How to Overcome Customer Indecision Using the JOLT Effect Approach

New research from "The JOLT Effect," the latest book from the Challenger universe, reveals just how often indecisive customers stall deals  and how the highest-performing reps learn to spot and weed out the creeping threat of indecision.

February 22, 2024
The JOLT Effect book

For sellers, there’s only one response worse than “no” — and that’s no response at all.

Imagine this: You’ve spent months executing Challenger methodology. You’ve Taught, Tailored, and Taken Control of the sale while maintaining a healthy level of Constructive Tension. You delivered your Commercial Insight with perfectly aligned Challenger choreography. You know that the buyer knows they can’t afford to continue living with the status quo.

And then, poof. Or perhaps more accurately, thud. The door slams closed. Your contact stops answering your emails, calls, and texts. You can feel your quota attainment slip-sliding away.

This isn’t a once-in-a-career horror story. According to 2020 research, medium to high levels of indecision show up in 87% of all deals. The bottom line is even scarier: We can attribute 40-60% of lost deals to indecision. As shocking as that number may feel, the same research revealed something even more surprising: The behavior that most sellers lean on to overcome indecision doesn’t work. In fact, most of the time, it backfires.

In this article, we’ll dig into what high-performing sellers do to overcome indecision. Using the JOLT Effect research as a guide, we’ll show what it reveals about the threat of customer indecision and how those findings led to a new playbook for sidestepping the biggest hurdle in modern sales. We’ll also discuss how this playbook complements the Challenger Sales Methodology and touch on strategies sales leaders can use to help their teams identify and address sources of indecision for improved forecast accuracy and greater success.

New Research Reveals Hard Truths About Customer Indecision

In the spring of 2020, Matt Dixon (co-author of “The Challenger Sale,” “The Effortless Experience,” and “The Challenger Customer”) and Ted McKenna, founding partner, DCM Insights, set out to determine why so many promising deals were ending in a loss — and why some high performers were able to avoid the root cause behind those losses.

Their pursuit began with research into 2.5 million recorded sales conversations from Zoom, Teams, Webex, and other platforms. Then they used automatic speech recognition to turn audio files into text and applied machine learning platforms to identify 8,300 unique factors that drive sales success and loss. The resulting story was nearly as surprising as the original Challenger research.

For one thing, most customers are deeply indecisive. Prospects in nine out of 10 sales calls indicated some level of indecision.

How is that indecision defined? In its most obvious form, it’s the customer’s “cold feet” that kill a deal right at the finish line. Customers experiencing indecision will proceed through the entire sales process with what looks like a firm intent to buy, only to back out at the last minute. And that indecision manifests in different ways, from multiplying requests for a demo to delayed email responses and rescheduled syncs.

But the presence of indecision in deals wasn’t the only major insight; the impact of that indecision is even bigger. Research found that around half (40-60%) of all lost deals ended in no decision.

The scary bottom line? Higher levels of indecision led to lower win rates. In calls with “medium” levels of indecision (about 60% of all the sales calls analyzed) win rates were 30%. When high indecision was present (in about 30% of all the sales calls analyzed), win rates dropped to just 6%.

High levels of indecision led to lower win rates

What Most Sellers Get Wrong About Customer Indecision

As stakeholders multiply, deals are increasingly harder to close and increasingly prone to losing to no decision. When we’re considering customer indecision, it helps to understand two main psychological motivators:

Fear of missing out graphic

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): This propellant lights the fire under prospects — provided they agree that the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of changing the way they’re tackling a particular problem today. Sellers who execute the Challenger choreography to disrupt the status quo (i.e., dial up the pain of staying the same) can expertly underscore the need for change in a way that drives this FOMO.

Fear of messing up graphic

Fear of Messing Up (FOMU): The fear of messing up comes down to responsibility. As humans, we would rather avoid blame than be responsible for making the wrong decision. Sure, your customer might look like a hero if they rescue their company from a problem no one quite understood. But if they invest in a solution that no one uses, wasting time and money, they might lose their job. At the very least, they’ll lose credibility. This helps explain why, when it comes to indecision, FOMU is a bigger driver than FOMO. Sellers who overcome indecision,( i.e., dial down the fear of purchasing) can effectively address the fear of taking action.

Identifying and understanding the source of customer indecision matters because it impacts how we help prospects overcome it. It also matters because we know that most reps get this part wrong. Faced with indecision, sellers double down on the FOMO, and in the process, end up making buyers more indecisive and driving them away.

Most sellers are taught that winning deals starts with convincing customers of the danger of the status quo. When the “pain of staying the same” is greater than the “pain of making a change,” prospects have no choice but to buy your solution. That’s Challenger selling in a nutshell.

When indecision pops up in a deal, most reps return to this playbook. The JOLT Effect research found that when customers got cold feet just as it’s time to draft up the closing documents, 73% of reps went back to the beginning of their choreography, attempting once again to convince their prospects that the status quo was a problem.

When customers continue to waver, some reps became even more desperate, hyping up fear or leaning into discounts. The result? In 84% of these interactions, this pattern increased the likelihood the deal would be lost.

High performers, in contrast, understood that, in the face of indecision, FOMO was not as important as FOMU. Rather than returning to the status quo, they effortlessly turned to a different playbook that would become the JOLT Effect framework.

How High Performers Overcome Customer Indecision

The JOLT Effect research revealed that, when faced with indecision, high performers don’t return to hammering the status quo. Why not? What do these reps understand that core performers don’t?

For one, there are different drivers of indecision that dictate how you respond:

  • Choice overload: When prospects can’t perceive differences between one solution and another, it seems easy to choose the wrong thing. The safest option is to sit tight. If they don’t choose at all, they can’t choose wrong. Choice overload also occurs when prospects are faced with a choice requiring them to prioritize one need over another. Do they choose cheap and fast, or expensive and comprehensive? If “cheap and comprehensive” isn’t an option, it’s easier to kick the can.
  • Information overload: There’s nothing wrong with addressing your customer’s desire to fully understand your solution. In fact, Challenger sellers will realize that Mobilizer often ask the kind of thorough, pointed questions designed to ensure you’ll meet their needs. But there is a tipping point. Prospects may reach it when they continue to ask for more references after a fourth positive reference call. When sellers blindly send resources designed to promote their product instead of addressing specific concerns, they may add a mountain of materials instead of adding value.
  • Expectations overload: In this scenario, prospects don’t believe they can achieve the outcome you’re presenting. They may be skeptical for a host of reasons, including their own company’s internal dynamics. If the prospect saw other solutions fail, if they’re dealing with another frustrating implementation, or if they know something they aren’t sharing about procurement, they may balk. It’s one of those “Sure, but have you seen how much laundry MY kids create?” scenarios. This type of overload may also happen if prospects don’t trust the numbers sellers put in front of them. Frustratingly, case studies and results that are too impressive might lead to this response. It’s one of those “sure, those case studies look great, but what do regular people achieve?” scenarios.

High-performing sales reps understand the threat in all these factors and behave in counterintuitive ways to seamlessly shift from battling indifference — i.e., the status quo — to battling indecision. The JOLT Effect playbook captures their approach.

J – Judge the Level of Indecision

How often are you willing to say, “I’m feeling pretty underqualified to make this decision?” or “I’m wondering if I should have done a little more due diligence?” Probably never! It’s the same for customers, especially for senior decision makers, who are (ironically) oftentimes even more scared to seem indecisive. High-performing reps are skilled at extracting this information from even these tricky prospects in order to judge the level of indecision.

This skill is critical for two reasons. First, because it contributes to a healthier pipeline. Sellers skilled in JOLT Effect behaviors often have a lower mix of high-indecision opportunities in their pipelines because they qualify prospects on their ability to decide. Second, it ensures that sellers don’t waste their precious time on deals destined to stall.

And an important note: In some cases, high-performing sellers disqualify opportunities after this initial analysis. In others, they move on to any of the following remedies.

O – Offer Your Recommendation

Offering a recommendation builds trust while addressing the problem of choice overload. In Challenger selling, salespeople work to become trusted advisors. High performers carry this same mindset into indecision-rich environments by narrowing the consideration set and advocating for a specific course of action.

While the O here stands for “offer,” we often say that it’s the “your” that’s more important – as in, offer your recommendation. That’s because it isn’t enough to just offer a recommendation. To effectively alleviate choice overwhelm, sellers must be willing to go on record with their personal recommendation.

This step involves being extremely candid. It might sound like, “We do offer that integration, but to be completely candid, it isn’t running as well as we’d like it to run yet. I’d recommend waiting until next year to invest.” Or “With teams of your size, we typically see immediate success with our core functionality. I wouldn’t recommend investing in a higher tier until you need 5 more seats.”

That’s right. They do this even when it cuts the deal size. In the process, they build invaluable trust by showing the prospect what they would do if it were their budget and their professional credibility on the line.

L – Limit the Exploration

For customers feeling that twinge of indecisiveness, comparison shopping can quickly turn into a stalling technique. There’s always a new list of competitors, possible product combinations, and steps they really need to check on. That’s where sellers must limit customer exploration.

For Challengers, this is tricky. We want our customers to learn something new, and it’s important that they can carry that learning mindset through the sales process. Where Challengers know to step in is when the hunger for more reassurance and certainty turns into analysis paralysis. At this point, there simply isn’t another case study or reference call that can give them the reassurance and certainty they need.

Instead, high-performers establish themselves as advisors who can guide the customer’s learning objectively, with information and perspective that is helpful. When they reach that tipping point, winning reps are willing to step in and push back. They’re unafraid of the constructive tension needed to limit the exploration.

T – Take Risk Off the Table

When customers worry that your promises won’t pan out, high performers understand the importance of proactively addressing that worry. Again, JOLT Effect sellers almost intuitively understand the psychology of their customers and don’t brush aside risk aversion. Rather than downplaying customers’ fears or relying on the promise of ROI, they construct a safety net that builds the customer’s confidence.

How does “taking risk off the table” look in practice? In short, it’s a matter of setting realistic expectations and, in some cases, providing a safety net. High performers lean into tools that hold their teams accountable so they can deliver on promises and put their clients at ease.

Time to J-O-L-T

Think of the JOLT Effect behaviors as a set of intertwined, intuitive steps that high-performing reps use to draw prospects out of the no-man’s-land of indecision. This isn’t a choreography, and sellers may use it out of order — JLOT, JT, JOLO, etc. It isn’t a given that every step will crop up, and it may sometimes be necessary to reapply tactics. In any order, it helps jolt customers out of indecision and propel them toward closing the deal.

How do Challenger & The JOLT Effect Work Together?

At this point, veteran Challenger sellers are probably wondering, if indecision is so rampant, do I need to chuck out the old choreography in favor of something new?

Our answer is a resounding “no.” As you may have noticed throughout this short primer, the skills emphasized in “The JOLT Effect” perfectly augment Challenger selling skills. If anything, this research reveals that, given the prevalence of indecision, winning in 2024 requires both the skills to deliver a fundamentally different sales experience and a playbook for overcoming indecision.

The first playbook: Overcoming the status quo by dialing UP the pain of not purchasing — Challenger sellers learn to Teach, Tailor, and Take Control while building Constructive Tension across the sale. Their carefully executed choreography helps customers understand the hidden reasons why moving beyond the status quo is absolutely necessary.

The need for those skills isn’t going anywhere. In fact, sellers are likely to do battle against the status quo and indifference in the same sale. That’s why they need the second playbook.

The second playbook: Moving past indecision by dialing DOWN the fear OF purchasing — JOLT Effect sellers learn to recognize the hidden sources of indecision before they kill a deal, blow up a forecast, or waste valuable resources. The JOLT Effect framework allows Challenger sellers to build on their roles as trusted advisors by making it easier for customers to buy and giving them confidence to move forward.

Being able to move seamlessly between these two is the secret to successfully navigating complex sales in 2024 and beyond.

Get the New Playbook for Challenger Sellers

As stakeholders, point solutions, and buying roles (welcome, procurement!) multiply, the threat of customer indecision isn’t going anywhere any time soon. By addressing indecision head-on where they can and heading it off where they can’t, JOLT Effect sellers are using a crucial new playbook that perfectly augments the original Challenger Sales Methodology.

Whether you’re adding this playbook to your repertoire or finding Challenger for the first time, there’s something in our library to help you develop your skills. Customer indecision is just one of the topics we cover on our weekly Winning The Challenger Sale podcast and monthly webinar series. Both feature interviews with leaders in sales, marketing, and more. Find us there to continue your Challenger journey.

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