Matt Dixon on overcoming customer indecision

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Customer experience analyst and best-selling author, Matt Dixon, sits down with TELUS International Studios to share insights from his new book, The JOLT Effect: How High Performers Overcome Customer Indecision. Dixon takes us through the bane of every salesperson's existence: a long customer courtship that ends with an "I'll think about it."

Leveraging a first-of-its-kind study that analyzed 2.5 million documented sales conversations through machine learning, Dixon reveals that 56% of sales loss is actually caused by customer indecisiveness. Listen to the episode to gain more sales growth best practices to overcome indecision.

To learn more about TELUS International and our digital CX solutions, contact us today.

The JOLT Effect: How high performers overcome customer indecision is available for pre-order now.

TRANSCRIPT

Intro: TELUS International Studios, where customer experience meets digital transformation.

Patrick Haughey (PH): And you are very welcome back to TELUS international studios. I'm your host Patrick Haughey, and on this episode I am delighted to be joined by someone who I've had the pleasure of speaking with at a few TELUS International events over the last couple of years. Matt Dixon is a CX and sales expert, he has written many best-selling books — one of the best known is The Effortless Experience, but he's joining us on this episode to talk about his newest book, currently available for pre-order. It's called The JOLT Effect: How High Performers Overcome Customer Indecision. To prepare for this book, 2.5 million documented sales conversations were studied using machine learning. So get ready to hear some very interesting insights from this first of its kind study. So I thought an interesting jumping off point with Matt might be a line that jumped out at me from the book's description when I was reading it. And that line reads: “In sales, the worst thing you can hear from a customer isn't ‘No,’ it is ‘I need to think about it.’ And I started by asking Matt why this is.

Matt Dixon (MD): Yeah, it's a great question. That's the beginning of the whole tale. And I love that line, too. Well, I don't love it: I hate it — it's terrible, it's really bad news actually, for sales people. But it speaks to what the whole story is about. You know, I think if I've been out there engaged with sales people, I know, obviously, Patrick, you and I have spent a lot of time talking about customer experience, customer service, the effortless experience, etc. The other hat I've worn as a researcher is really focused on business to business sales and commercial effectiveness, and how is buying behavior evolving and so on and so forth. And one of the things I've been struck by over the years is that when you ask a roomful of salespeople to think about the deals they've lost over the past quarter or the past year perhaps, and you ask them to categorize that into two different buckets. On the one hand, deals you lost to a named competitor. So the customer ends up buying but they didn't buy from you, they bought from somebody else. Versus customers where you lost, but you didn't lose to a competitor, you lost to no decision — you lost to the customer doing nothing. What you find is, in organization after organization, by far more hands go up around the latter, that salespeople feel like they're much more likely to lose to the customer doing nothing than buying from a competitor or, as you said, even just saying no.

MD: In fact, I think sometimes in sales we can feel like our sales people are heavily influenced by the last sales call they had, you know the product is too expensive, this competitor is eating our lunch, whatever it is. But in this case, our salespeople are actually onto something. We studied this with data and we’ll talk more about the research that went into the book, but I'll pull forward one finding, which is that anywhere between 40 and 60% of all deals are actually lost to no decision, to the customer doing nothing. And we studied this across 2.5 million sales conversations. We used machine learning to study it. And what we found is exactly what you said. If you look at all of the I would say hundreds of thousands of things that are said in sales conversations, both on the salesperson side and the customer side, by far in our analysis, the worst thing that can be uttered by the customer is I need to think about it. And the reason it's so bad is that, you know, the old adage in sales has long been that as a salesperson, you don't want to you don't want to chase garbage trucks, right? You don't want to pursue opportunities that have no chance of closing. So in many respects, for a salesperson, it's far preferable — it may be painful — but far preferable to be told no. The worst outcome is where you go through the entire sales process with the customer. For many companies that can be months or even years, and think about all the resources, the time investment from the salesperson side, the resources from their organization, not to mention all the resources from the customer side. These are customers who go through the demo, they go through multiple iterations of the proposal, they talk to your reference clients, they talk to your subject matter experts, you talk to all of the sales prevention departments inside the customer organization like legal, finance, procurement, etc., only for the customer to get cold feet late in the game and end up doing nothing. And so that is such a deadweight loss for the average salesperson, for sales managers and teams and for entire sales organizations. We do think that how to overcome that ‘no decision’ phenomenon, how to break through and pull more deals across the finish line is the thing that separates great sales organizations and great salespeople from the rest.

PH: We're going to come to those traits of a great salesperson who can manage to overcome the hurdle in a few minutes' time, because it's a fascinating area. We're looking at something very psychological here called omission bias. Is that right? Which you cover a little bit in the book. Just briefly explain what omission bias is and what kind of mistakes customers are looking to avoid.

MD: Yeah, perfect. So I think the conventional wisdom in sales has always been that if the salesperson starts to get cold feet, if they start to backpedal, wring their hands a bit, waver, waffle, straddle the fence, whatever term you want to use, that it must be that we've not we haven't put to rest the status quo, because we all know, even as human beings, we are predisposed to stay the course. We'll pass up on better options just for no other reason than we're lazy and we don't like to change. And for salespeople, that's a really powerful obstacle. But I think salespeople have always been taught that that is your only enemy in sales. And what we found was that in our analysis of 2.5 million sales conversations, when this customer starts to show signs of hesitancy, when they start to show those signs of cold feet, by far, three-quarters of salespeople we found go back and they kind of hammer the status quo. They either try to re-convince the customer that ‘you must not really understand the value that our solution is going to deliver.’ ‘You must not really understand how wonderful it is, the ROI projections and how amazing things are going to be on the other side.’ Or, when the customer doesn't respond to that, what do we do? We put away the carrot and we break out the stick. And what we try to do is show the customer the cost of inaction. And we do that by dialing up what's called FUD in sales: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

And what we're really trying to do is make the customer squirm a bit, make them feel the pain of what they're going to miss out on if they don't if they don't buy the solution. We actually found in the analysis, surprisingly, is that that approach, while it's commonly practiced, actually makes it 84% less likely you're going to get the customer out of no decision. So you actually increase the odds of the customer doing nothing by using some of those tactics designed to beat the status quo. And to your question, what we actually found, we realized that we wrestled with this quite a bit because it's been the conventional wisdom in sales for a very long time. In fact, we wrote about this in the Challenger Sale that the best salespeople are gifted at showing the customer that the “pain of same,” the pain of the status quo is actually worse than the pain of change. And that is one of the things they do really well. And so it came as a big surprise to us that that strategy, that approach backfires so often. And so we took a step back and what we realized was we were asking the wrong question. The question that we were asking was, what's the best way to beat the status quo? Maybe it's just not being done well. Maybe high performers have figured out a different technique that's really effective today. But the question we should have been asking is a bit different, which is not how do we beat the status quo, but rather why do customers make no decision? And it turns out the reason they make no decision is exactly what you talked about, Patrick, actually if you look at the psychology research and this is actually backed up in our own analysis, that there are really two reasons the customer will choose to do nothing. The first reason is that they're committed to their status quo, they just prefer the status quo. It could be that they don't believe your solution is superior to what they do today or they may just believe it's superior, but they believe their current approach is good enough. Right? ‘It's just not worth it for us to change.’ But there's a second reason that the customer will choose to do nothing. It's not commitment to the status quo, it's indecisiveness about changing the status quo. And I think when people hear that, what they immediately ask is, how are those two things different? You're telling me that customers choose to do nothing either because they prefer what they do today or because they don't want to change what they do today. And what we explain in the research is that those two things are massively different. And it's something that high performers get an average performance don't.

MD: So if we go to the psychology research, what we find is that there are really two types of loss that people in our customers are worried about. On the one hand, there are what are called errors of omission, which are mistakes and losses that we incur because we choose to do nothing. One of the old stories to illustrate is you're in a tennis tournament and your competitor has a peanut allergy and you sit down to enjoy a lunch before your match and you know there's something on the menu that has peanuts in it. The omission bias is when your competitor orders the dish that has peanuts in it and you don't say anything about it. And so they get sick and they have to drop out and you win. The opposite is an error of commission. Now, an order of commission is when you incur a loss because of something you did, not because you failed to do something right, but because you actually did something wrong. So the same metaphor uses you're sitting across the table from your tennis competitor and you proactively suggest they order the thing that has peanuts in it because you want them to get sick. Now, with those two scenarios, the outcome is exactly the same, your competitor has gotten sick and had to be rushed to hospital, etc. But by and large, everyone was more comfortable with the first one because I didn't have anything to do with it. The second one is ‘a thing I did.’ ‘I did something wrong.’ And what we find with customers is that when they're facing two different options, whenever something could go wrong by me not choosing to buy your solution, we could not capitalize on an opportunity, or I could buy your solution, and then something bad could happen as a result, they will choose to do nothing far more often than they'll choose to do something and run the risk of getting something wrong. Now, the three types of things they're worried about getting wrong are:

MD: One, I picked the wrong option. We think about all the options we put in front of our customers. So often they start to wring their hands about, ‘I'm not sure if I'm picking the right contract length’ or the right scope of the agreement or ‘I'm buying the premium version — should I really just buy the basic version?’

MD: The second thing is they start to worry that they haven't done enough research and think about all the content out there about every vertical, every technology out there. And they start to fret over the fact that it’s the next white paper that they would consume that will have all the answers that they need to be a smart consumer.

MD: The third source of indecision is what we call outcome uncertainty. This is where the customer, before they sign on the dotted line, starts to worry that they don't have any assurance that they're going to get the benefits they're paying for. And despite your rosy ROI projections, despite the great demos and proof of concept trials you did, despite the wonderful reference calls and the great analyst reports they read about your company, the customer is worried that they might be the one company for whom this whole thing goes sideways and if that happens, somebody's head is going to roll. And the person who is going to roll first is the person whose name is on the contract.

MD: So those three things: I'm picking the wrong option, I didn't do enough homework, or I'm going to be left holding the bag (if you will) and not getting what I'm paying for, are the sources of indecision, which interestingly have nothing to do with the customer's preference for the status quo. And so it helps explain why we see this phenomenon that salespeople who are taught that every indecisive customer, every waffling and wavering customer with cold feet, must be struggling with a preference for the status quo. So you go back and, you know, your ‘beat the status quo playbook’ is like a hammer, every indecisive customer looks like a nail. But in fact, if they're worried about something else, then going back and trying to convince them of the loss that might result from inaction only gives them more to be worried about when they're actually worried about something quite different. So we found in the research that high performers have figured out a different playbook, a companion playbook not just for beating the status quo, but for laying to rest or overcoming these sources of customer indecision.

PH: And does this take us to the JOLT effect?

MD: Absolutely, yeah. So what we found is, there's again, there's two playbooks. We've all got ‘the beat the status quo’ playbook. We wrote a book about challenger selling; we happen to think being a challenger is one of the best ways to beat the status quo. But as I said before, it's only part of the story. If beating the status quo is all about showing the customer the cost of inaction, overcoming indecision is getting them more comfortable with the action you're asking them to take, making them feel like you're making a good choice, don't worry about the other options, you're picking the right thing. You've done enough research, you're in good hands. I'm your subject matter expert, your trusted advisor, and don't worry, you're not jumping out of a plane without a parachute. There are some assurances we can give you that this is going to actually work out well for your organization, etc. So if the beat the status quo playbook is about dialing up the fear of not purchasing with the customer, then the playbook for overcoming indecision is about dialing down the fear of purchasing, right? It's making the customer more confident and comfortable in the decision you're asking them to make, which they are quite anxious about, right. I didn't do enough homework. I'm picking the wrong thing. I don't have any assurance this is going to work out for me. And so JOLT is a set of four behaviors, and I'll just explain what they are really quickly, that together form this playbook for overcoming indecision:

MD: The J is judging the level of indecision. And what we found is that high performers are quite good not just at assessing opportunities and customers on their ability to buy their solution, but also on their ability to make a decision. So not just the ability to buy, but the ability to decide. And they do that through active listening, probing questions, and powerful requests they make that elicit responses from the customer that tell them, ‘Is this person somebody who can actually make a decision and do so in a reasonable amount of time?’

MD: The O: offer your recommendation. So salespeople have been taught for a very, very long time that it's all about diagnosing the customer's needs, understanding what they want. And the hope is that by asking good questions, the customer will figure out on their own what they really want or what they need. But what high performers know is there's a time for asking and letting 1000 flowers bloom, and then there's a time for telling and making a recommendation, because with too many options on the table, the customer again will get wrapped around the axle about what they should choose and they'll fear I'm going to choose the wrong thing, and that will become an irreversible decision.

MD: The L is limiting the exploration. So in a world where customers want to continue to consume content, they always feel like they're not enough of an expert on the technology or on the platform or on the competitive landscape or on the decision they're being asked to make. They will consume information endlessly, and there's no way that they could possibly develop the level of expertise that we as salespeople have. And so we've got to put a limit to their exploration, and the way we do that is we've got to earn the trust, the trust and credibility, if you will, the customers trust, and we've got to establish our credibility as trusted subject matter experts who have the customer's best interests in mind, and that we can guide them through this learning journey and that they don't need to consume all the content because we've already done that. And we are their trusted advisor.

MD: And then finally the T: this is about taking risk off the table. So when our customer's hand is hovering over the contract and they’re worried: ‘boy, this is a really big investment, it's a really big decision for our organization and what if this goes sideways on us?’ We've got to provide some assurance that we've got their back, that things are going to go fine. And sometimes it comes down to additional professional services support, not that we give it away for free, but proactively suggesting that starting smaller, getting the customer to not bite off more than you can chew, or creative contract structuring that gets us in a place where the customer feels like they've got a safety net if things start to slide, if they start to go sideways. So that is the JOLT Effect. And we like it because it's memorable, but it also speaks to what's happening here, right? It's about jolting our customers out of their indecisive state toward action.

PH: It's really, really interesting. And actually everything you're talking about there, there's a couple of words that are shining through to me, which are customer success, it's not just ‘make the sale and that’s it.’ It's not a new area, but it's certainly been more in focus in the last few years that we come out the other side of the funnel with a whole new funnel, which is making sure that the product is used properly, that we keep we keep them educated, that we're there for them. Is there an element of this in all of that?

MD: 100%. We talk about actually in that T chapter, taking risk off the table, that one of the best things that that salespeople can do is pull forward some of those customer success engagements, laying out the roadmap for how we're going to work together, the project plan, here are the key milestones, here are the metrics. Let's get the quarterly business review meeting set up now, let's get all of this lined up because we know from working with companies who get a ton of value out of our solution, this is the roadmap for success. So it sends the customer the impression that you've done this before. You know where the pitfalls are, you know where the landmines are, you're going to start thinking one step ahead and you're going to make sure that we're going to end up in a good spot — this is a huge confidence giver for the customer.

PH: And on that note, and again, in relation to customer success, is that the area where a lot of this is about the sale and the salesperson, but when it comes to CX professionals, customer experience professionals, what are the lessons here as well?

MD: Yeah, for others who support the sales organization, whether that's marketing, it's customer success, I think understanding that when our customers start to waver, it is more often than not, in fact, I didn't mention this before, but what we found is if you divvy up losses to no decision by losses to the status quo versus losses to indecision, you find that indecision actually encompasses more of those losses. 56% of the losses are because the customer is indecisive, it's not because they're in love with the way they do things today. And for all of us in the organization to understand the sources of that indecision so that we can work together to get our customers over the hump and get them across the finish line, again, whether that's customer success, articulating the plan to work together, even proactively introducing you to your customer success team members, and maybe sharing roadmaps and project plans that have been successful with other clients and talking openly about the risks and the pitfalls and the landmines you want to avoid. Or it's marketing perhaps, figuring out what are, what are the configurations that we should pre-package into, kind of, if you will, “Happy Meals,” because we know when customers buy this configuration, they're really, really happy. So let's package those up, let's market around those and let's train our sales people to actually advocate for those solutions because we know when people buy it that way or buy that configuration, they're much more happy with the results. Or lastly, it might be finance, it might be thinking about some of those ways to do creative contract structuring, terms and conditions that provide that assurance to the customer, instead of making salespeople go and ask for permission every single time they want to grant an exception or flex a term or condition in a contract.

PH: It feels like everything we watched and learned from Glengarry Glen Ross ‘always be closing’ is actually wrong. It's turned on its head, Matt.

MD: Although I will say I will say Alec Baldwin did have a point. You do want to get the customer to sign on the line, which is dotted.

PH: Just a couple of final questions, Matt. Are these same techniques that we've just talked about, do they apply to securing contract renewals with existing customers?

MD: Yeah, it's a great question, Patrick. Actually, I was reminded of this recently. My co-author, Ted McKenna, who did a lot of the data analysis, reminded me that we actually did have a fair number of account managers in the sample. And so some of these behaviors about gauging indecision, offering recommendations, limiting exploration, taking risk off the table, matter as much to existing customers as they do to new customers. Now, some of those things I think might matter to different degrees. So offering recommendations, think about when the account manager is often in the position to have to not just renew the contract, but to introduce cross-sell and upsell opportunities, or ideas, new integrations, expansion. It is in many companies today ‘land and expand’ is the motion of sales. And so the account manager is the one leading the expansion charge, which is very much a sales motion. So guiding the customer, making a recommendation and also building credibility and trust by telling them what they shouldn't buy. I know you want to go over here, but I actually don't know that that's the best fit for our solution. Where, you know what, in an extreme world, I know you're looking for us to help you here. We're honored that you turned to us, but this is actually not what we're good at, it's actually a competitor of ours, I know people over there, and I'd be happy to put you in touch. So these kinds of conversations can be huge credibility builders, because, again, our customer is not just going to going to feel indecision when they're weighing the purchase, they're going to feel indecision when they're weighing a bigger contract next time around or renewing for a number of years, right, which is very much the job of the account manager, that indecision will creep up in any, in either scenario, I should say.

PH: Finally, what's made this book possible and what has allowed you to maybe turn some of the perceived wisdom around sales kind of on its head in a lot of ways is rich data, which, ironically, COVID-19, allowed you to collect.

MD: That's right. That's right. Yeah. I think right around the time that everyone was watching Tiger King and learning to make sourdough bread, I think what Ted and I realized was there was this golden and maybe once in a lifetime opportunity as sales researchers, which was to study sales in a truly ethnographic way, which is to go where the rubber hits the road, the actual sales conversation. And what made that possible is when the entire world of sales went virtual overnight in March or April of 2020. And so we worked with several dozen companies to, if you will, harvest 2.5 million recorded sales conversations, then use a machine learning platform to do the analysis. And so it was, again, I don't know that we'll ever be afforded the same opportunity, I think some sales will start to go back to live in the future, so this may be a one-time thing, but I think virtual is still going to be a big chunk of the way we sell moving forward. Customers like it, it brings some efficiencies to the sales organization, the sales person. It's better work-life balance for our sales people and they don't have to fly around on planes all the time, not to mention better for the environment. So it was a really exciting initiative and maybe a once in a lifetime thing, but it was this fantastic, I think, once in a lifetime opportunity for us as sales researchers to study sales in this completely new way. We were very much inspired by Neil Rackham's work when he wrote Spin Selling, and he and his team spent 10 years physically sitting in on 35,000 sales calls and it never occurred to us that anything like that could ever be accomplished again until COVID-19 happened, and suddenly, now there we go.

PH: Well, it's fantastic. So where can people find more information and pre-order and buy the book?

MD: Yeah, sure. The book is coming out from Penguin Random House on September 20. The Jolt Effect: How High Performers Overcome Customer Indecision. So you can find it listed on the Penguin Random House site as well as everywhere where fine books are sold. And you can go to www.jolteffect.com and get more information there. We’ll be releasing bonus content, we have a pre-order offer out there for people who buy early, send us their receipt at preorders@jolteffect.com and we'll sign you up for a virtual event in September that we'll be running. And we'd love to host all of your listeners at that event.

PH: Matt Dixon, a pleasure as always. Thanks so much for joining us on TELUS International Studios.

MD: Take care.

PH: And a very big thanks to Matt Dixon for such a fascinating conversation. But it's only a taste of what's in Matt's book, so please do check out the links we leave in the show notes here and purchase a copy for yourself. Thanks again for listening to another episode of TELUS International Studios and I hope you can join us for the next one coming soon.


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