Inertia and aversion to change

You've carefully identified and qualified the prospect, clearly identified a need and even gotten them to speak about their “pain” and the challenges they are facing in retaining their current solution. You’ve made a sterling ROI presentation to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of your solution and the fact that it will return the full cost of the investment in less than a year! Still, no sale!

The frustration you experience goes something like this. You know the prospect has a need; the prospect has acknowledged they have a need. Budget may be an issue, but you know (and they confirm) if they purchase the payoff will be there, and you’ve demonstrated that. Still there is no action.

The question then is what can you do to get them to move forward? What type of compelling circumstance can be identified that will make the prospect MOVE?

Of course there is no simple answer. You might try offering a pilot (no risk) effort, or informing them of what their biggest competitor is doing, or offering a SaaS model, or somehow reducing the time and investment implementation would require, or offering a migration solution, etc. But the real trick is to identify the internal triggers that impede a decision.

The fact is that when most sales are lost, they are lost to “no decision,” rather than to competitors. Think about your own experiences in selling. Retaining the status quo is probably the outcome in a plurality of situations (perhaps even a majority). And this is true even when the prospect clearly recognizes a need for change and is fully aware of the huge costs to their business of retaining the status quo. The real challenge that you face is inertia.

The role of inertia in buying and selling is well documented. For many years, companies would send consumers unsolicited goods, with the expectation that many will prefer to make the purchase rather than return the goods. That practice is called “inertia selling.”

The obverse practice of “inertia buying” is also well known. It refers to situations in which an end user simply buys the same brand over and over without consideration of alternatives that may even offer far more benefit. You may recall the old IT adage that “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” Dell was often the beneficiary of the very same tendencies. And, in the grocery arena and with other consumer products, it’s extremely common.

Economists have identified a related concept called “loss aversion” that seems to me to be quite similar to the concept of inertia. So, I looked up the term “loss aversion” on Wikipedia. What I found was a solid, well-referenced article which defines loss aversion as referring to “people's tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically,” While there are studies on both sides of whether or not it actually exists in practice, it is pretty widely recognized that the phenomenon occurs, whether it’s called loss aversion or inertia.

Whether you are selling to small businesses or large enterprises, inertia plays a key role in the process. You need to attend to it and understand it’s influences if you hope to be successful.

Sales gurus like Ari Galper speak about how the more traditional sales process puts pressure on both the prospect and the sales person. It creates a “chasing game” in which the sales person’s hopes and expectations lead them to pursue relentlessly the prospect who has failed to act on executing an agreement that they have verbally affirmed. “What is holding things up?” they ask. “What can we do to get this deal done?” That pressure is a source of resistance and may actually be a source of inertia. People simply do not like to be pushed into decisions. They want to feel as if they made them openly and willingly. Ari counsels sales people to avoid pressure situations for themselves as well as for their prospects.

From my perspective, it’s vital to understand the pressure dynamic as well as the source of the inertia you will inevitably confront in order to address it effectively.

In large enterprises, in which many people are often involved in making a decision, the process is often as in this cartoon. And the more important the decision, the greater the role inertia plays in the process. In order to have success in these situations, it is vital to understand the basic psyche of the organization – its culture with respect to the dimension of change.

Is this an organization that embraces change with great vigor, always at the leading edge? Or is it more conservative in outlook – a laggard – climbing on board only well after a solution has been proven effective?

Having that level of understanding about your prospect organization will not only provide you with the tools to be more successful in selling, it will also enable you to make choices about how to best allocate your valuable time and effort. You’ll also benefit from knowing who most often plays a leadership role in the organization, promoting change and the adoption of new practices, and who within the organization leads the resistance.

Salespeople often fret about understanding who THE “decision maker” is. Unless they are speaking with that individual, it’s “not worth their time and effort.” What they really ought to be focused on are the key players in the change dynamic. These are the folks who may have the greatest impact on the decision and who need most to be heard and cultivated.

At ETI Sales Support, one of the key roles we take on when we work with our clients to develop new business is to help them build precisely this kind of a profile. When we engage consultatively with a contact in a prospect organization, we try to not only probe to understand the ins and outs of their current practices and needs and concerns, but we try to understand their organization’s orientation to change and the key players in that dynamic whom we or the client’s sales rep might encounter along the way.

We want to anticipate the inertia and proactively provide our clients with the tools they need to engage that prospect organization productively. We think understanding the role of inertia (and pressure) in the sales process is vital to our clients’ success in selling effectively, and we believe this is a best practice worthy of wider adoption.

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