What is status quo bias and how can your sales narrative overcome it

Estimated reading time
3 minutes
29th September 2020
Author: Dani Mansfield
Posted in: Psychology, Sales

Winning new business is a complicated task. There are at least six questions your prospects will want convincing answers to (find more on those here). But even with those boxes firmly ticked, you’re up against the innate inclination we humans have to keep doing things the way we’re used to. Here’s how to overcome that.

What is status quo bias?

Status quo bias is the mind’s inflated preference for the current state of affairs when making decisions, even when we believe that making a change would help us better achieve our goals. Status quo bias is a rational-emotional response. This presents a real challenge for anyone who wants a prospect to change their supplier or ways of working. Rational arguments alone are not enough.

A salesperson waits by his laptop for a lead to respond

What causes status quo bias?

There are four drivers of status quo bias that can prevent decision-makers from making a change.

1. Preference stability

If your prospects’ values and preferences remain unchanged over time, so will their decisions. This means sticking with a current solution.

This is a rational driver of status quo bias. If you’re trying to sell a new service or product to a buyer, you need to disrupt these values and preferences to open up a willingness to change.

If you’re selling a familiar offering, your buyer will already understand why your solution is important. Your narrative needs to focus on the points of differentiation you have from the prospect’s current provider and why each is preferable.

If you’re trying to carve out a new category of solutions that buyers aren’t yet aware of, you need to shine a light on problems they didn’t know they could solve (or perhaps don’t even realize are problems). That way, you’ll destabilize their perception of their current way of working, creating space for your proposition. 

2. The cost of change

Another rational driver is the cost attached to making a change. This can be financial, but also a matter of time and energy. Who isn’t tempted by the path of least resistance (and least risk)?

It’s a classic cost-benefit analysis. This driver can be a blocker even when the buyer sees the benefits of your solution or actually prefers it. To make a change, the benefit and gains need to significantly outweigh the effort and expense of breaking with the modus operandi. You need to provide as much concrete evidence of this as possible.

 3. Anticipated regret or blame

We rationally seek to minimize the risk of future regret or blame when evaluating decisions. Sticking with the status quo is seen as more reasonable or justified than a decision to change, and so we experience less regret over them, even if the ultimate outcome is poor. Our experience isn’t squarely a rational risk calculation. We feel the dread and anxiety of regret and blame in the process of deciding. As such it’s an emotional driver of status quo bias, as much as it is a rational one.

Your business can help buyers overcome anticipated regret or blame and the emotions they bring into the decision-making process by providing certain guarantees, like trial periods, break clauses, 14-day cancellation policies, or free returns. Freemium pricing strategies are also an effective way of tempering this obstacle.

4. Selection difficulty

You’re probably familiar with the idea that too much choice can be paralyzing. We’re more inclined to hold off making a decision and continue with things as they are when faced with a complex set of options. This is particularly true when the options available are seen as more or less equal in terms of expected outcomes. We become overwhelmed, and that emotional load makes the entire act of decision-making feel costly and unjustifiable.

Selection difficulty can be mitigated by giving buyers tools and information that help them to easily compare, contrast, and defend your proposed solution against competing options. Careful curation of the context and focal points in which that comparison is made can make all the difference. This driver can also be affected by tactics like time limitations, using loss aversion to prompt action. 

Status quo bias and retention

While status quo bias is an obstacle for acquiring new business, it can benefit your ability to retain customers and protect them from being poached. Your retention narratives need to focus on cementing the status quo and highlighting the risks and disadvantages of change, minimizing any disruption to the line of thinking that brought them on board in the first place. Of course, none of this matters if your offering fails to live up to the value promised in the first place, but that’s a conversation for another time.

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