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Sales Techniques – The JOLT Effect

The summer holidays are here and it can often come as a shock when activity levels die down. There’s lower demand with decision makers away and less pressure for change.

First up is JOLT, a new method to overcome customer indecision devised by authors Ted McKenna and Matthew Dixon. The book looks at the science of decision-making and how high performers overcome indecision.

The authors study of 2.5 million sales calls revealed that between 40%-60% of qualified opportunities are lost due to customers deciding to make no decision at all

Historically, it’s been believed that no-decision losses stem from the customer’s preference for maintaining the status quo. Sellers therefore focus their strategies on overcoming this bias, often resorting to three tactics: continued persuading of the customer with the benefits of the product, instilling Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD), or offering expiring discounts to provoke fear of missing out (FOMO).

However, the study uncovered a surprising insight: these tactics tend to backfire, often leading to no-decision outcomes. The research suggests that fear of failure, not status quo bias, is responsible for almost 60% of no-decision losses. This fear, linked to an innate human predisposition known as “omission bias”, is the tendency to avoid taking action that could lead to perceived failure.

In a business context, customers fear that a wrong purchase decision could negatively impact their careers, especially in a challenging economic environment where even minor purchases are scrutinised. Consequently, the fear of messing up (FOMU) outweighs the FOMO for these buyers.

However, amidst these findings, there’s good news: the authors found that top sales performers have found an effective way to overcome customer indecision, minimising “no-decision” losses. It’s called the JOLT playbook, derived from behaviours consistently demonstrated by high-performing salespeople.

JOLT stands for:

  • Judging the level of indecision
  • Offering a recommendation
  • Limiting the exploration
  • Taking risk off the table

Let’s look at each of the JOLT steps in turn.

Judging the Indecision

Judging the Indecision is about understanding the three primary sources of customer indecision: valuation problems, lack of information, and outcome uncertainty. The section provides specific questions that sales representatives can ask themselves to identify these issues, ranging from whether a customer can point out preferred options to whether they require more input than the typical customer.

To assess customer indecisiveness, salespeople can follow a four-step process:

  1. Understand how the customer searches for and consumes information.
  2. Look at how the customer evaluates alternatives.
  3. Determine whether the customer is satisfied with a “good enough” product or seeks perfection.
  4. Read the signs of hesitation, backpedaling, and wavering in the customer.

The process emphasises understanding the customer’s information requirements, spotting signs of “backtracking” (a sudden reversal in the buying process), and observing how they evaluate alternatives.

Salespeople must differentiate between procrastination and decision avoidance in customer delays. High performers can discern the difference by examining how a customer postpones a decision. For instance, rescheduling a call to the following week is seen as procrastination, whereas delaying dialogue to the next month, quarter, or year is considered decision avoidance.

The involvement of a customer’s colleagues in the decision-making process can signify positive intent and progress, whereas time pressure can exacerbate indecisiveness.

When customers are reticent, astute salespeople use a technique known as “pings and echoes”. This involves tactfully voicing the fear suspected to be hindering the customer, making it a safe topic to discuss. This approach can gently encourage customers to share their concerns, making the process of overcoming indecision easier and more targeted.

Offer Your Recommendation

The authors believe that that too many options often lead to customer indecision. Importantly, while the initial stage of a sale may involve convincing customers to take action, the latter part focuses on helping customers avoid potential losses from their actions. Everybody’s decisive when it doesn’t count!

High-performing salespeople actively reduce the decision-making burden by providing clear recommendations with a “Here’s what you need” approach. This approach significantly improves win rates, jumping from 18% to 44% when a salesperson uses this skill. When high performers sense customer indecision, they offer proactive guidance to narrow down options and progress the customer towards a decision.

Even more effective than general recommendations is personal advocacy, where salespeople say, “Here’s what I would do if I were you…” This approach helps build trust and guide customers towards a decision.

In contrast, average performers often respond to customer indecision with more questions ie. “What’s important to you?,“ “What are you looking for in a solution?” thus missing the cues that the customer requires clear guidance. In call after call, we found average performers missing cues that the customer just wanted somebody to tell them what they should buy and instill the confidence they needed to move forward. These performers failed to instill the necessary confidence in their customers to move forward, which is crucial in a successful sales process.

Limit the Exploration

Limiting the Exploration is a set of strategies employed by high-performing salespeople to guide customers towards decisions. These strategies include:

  • controlling the information flow
  • anticipating needs and objections
  • practising radical candor.

High performers do not readily relinquish control of conversations to subject matter experts (solution engineers, product leaders, customer success managers) within their organisations and bring them into calls less frequently than average performers. They also control how much these experts speak during the calls.

High performers proactively suggest additional non-marketing sources of information early in the sales process to assist the customer. They view their role as helping customers become smart consumers of the new product or service they are unfamiliar with, rather than teaching them how to do their jobs.

The ability to identify and address both explicit and implicit objections is also key to high performance. High performers pay attention to subtle changes in customers’ tone or pauses that may indicate non-acceptance and they aren’t afraid to probe into these potential objections.

Practicing radical candor, high performers focus on the customers’ best interests and aren’t afraid to tell them when they are going off track. They seek to understand what’s driving customers’ requests and are aware that these may often be delay tactics due to underlying uncertainties or objections.

High performers are proactive in sharing their experiences and knowledge. They aren’t afraid to interrupt or speak over the customer to get the conversation back on track. They embrace ‘cooperative overlapping’, a tactic where they start talking along with the customer to show engagement or validation.

Silence time on calls was key. Optimal silence time during a call falls between 8% and 17%, which associates with win rates of 30%. Both no silence and too much silence are associated with lower conversion rates. In contrast, a combination of rep silence followed by the rep expressing confusion correlates with lower win rates.

Take Risk off the Table

In this step, the authors emphasise that high-performing salespeople focus on alleviating the customers’ fear of loss rather than pushing them towards a possible gain. Where average sellers lean on FUD techniques to try to scare the customer into buying, high performers know that the real reason the customer is struggling to make a decision isn’t because they might miss an opportunity to win. It’s because they might make a decision that causes them to lose.

This is achieved by adopting three main techniques:

  • setting expectations
  • offering safety nets
  • providing downside risk protection

High performers set realistic expectations instead of focusing on maximum impact. They understand the importance of underpromising and overdelivering and suggest customers start small, building up over time to foster stronger relationships and secure more sales in the long term.

High performers understand that offering the customer a safety net is far more effective than pushing the customer toward the ledge. Safety nets offered by high performers in transactional sales calls include assurances of cancellation windows, plan changes, and money-back guarantees. These actions reassure customers and make the purchase decision feel less risky.

Downside risk protection in complex B2B sales involves creating detailed project plans prior to deal closure. These plans include owners, milestones, and target metrics, which show customers that the rep and their organisation have a comprehensive understanding of how customers derive value from their offerings. Another strategy involves carving out work for specific business units under separate one-year agreements that customers can cancel anytime, providing flexibility.

Lastly, top performers suggest adding a professional services component to the contract as a form of purchase insurance for the customer. This reassures the customer they will not be alone and will receive the expected value from the purchase.

Here are some additional tips for using the JOLT playbook:

  • Be patient. It may take some time to build rapport with the customer and to identify their indecision.
  • Be empathetic. The customer’s fear of failure is a real and valid emotion.
  • Be prepared. The salesperson should have data and case studies ready to address the customer’s concerns.
  • Be clear and concise. The salesperson should provide a clear path forward that the customer can understand.

Summary

In their study of 2.5 million sales calls, authors Ted McKenna and Matthew Dixon discovered that the fear of failure, rather than a bias for the status quo, is the primary driver of customer indecision, contributing to 40%-60% of qualified opportunities ending in no decision at all. In response to this finding, they developed the JOLT method, which stands for: Judging the level of Indecision, Offering a Recommendation, Limiting the Exploration, and Taking Risk off the Table. Top sales performers have adopted this method, focusing on understanding customers’ information needs and decision-avoidance signals, providing clear guidance and personal advocacy, controlling information flow and anticipating objections, and de-risking the buying decision by setting realistic expectations, offering safety nets, and providing downside risk protection. The method offers a nuanced approach to overcoming customer indecision and enhancing sales outcomes, providing an alternative to conventional, often fear-based, selling tactics.

Adopting the JOLT method can transform sales team performance by addressing the primary cause of lost opportunities – customer indecision driven by fear of failure. Instead of relying on fear-based tactics or pressure, JOLT encourages salespeople to understand the depth of a customer’s indecision, provide explicit guidance, control the information flow, and mitigate perceived risk, thereby nurturing trust and making the purchase decision less daunting for the customer. By mastering these techniques, sales teams can increase win rates, foster stronger customer relationships, and enhance long-term sales outcomes. Furthermore, the proactive approach to discerning and addressing customers’ concerns inherent in JOLT can empower sales teams to better serve customers’ needs, leading to improved customer satisfaction and loyalty.

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