Alternative Forms of Reassurance
Blair and David analyze and then look beyond the requests for reassurance potential clients make during the late stage of a sale to address their underlying motivations.
DAVID C. BAKER: Blair, today I want to ask you about something that I've heard you talk about for many years and it's this notion of alternative forms of reassurance.
BLAIR ENNS: Yeah.
DAVID: We used to do this event together and we did it for like 10 years running.
BLAIR: You mean that one where I carried the both of us.
DAVID: Yeah. That's the one, right. Yeah. Yeah, that's definitely the one. I remember listening particularly attentively to this one section that you used to talk about because it was a new concept to me, but I was also really fascinated by it and I thought, mainly I thought the title was just perfect and you called it something like the alternative forms of reassurance and as I recall at a certain point in the sales cycle when an agency is in the process of landing a new client, that prospective client still wants a little bit more information and they might ask for something and this was a way as I recall, where you could kind of redirect the question and provide alternative means of reassurance. You remember those days?
BLAIR: Yeah, I remember those days fondly and the way you described it, I think of a judo move. We're talking about late in the sale and I guess I'll back up in a minute and explain why reassurance is important late and it's not important at all early, but we're talking about late in the sale when your job as a salesperson is to reassure this nervous late stage client and they ask you for things. I was counseled to look beyond the request, the specific request and look at the motivation for the request and sometimes the request is the negotiation, the request is to cut price. Maybe you're just negotiating, but maybe there's something else going on here or maybe they're asking for a money back guarantee or maybe they're asking for references or maybe they're asking to do things a little bit differently.
BLAIR: In a lot of those situations, you have to think about what is the client buying from you. Anytime they hire your firm, they're buying a path to their desired future state, and so when you put forward a proposal in front of them with a price attached and they look at that price, you are essentially pricing their desired future state discounted for uncertainty. In every price, there is an uncertainty discount that's built in or there's some math around an uncertainty discount that the client is doing. Looking beyond the motivation for the request late in the buying cycle, again, it might be to cut price, it might be to offer references or it might be to do the engagement differently. It's not universal, but many times they see a lot of risk in the engagement and they're simply trying to mitigate that risk. They're trying to lower that uncertainty.
BLAIR: So if the engagement fails because of what's known as performance risk and that is you're the provider, your questionable ability to do the job, if in the end you don't end up doing what you say you're going to or to the quality that you say you're going to and you affect the outcome, but then the client is on the hook for that and if they think there's a great chance that that's going to happen, then if it's really high, they won't hire you at all. But if it's a little bit lower than that, maybe they'll see the risk and decide, "Well, for the level of risk that I'm taking, I want a lower price." So that's just one example, asking for a lower price where the client's really just trying to mitigate their risk, factor in uncertainty or another way of putting it is they're looking to be reassured that everything's okay and those are all different kind of spins on what is essentially the same topic, a nervous late stage client wondering, "Well, what if this goes wrong?"
DAVID: So if you handle this well, can you in effect eliminate that discount a bit from a pricing standpoint? If you handle that reassurance correctly, can you close that gap and leave less money on the table? Is that part of it as well?
BLAIR: Oh, yeah. I couldn't sit here and say you're going to eliminate all discounts forever and still close the deal. But the vast majority of them, especially with good clients, like a value buyer who doesn't see themselves as spending on an expense, but investing in a solution or an opportunity, a value buyer who maybe starts negotiating or asking for a discount, you can almost always offer an alternative form of reassurance as long as you're able to look past the request and discern the true motivation and see what's going on underneath. If you don't mind, I wouldn't mind backing up and just talking about why reassurance is important late.
DAVID: Yeah, sure.
BLAIR: I'm fond of saying that selling isn't about talking people into things. My definition of selling is selling is three steps. It's helping the unaware, inspiring the interested and reassuring the intent, and this is a truncated, bastardized and otherwise manipulated version of a change management model that's called "The Transtheoretical Model" developed by Dr. James Prochaska and some of his colleagues, it often goes by TTM, so it's a model of understanding how people go about change and I would just interject here and say that I believe that buying is changing and therefore selling is change management, so that's a model. It's a way of looking at the world is thinking of buying is changing, therefore selling has change management. Okay, if you believe that, then you can go to the world and grab a number of these great change management models and there's a bunch of them out there. In the last 10 years, there's been some really interesting ones.
BLAIR: You can take any of those change management models and you can apply it directly to the world of selling. This woman I worked with years ago, her name was Pauline O'Malley. She's a sales trainer in Vancouver. She dropped Prochaska's model in my lap. Now I don't teach so much to that model anymore other than the idea that you should think about the client going through this arch in the sale and they go from unaware of the fact that they have a problem to aware of the fact that they have a problem or opportunity and interested in solving it. When they're interested, they're kind of gathering information and assessing the pros and cons. Then they move to forming the intent to act. So they go from unaware to aware which we'll call interested and then intent, intent on solving their problem.
BLAIR: I mentioned there's three steps, help the unaware, inspire the interested and reassure the intent. So let's just put help the unaware aside for a minute because that's really when you call somebody and say, "Hey, we're in the business of X. Can I be of assistance to you?" and they say, "I don't have any need for X." They don't have a problem. So let's put them aside. In your CRM, they would be a lead, maybe, but you wouldn't create an opportunity because there's no fit there on the subject of need. So that leaves the interested and the intent, an early stage buyer and a late stage buyer. So your job as salesperson is to inspire that early stage buyer who is interested, they're aware of the fact that they have a problem or an opportunity. They're gathering information, assessing the pros and cons and thinking about whether or not they should do something about it.
BLAIR: When people are at that interested stage, they overweight in their mind the possible benefits of change. So they're quite prone to inspiration. So they're actively looking for an inspiration. They're looking for, if it's somebody buying design, they might be looking at portfolios. If they're buying advertising, they're looking at an advertising reel, they're looking at examples of best work and they're getting all emotional and inspired by it and they're trying to just move themselves to the next level where they form the intent to act. So somebody who's interested overweights the benefits of change and they underweight the costs or potential consequences of things going wrong. There's a line, when they cross the line and go from interested to intent when they decide, "Okay, I'm going to do this. I'm going to hire a firm like yours to help me achieve X." Just a few hours after they crossed that line, things shift. Now they start to underweight the benefits of change and they start to overweight in their minds all of the things that could go wrong.
DAVID: Skeptical essentially.
BLAIR: Yeah, skeptical, prove it to me. So your job as salesperson flips. It goes from trying to inspire somebody to trying to reassure them. If you want to create buyer's remorse or feed buyer's remorse then inspire. Try to inspire somebody-
DAVID: Who's skeptical.
BLAIR: Who doesn't want to be inspired.
BLAIR: Yeah, exactly.
BLAIR: When you're on the buying side, it feels like somebody is trying to manipulate you through emotions.
DAVID: Oh, yeah. So these three stages, and I'll just say them again for folks where this language is new, help the unaware, inspire the interested and reassure the intent. These occur and this is chronological and you mentioned early on that there is a point for reassurance and then I introduced this whole idea about the way you used to talk about this of alternative forms of reassurance and then you jumped in and said, "We don't want to offer alternative forms of reassurance too early." So now you've explained why we need to wait. What are some signs that they've crossed away from interested into the intent stage so that we don't offer the wrong things at the wrong time?
BLAIR: I remember working for a design firm and presenting our portfolio to a prospective client and he kept banging his hand on the desk going, "Oh, yes,. Oh, that's beautiful work. That's fantastic." He kept crossing his legs and re-crossing his legs and I thought, "Wow, this is a little bit like the fake orgasm scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally." He was getting very, well, the technical word is aroused. He was getting very excited by the work that we were showing him. The firm that I was with at the time had world class creative work and the portfolio was beautifully shot and mounted on these boards, old school, wise. Man, as a new business person, I'd walk into a meeting and I have that portfolio and I think, "Wait till they see our work." It was just a great thing to have. So this guy was reacted so viscerally to the work that we were showing.
BLAIR: At some point, we progressed through the sale, that conversation, a couple of others. We uncover a specific opportunity. It's a late stage opportunity at some point and we come back to the table and I bring the president of the firm with me and we come back to present the proposal. Now, we've got all of the decision makers around the table and the president says, "Hey," and he had a habit of doing this and I think a lot of people will identify with this, he said, "Hey, before we present the proposal, there's a few new people in the room, they haven't seen our portfolio, so let me just take a few minutes and just walk through some of our portfolio." So he walked through the same portfolio, nothing. There was no emotional response whatsoever and the guy who could barely contain himself the last time he saw this work sat there stone faced and so did all of his colleagues.
BLAIR: There was just absolutely nothing and I thought, "What is going on here?" I kind of put it away and it wasn't until I was taught to view things this way that I realized that we're trying to inspire somebody who is nervous. We're trying to say, "Look how great things could be."
DAVID: Yeah. They felt like you were wasting their time almost, like you were manipulating them in a way, like trying to generate the same reaction they had. It's like, "I've already seen this. I've already had this reaction, get to my questions," right? That was what was happening,
BLAIR: Yeah. Then your question is what are the signs that they've crossed the line? So that's one.
BLAIR: Another one is the questions that they ask you late in the buying cycle when they're driven by a fear of making mistake, they're these very specific, almost unimportant questions and they're often dismissed by the firm. It's like the discovery session that you talked about, that would be the first step, "How long does that take and who needs to be involved on our end?" "It is half a day or a day and you would need to be involved and Bob over there and maybe a couple of others." That's the wrong answer to that very specific question.
DAVID: What's the right answer?
BLAIR: The right answer is, and this is just an example of the right answer, it's the precision with which you answer, "Discovery sessions take six hours. We do them in our office. We expect that certain key people will be present. That will be you, Bob over there and these other three people that you've identified in the sale and the outcomes look like this." So the answer to this seemingly innocuous question is an answer that shows we've done this before. We do it all the time. We have a bulletproof way of doing this.
DAVID: Yeah. So that's where the reassurance comes from in this case. It's almost like what's going on in the buyer's mind at this point? Are they pretty close to buying and they're just sort of condensing themselves or are they talking to themselves? I mean, are these really important questions to them?
BLAIR: I think these are vitally important questions. One of the alternative forms of reassurance is what I call process frame case studies, and we'll talk about that in a minute, but another alternative form of reassurance is offer to breakup the sale into phases. So instead of the client making like $100,000 commitment to you say, "Why don't we take it one step at a time? First step is a diagnostic and it's $15,000." Then with an out clause. So the out clause would be, "At the end of that first step, when we present our findings and recommendations, if you feel like you don't like the direction this is going, you don't like working with us, whatever it is, we can just call it quits right there." So there's a phased engagement that's reassuring to the client. Okay, I don't have the same financial commitment. The out clause, I can get out after the end of that first phase if this isn't going well. Then you could even layer in one of my favorites, which is a money back guarantee.
BLAIR: So you could say at that point in the sale, when you're describing the out, you could say, "At that point, if you decide that we're not the right firm, we're not going in the right direction, or you don't like working with us for whatever reason and you don't want to proceed, then we're just going to give you your money back. Because if we failed that badly, then we owe it to you to give you your money back." So that's an example of string together three different alternative forms of reassurance when the client might be asking for a discount or they might just be sitting there nervously, not asking for anything specifically, but you can tell they're nervous and you're looking for ways to kind of assuage those nerves.
DAVID: I was never a fan of the money back guarantee thing. In fact, because we've shared many clients over the years and when you come up and you're not there and I'm just joking with them about how our outlooks are very similar and I used to always say, "He is wrong about a few things, six specifically," I would say. Then of course that always made them curious like, "Well, what are the six?" Rather than just saying, "Yeah, he's wrong about a few things," and I would bring this up about the money back guarantee because I always felt like it would insert this thought in somebody's mind that, "Well, why do you even offer a money back guarantee?" Oh, some people want their money back? It always bothered me. I don't know if you do that anymore. Did you ever have to give somebody's money back?
BLAIR: One of the first pieces of business I closed on my consulting practice, somebody, late stage buyer, we're kind of at the end. He's nervous and he's asking for references and I didn't have any references because he was like my third or fourth client and I didn't have any references. So I was kind of stalling and saying, "Yeah, yeah, I'll get you references when it gets to the right point."
DAVID: Give me me for years, I'll get back to you.
BLAIR: He said, "Forget about references. Give me a guarantee and we're good. We'll do this." I paused and I had already decided that this is going to be a principle of mine in my consulting practice. I paused and said, "Well, everybody gets a money back guarantee. If you're not happy, I'll give you your money back," and he went, "Done."
DAVID: You didn't have to give it back though.
BLAIR: No, I didn't have to. I'll get to the point when I did once.
DAVID: Oh, okay.
BLAIR: That discussion proved to me that the guarantee and the references, they're effectively the same thing. If you don't have good references, I had a client recently email and say, "I can't figure out what went wrong. The client said all the right things. It sounded like we were going to be hired. Checked their references and then didn't hire us." I said, "Well you might want to have another look at your references. So instead of handing out those references, you might think about a guarantee." At first I made a point of stating it to everybody and then I would just use it when I felt it was appropriate. Then I had one client where the engagement went poorly. Effectively, I let the client take control. I let him reach over and grab the wheel. It was a positioning engagement that went poorly.
BLAIR: Then many months went by and he called, about six months later, and he said, "Hey, yeah, I'm not all that happy with the engagement and the outcome." He said, "We didn't really get anything from it, but I estimate that we're 50% responsible. How do you feel about giving us half of our money back?" I said, with great relief, I said, "That's a small price to pay to get you off of my conscience."
DAVID: Because you'd been thinking about it too.
BLAIR: I'd been thinking about how poorly I had underperformed. I just regretted, from the moment when he talked me into doing it his way rather than the way that I always did it, I just regretted it and it was on my mind always. I knew I didn't deliver value and I thought it was really big of him to own up to the fact that he had some responsibility in it and if he would've said, "Please give me my money back." I would've given it all back.
BLAIR: We've talked about this before, I just don't care about money. In situations like that, it's not that I don't care about it. There are other things that are far more important to me. So I have given money back. There are probably one or two other times when I've given partial refunds that I can't remember.
DAVID: One of the alternative forms of reassurance that you list and talk about is references and I've got my own story to tell on that one. I quit giving references many, many years ago and I explained it on my website. I think I've got four points about why I think they're really not all that useful and this is why I don't do it and so on. Partly folks were just wearing out references.
DAVID: Asking them for advice when they should have been asking me and my references didn't sign up to give free advice and there's all those reasons. But anyway, about two years ago, I think it was, I got the opportunity to do a really large project and this person, really good person, really great firm, asked for references and I explained that I don't do it and here's why. He just insisted. I decided to violate my own policy and give him references. I said, "How many do you want?" and he said, "Oh, give me eight." Okay, so I gave him eight references. He called every single one and the relationship did not go well and partly it was my fault. I would say 60% of it was my fault and so the majority of it, but it just reinforced to me again, it's like set a policy and then stick with it and follow your instincts a little better. I should have done that. I should have done what you recommend here, when somebody asked me for references, they're not asking for references, they're asking for something else, right? So let's get back on track. What is it they're asking me when they ask me for references? What are they really asking me?
BLAIR: They're asking, is everything going to be okay?
BLAIR: With references it's a little bit tricky because they're a completely valid form of reassurance.
BLAIR: But timing is everything because I think a nervous late stage prospect, they'll never be closer to hiring you without actually hiring you than they are the moment they hang up the phone from talking to one of your best clients of really good reference.
BLAIR: Right. So they hang up the phone and then immediately like tick, tick, tick, buyer's remorse seeps back in. So if you're giving out references, maybe you want to give out three references and you'll say, "Okay, how much time do you need to talk to these people? Do you need half a day or do you need the full day?" "Well, I'm going to need the full day." You see how I'm leading by asking an either or question, not how much time, "Oh, a couple of weeks." No. "Do you need half a day or do you need a full day?" "I need a full day." "Okay, I'm going to call you or let's put a call on that calendar for the day after tomorrow, so I'm going to give you 24 hours to check these reference, all day tomorrow to check these references and I'm going to call you the next morning." Even better, call it the end of the day and the last thing you want to do is give references on a Friday and then have the call on a Monday.
DAVID: They'd think of all the reasons they might not want to hire you over the weekend.
BLAIR: Yeah. So if you're using references, think about momentum is so important so the references mop up that buyer's remorse, but then if the client's allowed to sit there and think for long, then all of the nervousness is going to seep back in. So see if you can't position it so that there's a conversation with you in a short but acceptable timeframe that you've given your perspective client to check your references.
DAVID: Yeah. Then of course have the right sort of references. Thinking back to you said earlier.
DAVID: "Oh, the problem is the references. They don't like you." Yeah, I just want to list because we don't have a lot more time. I want to list some of the alternative forms of reassurance and some of these don't need a whole lot of discussion. There are a couple that are really interesting to me for sure and I think they will be to our listeners. So one of them is references. Another is the guarantee, which you've touched on. The one that interests me the most I think is this idea of case studies and you touched on this because it indicates that you've done this before, which assures the prospect what? What's so beautiful about that?
BLAIR: The takeaway is little variability in process equals little variability in outcome.
BLAIR: Right. So think about a nervous late stage client and then you think of the typical creative firm trying to close a nervous late stage client and case studies are appropriate when they're in the right form for closing. When they're in a more traditional before and after format, they're more a tool of inspiration that you would use early. So we teach our clients how to build process frame case studies that really take, they take your typical before and after case study and they take the proprietary methodology that you claim to have.
DAVID: You claim to have. Right, I see some skepticism there.
BLAIR: Yeah. We have a whole term that people have to do on building a proprietary methodology, IP development before they're able to do the closing with case studies term. So process frame case studies, you take your IP, you take your typical before and after case study, you cut up your case study and put it back together in a way that tells a story that shows that you A) have a novel point of view and path to solving your client's problems, and B) you use it.
BLAIR: Because if you think of most creative firm case studies, it's, "All right. Here's the case study. Here's the challenge," and what happens is in presenting the case study, the creative person or the principal of the firm or the salesperson always falls in love with the story. It always happens. The person presenting it falls in love with the story and gives this detail they completely lose track of what's important to the client.
BLAIR: If you're the salesperson in that situation, you're telling a story and the client's thinking, "Okay, I don't care about this story. I don't care about what you did for somebody else. I am interested in your methodology a little bit because what I'm really interested in is how you will solve this type of problem for me."
DAVID: Yeah, yeah.
BLAIR: Right, so you show one case study. Your journey has to be described by this replicable path and when you show the second case study, that's where the proof is in the pudding. You demonstrate that lo and behold you followed the same path.
BLAIR: Some of the tools may be different. The outcomes are going to be different. The findings or recommendations are all going to be different and specific to the client but you followed the same path and that path is framed by this intellectual property that falls out of your perspective on how things should be done so all of these things tie together. You show one, two, three case studies, different clients, different situations, different levels of investment, different outcomes for each client, but the same methodology. Nothing reassures old nervous late stage client like a process frame case study because it says we've done this before. We do it all the time. We have a defined way of working. It's a bulletproof way of working. Now, people say that in the sale, but they never prove it and the work that they show almost demonstrates the opposite of what they should be proving in that moment.
DAVID: I want to overlay a positioning question here. So you could have a poorly positioned from that would have good references. You could have a poorly positioned firm that offers a money back guarantee. Is there a connection between good positioning and good process frame case studies?
BLAIR: Is there a connection between good positioning and a good process frame case studies? There's a starting point.
DAVID: Do you need to be a well positioned firm in order to have a powerful process frame case study?
BLAIR: Yeah. So if you're a poorly positioned firm, let's just take a full service ad agency and that's just a poorly broadly positioned firm, and then you've got a case study that says, "Here's how we'd go about ad campaigns." Ad campaigns is such a big phrase. It's such a vast territory that could include so many different things. It's just not narrow enough. Plus, there's so many firms in that space. So are you likely to show something novel? You might show something repeatable, that's half of the battle. At least that's something you can build on, right? We'd coach our clients, "Well, start there. Let's just start with a repeatable process and let's build the propriety over time."
BLAIR: Right. So that's another way to look at it.
DAVID: We fall into the trap of talking about positioning as if it's all about the clients you serve, but it feels to me like part of positioning is how you serve those clients as well. So there might be a hundred firms that serve the same kind of client, but how you solve problems, which you've put a lot of thought into them, which doesn't vary much, your earlier point about little variability, that's part of the positioning story too. You're not moving away from positioning when you start talking about process. It reinforces your positioning. Not only do you serve the same kinds of clients or the same demographic, it's a horizontal positioning, but you also serve them in the same way, you've done this so much. It sounds like a beautiful part of the story to me.
BLAIR: Yeah. Here's a great metaphor that I think fits perfectly. You're going in for surgery next week and you have a meeting today with the surgeon. You're not looking for inspiration. You're nervous. You're worried about things that could go wrong because you're late in the buying cycle, right?
DAVID: What would inspiration even look like?
BLAIR: Imagine how good life's going to be with your new hip. The inspiration would be I can just imagine being pain free and you're still thinking about having the surgery. Then you decide I'm going to do this, I'm going to get my hip replaced, and then you go into talk to the surgeon a few days before the surgery and you're a nervous late stage prospect. So it's just the kind of an informational meeting and he explains a few things to you, introduces himself and says, "Do you have any questions?" and you say, "Yeah, I have a question. My question is how is this going to work?" "What do you mean?" he says. "Well, can you just walk me through how the surgery goes?" He might misinterpret your question. He might think, "Well, you're questioning my ability to do this?" Right? Or he might say, "You know what? You don't need to know. I'm the expert. Don't worry. Everything is going to be okay."
BLAIR: But you do need to know and you're not reassured by that. There's a little bit of reassurance in him saying, "I've done this a lot of times." But the reason why you want him to describe the surgery is not because you have the capacity to judge the effectiveness of his technique, but it's because you want him to prove to you that he knows what he's doing. You want him to prove to you that he does this all the time and he knows what he's doing. His response could be, "Well, surgery is an organic creative process. I'm going to cut you open and then just figure it out once I get inside."
DAVID: That's not going to be a reassuring statement, right?
BLAIR: No, but that's the answer that creative firms give all the time.
DAVID: Because they think that repeatability is death for them.
BLAIR: Yeah, so the client asks, "How is this going to work?" What they really want to know is, "Can you describe in detail, thereby proving to me that you've done it before, you do it all the time, you have a bulletproof way of doing it?" and they don't even see the intent behind the question and it's, "Well, creativity. It's good. It's creative." I am overstating it obviously and being a little bit disparaging. We just need to see what the reassurance that the client is looking for in asking the question. What you want the surgeon to say is you want him to pull down a model of the piece of a hip and say, "All right, here's how it's going to work. We go in through here. I resect this, I do this."
BLAIR: You want him to explain it to you in such detail and say, "And here's a video of the entire operation if you want to take it home and watch it." There's no question this person is the expert.
BLAIR: So the answer can be anything, but it has to prove you've done this before. You do it all the time. You've got a bulletproof way of doing this.
DAVID: In the middle of this long explanation that the surgeon's obviously given before, the patient may not even need more information and the surgeon shouldn't be so in love with explaining this, that they draw on and on, right?
BLAIR: You got it.
DAVID: They ought to look for sign that, "Okay, I've done."
BLAIR: You, the patient might say, "Okay, no, I got it. That's enough. I don't even understand what you're saying."
DAVID: Yeah, you're not going to leave a sponge inside me. Let's move on.
DAVID: This is very, very good. It reminds me of the days when we used to do this. We need to do it again some time, but this is fascinating, alternative forms of reassurance. I love what you're doing here and I hope you folks listening to this have picked up some good tips. Thank you, Blair.
BLAIR: Thanks, David. That was fun.