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Real reasons you can't close the sale - and how to overcome them

To increase the effectiveness of your sales techniques, it is critical to understand your customer’s behaviour and thinking, writes BRI WILLIAMS.


Apathy or laziness 
Process of purchasing is too slow or convoluted

Decision paralysis
Too many choices; hard to compare options directly 

Anxiety and fear
Overthinking the decision; afraid of making the ‘wrong’ choice

There was once a judge who, at the start of every trial, would step out from behind the bench, approach the defendant, and shake their hand. “I have just shaken the hand of an innocent person,” he would proclaim. Why did he bother?

As we know, the Western justice system is predicated on the concept that a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, jury members are prone to judge the defendant before the facts are even introduced, and throughout the trial, will seek confirmatory evidence for their view.

For many, the defendant is ‘guilty until proven innocent’. By proclaiming the defendant innocent, the judge used his authority to correct the decision-making frame for jurors: start from a point of innocence, not guilt.

So, how does this relate, and what does this mean for, you as a retailer?

In business, you are the defendant and your customers are like jurors, who arrive at decision of purchasing decisions based on expectations. To customers, you are guilty until proven innocent – they are predisposed not to buy your product or service.

The upshot is you can often be at cross-purposes with your customer during the sales process. You think they will make a decision based on factors that you consider important – for example, how much time you have put into designing or manufacturing your product, or your credibility, experience and expertise.

However, they are using their own frame of reference, such as how the price of your product compares to other options, the opportunity cost of their time and money if they spend it with you, and their deep-seated motivations for wanting to buy.

"Re-frame the context for a decision; that means moving the customer away from points of comparison or assumptions about your product"

Once this is understood, you can use behavioural science techniques in order to change the customer’s frame of reference. In essence, you become the judge that shakes the defendant’s hand.

Changing behaviour

There are several simple ways to re-frame your customer’s thinking. The first step is to prove you understand their objective. Don’t start your sales process by talking about ‘yourself’. Many salespeople open by discussing their value proposition, using statements like, “We do x, and we do y”. Instead, communicate that you understand your customer’s needs or wants, and describe how your product or service can solve it.

Next, re-frame the context for a decision; that means moving the customer away from points of comparison or assumptions about your product.

A famous example of re-framing is Red Bull. The company did not market the beverage within the hyper-competitive soft-drink sector. Instead, the marketing team re-framed its category to ‘functional’ drinks. In doing so, they added to the product’s perceived value and were able to charge substantially more per unit.

To change your customer’s behaviour, you may also need to signify why you are worthy of their trust. You don’t have a judge to proclaim your innocence, so you must instead use credibility cues – for example, testimonials and online product reviews from previous customers – to build your reputation.

Finally, you can change the context of your customer’s decision-making. There is a popular anecdote describing a meeting between a chief financial officer (CFO) and a chief executive officer (CEO) as they decide how much to spend on training their employees. The CFO says, “What if we train people and they leave?” 

The CEO responds, “What if we don’t, and they stay?”

In other words, changing the context of the decision-making can be helpful in encouraging your customer to re-think the position not to buy. What if they purchase your product as a gift, and the recipient doesn’t like it? On the other hand, what if they don’t buy it and the recipient is disappointed they received nothing at all?

All about the angles

One of my hobbies is stone carving: taking a hammer and chisel to a block of hard rock to see what emerges. A mistake in stone carving is to assume that all stone is the same. In fact, each piece has its own weaknesses and strengths.

At first, I must make a few tentative strikes to allow the stone to reveal something to me. Once the desired outcome forms in my mind, I can work towards it. This is how retailers can approach behaviour change.

Rather than jumping in with fixed assumptions, we first need to spend some time ‘noodling around’ to understand the person or people we are trying to influence. For this task, I use an empathy map broken into categories, including what they think and feel, say and do, see and hear, and their goals. This tool assists in clarifying the mindset of the target market or individual customer, and focuses on the specific context in which their behaviour is occurring. 

A slab of stone is inert, immovable. Your customer may seem that way too – whatever you try, they are not going to budge. If you attempt to tackle a slab of stone by pummelling the centre, it will do one of two things: resist until you are defeated, or resist until a fissure forms that destroys it.

In either case, a blunt, frontal assault is ineffective. Instead you must use angles, chipping away at the edges, towards your objective.

The same principle applies to behaviour change. If you are too blunt or forceful, your attempts will be resisted. This is known as reactance, and has been found to reduce the effectiveness of advertisements such as Nike’s famous ‘Just Do It’ campaign.

"If you are too blunt or forceful, your attempts will be resisted. This is known as reactance, and has been found to reduce the effectiveness of advertisements such as Nike’s famous ‘Just Do It’ campaign"

Telling someone they have to do something, that it will be ‘good for’ them, or even providing a litany of facts and figures to justify it, is unlikely to be persuasive. Instead, the behavioural science-based approach is to anticipate reasons for their resistance and devise angles for addressing each barrier.

There are three reasons people resist:

  • Apathy or laziness – they can’t be bothered to go through the process of purchasing
  • Decision paralysis – they might be interested but are confused as to what they need to do
  • Anxiety and fear – they might be interested but are worried about proceeding

While it takes a certain amount of force to chip into rock, it’s more about being precise and consistent, working with the stone rather than attempting to have it yield to your will.

With behaviour change, it’s not about how much money you spend or how loudly you communicate your message – it’s about small, well-considered ‘nudges’. A clear call-to-action button on a website can impact conversion rates more than a TV ad – just as opting out being the default on a form can change an entire country’s rate of organ donation. Moving fruit to within arms’ reach in an office block cafe can change how the entire workforce eats.

American writer, philosopher and artist Elbert Hubbard once said, “The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed – it is a process of elimination.”

Influencing another person’s behaviour can seem very complicated, and a natural tendency is to try to add more information or interactions. But as with stone carving, behaviour change can be more effective through elimination: eliminating superfluous information, eliminating unnecessary choices, and eliminating ‘noise’ that distracts from the objective.

By focusing your efforts on the three science-based reasons for resistance – apathy, paralysis and anxiety – you can eliminate indecision efficiently and effectively. And by reframing your product and your sales approach, you can change your customer-jurors’ minds.

Bri Williams

Bri Williams is founder of People Patterns, a specialist consultancy that applies behavioural science to everyday business issues. Visit:

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