B2B Buyers: from Fear of Missing Out to Fear of Messing Up

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As Matt Dixon (of Challenger Sale and Challenger Customer fame) points out in his latest book “The Jolt Effect”, B2B salespeople have been preconditioned by most of the established sales methodologies to focus on cultivating their customer’s fear of missing out (FOMO).

The fear of missing out is, of course, particularly significant in discretionary purchases where the prospective customer doesn’t have to buy and believes they could potentially get along just fine by continuing on their current path and doing nothing.

When it comes to discretionary purchases, it is well established that the salesperson has to manage two sales in parallel: the first “sell” involves persuading the customer that they need to change rather than stick with the status quo and the second “sell” involves convincing the customer that the vendor’s approach represents the prospective customer’s best available option.
FOMO has an important role to play in both of these “sells”. Selling change requires that we persuade our prospective customer that they will lose out in a significant way - both at an organisational level and (in the case of the key stakeholders in the decision) at a personal level if they choose to perpetuate the status quo.

If we fail to convince them of the costs and consequences of inaction - if we fail to answer their “why do we need to change?” question clearly enough - they are likely to continue on their current path. But, as Dixon points out, studies of buying psychology tell us that cultivating a strong fear of missing out is only part of the equation.

Our prospective buyers are clearly driven by a desire to achieve both personal and organisational success. But they are also often constrained by their fear of failure, and the consequences of making a “wrong” or “bad” decision - and this frequently results in the preservation of the status quo as the apparently safest option.

Decision-making errors fall into two primary categories: errors of omission are the consequence of failing to make a decision that in retrospect clearly needed to be made (“deciding to do nothing” can often fall into this category) and errors of commission are the consequences that follow from making and implementing what in retrospect turns out to be a bad decision.

Most errors of omission tend not to attract personal blame. The failure to decide can often be seen as a collective rather than an individual failure - so from the perspective of personal reputation, sticking with the status quo might appear to be the least risk option. Why should they stick their neck out, if their decision could come back and bite them?

On the other hand, many errors of commission can be directly associated with the individuals or groups who made the decision to act. If the decision to act results in outright or partial failure, this can damage the reputations of those concerned and affect their chances of advancement. Unless they are absolutely sure of success, this can cause decision-makers to hold back or defer their commitment to change.

Company culture plays a key part in this. Many more progressive organisations say that they promote an environment of well-informed and well-intentioned decision-making and intelligent risk-taking. But this needs to be reinforced by the treatment that is actually applied to risk-takers. Are they in practice rewarded, or can their careers sometimes be held back by the well-intentioned failures?

Risk aversion is a more powerful factor in B2B buying decision journeys than we might usually acknowledge. If we’re trying to sell change, of course we need do our best to persuade our prospective customers of the costs and consequences of sticking with the status quo and staying on their current path. But we need to be careful not to over-do it to the point where our prospective customer just feels brow-beaten by our approach.

And I suggest that we always need to balance our efforts to increase our prospective customer’s fear of missing out with a parallel effort to reduce or eliminate their fear of messing up if they do decide to implement our change proposal.

Here are some of the keys to establishing a constructive balance between FOMO and FOMU:

  • Make sure you understand your prospective customer’s desired outcomes - and seek to influence and shape those outcomes in a way that shows a clear and significant contrast between their current situation and their desired future state
  • Always lead towards your solution, rather than with it. Make sure that you have fully uncovered and understood your prospect’s situation - including all their hopes and fears - before responding with your proposal
  • Avoid throwing out unresearched artificial short-term financial incentives/discounts that your customers are not in a position to take advantage of or are unlikely to be receptive to - you just end up looking desperate without actually changing the customer’s behaviour (and damaging your credibility at the same time)
  • Make sure you have identified and addressed all the risk factors that are going through the decision-maker’s minds - including those that they may not have acknowledged to you. If they haven’t raised a common risk that you often hear from other similar customers, it’s often best to raise it and deal with it rather than hoping it doesn’t exist
  • Establish a clear connection between this project (and your approach to delivering it) and the organisation’s current top corporate priorities and initiatives. It is far easier to get approval for projects that are clearly aligned with the organisation’s most important current goals
  • Pay particular attention to the motivations of your primary sponsor and all the other stakeholders that will have to align around your proposed solution. Make sure that they all believe that the path you are proposing is the one that best addresses both their personal and organisational priorities
  • Seek to amplify the costs and consequences of inaction whilst mitigating or eliminating the risks associated with a decision to take action

Let’s face it: if you can’t address your prospective customer’s fears of messing up, it may be you that misses out (on an otherwise winnable sale) as well as your customer!

And if you haven’t read The Jolt Effect yet, you must!

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