one of them will acknowledge the importance of the above list. Yet every one of them lives in an organization where 90% of attention is focused on the buyer’s Vulcan side, doing slide decks, spreadsheets, valuations and scenario0

Buyers often (rationally) screen sellers. But they quickly form favorites, unconsciously, and usually before the sellers have even had a chance to address the issue. All the Vulcan-targeted approaches are aimed either at forming a buyer’s opinion (too late, already done), or changing a buyer’s preformed opinion (already set in concrete).  It rarely works.

Proof? Ask yourself how many times your customers failed to see the brilliant case you had made, because they were somehow biased against you. You tried to sell to the Vulcan in your Spock-customer; but that human side kept rearing its ugly head.

How Complex B2B Buying Really Works

Very few buyers will tell their boss, “Gee, I guess I bought from those guys because, you know, I really trust them.” That’s career suicide. Buyers need the air-cover (and, to be fair, the reality check) of a rationality-based argument. It’s our job as sellers to deliver that rationale to them, bullet-proof and logic-tight as it can be.

Because in business, we all need to pretend we’re Vulcans.

But deep down, we all know what’s really going on. People buy with the heart, and rationalize with the mind. Brains are a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Being right, by itself, is a vastly over-rated proposition. Being right too soon just pisses people off. All else equal, a trust-based sell will always beat a rationality-based sell.

The truth is, our emotional instincts are extremely powerful (not to mention frequently accurate). We make our decisions first based on those emotions, and then struggle to justify them according to the rules of the game.  Unlike Spock, we lead with the human, and bring in our Vulcan sides as a check.

Many, many of my clients say: “That may be true for lots of people, but not for my [boss] [client] [customer]. They’re completely Vulcan, data-based, just-give-me-the-facts people. You’ve got to treat them like Vulcans, because they demand it.”  But the fact that they demand to be treated like Vulcans is 95% about ego – and that’s their human side.

Ironically, all this is especially true for those who believe the world works on brains. They are prone to buy even more emotionally, because their self-worth is tied up in thinking that emotions don’t matter – which renders them oblivious to their own human decision-making process.

Even if your customer thinks they’re a Vulcan – treat them at least like Spock. Address the human side – then give them Vulcan-food to justify their feelings.

It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.

– Mr. Spock in ‘Errand of Mercy’