Winning offers in times of crisis: recognise the subconscious stress response of your customer

“We were very impressed by your offer and are happy to work with you. But let’s keep in touch and evaluate the situation again this fall, in terms of cash flow and lockdown measures. ”

This is the conversation I recently had with a customer following my proposal for an in-company training “writing winning offers”. In the current situation, scoring on tenders has gotten a sharper edge. Like, how do you deal with all those customers who freeze their budgets and postpone orders? Short answer: it all depends on how the customer reacts at a subconscious level.

Autopilot in control

No matter how much we like to see ourselves as rational beings, neuroscientific insights have proven differently. 95% to 98% of the time we make our decisions subconsciously, on autopilot so to speak. In fact, that is very efficient. We would get pretty tired if we had to process all incoming information consciously all the time. Try saying your phone number backwards. That’s not so easy, is it?

Economic downturn as a sabre-toothed tiger

The social and economic situation in which we find ourselves now, is to our subconscious brain like a sabre-toothed tiger lurking at us. Quite stressful. Whether it’s about impending layoffs or being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, our subconscious brain responds in the same way: switch to autopilot. Roughly it knows three forms:

  • Freeze: paralyse and stop acting.
  • Fight: try to avert the danger by (counter)attacking.
  • Flight: run as fast as possible hoping this will avoid the danger.

Win offers = understanding your customer’s response

Many companies are currently facing the sabre-toothed tiger. Orders are declining, layoffs are imminent, perhaps even bankruptcy, and no one knows how long it will take and how bad it will be. This is relevant to realise if you want to win a quote. The customer is presented with this offer during a stressful period. So be prepared for a freeze, fight or flight response.

Freeze: “We will postpone the assignment for now”

This customer cannot, is not allowed or doesn’t dare to make a decision at this moment. Budgets are frozen, even though rationally it might be crystal clear that certain investments cannot be delayed. This customer probably will not ask for a new quote. The content of the written offer will be received positively, but he will not give you the agreement.

How to deal with a freeze customer?

The follow-up of the offer is important here. From your point of view it is understandable that you want to close the deal, but the customer’s subconscious brain can’t handle it right now. Make sure you keep in touch with the customer about a small next step. In sales this is called the “salami technique”. Offer small slices that eventually provide for a whole meal. See what first slice you can serve your customer. Of course, this is not something you just want to sell, but a targeted step towards the customer’s desired solution. This will build the relationship and increase the chance that, once the budget is thawed again, you will still get the job.

Fight: “Can we get a discount?”

This type of customer bravely attacks the sabre-toothed tiger (Corona). The weapon used in battle: ask for a discount. He might respond with something like: “Very strong offer, we are happy to work with you. But we are really tight on budget at this moment and have to make ends meet. I assume you’re not having an easy time either and really need this job. Can we agree on a discount?” Experienced sales professionals know that giving discounts is not smart for multiple reasons. One is that the customer subconsciously registers that you are too eager and therefore may be desperate for work, which will make you or your offer unattractive or implausible. Set aside, the question it raises about the margin you calculate if you give a discount so easily.

How to deal with a fight customer?

Try to prevent the customer asking for a discount early on. You can do this by offering several options during the conversation and later on in your offer. Customers subconsciously make their choice earlier if you give them several options to choose from. Don’t make it a “take it or leave it scenario”, but be creative. Break down the service or product into 3 options, increasing in value. This also gives the customer an option with a lower price.

Is the customer still trying to negotiate a discount after receiving the quotation? Then discuss which option is preferred and strip it down. The customer will get a lower price, but will also receive less. Subconsciously people are very sensitive about loss and losing things. Chances are the customer does not want to lose the items you offered before and still agrees to the initial offer.

Flight: “…” – the stalker effect

We haven’t discussed the offer internally yet, can I call you back next week?” or: “This is not the right time, we are swamped with work because of Corona. I’ll call you back this week.“. Then it remains silent. This is a customer in flight mode who uses the crisis to flee. The tricky thing is he will not distinctly say “no” yet. So, you don’t want to “kill” this prospect just yet and you keep on trying to get in touch. Meanwhile, you start to feel like a stalker, which will seriously threaten the equal relationship you want in a cooperative relationship.

How to deal with a flight customer?

The challenge here is to limit your customer’s tendency to escape. You can do this by including a few reassuring elements in your offer:

  • Offer several options, just like you do with the fight customer. By offering options to choose from,  the customer will feel he doesn’t need to go for the largest, magnificent project.
  • Use the closure to direct your customer towards the next (small) step. Write that you are going to call, propose two dates/times and ask which one suits him or her best.
  • Keep it attainable. Make clear that you are not calling for instant agreement on the offer, but just to discuss the options at offer.

Your own autopilot

This article deals with subconscious, automatic responses of customers to quotes in times of crisis. Quote writers themselves also have a freeze, fight or flight response. Be aware of this and don’t let yourself be carried away. Try to interpret your customer’s subconscious reaction and then consciously choose your next step. This will lead to a solid, sustainable long-term customer relationship.

About Saskia Kerkhof

Saskia is the owner of Winnende Offertes Schrijven (Writing Winning Offers) and helps companies win more offers by applying neuropsychology to the content of the offers. She studied Applied Communication Sciences at the University of Twente. Followed by a second master in Management Consultancy which she graduated from with distinction at the Rotterdam School of Management. As advisor, trainer and external PhD candidate, she immerses herself in techniques to communicate with conviction and truly reach the other person. Saskia is a regular guest lecturer, speaker and columnist on these topics.

Interested in discussing this topic? Plan a meeting