Why do we believe problems and pain drive clients to change? One reason is that we don't recognize how long decision-makers and stakeholders have been living with their pain. After all, if they’re in so much (metaphorical) pain, why didn’t they do something to stop it before this meeting? Another possibility is that they have dozens of issues, none of which trump their need to get through the day. Just like you’ve learned to live with “tech neck” and eyestrain from working on screens all day, many of your clients have grown accustomed to their own problems.
But not every client wants to change to alleviate pain. I’m sure you’ve encountered a hard-charging C-Level executive, the kind with ambitious goals and a hunger to expand the company. But making those gains is easier said than done, even after months, quarters, and years of hard work. That shortcoming may not be framed as “pain,” especially if the company is doing fine, but a lack of improvement can be just as motivating as the pinch of lower sales or less market share. As a salesperson, you must understand how both pain and gain can motivate your prospective clients—and that they’re not so different after all.
A Theory of Pain in Sales
Much of the time, human beings avoid dealing directly with their problems, whether we call them issues, challenges, pain points, or even sins. And like you and I, your client has likely ignored their problems longer than is healthy. When it is hard enough just to get through your workday, you ignore the pain, doing your best. The last thing you want to do is add a change initiative to your workload.
The devil you know may be a magnificent monster, but the one chanting “please allow me to introduce myself” may well make it look like a harmless puppy. Your prospective clients’ more-or-less obvious problems are surrounded by many more problems, ones far too thorny for your cookie-cutter solution—precisely because they frustrate the problem-solving process. Some pain may motivate change, but many clients instead protect the status quo because they don’t want to commit to change, build consensus, add more tasks to their workload, and deal with the inevitable office politics endemic to any change. When most prior change initiatives failed to be worth the effort, and when there are twenty-two other issues still unresolved, what's the point of changing at all?
Even when decision-makers and other stakeholders seem compelled to change, many deals die on the vine, though their ghosts haunt your pipeline for months. Here’s my theory: we can get so focused on one type of pain that we don't recognize an equal or greater pain, the pain of change. To understand the modern sales approach, you need to understand the root problems, then ones that prevent your clients from solving the problem you want to help them solve.
A Theory of Gain in Sales
There is little doubt that senior leaders and decision-makers want better outcomes. Many, however, don't ever experience those gains, as only a small number of change initiatives manage to meet their stated goals and targets. While some believe that "pain" is the negative result while "gain" is the promise of positive results, they are not so different. The promise of the gain is a response to the pain of not having the results. In this regard, senior leaders demonstrate a very similar tendency, that of not doing something to produce the results they profess to need.
It’s difficult to create the opportunities and resources that lead your organization to a better future. But while you are pursuing your vision, there is no end of problems, challenges, obstacles, and roadblocks—especially a board of directors that causes you to be bored with directors. Leaders know they can't do everything, and so limit their initiatives to the few that are critical. You may find that some are more motivated to change when you present your initiative as a way to provide gains instead of avoiding pain. The lack of results is pain, even if you dress it up as gains.
The Heart of Motivation
Is there some change you want for yourself that you have been putting off? If you had to list the reasons why you haven’t taken the necessary actions, what would you scribble down? Procrastination might apply to writing that high-school research paper the day before it’s due, but it can’t explain years of avoiding a change you know would benefit you. Change is much more difficult than we imagine, and recognizing our own behavior patterns shines a light on this truth.
There is no difference between pain and gain: they are two sides of a coin that we can call "motivation." It's both the stick and the carrot, not one or the other. Some may be compelled to act to move away from pain, while others are compelled by the prospect of moving towards gains. Boiled down to its essence, motivation is wanting something enough to act.
Catalyst. Instigator. Rabble Rouser. Salesperson.
Most of the more interesting deals you pursue involve addressing a systemic issue that has persisted for years without being resolved. Your client may have met with dozens of salespeople to try to eliminate the obstacle to the better results they want, only to be disappointed. Others may not have lifted a finger, getting so comfortable with their devil that it might as well have a corner office and a security keycard.
Much of the time, clients change (only) when they meet with a salesperson who can help them solve the problems that prevent them from solving their systemic problem. These consultative salespeople compel them to change by helping them recognize the certainty of increasingly negative consequences, as well as by creating the certainty of positive outcomes on the other side of the change. Understanding how exactly to do this requires that you solve the problems that prevent change as part of the sales conversation. This is how you help your clients finally get what they want.