B2B Sales: Contrast Drives Change

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Many analysts claim – and many sales people would agree – that today’s most powerful competitor is not another similar vendor, but the status quo. A “do nothing” or “change nothing” decision is now the most common outcome of complex B2B buying decision journeys.

For ongoing purchases, the perceived cost and risk of change tends to give the incumbent supplier an advantage unless their position is eroded by internal or external forces. And for new purchases the same concerns over the impact of disruption mean that the prospective customer is unlikely to change unless the reasons to act are compelling.

Competing against the status quo requires that we establish a clear contrast in our customer’s mind between the negative consequences of continuing on their current trajectory and the positive benefits of embracing the need for change. If we cannot, they are unlikely to change…

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist, and his discoveries have helped us to better understand how to help our customers recognise and respond to the need for change. The first factor – called status quo bias – can be summarised as “if they don’t feel a compelling need to change, they won’t”.

But it’s his second discovery – risk aversion – that gives us a clue about how best to compete against the status quo. And it’s not, as so many technology sales people are inclined to do, primarily about extolling the benefits of investing in our solution. Having an apparently solid ROI isn’t enough.

That’s because our customers are two-to-three times more likely to change their behaviour to avoid a risk than they are to change their behaviour in the hope of gaining an advantage. The avoidance of pain is a more powerful motivator than the pursuit of gain.

So maybe we shouldn’t just be thinking about creating a compelling return on investment case. Maybe we should be putting just as much (or more) energy into helping our customers recognise the costs and consequences of inaction.

Our objective should surely be to help to establish the strongest possible contrast between the costs, risks and consequences of continuing on their current trajectory and the provable economic and non-economic benefits of making a change for the better.

If we fail to do so, we only have ourselves to blame if despite all our efforts our customer ultimately decides that they are perfectly happy sticking with the status quo. Maybe we could have made a stronger case. Or maybe we should have recognised that it was not going to be possible to establish enough contrast and have qualified the opportunity out earlier.

Contrast drives change. But contrast also influences choice. Even if our customer concludes that change is necessary, if they see little differentiation between their available options, they are likely to choose the cheapest or most familiar option.

If we are already well known to them, or if we are clearly the least expensive option, this will act to our advantage. But if – as is common in most new business situations – we are a relatively unknown quantity, then we had better be distinctively different from their other options.

Note that this is about appearing to be different, and not just about claiming to be better. So many vendors are using such similar language that it’s hard for a prospective customer to make any sense of their competing claims.

Most vendor claims to have a “better” solution turn out to be either meaningless, irrelevant or unbelievable. This is particular true when technology vendors descend into feature wars or comparing feeds-and-speeds. And it’s also true when vendors claim that “their people are our greatest asset”.

Who wouldn’t try and claim that? And because everybody does, the claim becomes meaningless unless the prospective customer has had a direct positive experience of their exposure to the vendor’s team.

If we are to earn our prospect’s respect and win their business, we’re unlikely to do so by fighting a low-level feature war. We need to show how our vision of their potential is different from the other options they might be considering.

We need to show how we turn the trends that are inevitably impacting their business to their advantage. We need to articulate a view and a vision of their world and their potential that stands out and motivates them.

And then we need to show how our approach, our philosophy and our solution architecture is distinctively and memorably different from their other potential choices. Simon Sinek nailed the psychology behind this in his famous “Start with Why” TED talk.

In a nutshell, our most valuable customers don’t just buy us for what we do. They buy into why we do it and are prepared to pay a premium for how we do it. They buy into us because they see a clear contrast between their current situation and their future potential.

They choose to work with us because they see a clear contrast between our vision and the messages presented by their other options. They choose to work with us because they see a clear contrast between our ability to execute on our promises and the offers they get from other vendors.

I believe that they buy us because contrast drives change.

If you believe what I believe, then please spend a few moments reflecting on your current positioning and message to the market. Does it use similar language to your competitors? Does it sound “me-too” or does it genuinely break through?

Perhaps even more important, do your sales people sound the same as those of your competitors when they talk to their prospects? Do they use the same buzzwords and spout the same platitudes?

Or are they having the sort of conversations that establish clear unarguable contrast between what you have to offer and all of your prospect’s other options – including their right to stick with the status quo and “do nothing”?

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