You’re driving down a deserted road when your car hits a pothole and the engine cuts out. The car slowly rolls to a halt by the side of the road. You’re alone, there’s no cell phone reception and there’s no building for miles. You have the choice of trying to fix the problem or sitting there alone for a very long time.
You recall that the engine stopped suddenly, with no loud bang or grating noise, so you conclude that the problem is probably not mechanical. There was no spluttering of the engine, the power cut out immediately, so in all likelihood it’s not a fuel problem. You’ve just eliminated two of the variables. That leaves only the electrical system. So, you check the battery and that seems fine. Then you follow the wires into the guts of the car, tracing their progress toward the spark plugs. There’s a mass of wires and cables that comes out of the harness and you see one wire is not connected; it must have come loose when you hit the hole in the road. You reconnect the cable, turn the ignition key. Bingo. The car starts and you’re on your way just as the sun dips below a nearby hill.
About a month later, the same thing happens. You hit a pothole and the engine stops abruptly. This time you open the hood, look at the harness, and see the same loose wire. You re-attach it, start the engine, and vow to get the problem permanently fixed sometime in the near future.
In the first instance, the problem was new to you; you’d never encountered it before and therefore an analytical process was employed. In the second, you used prior experience to go straight to the cause. You took a heuristic approach to identify the problem and then fix the engine.
Heuristic techniques are frequently used as a rapid-fire way of making decisions, especially in the world of business. In a small anecdotal survey I recently conducted, I found that heuristic processes were used about ten times more frequently than analytical ones. Business people generally make a quick assessment of the situation and then seek data to support or refute the initial take. In all aspects of our work, we constantly switch between heuristic and analytical problem solving techniques: the gut feel and the data gathering. And so do our sales prospects and clients. Yet, in many interactions in the sales process, the tendency is to dwell almost completely in the analytical realm.
Most sales presentations, webinars and seminars are data-fueled pitches that fill the audience’s heads with all kinds of facts and stats. They start with the “features”, move on to the “benefits”, and end with a crescendo of “advantages”. There’s talk about time to benefit, TCO and ROI. There are graphs, pie charts and magic quadrants. The analytical input is overwhelming.
The audience is seen as passive pawns. Give them the right information, show them how your products or services are faster, better, cheaper and bigger than your competition, and they’ll buy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Chances are that your clients don’t have the time or interest to wade through the information that is being thrown their way. While you’re delivering that well-crafted pitch, your prospects’ attention is probably wandering, fading in and out, depending on their level of interest or concern. This happens to even the best presenters and best-prepared presentations. Why?
You’re hitting your audience at an analytical level, while they’re operating heuristically. While you’re explaining some well researched statistics, they’re thinking: “I get it already! But will it solve my problem? How much will it cost? How fast can I deploy? What are the risks?”
So how do you hit your audience at the heuristic gut level with something that captures their attention? For that, let’s turn to the world of politics and take a lesson from the professionals.
In his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, George Lakoff talks of building frames – the mental structures that shape the way we see the world. Hearing the simple statement, “Don’t think of an elephant, whatever you do, do not think of an elephant!” people will find themselves thinking of an elephant. It’s impossible not to. The word elephant not only generates an image of the animal, but also a frame related to its appearance, its habitat, its migratory patterns and like – a structure within which new data can be presented. New information offered into this frame is received as it relates to the mental image of an elephant. Facts make more sense when presented within the concept of a framework.
When the Bush administration linked the words “tax” and “relief” they delivered a visceral message to the American people. Use of the word “relief” – an easing of pain or distress – with the word “tax” created a frame in which tax is an ailment. In the 2004 Presidential debates, John Kerry found it almost impossible to respond to this powerful metaphor. Kerry’s position was to engage in a long-winded and unconvincing defense of his position on tax, based on facts and figures. But although they were compelling facts in support of Kerry’s position, they were presented within a frame built by Bush. Kerry couldn’t win. His failure to modify the frame of the discussion before presenting his arguments reflects the way many companies sell today. They focus on raw facts and figures, data and analysis, proof points and cost benefit without establishing a frame. When the data you’re presenting is outside of your audience’s heuristic frame it is not effective. And you’re certainly facing an uphill battle when you’re throwing data at an audience that has already accepted a frame created by your competition.
In sales we need to build strong heuristic frames before presenting our data. We’re seeking to get our prospects to react to what we have to sell at a personal and almost emotional level. We want them to personally identify with our products or solutions. Customer loyalty depends on how much a person identifies with a solution – how that solution helps or hinders the personal and professional success of that individual. You’ve heard that old saying, “no one gets fired for buying IBM”. Now that’s a strong metaphor that has served IBM for years.
A lot of the work that I do with my clients is focused on building sales frames that resonate with target prospects. Using the Solution Selling pains sheets is often a great place to start, but you need to dig deeper than the pain sheets’ basic constructs: critical issue, cause, impact and vision. You’ve really got to get to the things that keep people awake at night – the things that frustrate a person’s ability to achieve professional and personal career success.
Your on-site consultants, the customer service group, and those involved in solution delivery often see your clients at their most vulnerable – or perhaps emotional – level. These encounters are great insights into your clients’ most pressing and painful business issues. Also, social media sites such as LinkedIn, or internet based communities and discussion groups can reveal pressing and immediate issues of the group members.
Once these core issues are understood, it’s then possible to architect the frames and the messages that we need to launch sales cycles. To create a frame, I use three components:
- The Probe
- The Pitch
- The Provocation
The probe captures the prospect’s attention: it’s an immediate and personally relevant issue. The pitch is your company’s response to the probe; the solution you offer. The provocation highlights the urgency to act now (regardless of whether or not there’s budget). From these components we can build interest-inducing frameworks, and from these frameworks we can start to hang our facts and figures and the process of selling products and services can begin.
Let’s take another look at the “tax relief” frame artfully created by Bush’s people and break it down into these three components. The probe: You’re personally paying too much tax on the income that you’ve worked so hard for. That’s money that could be spent on your family, on enjoying yourself, or saving for the future. The pitch: I have a plan to put more of your hard earned money back in your pocket. The provocation: Vote for me at the next election so I can implement this plan.
Did this message get people’s attention? It certainly appeared to. How could Bush’s competition argue against that message without crafting another frame?
Regardless of your political persuasion, you’ve got to build an emotional response to your products or services to get your prospects and clients to identify with what you’re offering. By creating a position that hits at an immediate, attention-grabbing, gut-level frame you have earned the right to present all the facts and stats you want. And your prospect will probably listen.