What Is Status Quo Bias in Sales and Marketing?

By Anton Rius, Content Marketing Manager

October 17, 2019

Status Quo Bias in Sales and Marketing

What Is Status Quo Bias?

Status Quo Bias is defined as a person’s innate preference for not doing something different from what they’re doing today.

Over the years, a number of psychological studies have shown that when faced with a decision, the majority of people tend to stick with their status quo. And most of the time, you aren’t even aware of how this bias affects your decisions.

Why does it happen? The simple answer is that people naturally view change as costly, unsafe, and risky. If the perceived benefits of a new or alternative solution don’t outweigh the perceived costs of changing their status quo, people tend to take no action to change. They prefer instead to continue on the path they’re already on—even if the alternative is objectively better.

Decision-making science has shown that Status Quo Bias is closely related to another cognitive bias known as Loss Aversion—a concept that was popularized by Nobel Prize-winning researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Loss Aversion research found that the potential for loss stands out more in peoples’ minds than the potential for gain. And people are twice as motivated to make a decision to avoid a loss than to achieve a gain.

At its core, Status Quo Bias is about safety. Whether you realize it or not, you are inherently biased to take the path of least resistance in your decision-making. It’s much easier—and much safer—to stay with your current way of doing things than to take a risk on something new. And the same is true for your customers.

How Does Status Quo Bias Apply to Sales and Marketing?

In a sales and marketing context, Status Quo Bias is a powerful force that can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. If you understand how your buyers are framing their decision to change, versus staying with their status quo, you’re more likely to persuade them to change, choose you, and stay with you when your competitors come knocking at their door.

But how you manage your buyer’s Status Quo Bias changes with the situation at hand.

In customer acquisition scenario, you need to disrupt and defeat your buyer’s status quo to convince prospects to change and choose you. But in a renewal or expansion scenario, research shows that a disruptive approach will backfire. You actually need to defend your position as your customers’ status quo and reinforce the relationship.

With this in mind, it’s important to understand the deeper causes of Status Quo Bias. Then, you’ll know how it affects your buyer’s purchasing decisions across the entire Customer Deciding Journey.

The Four Causes of Status Quo Bias

In his study “The Psychology of Doing Nothing,” research psychologist Christopher Anderson details four causes of Status Quo Bias.

Four causes of Status Quo Bias decision-making

1. Preference Stability

When people form an opinion or preference about a situation, they don’t like to change their mind. In fact, people filter out and discount information that runs counter to their opinion. If a customer’s preferences change less often, or remain static, they’re more likely to choose the status quo and stick with what they’re doing today. Conversely, if you destabilize their preferences, you increase their openness to change.

2. Anticipated Regret/Blame

The possibility of regret brings up all sorts of negative emotions such as fear, dread, and anxiety. While the consequences of actual regret will play out in the future, the emotional experience of regret takes place in the present. Choosing the status quo may decrease the feelings of anticipated regret because there’s less risk involved, and therefore less of a chance that the decision maker is blamed for the negative repercussions of that decision.

3. Cost of Action/Change

Changing the status quo often involves a cost of some kind—the transactional costs associated with the change, or the transitional resourcing costs of changing to something new. Change seems risky or costly, while sticking with the status quo registers as either neutral or even beneficial—even in the face of contrary evidence. Even when no explicit costs are associated with switching, uncertainty can stall the decision from moving forward.

4. Selection Difficulty

When prospects and customers are overwhelmed by too many options, they suffer from “choice overload.” This amplifies their tendency to view change as complex and costly. Decisions may also seem more difficult if there isn’t enough value associated with one choice versus another.

When you’re the outsider challenging your prospect’s status quo, your sales and marketing messages must show enough value to disrupt these four causes. But when you’re the insider, defending your incumbent position to existing customers, you need to defend them.

How to Overcome Status Quo Bias

Differentiation is one of the most daunting challenges salespeople and marketers face. Unfortunately, many organizations rely on “best practices” that actually have the opposite effect—you end up sounding exactly like everyone else.

When you sound like everyone else, you play into your buyer’s Selection Difficulty, which only reinforces their Status Quo Bias. Ironically, this lack of differentiation is quite common. In fact, 60 percent of deals in the pipeline are lost to “no decision” rather than to competitors.

If you truly want to differentiate your value, you need to tell a powerful, disruptive story that inverts your prospect’s perceptions about staying the course versus changing. You need to show them how their current situation is actually unsafe and unsustainable, and that by not changing, they’re putting themselves at greater risk of not achieving their objectives.

This Why Change story starts by introducing Unconsidered Needs—challenges, shortcomings, or missed opportunities your prospect doesn’t yet know about, but are holding them back from their most important business goals. Then, in the Why You conversation, you can connect the Unconsidered Needs you’ve identified to your differentiated strengths, which are uniquely suited to resolve those risks.

How to Reinforce Status Quo Bias

Your demand generation and customer acquisition messages should drive big changes and mentality shifts in your prospects. But “big changes” aren’t always the objective when you’re trying to persuade your existing customers to expand or renew with you.

In fact, using the same provocative approach that works so well in a customer acquisition scenario actually backfires in a customer renewal one. A B2B sales study conducted with an academic research partner found that:

  • A messaging approach that reinforces an existing customer’s natural Status Quo Bias increased intention to renew by 13 percent relative to the provocative messages in the test.
  • The provocative messages increased the likelihood of a customer switching by 10 percent relative to the status quo reinforcement message.

Certain customer conversations require more finesse than others. For example, your expansion conversations need to walk a thin line between persuading your customer to buy more while convincing them to stay with your solution in the process.

Our research also found that during upsell conversations, reinforcing the emotional aspects of the customer partnership was most effective in making change seem safe to your customers, as long as they’re changing with you, not away from you.

Buyers are naturally more inclined to remain with their status quo than change to a new solution. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make every effort to defend your incumbent advantage. Your customers are constantly being pitched by outside vendors who are eager to win their business. Don’t give them the opportunity.

Winning on Both Sides of the Status Quo

Nearly 60 percent of marketing and sales leaders believe the provocative messaging and content suited to new customer acquisition is still applicable in a renewal context. And they choose to use the same messaging approach, regardless of customer relationship.

These organizations are doing themselves a disservice. But you don’t have to.

Think beyond the industry’s so-called “best practices” and consider the deeper undercurrent of behavioral motivators that are driving your sales and marketing conversations. When you understand key concepts like Status Quo Bias, you can begin to create tailored messages and develop the situational skills needed to match your buyer’s decision-making process on both the acquisition and expansion sides of the customer lifecycle.

Get our new e-book, Winning the Four Value Conversations, to learn the research-backed messaging techniques and situational sales skills you need to master every stage of the Customer Deciding Journey.