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How Customers Make Decisions

Why is something as simple as a cup of coffee enough to change someone’s international travel plans?

Why are bronze medalists happier than silver medalists?

Why does crossing a dangerous suspension bridge influence a decision made several days later?

On the surface, people appear to follow rational and logical processes when making choices. However, below the surface are factors pushing us towards, or away from a decision.

Here, we explore social science research from Nobel Laureates, leading psychologists, and behavioural economists. We examine more than a dozen studies that will help sales professionals see how people make decisions and how to guide those choices.

Short-Term Emotions Drive Long-Term Decisions

The buying process is an emotional experience. Reputations and finances are at stake. Many sales professionals understand that these emotions influence the customer’s buying decisions. However, few understand how the timing of these emotions impacts the sale. Research from the University of California and Duke University reveals how “emotions on decision making can live longer than the emotional experience itself.”

The psychologists studied what they call the “incidental emotional state.” They learned that we draw on previous, short-lived emotions when making a decision. Moreover, we do so without knowing it. The emotion underlying one decision impacts another decision later.

Crossing the Suspension Bridge

The researchers cite a study in which participants crossed a suspension bridge they believed was dangerous. The fear of the experience impacted their decisions long after they crossed the bridge.

Put simply, a strong emotion today reverberates through choices we make tomorrow. Even mild emotions about the weather during a college visit influenced enrollment decisions later, according to other research.

The psychologists suggest that emotions drive future decisions due to “behavioural consistency” and “false consensus.” 

Initial decisions become an anchor because we tend to choose with consistency. The researchers call this pattern behavioural consistency. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that getting a person to agree on one issue will boost the likelihood of getting their agreement on another issue. When people were asked to sign a petition in favor of an initiative to “keep California beautiful,” they were more likely to say yes when later asked to place a safe driving sign in their front yard.

The psychologists also explain that false consensus drives consistency in decision making. This concept suggests that people often assume “that others would probably behave like them when facing a similar scenario.” That is, we believe we are doing what others would do instead of realising that our past emotions are in play.

These findings are important to sales professionals. They underscore the complex role of emotions in the buying process. The customer’s previous emotions are as important as their current emotions. The research helps explain that decoding the customer’s emotions is difficult because we often falsely attribute a person’s actions to their current emotional state. To understand the customer’s thinking, sales professionals need the present and the past.

Addressing the Range of Customer Emotions

Here, we look at ways in which sales professionals can account for the full timeline of customer emotions and position solutions that resonate.

Overcome Misconceptions

Sales professionals can help customers move past false consensus with normative messaging. With this approach, sales professionals illustrate how others have seen success with the solution. Normative messaging is effective in shaping behaviour because it widens perspective. Customers see that their perceptions of the consensus might not be accurate. For example, brief case studies are effective in underscoring how making a change and adopting the solution proved effective.

Using a case study requires preparation. Sales professionals need to focus on one example that is relevant to the customer’s industry and challenges. Customers need to see that the results are transferrable. It’s not enough to show that the solution worked. The customer must see that the solution will work for them. Articulating a case study in this way requires revisions and practise. There is limited time to get the point across. Therefore, it’s important to front-load the benefits when presenting the case study. Begin the messaging with the positive outcomes achieved, then focus on how they were achieved and, lastly, how the customer will experience similar success.

Build Alignment Among Stakeholders

Behavioural consistency is like a well-worn path in the ground. Moving off of this path means building alignment across all stakeholders. However, misalignment is common and originates from one of two sources: fear and communication breakdown. The fear is rooted in anxieties around reputational loss. A failed solution will reflect poorly on those who were in support. Meanwhile, communication breakdown often occurs when one person overstates their position while another understates their thoughts. Additionally, lack of transparency and trust lead people to withhold information that would otherwise move the sale forward.

Behavioural consistency is common because it feels natural and is rarely questioned. Breaking this familiar pattern means working with each stakeholder to determine why this consistency remains. Once the sales professional understands whether the source is fear, faltering communication, or both, they can work to resolve the problem.

Once the sales professional has addressed fear and miscommunication, they need to synthesise different perspectives into one story for change. This narrative must address each stakeholder’s concerns. The sales professional must consider those with the authority to make a change and those who are accountable for making the solution work.

Get Involved in the Hidden Dialogue

The incidental emotions that shape decisions often occur away from the sales professional. Therefore, it is unclear what initial experiences are influencing the customer’s perspective. Additionally, with more of the early-stage buying process unfolding before the sales professional’s involvement, the customer’s initial feelings are even less clear.

Therefore, the sales professional must get involved in these hidden dialogues. They must build the trust that earns them a seat at the table — the earlier, the better. Sales professionals can do this by sharing information early and often. When doing so, they should ensure that these insights fit within the context of the sales professional’s challenges. Consider research published in Judgment and Decision Making, which suggests that sales professionals can foster trust by ensuring that all information is evenly distributed. The researchers theorized that trust erodes when the buyer believes that the seller has more information. The authors call this “informational advantage.” They cite studies showing that communication worked when both parties held the same information. Sellers should share information and make themselves an open book.

Sudden Death Aversion Slows the Sale

The status quo remains one of the biggest challenges to sales professionals. The reason: implementing a new solution always presents more short-term challenges than staying the course. However, the customer’s preference for the status quo is more complex than avoiding short-term hurdles. Researchers at Cornell University and the University of Chicago have learned that a phenomenon called “sudden-death aversion” explains why the status quo is so immovable.

Kicking the Extra Point

Researchers reviewed data from professional sports teams. They wanted to understand how people make decisions. They examined the outcomes of games in which a team could either kick an extra point to put the game into overtime or choose “sudden death” and try to get the ball into the end zone from two yards away.

They discovered that people choose the “slow option that avoids the short-term risk at the cost of lesser odds of success.”

People choose to avoid short-term risks even if doing so puts them on a path to losing.

This characteristic of decision making is not limited to professional sports. As the researchers write, this trait “reflects a common bias that can lead to non-optimal decision making in a great many contexts, some far removed from the gridiron.”

Avoiding short-term risk is logical. The problem, however, is that this avoidance is so strong that we often choose an option with lower odds of success because it puts the risk of failure further down the road.

Throughout their archival analyses and controlled experiments, the researchers learned that people defer risk at their own peril. The researchers attribute sudden-death aversion to myopic loss aversion and fears of “tempting fate.”

Myopic loss aversion is the tendency to make decisions with a focus limited to the short term. This aversion is problematic because a big choice is often followed by a near-term upheaval. Therefore, we see these upheavals looming just a short distance away, and we stop our analysis. Instead, we should look further down the road rather than limit our assessment to immediate outcomes.

Oncoming challenges like implementation and adoption root customers to the status quo, a choice that avoids these responsibilities but ultimately leaves them in a less-than-optimal position. This pattern of thought leads customers to the sense that they are “tempting fate” and taking a risk that doesn’t need to be taken. Unfortunately, this thinking leaves customers anchored to the status quo. It also leaves sales professionals facing a steep incline.

Helping Customers Move Past the Status Quo

Here we examine three ways that sales professionals can dislodge customers from the status quo and advance the sale.

Understand the Certainty Effect

The certainty effect is our tendency to approach risk differently based on the way in which the risk is presented. This finding is the work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman. They learned that people are more willing to accept risk when all options present uncertain outcomes. In contrast, people become risk-averse when one option is certain and the other is merely probable yet more rewarding.

What their research tells us is that customers choose to stand still because they see the outcomes associated with the status quo as certain. At the same time, they avoid the proposed solution, despite its advantages, because they see those outcomes as uncertain. As a result, the sales professional has an obligation to illustrate that the status quo does in fact present uncertainty.

The status quo presents uncertain outcomes because what works today will not necessarily work tomorrow. Research from Deloitte underscores this truth. After analyzing more than 10,000 businesses, they learned that “organisations face a radically shifting context for the workforce, the workplace, and the world of work” and that “these shifts have changed the rules for nearly every organisation.” For a business to maintain growth, it must keep pace with change.

If the sales professional can help the customer understand that the status quo does, in fact, carry risk, then they can compel them to choose a new solution.

Appeal to Logic and Emotion

Appealing only to the customer’s logical side is a mistake because people are inherently illogical. Everyone is susceptible to an array of cognitive biases that lead us to irrational decisions. Therefore, sales professionals must also address the customer’s emotions in the buying journey.

A purchasing decision incites a range of emotions. One study from Bain reveals that the scope of customer needs encompasses more than product features and pricing. Factors like the ease of doing business, the individual, and even inspiration are all considered elements of value. These elements are “things that enhance relationships between parties, such as a good cultural fit and a seller’s commitment to the customer organisation.”

Focusing on logic often leads to decisions that hinge on pricing. In this scenario, the value of the solution is only supported by the cost. A focus on pricing is dangerous in today’s business landscape, which is characterized by commoditised solutions.

The status quo has a strong pull. Compelling the customer demands a solution offering clear economic and personal benefits. Focusing on just one leaves the discussion incomplete.

Start Small

Buying decisions carry weight because they put finances and reputations at stake. Sales professionals can ease the burden of such a large decision by starting small and asking the customer to make a small decision. Once they have earned the customer’s commitment, they can seek greater buy-in. Research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology supports this approach. The research shows that “carrying out a small request increased the likelihood that the subject would agree to a similar larger request.” Some researchers call this the “foot-in-the-door” technique.

The researchers theorise that this phenomenon occurs because once a person makes one decision, they feel involved. Once they are involved, they perhaps feel a greater sense of commitment to the project. Additionally, they are more likely to see themselves as the decision-maker, whereas before they did not.

Defaults Influence Decision Making

A group of psychologists at Princeton and Columbia were curious about the role of defaults in decision making. They wanted to know how and why preselected options influence our decisions. To get answers, they reviewed 58 different studies.

In performing this “meta-analysis,” a study of studies, they learned that, “on average, defaults exert a considerable influence on decisions.” Many of us experience this phenomenon every day but are unaware of its presence.

These decisions are not small. Defaults influence the way we plan for retirement, our choice to donate our organs, and our impact on the environment. Defaults are powerful.

However, the same group of researchers caution that there is “substantial variability in defaults’ effectiveness, suggesting that both when and how defaults are deployed matter.” They learned that defaults drive different outcomes based on the way they are presented and the context in which they are presented.

Drinking Coffee In Rome

Duke University Psychology and Behavioral Economics professor Dan Ariely explains that “we actually don’t know our preferences that well.” Therefore, the context in which options are presented influences our decisions. Dan illustrates this concept with a hypothetical trip to Rome.

He offers a choice. You could have an all-expenses-paid trip to Rome for the weekend or an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris for the weekend.

What do you do when you want to influence the decision maker to choose the trip to Rome? This task is challenging. Some will have a natural preference for Paris. They will want the unique landmarks and culture of that city.  Dan explains that people’s preferences change when he includes a third option: an all-expenses-paid trip to Rome that doesn’t include coffee. “If you want coffee, you have to pay for it yourself, it’s two euros 50,” he explains. Now the three choices are: A free trip to Paris, A free trip to Rome, A free trip to Rome, coffee not included.

This is where decision influence comes into play. “The fact that you have Rome without coffee makes Rome with coffee look superior, and not just to Rome without coffee — even superior to Paris,” he explains. Rome with coffee becomes the top choice.

The finding is that context influences our decisions. The challenge for sales professionals is that they must present their solution within the context of the customer’s world, and in that context, the status quo is Rome with coffee.

The Three Channels that Influence Customer Decisions

Sales professionals must understand the key factors influencing decisions. The researchers at Princeton and Columbia call these factors “channels.”

Endorsement

The strength or weakness of the proposed solution depends on the customer’s perception of the sales professional. This finding is important because it illustrates that customers consider more than features and benefits when making a purchasing decision. They consider the person endorsing it. The solution and the sales professional are one in the same. Customers need to know that the sales professional’s intentions are the same as their own. Trust is critical. However, trust is in decline.

Measurements like the Edelman Trust Barometer show that across industries in the US, trust has fallen 37 percentage points. This figure represents the responses of 33,000 individuals. The same body of research found that faltering trust is an international problem. The Global Index also shows a drop in trust.

To build trust, a sales professional needs to use clear, concise language that is direct. Doing so serves two purposes. First, it makes the solution easy to understand and requires little effort on the part of the customer. Remember, the customer has numerous daily responsibilities. The burden of making a decision only adds to their list. Second, simple language signifies forthrightness and honesty. Research published in the journal Health Communication found that “technical language use negatively affected authors’ integrity and the credibility” of their information.

Ease

The researchers learned that decision-makers tend to make the easy choice. They often choose the default. In a selling situation, the default is the status quo. This presents a challenge for the sales professional because they must overcome the customer’s innate preference for no change. Moreover, this adherence to the status quo limits how much attention the customer pays to the offered solution. As the researchers explain, “Individuals may not evaluate every presented option separately, but rather may simply assess whether the default option satisfies them.”

This finding reveals an important point for sales professionals. Customers judge solutions based not only on their relevance and effectiveness. Customers judge solutions based on ease of implementation. “The harder it is for decision-makers to switch away from the preselected option,” like the status quo, “the more effective the default is likely to be.”

Sales professionals must address this problem by illustrating a clear and simple path for implementing the solution. They must take a proactive approach to folding this topic into the sales dialogue. Few customers will vocalise their concerns about implementation. However, as the research shows, this concern resides in the back of their minds and is influencing their decisions to not make the purchase.

Endowment

Endowment reminds us that the customer’s preference for the status quo is not only due to its trustworthiness and ease but also its familiarity. “The more decision-makers feel that the default reflects the status quo, the more effective the default is likely to be,” the researchers explain. The researchers cite one study, which revealed that options labeled “status quo” are the most popular. As humans, we inherently gravitate to that which is familiar because we believe what is familiar is free of risk.

Therefore, sales professionals must introduce new ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking carefully. They must float new ideas. This approach helps reduce the initial shock that comes from presenting customers with a solution that is distant from the status quo. Sales professionals can do this early in the sales cycle and gauge the stakeholder’s reactions. This approach gives the sales professionals plenty of time to build gradual buy-in across the group of decision-makers. It also offers the time to organise and understand the disparate goals and concerns among the decision-makers.

Fear of Loss Overpowers Expected Gains

Fear drives our decisions. Sales professionals know this well. They must manage the customer’s fear throughout the buying journey. Managing another’s fear, however, is difficult because people give more weight to the fear of loss than they do the excitement of a gain. In other words, “losses loom larger than gains,” according to work published in one of the most cited behavioural research papers of all time.

Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains that “the aggravation that one experiences in losing a sum of money appears to be greater than the pleasure associated with gaining the same amount.”This idea is called prospect theory. Several years after Kahneman published these findings, other researchers took notice of prospect theory in an unexpected place.

Winning the Medal

Several years after Kahneman published these findings, other researchers took notice of prospect theory in an unexpected place: the 1992 Summer Olympics. They noticed that bronze medalists were happier than silver medalists. They wanted to understand why.

They learned that “bronze medalists who were not expecting a medal were happier than silver medalists with gold medal dreams.” The silver medalists believed that they lost the gold medal. In contrast, the bronze medalists believed that they won a spot at the podium.

The fear of loss exerts more influence than the satisfaction of a similar-sized gain.

The perception of loss was so much stronger that it made the better-performing silver medalists feel worse than the underperforming bronze medal winners.

The prevalence of prospect theory has relevance for sales professionals seeking to ease customer fears which exert a powerful influence over buying decisions. Here, we take a closer look at what sparks fear in the buyer and how sales professionals can respond and advance the sale.

The researchers conducting the study of Olympic athletes decided to expand their research. They designed another study and split participants into two groups. Both groups took a practice test of verbal ability. One group received feedback on their performance, while the other group did not. Those in the feedback group developed expectations.

When it was time to take the real test, the researchers learned that the participant’s reactions to their performance was highly correlated to the feedback received. This finding is important because it illustrates that feedback can be as powerful, or more so, than the actual outcome. As the researchers remarked, “As actual outcomes become more disparate from expected outcomes, emotions are amplified.”

Sales professionals can put these findings to use by helping customers right-size their expectations for a given solution. With a realistic expectation of outcomes, customers are more likely to be pleased with the results. As a result, customers will also be more likely to engage in future business with the sales professional. What makes expectations so important is that they begin to shape outcomes before they unfold.

Today’s longer buying journey means that sales professionals have more time to shape the customer’s expectations. In fact, much of the buying journey is the process of customers formulating anticipated outcomes. When sales professionals involve themselves in this process early, they are better positioned to guide that process. Consider research from McKinsey, which shows that sales professionals who immerse themselves in this process early see a “10 percent growth in first-time customers.”

Shaping Perceptions

There are three ways that sales professionals can shape perception early and often. Doing so drives the sale forward and improves the likelihood for future business.

Become Agile

The rate at which business drivers and challenges change is increasing. Consider, for example, that the volatility of business operating margins has doubled in the last 40 years and that the probability of a market share leader being a profit leader has steadily fallen over six decades. These trends present a clear picture: sales professionals need to be agile in the pursuit of a moving target. Adjusting to this reality requires more than embodying a diverse set of skills. It requires the ability to seamlessly shift between those skills. Sales professionals need to know how and when to deploy the right selling capabilities.

Agility, as a selling skill, is critical in managing the buyer’s logical and emotional reasoning. These two modes of thought inform the way a decision-maker pursues and ultimately completes a purchase. Much of the emotional side of buying is rooted in the risks inherent to a purchase. A poor decision could lead to both financial and reputational loss. Sales professionals can address this nascent influence by normalising risk with open discussions of the benefits and challenges. Sales professionals can also underscore the omnipresence of risk. That is, even choosing not to buy presents a risk, especially when the solution offers opportunities to advance the business.

Assert a Point of View

Customers need more than a transaction — they need an ongoing solution. Therefore, they need more than a sales professional — they need a trusted adviser. Part of being a trusted adviser means asserting a point of view because a customer seeks out a trusted adviser for their expertise and input. However, asserting a point of view can feel threatening to a customer. For this reason, sales professionals must first clarify their intent. They must demonstrate that the customer’s interests are at the center of their assertions.

Concise language that is free of jargon is important when asserting a point of view. Clarity prevents the fatigue that comes from having to rephrase and realign. Next, sales professionals should stop and ask reflection questions. Reflection questions encourage the customer to think more deeply about the topic. “What are your thoughts on this solution?” and “Does this approach address the breadth of business needs you are facing?” are both examples of reflection questions. Customers approach the buying journey because they need a solution, so it is okay to assert a point of view.

Use a Narrative

Framing the effectiveness of the solution with a narrative structure works for two reasons. First, a story provides a template for clearly describing how the solution generated results for another customer in a similar industry. This kind of case study helps customers make the leap from theoretical to practical. As a result, customers can see how the solution worked in a real setting. Second, storytelling skills keep the sales professional within a format that satisfies our inherent preference for a narrative arc.

Stories shape perceptions because they help sales professionals create an emotional connection with the customer. Emotion is necessary to encode a memory. Stories drive the emotions that help sales professionals earn a place in the customer’s world. Often, it’s easy for a sales professional to resort to cataloging product features rather than taking the time to establish a connection. Sales professionals who do connect using stories see lasting benefits. This approach works because research has shown that stories boost the listener’s empathy towards others. Demonstrate real-world results with a narrative that goes from a challenge/need, to a solution, to an outcome.

Identity Influences Skeptical Stakeholders

Customers increasingly make buying decisions in teams. Therefore, sales professionals are rethinking how to not only position their solutions, but how they position themselves within the exclusive group of decision-makers. Fortunately, social psychology research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin is offering new ideas on how to approach this challenge.

The researchers at the University of Queensland wanted to understand the role of a newcomer in a group. This role is familiar to sales professionals who face a cohort of buyers that often have a shared history and sometimes even a shared perspective. An outsider like a sales professional is often regarded with skepticism.

Overcoming the Newcomer Status

The researchers designed a few experiments to understand why this dynamic exists and how to overcome it.

The team of social scientists compared how groups responded to recommendations from two types of people. The first had a long history within a team. The others were outsiders and new to the group. They learned that recommendations “arouse more negativity and are less influential when they stem from a newcomer.”

Here, we look at the insights from the data, which show how an outsider like a sales professional can compel a group of stakeholders to buy.

The researchers discovered that newcomers earned more support when their identities became more aligned to those of the stakeholders. Simply put: becoming “psychologically invested” in the stakeholder’s group drove buy-in.

The study validates the importance of customer-centricity. Without becoming customer-centric, a sales professional cannot take even preliminary steps toward recommending a solution. The group regards the outsider with skepticism because the recommendations originate from an external source. This challenge is inherent to sales professionals. Customers are always aware that they are being sold to. Recommendations are initially seen as an attempt to transact business rather than solve a problem.

The study tells us that influencing stakeholder decisions means becoming part of the group. The more a sales professional is seen as an outsider, the more the outsider is questioned.

Recommending a solution is difficult. It suggests that sales professionals “feel the need to change an aspect of the group culture” among those in the buying organization. As a result, the sales professional is engaging in “some type of direct or implied criticism of the group” explain the researchers. When a sales professional becomes more immersed with the stakeholder’s identity, they ease this tension.

Aligning to the Stakeholders Identity

Here, we look at three ways sales professionals can become more psychologically invested in the stakeholder’s group and drive the decision-making process.

Become Customer-Centric

Customer centricity is becoming the defining competitive advantage of a successful business. Research from Stanford University Press shows that organizations built with a customer-centric focus outperform businesses that are only shareholder-focused. Customer-centric companies deliver 36 percent growth. This performance is more than double the 17 percent shareholder-focused companies earn over the same period. Given this outperformance, it’s not surprising that “more than a dozen Fortune 1000 firms [such as Coca Cola, Hershey, Intel, HP, and JD Edwards] have created a more specialized function — chief customer officer — to acknowledge the importance of customer-centricity related issues in the boardroom,” according to the Journal of Service Research.

Customer centricity means understanding the customer’s needs. To reveal these needs, sales professionals must get closer to the customer. Doing so means working from facts, not assumptions. To reveal these facts, sales professionals must ask questions. These questions should reveal the nuances of the business challenge. They should reveal how the decision-making process works and what the customer considers an ideal outcome. Without this information, sales professionals suffer from “anchoring,” or the tendency to rely too heavily on one piece of information.

Foster Openness

It is difficult for sales professionals to align with the stakeholder’s identity if they don’t know what that identity is. Revealing their identity means fostering openness in the dialogue. To encourage openness, sales professionals must give to get. They must offer insights that are relevant to the customer. Resonant insights come from in-depth research before the customer dialogue. Sales professionals must understand the current challenges and opportunities within the customer’s industry.

Research serves two purposes. First, it saves time in the initial conversations. Both the customer and the sales professional can jump to the granular issues without needing to discuss the “frame” of the challenges. Second, the research generates the ideas and strategic thinking that leads to meaningful insights. Every insight offered should serve at least one of the three key goals: to make money, save money, or manage risk.

The most effective insights are those that help the customer unearth more detail about the business challenge or opportunity. To bring insights, sales professionals must first ask themselves: What is likely unknown, misunderstood, or misperceived? What are the client’s current beliefs or perceptions? What are the underlying assumptions that those perceptions are based on?

Adopt a Mindset of Authenticity

Every insight offered must answer the question “So what?” Sales professionals must make clear how the information they bring to the dialogue connects to the stakeholder’s challenge. Otherwise, the sales professional’s status as an outsider only strengthens. The goal is to blur or erase the line that separates the sales professional from the stakeholders.

Authenticity is not a strategy. It is a mindset. It is the result of a sincere commitment to the customer’s challenges. Sales professionals cannot make authenticity a goal. Instead, they must develop a genuine interest in understanding the business issues. They must have curiosity about how the stakeholder’s business works and the direction of the industry. In the race to close the sale, too many sales professionals forget that most purchasing initiatives end in no decision. Stakeholders need a compelling sales professional to clarify the challenge.

“Approximately 70 percent of firms have yet to develop strong relationships with customers,” according to research from Accenture. Without an authentic interest in the customer’s world, sales professionals cannot bridge the divide.

Customer Choices Differ From Preferences

Today, business solutions are complex and demand more of the customer’s attention during the buying journey. Meanwhile, quarterly goals and changing economic conditions also compete for their attention. Each of these factors requires the customer to make difficult decisions. This difficulty might explain why people rely more on the immediate context of the situation when making a choice and less on nuanced preferences, according to research from Columbia University.

The researchers explain the difference between a preference and a choice. A preference emerges when a person takes time to assess the value of different options. In contrast, a choice is a context-driven decision. Preferences develop slowly and with analysis. Choices are fast and influenced by their surroundings.

Putting the Solution at Eye Level

The researchers offer an example of a customer who always buys the same product each time they visit a store. At first, it appears that the customer has a stable preference for this product. Now, imagine the product is moved to another shelf, and the customer starts buying a different product. What does this tell us?

The example tells us that the customer repeatedly bought the same product because it was at eye level on the shelf. Once a different product was at eye level, the customer bought a different brand. The bottom line: “When consumers construct their choices, the critical variable affecting their choice is the context of the decision.”

This research is valuable to sales professionals because it reveals the importance of making the buying process easy for the customer.

Asking the customer to exhaustively weigh options and develop their preferences is too taxing. The solution must be at eye level. Here, we look at why changing the customer’s preference just means changing the context and how sales professionals can shape that context in a way that advances the sale.

The researchers’ work revealed that our preferences are not nearly as consistent as we think because they are easily swayed by context. The researchers call this response to context “choice construction.” Moreover, “choice construction will be more prevalent under greater uncertainty,” and uncertainty abounds in buying decisions.

Uncertainty encourages the buyer to rely on context when making a buying decision. Therefore, it is the sales professional’s job to create a context that makes the decision to buy an easy one.

Research on cognitive load theory suggests that there are three demands placed on us as we explore new information. The first is intrinsic load, which refers to the amount of pre-knowledge required to understand something new. Creating a context that compels the customer means using information that does not require foundational information to be understood.

The second demand is extraneous load, which refers to the medium used to convey an idea. In other words, any extraneous material that is not related to the concept at hand will distract and create unnecessary confusion.

Finally, germane load refers to the level of interpretation needed to grasp a concept. Information with a higher germane load requires the learner to organise more material in the same way they might organise information in a diagram or a flow chart. Limiting the information to only what is most relevant to the customer helps reduce the germane load.

Shaping the context of the buying decision means considering the cognitive load of the messaging. Reducing this burden for the customer will make it easier to understand the value of the solution and make a decision to buy.

Creating a Context that Advances the Sale

Next, we look at how sales professionals address each of these three components of cognitive load theory individually.

Consider Relevancy

Intrinsic load is low when the customer does not need to learn new concepts to understand why the solution is a fit for them. Managing the intrinsic load of the solution means articulating the value in a way that resonates with the customer’s challenge or opportunity. Every solution capability must connect in a meaningful way to the customer’s world. This idea is especially true with solutions that are digital products which impact nearly every segment of the customer’s business. Therefore, a long list of product capabilities is of little value unless the sales professional can position each one in a way that is relevant to the customer.

Relevancy is about being customer-centric, and customer-centricity is about what the solution can do to drive revenue, reduce costs, or manage risk. Moreover, relevancy often influences the speed of results. If a solution fits the customer’s needs, they are likely to see benefits sooner. This characteristic of relevancy has powerful implications, given that research from a BCG Global Innovation Survey found that nearly half of global innovation executives believe that development times for innovation are too long.

Use Ordinary Language

Extraneous load increases with the addition of any material that does not directly contribute to understanding the solution. Therefore, sales professionals should communicate the value of the solution in clear terms free of jargon.

The value of this approach is clear from research exploring the use of technical vs. ordinary language. Researchers examined how people perceived an author’s credibility. Their results showed that “technical language use negatively affected authors’ integrity and the credibility.” Jargon and technical language will distract or overwhelm the listener. Clear, direct communication in accessible language is effective because it is honest and free of pretension. Finding this communication means being specific in observations. Doing so shows the customer that the sales professional is attentive to details. Moreover, specificity gives more direction to the conversation because the sales professional and the customer can address underlying challenges rather than vague, surface-level issues.

Connect the Solution to the Familiar

When we talk about “the light bulb turning on,” we are talking about germane load. The light bulb is the act of incorporating new information into existing information and saying, “I get it. This is like that.” A low germane load makes it easy for the customer to connect the solution capabilities to processes they recognize in their business.

Helping the customer connect the solution capabilities to their world requires collaboration. Sales professionals must track the customer’s changing needs through constant engagement. Regular dialogue not only clarifies evolving needs, but it also boosts profitability because fully engaged customers are more profitable than the average customer, according to findings from Gallup.

These customers offer 23 percent more “in terms of share of wallet, profitability, revenue, and relationship growth compared with the average customer.” In contrast, customers who are actively disengaged exhibit a 13 percent discount in the same areas. Actively disengaged customers have little or no interaction with existing sales professionals.

Solutions, especially complex ones, can feel foreign and at odds with “business as usual.” Therefore, sales professionals have an obligation to bridge that gap. The solution is a low germane load.

When thinking about how you can influence your customer’s decision, remember that decisions do not occur in a lab – they occur in real life. Therefore, decisions are inconsistent, illogical, and incomplete. They are messy. Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert suggests one simple idea to explain why this is true. He posits that:

“our brains are evolved for a very different world than the one in which we are living. They were evolved for a world in which people lived in very small groups, rarely met anybody who was terribly different from themselves, and had rather short lives in which there were  few choices.”

About The Author: Ben Taylor
Ben Taylor is the content marketing manager at Richardson. He has an MBA in finance from LaSalle University and over a decade of business & writing experience. He has covered content for brands including Nasdaq, Barclaycard & Business Insider.