If there is just one thing I can be sure of after a quarter century of studying and teaching sales and persuasive techniques, it’s that people do things for their own reasons, not yours. What you think might be an airtight reason to buy your product might leave the other person cold, and reasons that you don’t think would carry any weight might be the most important thing in their world.
Sales is about getting people to change; that’s a given. But the question we consider in this article is: Does the direction of change matter? When someone is mulling a decision whether to buy a product or adopt a proposal, they can think of the positive benefits they’ll get, the consequences of not acting, or some combination of the two. If you’re the one on the selling side of that decision, does it matter how you frame it? Does the direction of change matter? In other words, are people more likely to act or buy when moving away from pain, or toward gain?
The short answer is: it’s complicated.
On average, as I’ve written before, there is a lot of power in stressing the negative. According to prospect theory, an idea which won Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize in Economics, potential losses outweigh gains on average, which means that people are more likely to act or take a risk to avoid a loss than to secure the equivalent gain. So it makes sense to emphasize the negative during your sales conversation, at least initially.
But it’s also possible to drown crossing a river that only averages three feet deep. Just because deciders tend to shun negatives, does not mean that they all shun negatives, or that they do so at the same rate as everyone else. In fact, other research has found that people definitely differ in the way they view risks and benefits. Some are promotion-focused, which means that they keep their eyes on the prize, while others are prevention-focused, which means that they are more concerned with avoiding risk.
In greater detail, here are a few major differences between the two orientations that are relevant to your sales challenge:
- “Pros” view products holistically and respond to abstract benefits; “pres” focus on detailed features and concrete benefits.
- Pros care more about individual aspirations; pres care more about team obligations.
- Pros prefer “BOB”: pres prefer “MON”
- When pros like what they’re hearing, they get excited and act happy; when pres do, they feel relief and act calm.
- Pros rely a lot on how a decision feels; pres rely on the reasons for their choice. (sizzle v. steak)
- As they get closer to a decision, pros are eager, pres are vigilant.
Tory Higgins of Columbia University, who literally wrote the book on this idea (Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works), reports on an experiment in which participants were given the opportunity to choose between a mug or a pen. But before they made their choice, they were given instructions about how to make the choice. Half were told to think about what they would gain by choosing either the mug or the pen, and half were told to think about what they would lose by their choice. In addition, they had previously been assessed to identify the “pres” and the “pros”. Almost all chose the mug. Next, they were given the opportunity to buy the mug with their own money. There was no difference between the two groups in how much they offered for the mug—in other words, whether they focused on the gains or the pains did not affect how much they were willing to pay.
What did matter—a lot—was the “fit” between the instructions and the orientation. Those who received instructions that lined up with their preferred mode (the pros who were told to focus on the gains and the pres who were told to focus on the losses) paid almost 70% more for the same mug than those whose instructions clashed with their preferred approach!
What this means for you is that if you know which orientation your buyers favor, you can tailor your sales approach and your messaging to be more effective for the specific individual and pump up your win rate. Or, to put it another way, not knowing the difference means that you may be leaving some money on the table.
Which of those two previous sentences did more to perk up your interest? Here’s one more test: when you read product ratings for a potential purchase, do you first read the 5-star ratings or the 1-star ratings? If you read the 5-star ratings first, you have a promotion focus; otherwise you have a prevention focus. The point is that your own orientation matters, because it affects how you sell.
How does it work?
First, it’s important to realize that adjusting your sales approach to fit with the buyer’s motivational orientation will help enhance attitudes they already have towards your solution; it’s not a magic bullet that can somehow flip their choice if they’re strongly opposed to it. But most buying decisions are not clear-cut in one direction or other (if they were, why would they need you?) and in that situation alignment or fit can help tip the scales in your favor for three reasons.
Engagement: First, the buyer gets more engaged in listening to the message. You can’t influence someone who’s not paying attention, and people are more likely not only pay attention but to engage more deeply into your message when it fits their dominant mode.
Understanding: It’s also helpful when people understand your message, and people find it easier to process information when it fits.
Feeling: Decision feels more or less “right”, and if it’s true that people decide emotionally first and then rationalize it later, that’s certainly one side of the equation you want to be on.
Just to add one more complication to the mix: people are not always consistent in their approach. For one thing, they may have different focuses in different areas of their life. For another, people can be primed to adopt a different approach temporarily. And, more relevant to sales, a lot depends on what they’re deciding on. When you’re buying a fire extinguisher you’re probably not thinking of how good it’s going to look on your wall, for example.
So, what does this all mean for your sales approach? There are two ways to get the answer. First, that’s a topic I’ll cover in my next post. Second, you can tune in to a free webinar I’m running next week on the Sales Experts Channel, Wednesday, June 7 at 5pm eastern.
 “Best Of Breed” vs. “Meets Our Needs” i.e. best vs good enough
 More technically, they call it regulatory fit.