Understanding the consumer decision-making process | Sunday Observer

Understanding the consumer decision-making process

14 November, 2021

The common impression of people is that the most important stage in a sale is when the customer makes the payment. Yet, in reality, it is not. The customer decides to purchase a product or service by going through a series of stages from the time the need arises to buy until the purchase is done. Hence, a proper understanding of the consumer decision-making process is one of the key ingredients in selling.   

In a business-to-business (B to B) interaction, although the final decision-making is most often done by a single person, the process of the purchase goes through a series of discussions and analysis of scores of information by a team of people. In B to B selling, often the decision is collective.

On the contrary, in retail situations, customers walk into a retail store to buy a consumer product. Hence, the consumer’s buying behaviour is determined by a series of diverse factors.   

What is the consumer decision-making process? It is a combination of multiple factors. The process consists of a customer becoming aware of and identifying a specific need; collecting relevant information on the product and its availability, selecting one or more suppliers; evaluating alternatives and finally making the buying decision.  

Recognition of the actual need

The buying decision-making process goes through several stages before the actual purchase takes place. First among them is the recognition of the actual need. In the consumer goods market, the process primarily starts with basic emotional or psychological needs such as hunger, sickness, need for shelter, leisure, or other fundamental human needs. Known also as internal stimuli or internal feeling, the phenomenon triggers the need of buying a product or a service.

External stimuli or outside influences such as advertisements, promotions, or word of mouth play a key role in the customer buying process. At the most basic level, almost always, the buying decision is driven by an emotional need. The need, whether it is essential or secondary, when an individual becomes desirous towards a product, external factors can influence the action tremendously.

The customer starts searching for specific answers after the initial need is recognised.

Unlike the pre-internet era, searching for information about a product is relatively easy at present. Almost everyone who has access to a computer even with a limited computer literacy can get through to related websites to gather and compare product and organisational information.

The volume of information the customer needs to research depends on his or her existing knowledge about the product that needs to be purchased. Referred to as internal search, the information collection is based on the customer’s memory or recollection of the product, often triggered by personal experiences.   

For example, if someone wants to purchase a television receiver, the information available through the internet can be complex, misleading, and/or confusing. The type of equipment, screen size, and other specific technical information must be provided by the supplier with explanations.


This is the stage where vendor or supplier involvement is crucial. The external stimuli discussed earlier in the article come into play at this stage where the customer invariably communicates with the vendor over the telephone or by visiting the store. Customers most often prefer to have one-on-one discussions with the seller at this stage.

It is said that a customer usually communicates with at least three different suppliers before a purchase decision is made and that the supplier has a 33% chance to complete a sale. This is because, habitually, the customers make evaluations of alternatives whenever they need to buy a product or service. Customarily, they look for viable alternatives that match the internal stimuli. By this time they have already chosen brands or suppliers they prefer.

The choice of suppliers during the assessment with the data and information available to them either through the internet or through other means such as advertisements is vital for customers. They make their buying decisions based on the options best matched to their initial need. They always attempt to minimise the risk of investment they intend to make.

The customer can be influenced significantly highly at this stage by their attitudes and the degree of involvement of the supplier. The marketeers or the vendors must understand the benefits or features customers seek. The important factor the seller must realise is that the customers evaluate alternatives in terms of the financial and psychological benefits and the product must be offered accordingly.

The customer evaluation predominantly is influenced by features, functionality, price, and ease of use. Second, the final decision is usually prejudiced by the customer’s feelings and the perception of the brand, and the supplier’s credibility.  At this point, often the buying decision is biased by past personal experience, largely based on the supplier’s market visibility.

Clear shot

The vendor or supplier usually has one clear shot at this stage to make a sale. Therefore, they have to be informative, the prices must be competitive, the benefits should be clearly defined, and the pre-sale approach must be impeccable. The salient point again is to create points of difference with the competitors and convey them to the customers adequately.

Finally, the customer arrives at the decision-making time. The customer has evaluated all alternatives and identified the pros and cons of the intended purchase and may form an intention to purchase the most preferred product.

However, the seller must be amply aware that two factors can disrupt the decision even at this last stage.

First, the last-minute negative feedback of an external source can take place through friends or peers who offer more alternatives. Second, the decision may change or be postponed due to unanticipated events. However, the skill of the salesperson is the most important criterion at this point.

A professional salesman knows how to push it forward and close the deal.    

The post-purchase behaviour is the final stage of the consumer buying process when the customer assesses whether he or she is satisfied or not with the completed purchase. ‘Cognitive dissonance’ described in psychology can come into effect. Every single buyer in the world goes through this doubt.  

A cognitive dissonance is a form of displaying the buyer’s remorse and is a common phenomenon where he feels post-purchase tension. For example, if the customer prefers an outsider to obtain an opinion after purchase, or if he comes across a new advertisement of a similar product, it can drive the customer into a dilemma.

How the customer feels about a purchase is vitally important to an organisation as this notion can significantly influence repeat buying. A customer’s mental dissatisfaction can cost dearly to an organisation, product, or a brand that can shift preference not only of the customer but his acquaintances and many others whom he will share his opinion with as well.

The importance of post-purchase is of such importance, modern companies, as a strategy, communicate with the customers to influence any negative feeling after purchase and to encourage future purchases. Offering money-back guarantees is an example of diminishing post-purchase anxiety. To strategise their post-purchase approach, companies also conduct consumer surveys to obtain actual feedback.  

Businesses tend to be more logical and more informed than customers. Customers usually are impulsive and emotional in their buying decisions. Therefore, a proper understanding of customers buying decisions is an important element of sales success and revenue generation of an organisation.