Buyer Enablement: Can You Change a B2B Buyer’s Mind With Counterfactuals?

Are you selling in a highly competitive environment? If so, one of your constant battles is persuading your prospect to switch from the status quo to your solution.

We all recognize that for a buyer to switch products or solutions they need to see more value in your solution than in their current one. However, most salespeople simply highlight the discrepancy (or “gap”) in features, functionality, or benefits for the customer. We think, “It will be obvious we have a better solution, so who would not want to change?”

But research demonstrates that highlighting the gap alone doesn’t actually change people’s minds.  In fact, you can’t change people’s minds. But you can help them change their own minds, and research suggests that using a technique called Upward Counterfactual Thinking could have a big impact.

Counterfactual Thinking is simply replaying an alternate reality about the past. “If I had done X, then Y may have resulted.” There are two types of Counterfactual Thinking: “Downward” and “Upward” (also called “Additive” in some studies).

A “downward counterfactual” is looking at alternate realities that might have been worse.

For example, suppose we run into a traffic jam because of an accident and are five minutes late for a sales visit on site. Because we’re late the appointment had to be rescheduled. Our first thought might be negative as we experience the disappointment of not getting to meet with the customer. However, if tell ourselves the following story, we might feel better: “Oh, I’m glad I got here five minutes late. I saw that accident. That might have been me if I had been on time.” In other words, we tell ourselves a story about what might have happened to make our lives worse. An article titled “The Benefits of Counterfactual Thinking” in Psychology Today suggests that downward counterfactuals help improve our moods, but don’t improve our future performance. In this scenario we are just as likely to be late for our next sales appointment.

“Upward counterfactuals”, on the other hand, are scenarios we run in our minds that could have changed the current outcome to be more favorable. We might say to ourselves, “You can’t ever tell what traffic you’re going to encounter. I need to get on the road sooner. If I had just gotten out of bed twenty minutes earlier, I would have been able to meet with the prospect and probably would have closed the deal already.”

Research suggests that this kind of upward counterfactual thinking (where we imagine what we could have done differently to achieve our desired result) causes discomfort or tension but actually improves future performance.  In other words, if we think of it that way, we are more likely to get out of bed earlier and make it on time to the next appointment.

So, let’s apply Upward Counterfactual Thinking to influencing our buyers to switch from the current solution to our own solution, if not now, in the future.

Citing research, ChangingMinds.org suggests the following counterfactual guidance: “Cause tension…then offer a new thought that can replace the uncomfortable thought. Encourage them to accept the new thought [with]…’What if you had…?'”

So how can we apply this in a sales scenario where we encounter an entrenched competitor?

First, cause tension, discomfort, or dissonance. Ask questions about their current efforts that challenge the status quo.  Help them focus on the things they don’t like about the current solution. For example, “What problems are you experiencing with your current solution?”

Using this first step is not uncommon in good salespeople. However, they often stop there. Most good salespeople, after listening to the problems, jump in with something like this, “Okay, those sound like serious problems. Let me tell you how our solution can help.”

Again, the problem here is that research suggests that explaining the gap doesn’t really affect performance or change. Upward Counterfactual Thinking does, though. So how can we get the buyer to focus on an upward counterfactual?

Instead of diving into an explanation of the benefits of your product or solution, help them imagine a upward counterfactual scenario by asking “What if you had…?”

“Thanks for sharing the challenges you’re having with internal adoption of the current platform, what do you think would have happened with user adoption if you had implemented a system three years ago that had a better user interface?”

“What would you have done with $20,000 if your current solution had cost less?”

“What would it be like today if you solution also had a dedicated customer service rep?”

This kind of research underscores why the questions in  “SPIN selling” can work so well. SPIN suggests you ask questions in the following stages: Situation, Problem, Implications, and Need-payoff. Upward Counterfactuals relate directly to the Implications and Need-payoff phases of the SPIN methodology.

The key here is to avoid telling them how your solution is superior, and instead help the prospect to imagine how life could have been better today if they had implemented something different in the past. Research suggests this is more likely to cause them to change in the future.

One way to help prospects imagine how life could have been better today is with an automated “vision demo”. Automated demos personalized video and documents to each prospect’s unique interests so they are already engaged, then while they are engaged, paint the picture for how life could be different. This usually precedes the “qualifying demo” and the “technical demo” which comes later in the sales cycle.

You may not get their business right then, but by guiding them through “upward” counterfactual thinking you are priming them to make a switch from your competition to you when the time is right.

Changing a B2B buyer’s mind requires planting a new vision and allowing it time to grow.

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