How do I deal with a confirmation biased sales lead?

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Confirmation bias is when we search for information, feedback and confirmation that confirms our pre-existing idea or belief.

The challenge we face in sales is often we are invited into a buying process. The sales lead has already undertaken their discovery, probably past the mid-point in their project and is focusing on delivering it on time. During the beginning of the project, they would have been more open to new ideas. Past the midpoint, they are aware of time running out and focused more on execution. Feeling the pressure of time running out can lead to confirmation bias. Those leading the project know what they want and are more open to people confirming their belief.

In these situations, we are most probably in the buying process. Buyers are in control and working to level the playing field to get the best possible deal. However, what do we do if we consider their approach is either wrong or ill-informed?

Our experience is telling us this project will not succeed. If we follow the buying process, we risk exposing our business to a potential failed project. Being associated with a failed project give ammunition to our competition. The right decision is to highlight the risks ahead. However, we have to handle their confirmation bias first.

Before I share my own experience, how I have managed these situations, I want to share with you a couple of other similar situations.

  1. First, consider your organisations. Your colleagues and ourselves have these same dilemmas most days. Consider you are a solution architect in a Quarterly Business Review, listening to your sales rep confidently present how they will crush their number and close this deal.

The sales leader is under considerable pressure to achieve their quota target. This pressure means he is subconsciously looking out for favourable information to give him the confidence he will achieve quota. Both the sales rep and sales leader are showing the signs of being confirmation biased.

As the solution architect, you know there is a serious problem ahead, that means this deal will not close when forecast. You know saying nothing is unprofessional and the wrong decision. Following that course of action, you will become part of the problem and have to explain why it slipped.

So you decide to raise your concern during the QBR and will generate a plan later. Your intentions are correct. Unfortunately, confirmation bias will trip up that well-intentioned plan.

By the time you and your colleagues have developed that plan, the sales rep and sales leader have found ways to block out your message or refuse to admit that it applies to that deal. You will be seen as being difficult and negative, more sales prevention than sales enablement.

When stuck between a rock and a hard place, what can you do?

You would be wise to accompany your statement when raising the concern with at least one viable plan of action on how to avert the potential disaster. To demonstrate why this approach is your best course of action, consider an altogether different profession where confirmation bias can wreak havoc.

  1. You are a nurse who needs to persuade an overweight patient to lose weight and exercise more. You tell the patient about the potential dangers of failing to lose weight.

If you do not follow it up with clear, straightforward steps the patient can take, fear will probably take hold in their mind, followed by inaction.

As the nurse, you would be wise to give them a simple, specific diet and exercises plan they can follow. Because you have told them about their health risk and given them a way forward, they are more likely to follow through.

As sales reps and sales leaders, we have to deal with similar situations within our business and managing sales leads in the field. It is human nature to become confirmation biased at some point, especially when under pressure or dealing with stress. Our focus moves to executing and delivering what we consider are the right decision. The challenge we often face is we know there is a better alternative.

Dealing with confirmation biased objections is challenging. However, these are the situations that separate and define excellent sales teams and leaders. To be effective in managing and removing a confirmation biased objection, we need to sharpen our persuasion skills.

Research has demonstrated that fear-arousing communications usually stimulates an audience to reduce a threat we highlight. However, that research has two exceptions:

  1. First, it does not work if we do not provide a plan of action
  2. Second, it does not take into consideration how being confirmation biased changes our mindset.

Fortunately, there is an effective approach dealing with this dilemma.

We must avoid telling our audience there is a threat to their project without also providing a clear, specific, and effective means of reducing the danger. Without a plan of action, our audience may deal with our fear-arousing message by “blocking out” or denying that it applies to them.

The same is true if we were to adopt scare tactics during a sales engagement. Some sales reps use these tactics to move their sales leads forward into believing their product or service can help with a potential problem. Often has the opposite effect. Failing to provide specific, achievable steps how to avoid the threat may either force them into inaction, or they push on in the belief their view is the correct course of action.

When dealing with a confirmation biased objection, always

  1. Include a specific plan of action on how to reduce or remove the fear we are communicating; otherwise, nothing will happen.
  2. Always pair a message conveying a potential threat with a clear, specific, easy to follow a plan of action.
  3. The plan needs to include effective steps for how our sales lead can reduce the danger we see ahead of them.

Do this, and we will build more trusting relationships that help us manage an audience that is confirmation biased. It also allows us to remain relevant and valued during both a buying and sales process.

Check out our Sales Pipeline Guide for Sales Teams & Business Owners.

Download our Sales Pipeline Guide for Sales Teams & Business Owners

About the Author

Treve Wearne is the founder of Nazca Services Limited. Treve supports businesses and sales teams positioning themselves and increasing sales revenues. Improving sales forecasts, talent development and retention in the most challenging business environments.