Learn how TOPO helps sales and marketing grow faster at www.topohq.com

Sales and the Buyer: Why Sales Misunderstands the Buyer

About 40% of sales people miss their number. Most sales executives and thought leaders cite classic issues like low quality leads, poor sales execution, and bad forecasting when trying to explain why such a large percentage of sales people underachieve. But often there’s a bigger issue at work that’s the root cause of the aforementioned challenges. That issue is sales people’s inability to understand what the buyer is really doing as they work their way to a purchase. There are a number of psychological and behavioral issues that cause sales people to misunderstand the buyer, but there are also a number of techniques you can employ to overcome these biases.

Why Sales Misunderstands the Buyer

There are a handful of psychological and behavioral reasons that explain why sales people have such a tough time accurately assessing the buyer. Not every sales person suffers from these tendencies, but many do. It’s just human nature.

1. Sales people are lazy/too busy

Let’s dispense with the most egregious reason salespeople are wrong about the buyer – they’re either too busy or too lazy. They make assumptions and don’t ask the questions that would allow them to uncover what’s really happening with the buyer. It simply takes time to do the investigative work required to truly understand the buyer.

2. Sales people have a worldview

Everyone has their own view of the world, including salespeople. This worldview heavily skews how salespeople think about the buyer. For example, some sales people are inherently optimistic and their analysis of what the buyer is doing reflects that. The opposite holds true as well. There are many sales people who are innately pessimistic and consistently under-forecast their pipeline.

3. Sales people believe what they want to be true

One common psychological trait that afflicts most people is that they believe what they want to be true. This trait governs much of what sales people think the buyer is doing. For example, many sales people want to believe that a sales cycle will only take 30 days when the actual buying cycle may take 3 months.

4. Most buyers tell sales people what they want to hear

The vast majority of buyers don’t provide sales people with accurate information. They usually err on the side of being overly optimistic preferring to delay the delivery of bad news as long as they can.

What Sales Misses When Forecasting Deals

The real problem with misunderstanding the buyer is that bad data creeps into sales forecasts. To see this dynamic at work, let’s look at how bad buyer information can impact a sales organization using the BANT methodology to qualify and forecast opportunities. By way of backround, BANT stands for:

  • Budget – does the buyer have budget to make the purchase?
  • Authority – does the buyer have decision-making authority?
  • Need – does the buyer have a true need that will cause them make the purchase?
  • Timeframe – what is the timeframe for making the purchasing decision?

For each of these qualifying criteria, it’s useful to look at some of the common information gaps that exist between buyer and seller.


What the buyer says:  I have budget.
What’s really happening:  The buyer knows how to get budget from their manager, but still has work to do to truly secure the money. This will require developing a detailed justification of the purchase and getting the manager to agree to allocate budget.

Bad buyer information leads to bad forecasts

Bad buyer information leads to bad forecasts


What the buyer says:  I am the decision-maker.
What’s really happening:  The buyer has a strong role in the decision to buy the product or service, but isn’t the sole authority. In fact, the buyer’s role is better described as a powerful influencer.


What the buyer says:  We definitely have a need.
What’s really happening:  The buyer does have a need, but that need must be weighed against a competing set of priorities that may take precedence over your particular product or service. This is a very common organizational dynamic that’s usually exposed late in the sales cycle.


What the buyer says:  We can get it done by then.
What’s really happening:  Buyers consistently underestimate the amount of time required to make a purchase. This is again driven by the general need to involve other people in the decision. Having the conversations required to get buy-in simply takes time.

What Sales Can Do to Understand the Buyer

Even though there are some deep-seated psychological and behavioral issues that prevent us from truly understanding the buyer, there are some techniques we can use to improve what we know.

1. Ask yourself really tough questions about the buyer

The easiest technique is to ask yourself really probing questions about the buyer. For example, you may have just received a verbal commitment from a prospect with a manager title. Verbal commitments are great, but based on prior experience at other accounts, you know that it’s usually a VP who needs to sign off on budget. In this context, it’s important to ask yourself whether the manager’s verbal really is in fact a commitment.

2. Ask the buyer really probing questions

The most powerful technique is to ask the buyer challenging questions. A lot of sales people worry they’ll alienate the buyer by doing this, but you need to remember two important things about tough buyer questions. First, if the buyer isn’t willing to answer tough questions about things like budget and timeframe, they might not be a real buyer. Second, it’s entirely possible to ask these question in a friendly, conversational manner (even though you might not like what you hear).

3. Meet other people and get their perspective

It’s also important to get the perspectives of other people who will influence or be directly involved in the buying process. In a B2B context, this means meeting other influencers and decision-makers involved in the purchasing process. In a consumer context, this means meeting significant others and spouses to get their perspective.

4. Discount what you hear and what you believe

Remember that, because they’re human, sales people believe what they want to be true. Sales people simply want to believe that the buyer is going to buy. It’s what gets them out of bed in the morning and keeps them going. Even so, it’s important to discount what you hear from the buyer. It’s also important to get your manager and other experienced reps to discount for you. In fact, most sales executives discount individual sales reps’ forecasts for this exact reason.

5. Build deep, meaningful relationships with your buyers

The people you have good relationships with will tend to be more transparent. Buyers who have an emotional connection with you will tell when they’ve run into an unexpected issue or that a deal is going sideways. In other words, they’ll tell you the good and bad news because you have a good relationship.

Those are just a few of the ways sales can make sure they’re accurately assessing what the buyer is doing. High quality buyer information can help you close more business, shorten sales cycles, and accurately forecast your pipeline. There’s also more information on understanding the buyer available in our post on Buyer Research. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

About the author:  Scott Albro is the CEO and founder of TOPO. TOPO is a research, advisory, and consulting firm that believes in a really simple, but powerful idea – that all revenue can be distilled down to a series of conversions. By connecting everything we do back to this core idea, we help sales and marketing organizations exceed their revenue targets. You can connect with Scott on Twitter.

Your Free Membership

Join the 100s of high growth sales and marketing teams that depend on TOPO. Your free membership includes:

  • 1Free Research and Data
  • 2Access to TOPO Councils
  • 3The TOPO Weekly Brief