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B2B sales: Understanding your customer—buyer behaviour and buyer response modes

In B2B sales, the term “response modes” describes how potential customers react to your proposition and helps explain buyer behaviour. Customer reactions are determined by three factors:

  1. The buyer’s perception of the business situation
  2. The buyer’s perception of how your proposition will change that situation
  3. The buyer’s perception of whether that change will close the gap between the current reality and the results he or she needs to achieve

When you propose that a customer buy your product, you are making the basic sales argument that, by buying and using your product, the customer’s business will change (albeit positively). While in theory, your argument may be sound, in reality, the buyer might perceive the situation differently. It is critical for your sales approach that you understand how and why the customer perceives your offering differently from how you meant to position it in their mind.
Whatever you propose involves change on the customer’s part, especially for the User Buyer. The change might affect the customer’s (or User Buyer’s) operations, products or business model. For many people, the natural reaction to change is resistance. However, a buyer’s response mode depends on their personal perception of their situation.

Buyer response modes

There are four potential buyer response modes to change:

  1. Growth
  2. Trouble
  3. Even Keel
  4. Overconfident

Buyer behaviour in growth mode

Buyers in Growth mode perceive that by buying your product or service, they are meant to generate growth for their company.
However, while these buyers recognize the need to grow, they also understand that something needs to change in order to make growth happen. This understanding is positive for potential vendors as buyers will have a positive response to offerings that they believe will help to close the gap between current reality and the growth target.
The only moderating factor is that since things are going generally well, there is no desire (or perceived need) for very radical proposals. These buyers will look for incremental improvements on what they are already doing.

Trouble mode

In Trouble mode, buyers perceive that the business is failing (that is, it is losing customers, losing money, decreasing productivity) and understand that something must change.
These buyers will be very open to offerings that seem to address fundamental problems. Buyers in Trouble mode have more appetite for radical solutions than do buyers in Growth mode, but they also tend to be short on the necessary resources—such as time, people, money, and skills—to acquire and implement the solutions required to deal with their problems.

Even Keel mode

Buyers in Even Keel mode do not perceive a large enough gap between their position and their goal to warrant change. They believe that progress is steady and there is no urgency to change anything. As a result, these buyers are not open to vendor offerings. They do not see the value such offerings would represent or why they should go through the trouble that change represents.
However, peers or more senior executives that are either in Growth mode or Trouble mode can influence buyers in Even Keel mode. It is rare for vendors to directly influence Even Keel buyers.

Overconfident mode

Buyers in Overconfident mode have a somewhat delusional outlook and perceive that they are succeeding. In fact, they believe that they are doing so well that the suggestion that your offering might improve their situation is practically an insult (even if reality suggests the contrary). The fact that buyers in Overconfident mode have such a weak grasp of reality suggests that there is trouble on the horizon as they will not be responding to changes in their situation in an appropriate manner.
As a seller, there is little you can do to change the perception of buyers in Overconfident mode. You must wait, but stay informed and in touch; when they run into trouble, they might shift their buyer mode accordingly.


Heiman, S.& Sanchez, D. (1998). The New Strategic Selling. New York: Warner Books, Inc.