Turbulent Skies

Rick Cheatham and Lou Schachter

“Please return to your seats and keep your seat belts fastened.”

It has been a long week. You’ve declared this a no-email flight and are just getting ready to start a movie. Suddenly, the “Fasten Seat Belt” light comes on with a ping. Although you’ve been in this situation many times before, it is still unsettling.

“Flight attendants, please take your seats.” For 15 minutes or longer, everyone stays put.

A similar phenomenon is happening today at many of your customer organizations. The pace of change has become so fast and so bumpy that people are staying put. That means decisions don’t get made. Projects are slowed. Risk avoidance becomes the chief priority, and initial visions of what would be great are set aside for what is now possible.

Turbulent Buying Behaviors
“Always Keep Your Seat Belt Fastened When Seated.”

Look at what happens in the customer buying process when the pace of change increases to a point that it causes what we are referring to as “turbulence.”

Turbulence drives a fear of change. Customers are reluctant to innovate or experiment. The focus is on small, incremental changes that reduce cost. Past strategies are continued, as long as they have had moderate success. Turbulence increases the likelihood that customers will remain with existing providers. The goal is less to maximize success than to minimize failure.

Because they no longer trust their own judgment, buyers are bringing more stakeholders into the decision-making process. Decisions can be postponed multiple times, even if doing so delays the implementation, and especially if the decision involves the assumption of new risk.

After seeing good people fired, buyers don’t feel safe…so they play it safe.

Know Your Buyer
If your customers are tightly strapped into their seats, is there anything you can do? Yes.

Start by knowing your buyer’s decision-making focus. Some fascinating recent research by Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins shows that there are two main ways that people focus.[1]

Promotion-focused people seek gain or advancement. For this group, the worst thing is missing an opportunity to do something great. We’ll refer to these people as “gain maximizers.”

Prevention-focused people seek to avoid mistakes. For this group, the worst thing is a failing to avoid a loss. We’ll refer to these people as “loss avoiders.”

Neither approach is better than the other. The big issue is making sure you have the right conversation with the right type of buyer. You don’t want to emphasize risk avoidance with gain maximizers. You want to focus on the vision of what is possible. But you don’t want to emphasize that big vision with loss avoiders. Instead, you want to help them navigate to prevent failure.

Of course, many if not most people sit somewhere on the continuum between these two approaches. But thinking about the poles helps ensure your messaging is correctly targeted. When there are groups of buyers that contain both types of people, you want to make sure your messaging addresses both kinds of focus.

Different Communication Approaches


Gain Maximizers


Big picture

What’s possible


Abstract ideas



Loss Avoiders



What could go wrong


Concrete ideas






The whitepaper discusses in detail the following five ways to adapt your approach along with some revealing examples to the type of focus of your buyer:

  • Emphasize potential losses from inaction
  • Bring in the experts
  • Recognize the power of social pressure
  • Manage the stakeholders
  • Keep the choices simple

Conclusion: The Pain of Uncertainty
David Rock, head of the NeuroLeadership Institute, is a researcher who has synthesized current neuroscience research on how people interact socially.[2] One of Rock’s conclusions is that the brain is constantly trying to predict the near future.

Rock told the New York Times that, “Uncertainty feels like pain. When you’re holding multiple possible futures in your head, that turns out to be cognitively exhausting.

Conversely, feeling more certain about things is rewarding, and feeling that expectations are being met releases dopamine – the reward-response neurotransmitter – in the brain.

We live in an increasingly uncertain world, but uncertainty can be decreased. Plans drive clarity about the future, or at least about likely futures to reduce anxiety. Simplifying complicated projects into smaller chunks has the same effect, reducing that overwhelming feeling that comes from not having mental maps already in place. Talking about possible future situations, or scenario planning, is also effective.

Salesperson as the Pain Reliever
In turbulent times, having plans (account, opportunity, etc.) is more critical than ever.

A salesperson can actually reduce the pain of uncertainty. Do all of these things with an eye toward the dominant focus (gain maximizer or loss preventer) of the buyer with whom you are speaking. Where you need with speak to both types of people, include both approaches: What are the gains we can achieve? and What are the losses we can prevent?

Read the full White Paper, here.

Lou Schachter is the global leader of the BTS Sales Practice. He is also the co-author of the book, The Mind of the Customer: How the World’s Leading Sales Forces Accelerate their Customers’ Success, which was published by McGraw-Hill in 2006. Before joining the BTS team, Lou had a long career in sales for professional services firms.

Rick Cheatham leads the BTS Sales Practice in North America. Previously, Rick was a sales leader at Avery Dennison, a leading producer of consumer products and pressure-sensitive adhesives materials. During his tenure, he transformed his organization into one that changed its focus from selling products to accelerating its customers’ business results.


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