How People Buy Stuff

Whenever I work with a client whose immediate perceived (I wish I had more time to go into this) need is “I need more sales,” I start by asking “how are your customers buying things now?” This gets into a conversation of current Point of Sale (i.e. websites,  store locations, in-home visits, etc.) and marketing (i.e. email blasts, newsletters, flyers, etc.) efforts. What is so interesting is very few people understand the thought process one goes through when they need to buy something. We assume, inaccurately, that once the right person whose need my product fixes hears about my product that an instant sale is going to occur. Many, many, many business owners will tell you this doesn’t happen.

But what DOES happen when that person has a need arise? Or stumbles upon your product and starts to consider purchasing your wares? For the most part the following path occurs.

1. The Mental Memory Filing Cabinet

The first thing anyone does, and we all do this, is to open our memories and see if there are any experiences we have with a particular product. When I get thirsty and want something to drink, my mental cabinet opens and out comes a memory of 7-Up (make 7-Up Yours!), or Darigold Refuel, or my friends homemade smoothies and I think, “I would really like one of those.”

The key to understanding this process is that it is fast, and almost instantaneous based on the power of experiences.

We all do it. We all have experiences that we fall back on when a situation arises. Those experiences shape our thoughts and processes on how we will resolve the situation. Let’s take cars as an example.

I bought my first car in 1999. My dad asked me what type of car I would like to purchase. My first thought? A Delorean. I just wanted to get it up to 88 miles an hour and knew I could build a flux capacitor. The realization of the possibility and plausibility of the situation hit me and I changed my mind because I knew it was too infeasible. I had loved Volkswagens since I was a young kid and I knew my first car was going to be Volkswagen.

I did research on the Jetta and found one in my price range. I went down to the dealership, took a test drive and dropped off a check to him that day. It was quick, easy and filled the idea of what I wanted because I had great experiences with them before. Now I had one and it was mine!

The Mental Memory Filing Cabinet is a powerful place to exist. It shapes how we think about solutions and what solutions we want to pursue. We will evaluate against these memories and, if the memory is a good one, we will search out the possibility of making it a reality. If it isn’t then we will reflect on other possibilities and search those thoughts out.

This is the location you want to be, because this is where the first decisions and the easiest sales are made.

2. The Power of Trust

Now let’s assume we have no foundation to make an informed decision or the experiences we have are a little out of our reach for the time being. Where is the next place we will go? We start to ask people we trust who have experiences with our situation.

This is where Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media outlets have really helped. Long past are the days of having to call up a friend and ask for advice. Now we can just put a post out into the social ether and people who care about us will respond. It makes us feel good that people care enough to reply and helps point us in the right direction.

Interestingly we do not weigh all the advice the same. We will put much more stock into advice given from a person we think has expertise in the area than just a “friend” who has had a good experience. For example, If you are asking about cabinets for your house, then a friend who does woodworking may hold more importance than a person who just really likes cabinets. We will weigh the expertise of the individual against how much we trust them and determine if their information is valuable or not.

The key to understanding this process is that word-of-mouth is important to sphere-of-influence sales.

This means that if you are not creating a powerful experience for your customers then you are missing out on HUGE potential to capture collateral sales (like collateral damage except these go into your pocketbook).

What is so interesting is this plays directly with the first tier: The Mental Memory Filing Cabinet. If you do not have a powerful presence (or if your presence is really weak) then you will be missing out on potential opportunities.

3. The Power of Trusting Trust

So let’s assume we are looking at the latest pair of Bose Headphones but none of our trusted sources know anything about it. However, one of your friends says, “I’ve never used them, but my good friend Johnny uses his all the time.” We listen to this and will inquire about their “friend” because we trust our friend.

What we hope for is that our first friend is not going to give us bad information. They don’t want to ruin our relationship because of bad information or advice. So now we hear this “3rd party” source and feel confident in what we hear. We trust the information about the other source because we trust our friend.

So trusted sources are a great way of getting your information out to people. If they share that information through the “I don’t know, but I read this article” or “I’ve never used them, but my friend had this experience” then we are on a great path to gaining opportunities for more customers.

The key to understanding this process is that the Spheres of Influence people have not only affect their friends, but their friend’s friends.

There is a ripple effect, and yes those ripples do fade over time. But to know that your experience is used not only by you, but by the people with which you connect is important to understand. It is a level of the second tier, which falls within the level of the first tier. They’re all interconnected.

4. 3rd Party Information and Resource Allocation

So we don’t have any experience with a product, none of our friends have any experience and none of their friends have experience. What happens then? Well depending on how much we value the information and the resources we want to allocate we will look at 3rd Party information. Most likely we will do this even if we have gotten information from our friends or have great mental experiences, but our need to research as heavily is halted.

The key to understanding this is knowing the importance of resources vs. information, and how much the person doing the research values each.

For example: Many people think … I’ll just jump on the internet and find out all the information I need. There are customer reviews and other FREE points of understanding which means I don’t need to spend any money.

The problem with this is that MONEY is only one resource we have; Time, Patience, Personal Energy, Relationships, and many more things are also limited resources. Spending 5 hours researching something for FREE is not really FREE if your time is valued at $100/hr. Now you are losing $500 on FREE research because of the lost opportunity cost.

So even though FREE might be a nice thing, it is an inaccurate thing. It actually might be a good thing to invest the $39.99 on a CarFax report if you are thinking about investing $5000 on a used car sale. That investment of the $39.99 may save you thousands on expenses in the future.

The thing about 3rd party information is there is always a cost associated to it, but that cost might be worth the investment if it saves you time, money or any other resources you deem valuable.

What does this mean for a company looking to gain more clients? Put yourself in places where consumers can find more 3rd party information about you. Bloggers, Review sites and complaint sites are all great places to get customers to find out more information about you. When someone has a problem with another product and then recommends your product as a solution or someone complains and you respond to the complaint in a friendly, fixable voice then you have more of an opportunity to increase sales.

5. I’m just Going to Try This Puppy Out!

So you don’t have any experience, have no friends or friends of friends who can tell you anything, and you have exhausted your resources. Well, the final thing we do is just try the puppy (no disrespect to PETA) and see what that experience tells us.

“You don’t have Coke … only Pepsi? Well, I guess I’ll try one of those.”

“I guess I’ll just take this car for a test drive in hopes that this 20 minutes will tell me what the next 3 years is going to be like.”

“I just don’t know. What do you recommend? Ok. I’ll try that.”

We have all done this type of purchasing, whether it is in a restaurant, car purchase or just everyday life. This type of purchasing happens all the time, but it usually is a last ditch effort. And more frequently we have lackluster experiences when this happens. Not because it isn’t a good time, but it wasn’t the time we had imagined.

The key to this is to make the experience amazing so the person stores it in their Mental Memory Filing Cabinet.


More often than I would like to admit, My clients who want to “Increase Sales” go down the road of tier 5 marketing instead of looking at what they have in tiers 1 – 3. I’m not going to say that this is wrong, but there is an easier chance to increase sales by looking at the first couple of tiers than by trying to infuse yourself in tier 5. However, there are a lot of people who spend A LOT of money in tier 5 … Sometimes to positive results and sometimes to not so positive results.

Remember: this process is how most of us think about purchasing things. There are specific tactics and methods to infuse your products into each of these tiers. But first, you need to gain the knowledge. And now that you know you can start to see where you should go and what you should do.

I can’t wait to see what your marketing efforts look like now!

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