10 Surprisingly Effective Sales Techniques, Backed by Research

Who couldn’t use an arsenal of effective selling techniques? If you truly want to improve how you sell, look no further than this research-backed collection of the very best B2B sales techniques.

What makes these sales techniques “the best?”

The short answer is that these techniques aren’t based on personal experience, unexamined folklore, or any so-called “best practices.”

One thing that’s clear from our research with DecisionLabs is that the right answer is often the most counterintuitive. When you choose to follow best practices, you might be using the most popular method, but not necessarily the approach that works best.

Best practices also are inherently “lagging practices.” It can take years to identify something as a best practice, and by that time, it’s a common practice.

Science, on the other hand, is objective and timeless. It’s entirely focused on the buyers and their behavior. The science doesn’t lie. Even if these sales techniques look unfamiliar and counterintuitive, each one has been vetted by behavioral research studies and shown to be the best approach when selling to B2B decision-makers.

So, without further ado, here are ten surprisingly effective and persuasive sales techniques, backed by science and research.

1. Sell to Your Buyer’s Situation (Not Their Disposition)

The B2B buying process has become increasingly complex over the last decade. In 2015, an average of five to six people needed to sign off on each purchasing decision. Today, Gartner reports that “the typical buying group for a complex B2B solution involves six to 10 decision-makers.”

In other words, you’re not just selling to one person—you’re driving consensus among multiple stakeholders. Those stakeholders may not share the same title or demographic information, but they do have one thing in common: their situation.

People don’t buy from you because of who they are, their demographics, or their job characteristics. They’re more concerned with whether or not their current situation is putting their business goals at risk.

The science that backs this up is called Fundamental Attribution Error. Learn more about it in our article, Are Buyer Personas Sabotaging Your Sales?

The real drivers behind behaviors and behavior change are the challenges within your buyer’s situation, not their professional disposition.

Your buyers are asking weighty questions that are specific to their current situation. Together, we call this series of situationally specific questions the Customer Deciding Journey.

The Customer Deciding Journey

The Customer Deciding Journey reflects what’s happening in your buyers’ minds—how they think and behave while they’re deciding whether to buy from you. When you understand their underlying motivations and behaviors in each conversation, you can tailor how you sell to match the situation and win.

Don’t focus on the title, position, or persona. Instead, start selling to your buyer’s situation. Help your prospects and customers understand whether their current approach is putting their business goals at risk. Then, adapt your sales techniques to each moment of the Customer Deciding Journey.

2. Disrupt Your Prospect’s Status Quo

Many sales reps assume that the sales process is linear—a set of repeatable steps that every prospect goes through during the sales cycle. And, at some point, it concludes with the prospect choosing either you or your competitor.

T­he truth is, those aren’t the only two endpoints. There’s a third option for your buyers: “no decision.”

Studies show that at least 60 percent of deals in the pipeline are lost to “no decision” rather than to competitors. That’s because of something called Status Quo Bias—your prospect’s natural aversion to doing something different than what they’re doing today.

As the outsider, you’re fighting inertia—your buyer’s natural tendency to stay with their current situation. To persuade them to change and choose you, you need to disrupt your prospect’s status quo, drive the need for change, and create a buying vision that differentiates you from your competition.

Keep in mind, however, that you can’t just start touting your solutions’ features and benefits. Your prospect won’t care about your solution if they don’t first see the need to change.

Instead, focus on creating the urgency to change by establishing that your prospect’s status quo prevents them from reaching their most important business goals.

3. Introduce Unconsidered Needs

If you base your approach on what your prospects tell you their needs are, whether through voice of the customer research or discovery questions, you’re then inclined to connect your solution’s specific capabilities to those identified needs.

The problem is, your competitors are responding to those same inputs from their prospects and customers. So, you end up delivering commodity messages that won’t differentiate you.

When prospects hear and read similar messages from you and your competitors, they see no contrast between their choices. There’s no compelling reason or urgency to change, so the buyer opts to stick with the status quo.

Telling your buyer about pain points they already know about doesn’t make you a trusted advisor—it makes you a tape recorder. To create the urgency to change and overcome Status Quo Bias, you need to introduce prospects to Unconsidered Needs—unmet or yet unknown problems or missed opportunities that are holding back their business.

Unconsidered Needs selling technique

Research conducted by DecisionLabs found that a provocative message that begins by introducing an Unconsidered Need enhances your persuasive impact by 10 percent.

Learn more about Unconsidered Needs in this short video:

Don’t play 20 questions. Instead, help your prospects see what’s holding them back from reaching their business goals.

4. Tell Customer Stories with Contrast

Unconsidered Needs are potent tools to show your prospects the need for change. But what comes next? How do you build a buying vision that connects to your solution?

To create a powerful perception of value in your sales conversations, you need to highlight the gap between the “before” story (the flawed current approach) and the “after” story (the improved new way). It’s that contrast that creates the urgency to take action in the mind of your buyer.

The same general principle applies when you’re trying to justify the purchase decision to executives. When you 1) identify missing gaps or opportunities that affect their highest-level strategic goals, and 2) justify the business impact of the decision by telling a customer story with contrast, they feel more urgency to make a decision now.

Learn more about this approach in our article, Selling to the C-Suite.

When you’re telling customer stories, include financial proof to underpin the buying vision. But don’t be afraid to link that data with emotion. One way to do that is to talk about people affected by the challenging environment they were working in. Then talk about how their lives became better, easier, or less stressful after using your solution.

5. Avoid the Parity Trap in Sales Conversations

When you’re selling your value proposition to prospects, how much overlap is there between what you can provide and what your competition can provide?

Most B2B salespeople admit that overlap is 70 percent or higher. In competitive categories, many companies can feasibly do the job with similar capabilities and pricing. And if your buyers don’t see enough differentiation between you and other choices, they’re more likely to run a side-by-side bake-off based on price.

That’s the last place you want to be.

Salespeople fail to articulate value when they commit the three deadly sins of sales messaging:

  • Providing too much information
  • Not describing value from the buyer’s perspective
  • Failing to identify what’s different about them

Rather than competing within that “value parity area,” focus on what you can do for the customer that’s different from what the competition can do. This is your Value Wedge, and it’s where you find your distinct point of view.

The Value Wedge sales value proposition

Your Value Wedge must meet three essential criteria:

  1. It’s unique to you. Communicate a message that’s completely different than your competitors.
  2. It’s important to the customer. Provide value by highlighting gaps and opportunities in the way your prospect is doing things today, and then show how your approach will resolve those issues.
  3. It’s defensible. Document proof points to demonstrate how other companies overcame similar challenges by adopting your proposed solution.

When you create a solution story that meets those three criteria, you offer a distinct point of view that sets your solution apart from the competition and communicates real value to your prospect.

6. Make Your Customer the Hero

There’s a large body of research about the cognitive effects of stories for motivating behavior change. And in a selling context, stories are a powerful way to illustrate your solution’s value to your prospect.

Every story needs a hero—someone you relate to as they overcome obstacles on their journey toward happily ever after. But who’s the hero of your story? And does that change depending on how you phrase your message?

It seems logical to show your prospects and customers that you understand their world by positioning yourself as a member of their tribe. The word “we” implies that the provider and buyer are “in it together.” But research shows that when you use this type of we-phrasing, your buyer will be less likely to take action.

A typical hero’s journey goes something like this:

  1. The hero is a character who struggles with a problem
  2. The hero meets a wise mentor who understands their problem
  3. This mentor gives the hero new insight, provides a plan, and drives them to action
  4. Armed with newfound confidence and a plan, the hero faces their problem
  5. The hero overcomes the problem, realizes their potential, and reaches their goal

In your story, your buyer is the one who needs to save the day, not you. Your role is that of the mentor. You’re there to help your prospects and customers see what’s changed in their world and how they can adapt to survive better and thrive.

So, position your buyer as the hero of their own story by using “you-phrasing.” According to DecisionLabs research, changing the pronoun from “we” to “you” in your pitch can add urgency and make your prospect feel more personally responsible for solving the problem.

You-phrasing compels your prospect to question their status quo, paints an achievable buying vision, and holds your prospect’s attention in a way that separates your message from the competition.

See the research report, The Impact of You-phrasing on Customer Conversations, to learn more.

7. Avoid the Hammock During Sales Presentations

Your buyers will pay attention to about 70 percent of the information from the beginning of your sales presentation, and their attention peaks at the end. But in the middle, their attention wanes, and if you don’t spike their attention and focus, they’ll remember very little.

When plotted on a graph, this trend forms a hammock shape. This “hammock effect” persists in all lengths and types of messages, including email, phone calls, virtual sales meetings, and proposals.

The Hammock Effect sales technique

After your meeting, the first thing your buyers recall will naturally be the last thing you said. But what about all those juicy details in the middle?

To overcome the hammock effect and fight the brain’s natural tendency to tune out, you have to spike attention in the middle using “grabbers”—that is, specific selling techniques designed to grab your buyer’s attention and get them re-engaged in the conversation.

One example of a grabber is a Numbers Play. In a Numbers Play, you write down three numbers before explaining them. Then tell the story behind the numbers, gradually revealing their meaning. The story should be short, focused on your buyer’s world, and offer insight into the challenges your solution addresses.

Here’s an example of a Numbers Play grabber:

You sell workforce management software, and your prospect is currently using multiple systems and manual processes to manage their workforce—which is causing errors.

You write down the numbers 3, 1.5, and 70 to help tell your story. As you give your pitch, you reveal that the numbers have the following meanings:

  • 3 = “A three percent error rate, which is the lowest you can get when using manual processes and multiple systems. This is substantial, and it will never go away unless you change your systems and processes.
  • 1.5 = “1.5 million, which is the amount that 3 percent error rate is costing you each year. This means four or five full-time employees are manually working to correct the errors.
  • 70 = “70,000; this is the amount needed to defend the average wage and hour lawsuit. In today’s competitive marketplace, this isn’t a good use of your limited resources.

“To change these numbers, you need to validate your data at the source—which is what our software can help you do.”

For more on how to keep your audience focused and engaged during virtual meetings, get our e-book, Virtual is Vital: How to Make Virtual Sales Calls Engaging and Memorable.

8. Create Price Uncertainty During Sales Negotiations

Traditional sales negotiation training teaches salespeople to “power up” or seize the upper hand in a negotiation. But that approach isn’t as effective as it used to be.

Your buyers now have all the power. They approach negotiations armed with the confidence to demand discounts—and walk away when they don’t get them. So, how can you leverage your low-power position and protect your value during tough negotiations?

One way to reframe your buyers’ perception of your value is to introduce Unconsidered Needs (remember those?). This approach creates price uncertainty by disrupting their perceived value of your solution. In other words, you increase your value in your buyer’s mind by bringing to light insights and opportunities that they didn’t know were important to them.

Creating price uncertainty is the first step. But what happens when buyers start making demands and asking for discounts as negotiations drag on?

As deals get increasingly complex, late-stage negotiating tactics become increasingly irrelevant. Your ability to create profitable outcomes depends on how deftly you navigate crucial moments of the sales process—moments that have the potential to change the nature of your opportunity to close the deal profitably.

To help you close more deals from a low-power position, consider the concept of Pivotal Agreements. The five types of Pivotal Agreements are value-based exchanges that you can use to advance your deals while protecting your margins.

Learn more about Pivotal Agreements in our webinar, There’s an Unlimited Demand for Free.

9. Appeal to Emotions (Not Just Data)

There’s a longstanding myth that executives are strictly rational in their decision-making, influenced only by data, quantitative results, and ROI. But that’s simply not the case.

Even at an executive level, people make subconscious, emotional decisions before the brain’s rational and analytical part takes over to justify the decision. In fact, a DecisionLabs research study found that executive decision-makers are just as swayed by emotionally charged factors as anybody else.

In the study, executives chose between two recovery plans after an economic downturn. The messages were mathematically identical, but they framed the status quo as either a gain or a loss.

  • Gain frame message: This plan has a one-third probability of saving all three plants and all 6,000 jobs but has a two-thirds probability of saving no plants and no jobs.
  • Loss frame message: This plan has a two-thirds probability of resulting in the loss of all three plants and all 6,000 jobs but has a one-third probability of losing no plants and no jobs.

The results? Executives were 70 percent more likely to choose a risky option when the status quo was framed as a loss to be avoided.

The study demonstrated the impact of Loss Aversion, a behavioral concept important to Prospect Theory. Pioneered by social psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Prospect Theory states that humans are two to three times more likely to make a decision or take a risk to avoid a loss than to do the same to achieve a gain.

When you’re trying to justify the decision and close the deal, frame the status quo as a risk to be avoided.

Risk is one of the few subjects that doesn’t get delegated down. When you introduce risk and then create a buying vision for the executive to solve that risk, you light up their brain to think and act more urgently.

10. Don’t Challenge Existing Customers

According to analysts, as much as 70–80 percent of the average company’s revenue comes from existing customers.

Yet, most sales and marketing leaders (nearly 60 percent) see no need to take a different approach between customer acquisition and customer expansion. More than half believe the same provocative messages and sales techniques they use with new prospects are still applicable in a renewal scenario with customers.

Despite this pervasive belief, DecisionLabs research shows that customer retention and expansion conversations require entirely different messages and skills. In fact, using a provocative, challenging message when you’re trying to renew or expand business with your customers will increase the likelihood that they’ll shop around by at least 10-16 percent.

customer acquisition vs. customer expansion sales

When you’re the outsider, engaging new prospects, it makes sense to use a provocative, challenging approach that introduces Unconsidered Needs, disrupts their status quo, and persuades them to choose you.

But when you’re the insider, you are your customer’s status quo. You need to reinforce their natural Status Quo Bias and defend the reasons why you’re still the safest choice.

Find out when you should (and shouldn’t) defend your buyer’s status quo in our interactive e-book, The Expansion Sale.

Sales Techniques Backed by Decision Science

So-called “best practices” won’t hold up across the range of buying decisions you need to influence in the Customer Deciding Journey. Your buyers’ questions, behaviors, and motivations change from one moment to the next.

If you truly want to improve how you sell, you need to master a diverse set of sales techniques like these, sharpened with situational awareness to know when and how to adapt to each situation.

Get the newly updated e-book, Winning the Four Value Conversations, to get more science-backed strategies and insights to win your most critical sales conversations.

Tim Riesterer

Tim Riesterer

Chief Strategy Officer

Tim Riesterer has dedicated his career to improving the conversations marketers and salespeople have with prospects and customers. His books, “Customer Message Management”, “Conversations that Win the Complex Sale”, “Three Value Conversations”, and "The Expansion Sale", focus on improving market-ready messages and tools that marketers and salespeople can use to win more deals. As chief strategy and research officer for Corporate Visions, he sets the direction and develops products for this leading marketing and sales messaging, content and training company.