Selling stuff is hard. Selling stuff to businesses is even harder.

Every company has their own culture and processes that sales reps must work to understand and overcome as the sales cycle progresses. Various sales methodologies have attempted to deal with the difficulties presented by the unique set of values and beliefs.

Solution selling, for example, places the seller into the role of a shepherd, leading the customer to the solution they need for their pain. Solution sellers assume the viewpoint of the buyer in order to provide a solution that aligns with their vision. This, of course, assumes that the vision set forth by these buyers is in fact logical. More than we might like to admit, we all bend reality to fit our beliefs. This is called cognitive dissonance, and it may be ruining your ability to sell. And it is definitely ruining the success of your current customers.

What’s Cognitive Dissonance again?

Cognitive dissonance is “a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors” which “produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance” (SimplyPsychology). The first study on cognitive dissonance was done by Leon Festinger, who studied members of an apocalyptic cult following the failure of their doomsday prophecy. While some cult members recognized the error of their beliefs, the invested members believed their prediction was correct, but their faith held off the destruction of mankind. By rationalizing this way, these members reduced the discomfort caused by these two conflicting ideas.

It’s unlikely you’re going to find such an extreme example of cognitive dissonance in the sales cycle. But when new customers come into the sales funnel, they may be operating under beliefs borne out of cognitive dissonance.

While it might be exciting just to have a new inbound lead, without unearthing the beliefs that underpin the buyer’s “needs,” it’s very difficult to sell complex products, services, and solutions, let alone do so in a way that translates into the continued post-sale success of the customer.

The Challenger Sale has been a successful sales model in large part because it challenges sales reps to uncover, understand, and reframe stakeholders who hold conflicting beliefs. A Challenger Rep will be able to sort through the conflicting beliefs that customers have and educate them about the problems. For example, in our sales process, we find that customers (almost universally) want to drive more customers to their website, but they don’t want to make the product and help content that drives customers to their website public. These are the conflicting beliefs that stall sales cycle and cost both sides time and money.

Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance as a Salesperson

When faced with cognitive dissonance, people want to reduce the mental distress it causes. This is often referred to as rationalization. Though I know that having a Twinkie is contradictory to my desire to be healthy, I might tell myself just one today won’t hurt in the long run (and every day subsequently for an entire year). In B2B sales, there are long standing contradictory beliefs that persist because “that’s just the way things are done.”

The key to overcoming cognitive dissonance as a sales rep is reframing the problem and validating the new beliefs with evidence. The best way to validate the sales rep’s point-of-view is to provide the product and help documentation that shows that this vision can become a reality.  No one wants to buy snake-oil, especially if the snake-oil is fixing something they only started to believe was a problem a week ago. That’s why – for instance – in the MindTouch sales cycle, we use our Success Center at every step of it.

So You Made the Sale, But Ignored the Elephant in the Room

Of course, it’s entirely possible to sell effectively while ignoring the contradictory beliefs of the customer. But in a subscription-based economy, the long-term success of the buyer-seller relationship rests on finding a shared vision and seeing it realized. If the buyer doesn’t “buy-in” to the vision that you’re selling, then they’re not going to be motivated to use—let alone excel at—your product.

If you can’t tailor your message to the company and their vision, then do the right thing and kill the opportunity. Nothing is worse than signing a new customer who doesn’t align with your company’s vision. These square-peg-in-round-hole scenarios lead to customers who don’t see a return on investment, because it doesn’t match their strategic vision. These customers are dissatisfied, likely to churn at the first chance, and are badvocates for your brand.

So Challenge away. But make sure you follow up your reframe with the evidence that this new approach/belief will work. If not, it will be hard to effectively overcome the entrenched beliefs that derail the sales cycle.

Additional categories: Customer Experience