Is the 57% Statistic An Urban Legend?

Tim Riesterer

Most marketers and sales pros have accepted the stat that says buyers are at least 57 percent of the way through the buying cycle by the time they engage a salesperson. A recent State of the Conversation report from my company found that nearly 80 percent of marketing and sales leaders believe the stat is true.

But, based on the data that keeps coming out and telling us more about the realities of modern, complex B2B sales, there’s good reason to view this stat with some skepticism – and to really question the belief that buyers are more than halfway done with the buying journey by the time a rep enters the picture.

Two findings in particular cast doubt on the idea…and these could have significant implications for how salespeople understand the messaging role they need to play to steer successful customer conversations.

Factoring In Team Readiness
Case in point: How do you reconcile the 57 percent stat with the finding from Sales Benchmark Index that more than 60 percent of qualified pipeline deals fizzle out in no decision? It makes you wonder: If most qualified deals really are so far along, then why are the majority of them stalling out?

And what about the ever-expanding number of decision-makers involved in the average complex B2B sale (according to some sources, it’s nearing seven!). The continued expansion of the B2B buying committee throws doubt on the 57 percent stat more than any other factor. Because even if you assume that one of the roughly seven decision-makers is more than 57 percent of the way through the buying process when a rep takes the lead, where does that leave the rest of the buyers involved in the deal? What if some of them are brought into the lifecycle of the deal later on, and are individually starting at 10, 5 or even zero percent? If a host of decision-makers are much less far along in the buying journey, then it’s going to drag the cumulative number down to something a lot less than 57 percent.

So what does that mean for salespeople? It means they probably still have a lot of heavy lifting to do to convince buyers to change and drive consensus. That’s why they need to be the masters of the “why change” story when they take on the lead.

The Status Quo Bias
The main reason some of the factors above complicate the 57 percent stat has to do with the fact that when salespeople enter the customer conversation, they may be starting with the wrong conversation.

It’s no accident that 60 percent of qualified deals end in no decision. This problem is a result of bad habits and training, which has led to an assumption that because a prospect is meeting with you, it’s time to start touting your features and benefits. But usually, it’s not. Usually, that prospect hasn’t yet committed to doing something different from what they’re doing today. That’s why skills training and sales content needs to prepare reps to handle the first and most important field sales conversation—the opportunity creation conversation designed to activate need-driven buying intent. This dialogue isn’t about why your prospects should choose you; it’s about why they should change from where they are today.

In other words, your biggest enemy isn’t the other players in your industry. Your biggest enemy is your buyer’s aversion to change,or their status quo bias.

That’s why the story you need to lead with in the field shouldn’t focus on your features and benefits – even if you think they’re differentiated. Save that for the “why you” story, which comes later. You first need to deliver a compelling “why change” story. To do this well and overcome the status quo bias, your message needs to include:

  • A distinct point of view that creates risk and uniqueness by identifying unconsidered needs, instead of responding only to the needs your prospects tell you they have—which is the approach you can count on most of your competitors following. This puts you in the position to connect the needs you’ve identified (and that your prospects aren’t aware of) to your differentiated strengths. Research conducted by my company shows this approach can dramatically improve your chances of being perceived by prospects as the differentiated alternative, offering a truly compelling buying vision.
  • Contrast between the pain your prospects are feeling in their status quo and the upside that change could bring to them. By touting your features and benefits, you miss the chance to accentuate one of the most important components of a great “why change” story – which is the urgency you can generate by painting a picture of contrast. Humans are two to three times more likely to make a decision to avoid a loss than to achieve a gain, according to Prospect Theory, developed by social psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. If you can demonstrate what your prospects risk losing by staying in their status quo situation – and then contrast those losses with what they stand to gain by changing – you can create a powerful case for why they need to change, and now.
  • Risk and Resolution – A risk-generating, insights-driven message is a great way to create excitement and lay the groundwork for a great “why change” story. But you can’t stop there. To actually incite buyers to take action, you need to do more than create risk around the status quo. You need to show how your solutions are uniquely positioned to help them resolve the risks you’ve identified. In research conducted by my company, we found that a message pairing risk and resolution gives you a statistically significant edge in persuasion compared to a message that only introduces risk.

Data about the number of decision-makers involved in your typical deal, and about the propensity of so many once-promising deals to end in no decision, should make you wonder how far along in the buying cycle your prospects really are when they engage a sales rep. Since buyers may not all be as far along as the 57 percent number suggests, salespeople need to own and master the “why change” story. After all, a meeting is always nice. But it doesn’t mean your prospect has committed to doing something different than what they’re doing today.

Tim Riesterer is chief strategy officer at Corporate Visions, which is committed to improving sales conversations.