The best way to get a customer off the fence? Get to know them

A recent study of 2.5 million sales calls shows that high sales performers adopt the same four behaviours. It all starts with overcoming customer indecision
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In my last column, I talked about the massive problem plaguing today’s salesperson: “no-decision” losses. It often surprises business leaders to learn that anywhere between 40% and 60% of their sales teams’ qualified opportunities will ultimately be lost to “no decision”. Given the uncertain economic environment, this is a problem that’s only getting worse in most industries and sectors. What’s more, salespeople are unknowingly contributing to the issue by relying on FOMO tactics that only deepen customer anxiety and fear of failure. 

In our study of 2.5 million sales calls – which Ted McKenna and I explore in our book The JOLT effect – we identified a playbook that high performers have devised on their own to instil customer confidence and avoid no-decision losses. We call this the JOLT playbook.

JOLT is an acronym that stands for four unique behaviours that we found high performers to exhibit: judging the level of indecision, offering a recommendation, limiting the exploration and taking risk off the table. Starting with this month’s column, we’ll explore each of these in turn. We’ll share research as to why these behaviours work, what most sellers tend to do instead and the impact these techniques can have in getting the customer off the sidelines.

The three dimensions of customer indecision

Let’s first talk about judging the customer’s level of indecision. For a salesperson, the whole battle to overcome indecision starts here. If we don’t understand why our customer is hesitating or what’s causing them to become indecisive, we have no hope of moving them forward. 

There are important practical reasons for sellers to learn how to gauge the customer’s level of indecision beyond improving their ability to close deals. Knowing how deep the customer’s indecision runs will inform how a salesperson forecasts a deal’s close date. In extreme cases, hopelessly indecisive customers may not be worth the salesperson’s time and may need to be disqualified altogether, so that the seller doesn’t waste valuable weeks pursuing the opportunity. Understanding why the customer is indecisive can also inform the salesperson’s next move – that is, what play they should run to move their customer closer to a decision.

When we train salespeople to judge the customer’s indecision, we tell them to consider indecision in three dimensions. First, they must establish who the customer is as a person and what tendencies they display that might indicate an inability to make decisions. Second, they must identify what they are concerned about regarding this purchase (specifically, are they concerned about what to choose, whether they’ve done enough homework or whether they’ll realise the full benefits from the purchase?) Third, they must explore the broader environmental factors that may be affecting their customer’s decision-making ability, for example, an uncertain economic environment or internal company dynamics that are increasing the scrutiny on this particular purchase.

But the real challenge in judging a customer’s level of indecision is because customers don’t openly talk about their fear of failure with salespeople. If you asked 10 customers whether they consider themselves to be decisive, all 10 would surely say yes. Still, the data paints a different picture: across 2.5 million sales calls, 87% of them had customers demonstrating either moderate or high levels of indecision.

Why active listening is key for salespeople 

Clearly, active listening plays a critical role in ascertaining the depths of a customer’s indecision. But when customers play it close to the vest, talented salespeople use a different technique which we call “pings and echoes”. Like a surface ship trying to detect a submarine using sonar, we found salespeople articulating the fear they suspected the customer was grappling with – not to “out” the customer, but to make it a safe topic to talk about. 

“We’ve put a lot of options in front of you,” one rep said to her customer, “but I fear that we’ve offered so many that you and your team might struggle to pick the right path forward – and I know how important this investment is to your company, so you need to get it right. The reality is that every customer we work with struggles with this same decision, so you’re not alone. I’m not sure if I’m off-base here or not, so please let me know. But to the extent this is something you’re wrestling with, I want to be helpful to you and help you figure out what the ‘nice-to-have’ elements are as opposed to the ‘need-to-have’ elements.”

In my next column, I’ll talk about the “O” in the JOLT playbook: offering your recommendation. Until then, happy selling, and let me know how some of these techniques are working for you and your sales team.