Ask any salesperson and they’ll tell you that they’re far more likely to lose a deal to “no decision” than to the competition. In a large-scale study of more than 2.5 million recorded sales conversations — spanning both transactional and complex sales — we found that anywhere between 40% and 60% of deals today end up lost to customers who express their intent to purchase, but ultimately fail to act. These customers will often go through the entire sales process — consuming valuable seller time and organizational resources, perhaps even engaging in extended pilots or proof-of-concept trials — only to end up not crossing the finish line.
For decades, salespeople have been taught that there is only one possible reason for this outcome: that they have failed to defeat the customer’s status quo. Perhaps the customer doesn’t fully appreciate the problem that the salesperson’s solution is designed to solve, the thinking goes. Or maybe they don’t yet see enough daylight between their company’s solution and that of the competition. So, salespeople break out their arsenal of tools to prove to the customer the many ways their solutions will help them win. And, when all else fails, they dial up the “FUD” — or, fear, uncertainty, and doubt — to tap into the customer’s fear of missing out. They show the customer what they stand to lose by doing nothing, sticking with the status quo, and not making this purchase today.
And to support reps in this effort, sales organizations have spent untold amounts of time and money on sales training, coaching, and enablement. They equip their reps with better scripting, tighter value proposition messaging, customer case studies, reviews, testimonials, proof points, ROI calculators, and objection-handling techniques — all designed to help the customer get over the hump, to get them to say” yes” to their offers and “no” to doing more of the same.
But, as time-honored as the techniques are, our research shows that they don’t work as well as they once did. In fact, they aren’t just unproductive; they can actually be counterproductive to the goal of getting the customer off the fence. We found that the customer’s affinity for their status quo — which salespeople have always been taught is their biggest, if not only, enemy — isn’t either of those things. While preference for the status quo is a significant obstacle that every salesperson must overcome if they wish to sell anything, there is a second, more menacing and difficult to defeat, obstacle salespeople must contend with: the customer’s own inability to make a decision.
What Makes Customer Indecision So Dangerous?
Our research — and several decades of research into human psychology and behavioral economics that preceded it — shows that indecision has a more powerful grip on the customer’s mind than any preference they may have for the status quo. Preference for the status quo is driven by a set of human biases that, simply stated, lead customers to want things to remain as they are, even when faced with better alternatives. Customer indecision, however, is driven by a separate and distinct psychological effect called the omission bias, which, in this context, is the customer’s desire to avoid taking action that might lead to a loss. And of the two, it is the omission bias that represents the more difficult obstacle for the salesperson to overcome. In our study, 56% of “no decision” losses were a function of customer indecision as compared with 44% that stemmed from the customer’s preference for the status quo. Customers, it turns out, are much less worried about missing out than they are about messing up.
Indecision is extremely difficult for salespeople to detect. While customers are comfortable articulating their preference for the status quo, the same cannot be said of indecision. Because it is driven by deeply personal fears, indecision is not something that customers openly discuss with salespeople. In fact, it’s often something customers aren’t even aware they’re struggling with at all. Yet, our data shows that it is everywhere. We found that 87% of sales opportunities contain either moderate or high levels of customer indecision. And it is toxic: as indecision increases, win rates plummet.
The drivers of indecision are getting worse as the customer buying environment changes. Unlike the customer’s preference for the status quo, indecision has a set of discrete psychological drivers that are fueled by environmental factors beyond our control. Our research shows that the three biggest drivers of customer indecision are valuation problems (ie, when customers struggle with what option, package, or configuration to choose), lack of information (ie, when customers feel like they haven’t done enough homework) and outcome uncertainty (ie, when customers fear they may not receive the benefits they expect from a purchase). And, as the number of options available to customers increases, as the amount of information available to research those options expands, and as the cost and risk of vendor solutions continues to rise, so too does the profit for customers to become indecisive and, ultimately , do nothing.
The final reason that indecision poses such an enormous challenge to today’s salesperson is perhaps the most troubling: salespeople themselves are unknowingly contributing to the problem. Because the conventional wisdom is that the status quo is the salesperson’s biggest competitor, reps have only ever been sent into battle with one playbook: beat the status quo. But overcoming industry requires a fundamentally different approach. Where overcoming the status quo is about dialing up the fear of not purchasing, overcoming indecision is about dialing down the fear of purchasing. And, if the wrong playbook is applied in a pursuit, our shows that it can backfire research.
In our study, we found that when sellers use the status quo playbook on a customer who is, in fact, struggling with indecision, they make the customer more indecisive, degrading win rates by 84% and increasing the odds that the deal will end up stalling out and dying on the vine. For the salesperson who has been taught to believe that their only real enemy is the status quo, that playbook unfortunately becomes their hammer and every hesitant customer looks like a nail.
But there is good news in the research as well. Contrary to the approach used by average performers, our research reveals that top reps have developed, on their own, a second playbook for overcoming customer indecision and this decisive aspect of the sale — despite never having been taught how to do so. This isn’t just a case of stars being stars, executing standard sales techniques at a higher level. Instead, many of these behaviors are contrary to the status quo playbook that has been taught and reinforced by sales trainers for years.
The JOLT Method
This approach is comprised of four unique behaviors which we’ve dubbed the “JOLT method.” First, star reps “judge the level of customer indecision.” In interviews we conducted with high performers, we found that they look to qualify and disqualify opportunities not just on the customer’s “ability to buy” but also on their “ability to decide.” From the very first interaction in the sales process, they are actively probing and listening for signs of indecision that can derail a deal. If a customer seems only moderately indecisive, they may only forecast the opportunity to close farther out. But in situations with highly indecisive customers, they will disqualify them altogether and move onto other accounts.
Second, star reps look to “offer their recommendation,” effectively shifting gears from asking the customer what they want to buy to telling them what they should buy. These talented reps know that offering a lot of choices to customers can be helpful early on in the sale when customers are exploring all of the possible uses and benefits of the vendor’s product, but abundant choice will often lead to hand-wringing and valuation problems later on about which option is best. This approach stands in stark contrast to what has been taught to sellers for years: that the key to closing deals is diagnosing customer needs. Where reps relied recommendation on diagnosis skills (and offered no), we saw win rates were well below average at only 14%. But, when they were able to combine diagnosis with a strong personal recommendation, win rates were 36%.
Third, they seek to “limit the exploration.” High performers know that the more information the customer consumes, the lower the probability they will end up finding the answers they seek. In fact, we found that when reps continue to indulge the customer’s requests for additional information across the course of the sale, win rates are only in the 16% range. In order to convince the customer that they are in good hands — that their rep will guide them to the best decision possible — best reps look to demonstrate their own expertise and credibility (for instance, by avoiding the temptation to introduce additional subject matter experts to the sales conversation and by anticipating and addressing unstated customer objects) while at the same time looking for ways to overcome the agency dilemma, or the customer’s belief that the salesperson is trying to oversell them (for instance, by telling the customer what they should not buy). These behaviors help to forestall superfluous information requests and lead to win rates of more than 42%.
Finally, to get customers to commit to the deal, they look for ways to “take risk off the table” by offering creative safety net options that make customers feel like they have some assurance of success. In our research, we found a wide range of examples — from simple opt-out clauses to complex, tailored contract structures — but all had the same effect: instilling buyer confidence in their decision and mitigating the outcome uncertainty that customers feel before they sign on the dotted line. When reps offer no options for limiting downside risk, they experience win rates in the 22% range as compared to the 46% conversion rate when they do.
When we look at these behaviors in aggregate and compare the results of salespeople who use this approach with those of their average-performing peers, the win rate difference is eye-opening, across all levels of customer indecision. While all reps perform well in opportunities with decisive customers, high performers perform better than their peers (69% win rate versus 39%). But it’s with those opportunities in which customers show either moderate or high levels of indecision where high performers truly excel. With moderately indecisive customers, high performers convert 57% of deals whereas average performers win only 26% of the time. And with highly indecisive customers, high performers still convert well above average at 31% while core performers struggle mightily, bringing in only 6% of their opportunities.
The cost of indecision is massive to the average seller, team, and sales organization. And the drivers of indecision are likely to get worse as customers weigh an ever-increasing number of options and overwhelming amounts of information, and as the cost and risk of supplier solutions increases. For sales leaders, managers, and reps, the “no decision” problem is one that is worth solving. It’s no overstatement to say that figuring out a way to overcome customer indecision — to close the gap between “I want” and “I did” — represents the single greatest opportunity to inflect growth for the average business.