Businesses Buy Differently

My post on Why Nobody Can Copy Apple has become one of the most read posts I’ve ever written (thanks @gruber). Commenters are asking me “Can you describe more what the behaviors are that are different when building for business vs. consumers?” There are many, but central is the sales motion: the approach and process an organization uses to sell product. The sales motion for businesses is diametrically different than the sales motion for consumers.

One of my favorite truisms is

“People don’t buy things, people are sold things.”

Businesses buy products differently than consumers. But, just like consumers, they only really buy things that are sold to them:

“Businesses don’t buy things, businesses are sold things.”

How do businesses buy things differently? I love this answer by Steve Jobs from an interview he did in 2010 (emphasis mine):

“What I love about the consumer market, that I always hated about the enterprise market, is that we come up with a product, we try to tell everybody about it, and every person votes for themselves. They go ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and if enough of them say ‘yes,’ we get to come to work tomorrow. That’s how it works. It’s really simple. With the enterprise market, it’s not so simple. The people that use the products don’t decide for themselves, and the people that make those decisions sometimes are confused. We love just trying to make the best products in the world for people and having them tell us by how they vote with their wallets whether we’re on track or not.” – Steve Jobs, June 1, 2010

A commenter on my Why Nobody Can Copy Apple post did a great job of explaining this in more detail:

“The problem is that the business…are attempting to maximize their profit, so they want to buy bulk, cheap product that fulfills all of the criteria they come up with. And these criteria they come up with are universally profit-driven or simply stupid. They want X features, Y functionality, because they need to do aX and aY with the product. They don’t care about bX and bY, which in this case are the entire experience of the product, because it’s not something that is quantitated in the corporate machine.”

Organizations that build product for businesses must SELL in a way that is compatible with the way the business BUYS. The organization, say Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business (IEB), or Microsoft’s Business Division (MBD), needs a sales motion that fits the customer.

IEB, which makes Xbox, has a sales motion centered around allowing the end-user to viscerally engage with the product at retail (fed by ‘air cover’ marketing and advertising) . In MBD’s case, selling Microsoft SharePoint, the sales motion is about having an army of Microsoft sales people (literally tens of thousands of MS employees are salespeople) call on CIOs and other “business decision makers” to convince them the capabilities of the product address some pain point.

These sales motions and the sales force behind them are radically different.

Another of my favorite truisms is

“Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything. But getting people to pay for something is MORE everything.”

To be successful (profitable), an organization that builds something must be driven by how the product is sold. The product managers, designers, engineers, testers, and middle-managers all end up being highly influenced by the sales motion.

Therefore, in an organization focused on the consumer, every single person is attuned to the motion of sales. If a consumer focused effort where the primary motion is online or retail are ALSO asked to focus on business customers at the same time, they lose focus because they now have to deal with the enterprise sales motion. A loss of focus creates mediocre products. Likewise, a business product organization that also has to sell to consumers will suffer a lack of focus.

Microsoft has done an admirable job in setting up IEB to be mostly consumer focused. This is why the Xbox and related products are pretty damn good. But IEB’s products are not as consistently excellent because they depend on other parts of Microsoft that are not as consumer focused.

Windows? Not so much. And the reason, at the end of the day is the bifurcation of focus between business customers and consumer customers.

Comments encouraged. Keep ‘em clean.


  1. Excellent follow up post Charlie. Horace also summarizes this nicely using the term from the Innovator’s Dilemma, “the job(s) to be served” or what are people buying the product for. This is also known as “values” meaning what is Most Important to the needs of the customer (business, consumer, corporate). A great model and study on Values is by human behavior specialist Dr. John Demartini. Look up the Demartini Value Determination Process at It’s a solid 13 questions to determine a person or organization’s values and the hierarchy of importance and how they make decisions.

  2. Kadir says:

    Google frequently releases excellent products that are unmatched by anything any other company has to offer and people love them for it. Maps, Gmail, Search, Docs, Youtube, Chrome, etc. Apple absolutely sucks with any of their online services, they are – without an exception – a horrible mess.

    Could it be that the reason for a good or bad user experience is not as black and white as the blog post suggests?

    1. Br. Bill says:

      Google didn’t build Youtube and they’ve barely changed it since they bought it. Google Maps wasn’t good at first. Time and attention made it better. The search is great but completely polluted and constantly being gamed by cheaters. Docs struggled to pull itself together and time and attention again made it good. Not everybody loves Chrome — it’s a fine product but I know plenty of people who don’t like it. And there is one online service at Apple that, although flawed, plenty of people like just the way it is: iTunes store.

      1. jlo says:

        google also bought the tech behind Google Maps

    2. James says:

      Well I think a horrible mess overstates it, but that their online services have never been good enough is undeniable, and it is I believe Apple’s Achilles heel. As someone else put it, the danger for Apple is that Google are improving the Android user experience faster than Apple are improving their online services.

      But this does not contradict the central argument of this piece, which is “follow the money”. Google’s motivation in ensuring their online services are best of breed is that while you are using them they are gathering more and more information about you, so that their advertising may be better and better targeted. Apple’s profit engine is hardware sales, and online services are a slight remove from that profit centre, which may explain why (apart from the iTunes & App stores) they have not got the polish & dependability they badly need now. iCloud may be a big improvement on it’s predecessors, but it should be as reliable, polished and transparent as DropBox.

  3. Kadir, I disagree with your assertion of Google excellence. When Maps debuted, it was terrible. Search also needed time to gestate. YouTube was not developed by Google, but was purchased by Google in late 2006. Chrome web browser is based on the Webkit engine, which is Apple’s fork of the KHTML rendering engine. Apple’s Webkit based Safari browser was released in 2003. Chrome was released in 2008 after Webkit was well established as a fast and standards-compliant rendering engine in both the desktop and mobile space.

    That being said, Google has been able to iterate many products to an excellent degree – but in the interest of it’s advertising business; for example, search and Gmail.

    I don’t disagree with you that Apple’s services have had a very spotty history, starting with, then mobileMe, and now iCloud. Perhaps they require some gestation time just as Google’s services have gestated.

    When we look at Apple’s iTunes music and video store, and later their mobile and desktop App stores, I think we see a remarkable success of Apple as service, or at least success as eCommerce…

    1. Walt French says:

      And how about Google’s actual (only) product that customers buy?

      AdSense was not Google’s patent, but is absolutely necessary for Google to monetize its collection and collation of consumers’ eyeballs.

      Used under license, it allows Google to get the best price for its great collection of users’ demographics and current online interest. All that other stuff is just the neon lights to attract the people into the casino.

  4. It’s right that buying centers are buying complete different than customers buy things, services or products. I like to think about complexity in buying processes but more and more this complexity become more easy because consumerization and BYOD which a a tremendous shift away from old complexity to a new kind of complexity.

  5. jfutral says:

    “the reason, at the end of the day is the bifurcation of focus between business customers and consumer customers.”

    And this is what is hurting MS, particularly their mobile moves, today.


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