Pain, Brain, or Reframe: How Do Buyers Really Buy?

Sometimes when it comes to sales, we approach it as if there were some specific model or equation to follow in order to result in closed business. A + B must equal C. So, many of us tend to look for this equation over and over again. If we didn’t get it right – it must be because the equation is wrong. We’re missing something. So we take to the white board afresh as if we were Einstein moments away from solving the theory of relativity.

But, what it seems we have yet to admit to ourselves is – there isn’t a set equation. And that’s because there are always variables at play. And mostly, that always comes down to the players: who is doing the buying and who is doing the selling.

If you’re interested in selling, you might plausibly start with trying to understand how buyers buy. It’s a simple enough question. But then why are there so many answers?

Three of the most common answers to that question are:

  • People buy when they strongly feel a desire to alleviate a negative situation.
  • People buy as a response to a clear value proposition.
  • People buy most from those who offer differentiated, out-of-the box, creative solutions.

For short, let’s call those Pain, Brain, and Reframe, and examine them in turn.

The Pain Model

Many sales writers say things like these two quotes:

“The customers that are most likely to convert have a pain that they need to alleviate. Now.”


“Solid, smart sales are focused on our clients’ pain points, not on the tech demo.”

Within the Pain category, there is an internal debate about whether the prospect of a better situation can be as motivating as alleviating a painful situation. (One solution: reframe the gain as alleviating a potential pain.)

The Brain Model

Many other salespeople consider “value propositions” to be the key driver. Consider, for example, Investopedia’s definition of value proposition:

“A business or marketing statement that summarizes why a consumer should buy a product or use a service. This statement should convince a potential consumer that one particular product or service will add more value or better solve a problem than other similar offerings.”

Or consider this one from a sales training firm:

“Customer contact professionals must be engaged and expected to adapt a financially oriented value proposition to the customer or prospect.”

Many fans of value propositions suggest they are best used as conceptual maps for marketing and not as sales collateral. But this distinction is lost or ignored by a great number of salespeople.

Note that nearly the entire economics profession is built around the idea of rational economic choices. In my experience, greater exposure of salespeople to economics or MBA programs translates to greater reliance on the Brain model of selling.

The Reframe Model

One constant need among buyers is to de-commoditize their business. “What have you got that’s new?” is a powerful and relevant question for them, and sellers who have an answer will generally get a hearing.

The Challenger sales approach is a good example of this model:

They have “a deep understanding of the customer’s business and use that understanding to push the customer’s thinking and teach them something new about how their company can compete more effectively.”

This approach has some justification in business strategy, where the attempt to gain differentiation is an alternative to the low-cost producer strategy.

So, what is the truth? Are buyers motivated by the desire to remove pain? By a rational statement of value? By a compelling new way of articulating issues?

What’s best? To soothe the pain, appeal to the brain, or reframe the game?

Making the Buying Decision

If clients make buying decisions because of rational calculations, then the Brain model would appear to be the best. If buyers are looking for access to new, differentiated ideas—and the people who bring them—then the Game-reframe model looks best. And if buying is mainly motivated by emotional issues, then the Pain model is best. The question, therefore, becomes: which underlying psychological model best explains the process buyers undergo.

Of course, simple choices like A, B, or C often end up being solved only by rephrasing the question. This is no exception. For example, consider the buying decision as a multiple-step decision, or a multiple-psychology decision, rather than a single-step decision.

Different Buying Stages: In The Trusted Advisor (written by David Maister, Charles Green, and Rob Galford), we note that complex services buying decisions are typically two-step decisions. The first step is screening to identify plausible sellers. The second step is selection. Bill Leigh of the Leigh Speakers Bureau tells the story of one client’s decision process to hire a speaker for a major corporate event:

“They quickly narrowed it down to two—either Michael Porter, a major business strategist, or Lester Thurow, a prominent economist. They went back and forth until finally they agreed on a solution—ex-Chicago Bears football coach Mike Ditka.”

The first step is a relatively rational process of data-gathering. That process sounds very much like the Brain model.

But the selection step is taken much more emotionally, involving a complex set of cross-currents. That sounds more like the Pain model. (Or if you consider Ditka a redefinition of the problem, it’s more like the Frame model.)

Different Buying Psychologies: Another approach to splitting the A/B/C dichotomy comes from a large study by Bill Brooks and Tom Travesano, reported in You’re Working Too Hard to Make the Sale. Looking over thousands of sales across several B2B buyer types, their conclusion was summarized in one powerful sentence:

People buy what they need from those who understand what they want.

In other words, the identification of needs (systems, audits, legal advice) is fairly straightforward—the Brain model. But the actual choice is made on the basis of which seller most deeply taps into buyer wants—fears, hopes, aspirations, wishes, desires. It is not necessary that those wants be satisfied; it is enough that they are recognized, understood, and acknowledged. Doing that drives the decision to buy what, after all, has to be bought anyway.

Integrating Buying Psychologies: Neil Rackham, via his classic SPIN Selling, offers yet another insight, one that integrates the various models. SPIN (Situation, Problem, Implications, Needs-Payoff) operates at one level on a buyer’s emotional needs by forcing sellers to listen to the customer before they start offering solutions. At another level, it is a very rational model, methodically identifying both pain points and alternative, potentially breakthrough conclusions.

What’s the Answer?

Perhaps the last word may come from science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who is credited with saying, “Man is not a rational animal: man is an animal who rationalizes.” Putting it into sales terms, “People buy with their heart and rationalize it with their brains.”

That is not to minimize or discount the role of rational decision making. We all acknowledge rational analyses as important checks against the mistakes we might make if we rely solely on the emotions. At the same time, it recognizes the powerful role that emotions play in human decision making, of which the buying decision is just one.

The most useful answer is, “Develop a rich, insightful, trusting relationship with your client, and be prepared to offer them all the legitimate backup they’ll need to defend their decision to buy from you.”

7 replies
  1. Niall mcguire
    Niall mcguire says:

    This is the first article I have read the really encapsulates the art and vocation of being a professional sales person focused on solutions sales.
    It requires an emotional maturity from from the sales professional that is rare in our profession

  2. Green Charles H.
    Green Charles H. says:

    Thanks to both Niall and Harrison—I know that both of you “get” the rich subtleties in complex B2B sales these days.

  3. Gordon Hogg
    Gordon Hogg says:

    This article is great at explaining the possible models that buyers use to select a vendor and solution.

    But what about how they make a decision to buy something in the first place? We know buyers can’t/won’t EVER make a decision without deeply understanding the status quo, trying to fix the problem with familiar resources or getting buy-in from everything and everyone that created the problem or will touch the solution. A buying decision team had to make a decision to hire a speaker before they chose Mike Ditka!

    The sales model ignores the buyer’s real decision-making process and focuses entirely on the approval process (the beauty contest). We continue to obsess over finding a buyer that’s ready to buy (sales ready) and ignore the “would be buyer’s” that are still trying to figure out how they can make a decision to bring something external into their company without creating significant disruption and chaos to the way the business operates.

    You may have the perfect solution, but if the buyer doesn’t know how to align all of the pieces of their internal operation so everyone will be happy to change, they will do nothing.

    It’s not just a decision about the problem your product solves or the pain, brain or re-frame model of vendor selection, it’s about understanding and managing all of the people, rules, policies and procedures that contains and maintains the problem.

  4. Charles H Green
    Charles H Green says:


    First, thank you for reading, and even moreso for clearly articulating an important issue.

    That said, I’m not all sure I agree with you that the decision to buy in the first place is so neatly separable from the buying decision itself. Though I think we’re actually in violent agreement about the holistic nature of the buying process, and how too many salespeople focus only on the last decision in the process.

    In my experience selling consulting services (and consulting to those who sell B2B and professional services):

    – Somewhere around half of buyers who engage with sellers end up not doing anything at all;
    – The people who bought Mike Ditka may have decided to hire a speaker, but they clearly had no understanding at the outset of their internal processes, needs, etc. – those issues all came to the fore DURING the process of engaging with the seller.

    My experience is that the decision to buy is largely inseparable from the buying decision (which I think is sort of what you’re saying too). Sellers who purely focus on the ‘beauty contest’ or shoot out severely misunderstand the whole process. If you don’t engage the buyer on both issues – you probably end up not getting the sale.

    The strongest motivation to buy happens when the client says, “Ah ha, yes! THAT’s the problem, you put your finger on it!” Being present at the moment of problem definition is probably the strongest determinant of also being the winner in the buying decision. Why else would you go with anyone else but the party who helped you define the problem?

    I completely agree with you that the issue of vendor selection is merely a part of the larger buying process, and that sellers often interpret ‘pain, brain or reframe’ too narrowly. If they’re smart, they use those models to also understand what is going on in the buyer’s environment, and engage in helping the client figure out the larger question.

    One of the biggest mistakes new sellers to the C-Suite make is to assume that the C-buyer is looking to make buying decision. In fact, it is at that level where most of the decisions are of the buy/not-buy types. The seller who goes in understanding that, being detached from the outcome, and helping the buyer make that logically prior but temporally overlapping decision is the seller who wins.

    Maybe we’re in violent agreement on that?

    • Gordon Hogg
      Gordon Hogg says:

      I know we’re in violent agreement. The problem is 99% of the sales people and 100% of the sales and marketing model don’t agree.

      Sales people and the model that they work under doesn’t compensate helping would be buyers through their path to change. They want AND look for the buyer that says “Ah ha, yes! THAT’s the problem, you put your finger on it!” This is the low-hanging fruit.

      This focus on the “last mile” of the purchase process is exacerbated by the self-educating buyer whose forming strong opinions and making dozens of decisions before he contacts sales. The problem is not that sales is getting invited late in the process it’s that the deal is now competitive and the buyer is playing his cards close to his chest. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for the seller. It’s hard to influence a decision if you don’t understand what decision is being made!

      We are holding on to a process that is perfectly suited to a world that no longer exists. There;s a new buyer in town and like you said, “If you don’t engage the buyer on both issues – you probably end up not getting the sale”.

      • Charles H Green
        Charles H Green says:

        Well said, Gordon, I quite agree.

        My way of putting a somewhat similar point is that we focus too much on the transaction, not enough on the relationship. In practical terms, this means we should view account management strategically – i.e. focus on whether the account is worth a continued investment, rather than grading each possible deal as if it were standalone.

        That way you don’t focus on “leads” one by one, but rather on the viability of an account. That sort of discussion should be held semi-annually or annually, not monthly.


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