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Overcoming the Status Quo to Win the Sale

The pace of innovation is increasing.

The result: business leaders face many paths forward but few lead to success.

What remains clear is that businesses must advance given that “some 25-30 percent of overall revenues are expected to come from new sources of business,” according to research from McKinsey. Despite this finding, businesses are more reluctant than ever to change.

Why?

The answer is a bias toward the status quo. This emotional bias is a preference for the current state. The status quo is what we view as normal. All humans share an affinity for the status quo.

Today’s complex array of choices is strengthening this preference for continuity. Sales professionals see the status quo bias when they engage customers who are hesitant to move forward. Therefore, sales professionals must often show customers that the status quo is more than a deferred choice.

In truth, the status quo is a strategic decision. It is a choice to apply past practices to future challenges. Some call this tendency “active inertia.” Academic and researcher Donald Sull explains that active inertia occurs because “initial success reinforces management’s belief that they should fortify their success formula.”

Active inertia is a problem because the past is not a prologue in a world of accelerating change.

How Buyer Changes Are Perpetuating the Status Quo

Buyers face more challenges than ever. These challenges stem from two characteristics of business today.

  • More information is coming from more channels. Buyers must work harder to understand this data. This characteristic of business is so common that many use the shorthand “VUCA” to describe a landscape that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
  • Business leaders who do try to move forward find themselves restricted by outdated practices.

These two factors have resulted in a buyer profile that is in constant flux. For many, it’s counter-intuitive that changes are working to perpetuate the status quo rather than uproot it. Sales professionals, however, can navigate the challenges that are sustaining the status quo. To do so, they must remember the six ways buyers are responding to today’s changing environment.

  1. Buyers are better informed: Buyers have access to more information than ever before. They want an opportunity to understand their options before meeting with a sales professional. The challenge for sales professionals is understanding what the customer knows. Moreover, sales professionals must understand how the customer’s access to information has shaped their thinking. Customers are coming to the table with preconceived notions of what is valuable and meaningful. In many cases, the customer’s findings do not track with the sales professional’s value message. More information perpetuates the status quo because the customer must reconcile disparate pieces of information that often do not agree with one another.
  2. Resources are falling: Many companies today rely on lean management. Therefore, they allocate resources with intense oversight. This tight control of resources is clearest at the beginning and end of the sales cycle. Early in the process, the sales professional may encounter a procurement specialist. This person might be unwilling to grant access to decision makers without first getting the full scope of all costs associated with the solution. At the end of the cycle, sales professionals must often address the CFO or a member of the finance team. These professionals need to see that the resources allocated to the solution will yield a return. Resources include more than capital. The customer needs to see that implementing the solution is worth their time. With ROI demands high, customers are less willing to move on a solution.
  3. Stakeholders are increasing: Buying decisions involve an increasing number of stakeholders. Each stakeholder represents a unique need and enters the buying cycle at a different time. They also leave the picture as teams and responsibilities change. More people means more opportunities for progress to stall or stop entirely because the number of competing priorities multiplies with the addition of each new decision maker. The dynamics and direction of influence between decision makers is another layer of complexity in the selling process. One doubting voice among the team is enough to unravel an otherwise certain sale.
  4. Skepticism is rising: The Great Recession left many skeptical of businesses. Since then, headlines of unethical practices have eroded trust further. Skepticism is evident not just in the US, but across the globe. This pervasive sense of uncertainty is clear from the Economic Policy Uncertainty Index. Today, this calculation is at its third highest point since measurement started more than 20 years ago. People are uncertain about the future of the economy. This ambivalence translates into risk-averse behavior. Customers are unsure whether a viable solution today will be effective tomorrow. Increasingly, customers only trust what they have experienced for themselves, which is the status quo.
  5. Demands are growing: With more options available, customers are becoming less tolerant of sales professionals seeking to understand their business. Sales professionals are expected to bring new information and value to every interaction. Without these insights, the customer is likely to walk away, not help the sales professionals get up to speed. Simply put: there’s no such thing as a seller’s market. Customers don’t want to be “sold” to. Customers understand the abundance of data available today. Therefore, they expect sales professionals to be ready in the first interaction to deliver ideas that offer measurable results. The runway is short. This characteristic of customers means fewer sales professionals and solutions satisfy the baseline. As a result, companies choose to not move forward.
  6. Commoditisation is spreading: Technology has lowered barriers to entry in many industries. Small players in the market can use inexpensive digital tools to compete with the incumbents. Customers are benefiting from this new normal. They have access to many solutions, all of which offer effectiveness and ease of implementation at a low cost. With so many good solutions at hand, customers are looking for more personalised value. Experts at Bain explain that their “research shows that, with some purchases, considerations, such as whether a product can enhance the buyer’s reputation or reduce anxiety, play a large role.” Quality alone is not a selling feature, and fewer solutions address nuanced needs.

The Psychology Behind the Status Quo

The factors discussed in the previous section represent the business characteristics driving the status quo. However, beneath these surface-level issues are psychological leanings that keep stakeholders from moving forward with a business decision. Sales professionals need to understand these principles for two reasons.

First, the following psychological principles often go unseen. Decision makers present themselves as purely rational beings governed by logic and facts. In truth, the psychology underpinning these decisions is quietly at work. When sales professionals learn to identify these traits, they’re better able to respond or even become proactive.

Second, these psychological processes are a rare commonality among customers. Business challenges and stakeholder personalities differ, but we are all influenced by these impulses inherent to our thinking. If a sales professional can become adept at navigating these biases in one customer, they can do so in discussions with all customers.

  • The Endowment Effect: The endowment effect creates a scenario in which a person assigns a disproportionately large value to something simply because they own it. A meta-analysis shows that some psychologists believe the endowment effect “arises because buyers and sellers pay attention to different aspects of the transaction: sellers focus on the item they might give up, whereas buyers focus on the potential expenditure.” The same analysis cites neuroeconomic literature, which found that losses spark activation in the amygdala. This region of the brain is associated with fear. The buyer might attribute more value to an existing solution because they are comparing the known to the unknown. Sales professionals must be aware of this inherent bias. An effective solution is not enough. The product or service must be better than the incumbent, and the endowment effect tells us that the incumbent is always strong.
  • Confirmation Bias: Psychologists have called confirmation bias the common trait that takes many forms. Confirmation bias is the tendency to focus only on information that confirms our preconceived notions. The buyer, like anyone, has deeply rooted beliefs. They are unlikely to alter these views even when they encounter contradictory evidence. This bias means that sales professionals are playing on the customer’s field. Hearing contradictory evidence can elicit a threat response from the customer. This response will not always be obvious in the context of a professional discussion. Sales professionals must enter the conversation knowing that sharing insights can have unintended consequences if the information is incongruent with the customer’s baseline. The customer is not a blank slate. They have a history, and that history influences how they evaluate a solution.
  • Sunk Cost Fallacy: The sunk cost fallacy occurs when a person or group continues a strategy due to their financial investment in the endeavor. The sunk cost fallacy reminds us that it’s difficult to abandon a path after walking so many miles. Customers have intense, often immovable ROI demands. When these demands are unsatisfied, many refuse to give up. This persistence is understandable. We’re often reminded to persevere through challenges and “never quit.” However, this constant pursuit of an ineffective strategy drives costs, both financial and nonfinancial. Some call this phenomenon escalation of commitment. Sales professionals often need to help customers become comfortable with changing course.
  • Confirmation Bias: Psychologists have called confirmation bias the common trait that takes many forms. Confirmation bias is the tendency to focus only on information that confirms our preconceived notions. The buyer, like anyone, has deeply rooted beliefs. They are unlikely to alter these views even when they encounter contradictory evidence. This bias means that sales professionals are playing on the customer’s field. Hearing contradictory evidence can elicit a threat response from the customer. This response will not always be obvious in the context of a professional discussion. Sales professionals must enter the conversation knowing that sharing insights can have unintended consequences if the information is incongruent with the customer’s baseline. The customer is not a blank slate. They have a history, and that history influences how they evaluate a solution.
  • Affect Heuristic: A heuristic is a mental shortcut used to solve a problem fast. When we rely on a “rule of thumb,” we’re using a heuristic. An affect heuristic is a rule of thumb arising from an emotional response, or our affect. The affect heuristic arises when the decision maker is under pressure. In these instances, there is not enough time to consider the full range of consequences and factors. In this scenario, the customer bases their judgment of both the positive and negative aspects of a solution from the same place — their emotion. The affect heuristic can occur without the individual knowing that their emotion, not reason, is driving the decision. Therefore, sales professionals must understand that a decision to buy is rooted in emotional responses as much as it is in facts and figures. That is, they want solutions that will do more than increase revenue or decrease costs. They want a solution that will ease stress and anxiety.

As sales professionals learn to identify these characteristics in their own thinking, they will be better prepared to spot them in the customer’s thought process. These biases are a reminder that sales professionals must do more than connect with the customer’s needs — they must connect with their psychology. While these common principles governing thought are powerful, so are the methods for overcoming them. In the next section, we provide specific strategies for doing just that.

How to Overcome the Status Quo in Sales

  • Drive Consensus: Sales professionals must drive consensus to win the sale. The reason for this strategy is two-fold. First, buying decisions today come from groups, not individuals. Technology has automated, basic transactional sales. Therefore, sales professionals increasingly find themselves handling “high-touch” sales. These opportunities involve more stakeholders because the financial implications are significant. More stakeholders mean sales professionals must coalesce support among a group. Second, sales professionals are more likely to overcome the status quo by garnering help from the stakeholders. It’s easier for a customer to bypass a cognitive bias when they see that at least one other stakeholder has already done so themselves.
  • Use the Framing Effect: A preference for the status quo often arises from the loss aversion bias. This bias is characterized by our tendency to avoid a loss rather than experience an equivalent gain. That is, we view the pain of a loss as more intense than the joy of a gain even when the value of the two is identical. The framing effect helps overcome this inherent bias. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman conducted groundbreaking work in this area of study. They learned that individuals often make decisions based on how the benefits and drawbacks arep resented. This has important implications for sales professionals because it illustrates how the choice to buy stems from more than just economic value. It also stems from context. For example, Kahneman and Tversky learned that a person will view a cost differently based on whether it is presented as an uncompensated loss or “as a cost incurred to achieve some benefit.” This finding means that sales professionals must remember to place the value of the solution in the context of the customer’s real-word, nuanced challenge.
  • Keep messaging concise: A purchasing decision is just one of many projects on the customer’s desk. Each of these priorities demands working memory, which is a finite resource. At the same time, technology is introducing more communication channels into our world. As a result, working memory is increasingly taxed. Cognitive load theory suggests three ways to overcome this problem by crafting messages that consider the listener’s intrinsic load, extraneous load, and germane load.
  • Drive Momentum: Deals that stall rarely close. The customer has many priorities pulling them in different directions. Therefore, sales professionals need to drive momentum. Doing so, however, means more than prompting the customer to take the next step. True momentum means reaching a point where the customer, not the sales professional, asks, “What’s the next step?” The sales professional’s challenge in reaching this point is overcoming the distractions involved in long buying cycles, changing requirements, stakeholder disagreements, and competitor influences. Overcoming these challenges requires the sales professional to take full stock of their strengths, vulnerabilities, and gaps in their understanding of the customer’s position. This step allows the sales professional to align the solution’s value to the customer’s unique needs. This alignment happens when the customer sees evidence-based results from others who have used the solution. Measure momentum by listening to the customer’s responses. Are they short, or are they detailed and full of information?
  • Balance Logic and Emotion: With so much at stake, buyers often express a devotion to facts and logical decision making. However, there is much more at work beneath this exterior. Customers are people, and emotions drive people. Appealing to logic alone will not suffice. While the customer may signal that they’re focused only on “the facts,” they are in fact governed by emotion like the rest of us. Take the time to investigate what excites the customer.
About The Author: richardsonsalestraining
Richardson is a global sales training and performance improvement company. Our goal is to transform every buyer experience by empowering sellers with critical skills so they can create value to buyers and drive meaningful conversations. Our methodology combines a market proven sales and coaching curriculum with an innovative and customizable approach to learning that ensures your sales teams learn, master, and apply those behaviors where and when it matters most — in front of your customers. It’s our job to anticipate change in your industry so that your sales team can focus on fostering long-term relationships, becoming indispensable partners for their buyers.

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