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Overcoming Customer Indecision: the #1 Sales Enemy

The Harvard Business Review ran an excellent article by marketing researchers Matthew Dixon and Ted McKenna about, what they believe is the #1 impediment to closing sales—and it’s not getting past the prospect’s status quo—which is what most sales people tend to think. Rather it’s the prospect’s indecision. In the article, they make a strong case, which goes something like this:

· Research by the authors and others shows that indecision has a more powerful grip on the prospect than any preference they may have for the status quo.

· Somewhere between 40% and 60% of deals end up lost to customers who express their intent to purchase, but ultimately fail to cross the finish line.

· Preference for the status quo is driven by a set of human biases that lead customers to want things to remain as they are, even when faced with better alternatives.

· Unlike preference for the status quo, customer indecision is driven by a separate and distinct psychological effect called “the omission bias”, which, in this context, is the customer’s desire to avoid taking action that might lead to a loss.

· Of the two, it is the omission bias that represents the more difficult obstacle for the salesperson to overcome.

· Indecision is extremely difficult for salespeople to detect. Because it is driven by deeply personal fears, indecision is not something that customers openly discuss with salespeople. In fact, it’s often something customers aren’t even aware they’re struggling with at all.

· The 3 biggest drivers of indecision are: valuation problems (i.e., when customers struggle with what option, package, or configuration to choose); lack of information (i.e., when customers feel like they haven’t done enough homework); and outcome uncertainty (i.e., when customers fear they may not receive the benefits they expect from a purchase).

· Salespeople are unknowingly contributing to the problem, thinking all they need to do is beat the status quo. But overcoming indecision requires a fundamentally different approach. Where overcoming the status quo is about dialing up the fear of not purchasing, overcoming indecision is about dialing down the fear of purchasing.

The article’s authors have come up with a strategy for effectively dealing with indecision called “The JOLT Method” (which was recently published as a book). This is a very brief summary of the method.

1. Judge the level of customer indecision. Qualify and disqualify opportunities not just on the customer’s “ability to buy” but also on their “ability to decide.” Listen for signs of indecision that can derail a deal. If a customer seems only moderately indecisive, plan on the closing the opportunity farther out. But in situations with highly indecisive customers, disqualify them altogether and move onto other accounts

2. Offer your recommendation. Shift gears from asking the customer what they want to buy to telling them what they should buy. Abundant choice will often lead to hand-wringing and valuation problems.

3. Limit the exploration. The more information the customer consumes, the lower the probability they will end up finding the answers they seek. In order to convince the customer that they are in good hands — the rep should guide them to the best decision possible

4. Take risk off the table. Offer safety net options that make customers feel like they have some assurance of success— from simple opt-out clauses to complex, tailored contract structures — all with the goal of instilling buyer confidence in their decision and mitigating the outcome uncertainty.

In the article, the authors conclude: “It’s no overstatement to say that figuring out a way to overcome customer indecision — to close the gap between “I want” and “I did” — represents the single greatest opportunity to inflect growth for the average business.”

The Harvard Business Review article may be available here: The book, “The Jolt Effect: How High Performers Overcome Customer Indecision” is currently available as an audiobook and hardcover.

For a no cost discussion of your situation and how we can leverage metrics-based marketing strategy to grow your business call 630-363-8081 or email


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