Sale stalled? It may be your doing, not the prospect’s
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Sale stalled? It may be your doing, not the prospect’s

It’s one of the most perplexing challenges salespeople face: Your prospect initially showed a lot of interest, she says she’s the one who makes the final decision, and she’s got budget to buy from you. And yet, as the days and weeks wear on, she still isn’t pulling the trigger. What gives?

If you’re looking for answers to that question in your prospect’s behavior, you may be barking up the wrong tree. The problem may lie with you, not this prospective buyer who’s proving so elusive.

Let me explain what’s likely happening, why it’s your problem but not your fault, and what you can do about it.

Anticipated regret

Our human minds are chock-full of mostly unexamined biases that can skew our decisions. You’ve probably heard of some of them: confirmation bias, affinity bias, recency bias and so forth. I want to introduce you to another: anticipated regret.

What’s that? The name gives a clue. When we make certain decisions, we’re aware of the fact that they could go wrong. Part of our brain is already regretting what we’ve done, in anticipation of the decision not turning out well. Anticipated regret can change a decision, or even make us forgo making any decision at all, for fear of being sorry for it later.

Behavioral research shows what a powerful phenomenon anticipated regret can be. One groundbreaking experiment was led by researchers from France’s prestigious National Center for Scientific Research Center and the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging at University College London.

Sticking with the safe choice

These researchers had 15 people play a gambling game while monitoring their brain functions by MRI. In the first set of rounds, participants saw only the outcomes of their decisions – “you won” or “you lost.”

But in the second round, when participants lost they were told how much they would have won if they’d chosen another answer. In other words, they were made to feel bad, to experience regret. In those moments, the MRI reports showed that their brains lit up in key areas involved in decision-making and emotional processing.

But here’s the kicker: The greater the regret, the more likely that they’d try to avoid further regret, by sticking with safer choices in the future.

All very interesting. But how does it apply to sales situations?

‘I can’t handle the truth’

As salespeople progress through the stages of the sale with each potential customer, they have to periodically decide whether to challenge the prospect with risky questions — including the closing one of “Are you going to buy?” This process, of course, is called qualifying. But what if you, the salesperson, are concerned that you’ll regret issuing these challenges? You may tell yourself that it feels too soon, or that you should play it safe.

What’s really happening, though, is that you’re afraid to hear the truth — for fear it will reveal the sale you so badly want isn’t going to happen after all. Your hesitation to press the prospect is simply an attempt to avoid getting at that possibly uncomfortable truth.

So as I said earlier, the problem is with you. But because it’s a function of a cognitive bias common to all human beings, it’s not your fault.

Once you’re aware of this, you can free your mind to ask those risky questions. For instance, if you’re challenging a prospect’s statement that she is the decision-maker, you might ask: “Is there anyone you need to consult before committing?” or “Who actually signs the contract?” If you’re challenging her assertion that her company needs to make a purchase soon, you might ask: “What would happen if you didn’t buy now? Would you be basically OK for a few months or a year?”

Bottom line: Don’t let fear of hearing the answer deter you from asking that tough question. If the sale is going to die, you might as well know now so you can move on.

(This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module, “Why Salespeople — Not Prospects — Are Responsible for Stalls,” based on the following research study: Coricelli, G. et al. (2005). Regret and its avoidance: A neuroimaging study of choice behavior. Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 8, No. 9, 1255-1262.)


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