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Bad Decisions: The Root of Bad Selling

Is there a miracle sales tactic that closes all deals? No. Nor is there one that never works.

When you avoid the real issues in sales — that buyers usually don’t approach decisions well — a lot of magical thinking begins to happen among salespeople.

Reps might adhere to a no-fail sales technique, or believe stories about a mythical sales rep who closed every deal, or wear a lucky tie during meetings. None of that works, of course.

The crux of the issue is this: most people don’t think analytically when they’re making a purchase. Buyers buy for emotional reasons, but they don’t always admit it — not even to themselves. And salespeople, who constantly make choices about which leads to pursue, and how to approach prospective clients, aren’t exempt. Sales professionals are making bad decisions too.

All of this can make for mixed messages, and a lot of confusion.

Buying with the heart, and not the head

“Buyers are typically terrible decision makers,” says ProSales Systems president Robert Allen. “Human beings in general are terrible decision makers because they don't own their decisions. They don't take responsibility for decisions they make.”

When you think your prospects are looking at your proposals analytically and they’re actually buying for an emotional reason, their behavior can seem mystifying.

“That can be proven over and over and over again. We're humans. We're prone to make bad decisions from time to time,” Allen said.

According to Psychology Today, advertising research shows that emotional response to television ads is more likely to influence a consumer to buy a product than the actual content of the ad, by a factor of 3 to 1.

According to a study by the U.K.’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), ad campaigns that appeal to emotions are more likely to be effective than those that appeal to logic. Neurologists can back this up: fMRI neural imagery shows that when evaluating an advertisement, consumers use emotions, rather than the information in the ad, to make purchasing decisions.

In other words, as Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and the author of Descartes’ Error, once said: “We are not thinking machines that feel. We are feeling machines that think.”

The inner reptile and the fear of rejection

Salespeople are just as bad at making decisions as buyers are.

Maybe you’ve heard of the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain, or R-Complex, is the most ancient part of the human brain, and it has evolved to keep us alive and out of danger. It seeks out pleasure, avoids pain, tells us not to take risks, and finds safety in familiar routines. Most importantly, it’s always operating, scanning our environment for threats.

What does this have to do with sales?

Because we’re social animals and we like to avoid risk, humans often find ways around saying no. This is why sales can be so difficult for some people. Calling 10 leads and hearing “no” from eight of them can feel like torture; and in fact studies show that the area of the brain that processes pain also processes rejection.

In order to minimize that, salespeople might avoid taking a risk and contacting a decision-maker who might help them close a big deal. To the reptilian brain, it feels safer not to have tried than to try and fail.

While we are largely directed by the reptilian brain — nothing is more important than survival, after all — we are not completely at its mercy. Sometimes we become aware that fear is directing our decisions, and we can consciously switch to a rational mindset. That’s why, when a salesperson is in the middle of a transaction, a prospect may seem to suddenly reverse direction. He may be shifting into an analytical mindset in an attempt to control the negotiation.

This is not to say that a decision-making process without emotions is a perfect one. According to Damasio’s research, people with emotionally-dampening brain damage have impaired decision-making skills because they lack the ability to be pushed toward a good decision by a gut feeling. For better or for worse, emotion and reason both have a place in decision-making, and the process is as powerful as it is flawed.

Decision fatigue is another factor affecting buyers and salespeople alike. When a person makes several decisions in a row, the quality of those decisions deteriorates as time goes on. Each of those decisions takes its toll on the person’s willpower and mental energy. According to a study done in German car dealerships, by the end of a long series of decisions, the decider may simply choose the path of least resistance. They may ask the person offering them a choice for a recommendation, or they may avoid making a decision at all.

Sales and bad decision-makers

So what is a sales rep to do? How do you sell to someone who thinks they’re making a rational decision when they’re actually making an emotional one?

The wisest thing you as a sales rep can do, is to be aware of the emotions that make people bad decision-makers. That awareness should begin with you. Your buyers might be making bad decisions, but you’re subject to the same emotional pressures and decision fatigue as they are.

Successful sales teams combat bad decisions by using a standardized system, which takes the emotion and the guesswork out of the sales process. This system, based on previous successes, is a blueprint that describes exactly what should be happening at each point in the sales cycle, and guides the decisions of salespeople. If your organization has such a framework, use it. If not, you should may want to consider developing or investing in one.

You can also become a better decision-maker by becoming more emotionally-aware —  in an article in The Harvard Business Review, a psychiatrist suggests his clients learn to use their gut feelings effectively in business by noticing their moods and noticing how their moods affect their decisions.

Becoming aware of humanity’s problem with decision-making creates its own dilemma, of course. How do you sell to someone who you know is making bad choices? Do you address their reptilian brain’s worries by selling to their pain points? Do you schedule appointments late in the day or week, hoping to exploit decision fatigue? Or do you appeal to logic and talk to prospects early in the day, guiding them to make the best possible choice?

A salesperson will have to make that decision for themself, using their own logic, moral compass, and, of course, emotions.

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