Change follows a subtle but consistent pattern: Uncertainty → Certainty of Negative Consequences (Threshold) → Uncertainty → Certainty of Positive Outcomes. The pattern provides you with a guide to creating and winning new opportunities, even though most people get the pattern exactly backward. Some outcomes you need to create require the right sequence, something we don’t pay nearly enough attention to as we go about our work helping our prospects and clients manage change.
1. The State of Uncertainty in the Sales Sequence
Much of the time, you find your contacts in a state of uncertainty. They know they have problems, which is why you don’t need to bludgeon them with questions to extract a full confession. The complex environment they exist within is extremely difficult to understand, making it difficult to know what to do and when to do it. Decision-makers who pay attention to the news to stay abreast of their environment and improve their decisions often end up with greater uncertainty. Is the economy going to grow or shrink, is my industry going to be saddled with new legislation that will change my profit margin, where is our next competitive threat coming from, and are we going to be able to overcome it?
The slide deck that proves your company is a good company with great products and services and a lot of big-name clients is an attempt to create certainty. You might even believe that your role as a consultative salesperson is to move your client from uncertainty directly to certainty, but you would be wrong. Not one of your slides is capable of creating certainty because you are violating the sequence.
2. Certainty of Negative Consequences
The certainty you need to create first is not the optimistic kind that your client is going to need later in the sales conversation. Instead, you need to create the certainty that your prospective client will suffer the negative consequences of maintaining the status quo and waiting too long to address their challenges, making it more difficult and more expensive to change later.
The one-dimensional way we used to think about discovery has you asking your client to tell you about their problems, providing you with information you believe you need to help your client fix things. A more robust and complete version of discovery would have you help your client discover what they need to learn to be able to move forward. In this case, they need the certainty that they are going to experience increasingly negative consequences until they change. You can call this certainty of negative consequences “the threshold,” the state in which your contacts are motivated to change. John Kotter would describe this as a burning platform, the need to act with urgency.
Whether or not you want your client to go from this urgency back into a state of uncertainty, that is exactly where they go next, and for good reason.
3. Back to Uncertainty: The Need to Change
Confronted with the need to change, a new uncertainty arises, this time around executing the change. This is the uncertainty that comes with making decisions in a complex and uncertain environment. We can call these “the problems that prevent clients from solving their problems,” and they’re the domain of consultative salespeople.
Your contacts are uncertain about what choices they might need to explore, the best way to address their challenges, whether or not their organization will adopt the change, when they should make the change, and all the fears and concerns that cause people to avoid change. They are also uncertain whether changing is going to make things even worse.
The reason this is the domain of consultative salespeople is because a truly consultative approach is what is necessary to move decision-makers and shapers to the certainty they need to move forward.
4. Certainty of Positive Outcomes
To enable your contacts to decide and move forward with a new initiative, you have to provide certainty of positive outcomes. Part of this is creating a plan that your client believes they can execute, including designing the right approach, building consensus, addressing the budget issues, and resolving all the concerns that would prevent your prospective client from capturing the better outcomes they need. None of these things can be solved by a slide deck alone. Instead, they require real conversations, with individuals and groups working together to build certainty.
The sales conversation is a dynamic interaction, one that is more like a Rubik's Cube than a linear sales process or an equally linear buyer’s journey. Some sliver of certainty may be created by the slide deck that you use to open discovery calls and presentations, but the only reliable path comes from creating value for your client throughout the sales conversation.
Unaddressed Uncertainty in Legacy Sales
Much of what we get wrong here is the order of the sales conversation. As much as marketers want you to tell your company’s story and share your CEO’s bona fides, that does nothing to address your clients’ uncertainty in any meaningful way. The product manager would want you to share the tremendous advantages of your product or your service. This approach leaves the uncertainty unaddressed, with the client left no better than where you found them.
The real outcome missing from the legacy approaches to discovery is compelling change in a complex world. This explains why the “problem-pain-solution” pattern is increasingly losing its efficacy. More deals than ever end in a “no decision,” and the fact that seventy percent of all B2B change initiatives end in failure, with only five percent meeting their objectives, isn’t making it easier to help clients change.
Each conversation you have with a client should help move them through the certainty sequence, with the ultimate goal of creating enough certainty to execute a change initiative. To do that, you must recognize what type of certainty your client needs to be able to move forward towards a better future state.