In multiple experiments, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that sellers who demonstrated more self-assured arguments had lower buyer involvement and showed less persuasiveness than speakers who projected less certainty in their deliveries.
That professor, Dr. Zakary Tormala, noted in his research paper that these findings are at odds with traditional buyer research, which supports a concept known as “source certainty,” or the idea that people believe something to be more true if the source delivers their message with a higher degree of certainty.
One of the breakthrough takeaways from Tormala’s research is that source certainty is not as applicable to sales conversations as previously believed. That’s because such conversations are so subjective. When you’re trying to convince a prospect to change, their decision is less rational analysis than emotional judgment. As a result, demonstrating some uncertainty can add an element of urgency — even fear — that allows you to be more persuasive — a phenomenon Tormala calls “source incongruity.”
It’s exactly that dynamic of persuasiveness through uncertainty that a “voice of the customer” messaging approach will fail to replicate. Why? For one, because you’re forming your messaging in response to needs your customers are already aware of, which will prevent you from creating enough urgency to convince prospects to change. Secondly, this approach could commoditize your message, forcing you to respond to the exact same inputs as your competitors with similar, expected capabilities.
Tell Prospects Something They Don’t Know
A better way to create urgency and differentiation? Build your message around telling your prospects something they don’t know about a problem they didn’t know they had. I call this messaging to your prospects’ “unconsidered needs” — basically, the gaps and deficiencies in their current approach that make it unsustainable.
Here’s how we set it up:
To begin, we recruited 400 people — a representative cross-section of B2B buyers — and divided them equally into four groups. We then developed a scenario, telling them to imagine they were business owners whose companies had enjoyed some success until very recently, when the economy fell into recession. Facing slow cash flow and high inventory costs, the buyers are now struggling to stay open.
To deal with these challenges, the buyers are seeking a $10 million line of credit from a lending partner. For our study’s purposes, this cash infusion represents the “stated need.”
We then delivered four different lender pitches to each group. Here’s what each heard:
- Pitch #1 responded to the stated need with a competitive offer for the money and typical corporate presentation content;
- Pitch #2 responded to the stated need with similar positioning and also introduced “value-added services,” the typical tactic for creating differentiation;
- Pitch #3 responded to the stated need with similar content as the first two pitches, but then introduced an unconsidered need at the end of the pitch; and
- Pitch #4 introduced an unconsidered need first before responding to the stated need later in the presentation.
At this point, you’re probably wondering what the unconsidered need was for the last two pitches. In both cases, it was based on the insight that 42% of businesses that take cash infusions during a downturn fail due to underlying problems that weren’t on their radar.
In both conditions, the lenders said they would come in and analyze the business to make sure there were no hidden problem areas that might prevent the company from maximizing its credit line.
So, which pitch had the most impact on buyers?
In the areas of uniqueness and quality, the study showed a statistically significant effect based on presentation type, and it suggested that both the unconsidered needs conditions outperformed the first two. Interestingly, the first two pitches — “stated need” and “stated need plus value-added services” — did not differ in these areas.
Tormala then examined the choice and attitude measures, both critical indicators of persuasion in customer conversations, and found that the “unconsidered needs first” pitch outperformed the other three pitches, which didn’t differ on these measures.
The choice and attitudes measures, taken in conjunction with the uniqueness and quality results, suggest that only when an unconsidered need is introduced right off the bat does it enhance the persuasive impact of a delivery. This, according to Tormala, jibes with uncertainty principles, which hold that when you inject unexpected information into a conversation, you can speed up decision processing.
What can you glean from this? Basically, sellers stand to substantially improve their customer conversations by presenting an unconsidered need. But to truly maximize your influence, you need to introduce that information early in your pitch. Otherwise, you won’t create the urgency and differentiation you need to persuade your prospects to change and choose you.
Tim Riesterer is Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer of Corporate Visions, a marketing and sales messaging, tools and training company. He is responsible for leading the strategic direction of the company in thought leadership, positioning and product development. Prior to joining Corporate Visions, Riesterer co-founded Customer Message Management, LLC (CMM Group), where he was CEO until it was acquired by Corporate Visions in 2008.