People and sales are complexHow do you define a complex sale? Is it a B2B purchase? Is it planning a family vacation for 2 adults and 3 kids ranging in age from 4-12. Can it be purchasing new pillows for your bed? How about when deciding on an enterprise testing and targeting solution? As marketers we use the term frequently but as I often find people sort of know what it is when they see it, but don’t really define it well.

You’ll often hear it described as selling into an enterprise where multiple decision makers are involved or something similar. Or maybe it is complex when it has a really high price tag. Maybe you can define it by what it is not – it isn’t an impulse purchase. However, we define it, and we will in a moment, it is integral to understanding what it will take to plan the content strategy and persuasive content necessary on your website to move people along your sales funnel as they proceed through their complex buying process.

Whatever you market or sell, certain factors pertain to the buying decisions your audience has to make. These factors are critical to shaping your persuasive process, and are the most important reasons why you have to map your audience’s buying processes to your selling process. I’ll address this in a future column.

These are the factors that will determine the intricacy of your digital ecosystem’s persuasive process and that define a complex sale:

  • Knowledge-  How difficult is it for folks to understand the nature of your product or service, or the procedures for buying?

What do they need to know? Your persuasive process must eliminate the friction generated by confusion or lack of knowledge. Knowledge dimensions for the buying decision can differ based on who is doing the buying: is the customer buying for herself (she will be the end user) or is she buying on behalf of another (as in the case of a purchasing agent)? The knowledge assumptions and language – especially jargon – that work for one may be totally inappropriate for the other.

  • Need- How urgent is the need for your product or service?

How fast are folks likely to make their decisions to buy? Will the need be satisfied by a one-time purchase (either impulsive or momentous) or is the need on-going? Folks might be willing to compromise their thoroughness for a casual one-time deal. But if that one-time deal is something like a house, or if they are choosing a long-term relationship to satisfy an on-going need, things get significantly more complicated.

  • Risk. How risky, especially with respect to issues of finance or self esteem, is the sale?

While price may not be an ultimate decision factor in a purchase (for many, safety and trust trump price), increasing financial risk necessitates a more intricate persuasive structure. Risk may also be associated with compromises to health, as when individuals or medical professionals have to make treatment choices. Or even, for that matter, when someone simply evaluates the safety of an herbal remedy.

  • Consensus. Just how many people do you have to persuade?

An individual? An individual and her significant other? Several end-users and heads-of-department? Your ability to understand who is involved in the decision-making process allows you to provide copy and content that appropriately informs, reassures and persuades.

These factors apply differently depending on the nature of your business. For example, computers aren’t a terribly high-risk product anymore, but lots of people still find them unfathomable beasts, and they’ll take their time acquiring information before deciding to buy one. Unless the one and only computer upon which their sole-proprietor business depends just got zapped by lightning and must be replaced by tomorrow noon.

By the same token, you might take awhile to consider the purchase of a water-heater if you are building a new house, but if your existing water heater goes up the spout, you need to replace it pronto. Almost no one would say a pencil is a considered purchase – knowledge of pencils isn’t much of a problem and there’s generally no risk associated – but if the purchase of a case of pencils or a single pencil from a new vendor requires several departments to sign off, consensus is an issue.

These factors can also be interdependent. Take knowledge. The more you know about something, the more you may perceive the risks involved. Conversely, more knowledge may afford you the perception of less risk. The individual facing heart surgery will consider the relationship between knowledge and risk differently than will the heart surgeon. As will the individual investor staking his life earnings on options, compared to the options trader for whom these transactions are daily occurrences.

You’ll notice these dimensions focus the topology of your sale on your customers’ perceptions and experiences, not the role your business occupies in relation to your customers. And that’s exactly how we feel any discussion of sales topology in the context of designing persuasive systems should be framed. Next time, I will share how we can map out these four factors on a scale to help you get a better sense of what your personas’ buying needs will look like.