How Well Are You Selling Change?

Your customer’s fear of change could lengthen the sales cycle and maybe even jeopardize the sale.  However, if handled correctly it can be an ally in winning the sale.


Today we have a new understanding of the dynamics of change and in particular why it can be so difficult. The seller who can leverage this new knowledge can greatly boost his, or her sales success.

In this insight we will explore how seller’s can help their customer’s to grapple with the issue of change.


Are You Selling Change?

Making a big purchase often requires changes on the part of the customer.  In the first instance the customer may need to change attitudes and outlook in order to get acceptance of the need for your solution.

Thereafter the successful use or implementation of your solution may require a whole set of other changes.  For example changes in the way people work, or in their existing processes and systems.

How big of a change does your solution represent for the customer?

The level of dependence of your sale on change by the customer is an important determinant of success.   However in reviewing and planning opportunities in the pipeline, the following questions are rarely asked:

– How much change is required by your customer to purchase our solution?

– Is the purchase consistent with the customer’s existing attitudes, beliefs and behaviors?

– What is the customer’s appetite for and ability to change?

– How can your solution reduce the requirement for, or ease the process of; change?

Asking these questions for each opportunity is an important first step in addressing the challenge of selling change.


Change Is Not An Easy Sell

Does your solution promise to change your customer’s world?  If so beware!  Change is not easy and it could present a significant hurdle to winning the sale.

What needs to change for the customer to buy and get the most out of your solution?

Change can be slow and costly.  It also entails risk.  Indeed, there is a deep rooted cynicism in many organizations regarding the ability to effect change accompanied by a legacy of failed initiatives.

It is in this context that change can present a challenge, as well as an opportunity for the seller.  Let’s examine why…


5 Ways Change Can Stall The Sale

When it comes to the complex sale the salesperson is often cast in the role of catalyst and change agent.  But, selling change is not easy.

For the customer change can stumble at any of the following 5 steps:

1. Build awareness of the need for change

2. Get agreement or commitment on the need for change

3. Ensure a consensus / clarity on what the actual changes should be

4. Translate the commitment into action on the ground

5. Sustain the change – making it stick particularly in the longer term

For some customers the most immediate barrier to change may be a lack of awareness (1) of the need for change, for others it may be taking action (2) to make it happen.

Which of the 5 obstacles to change represent the greatest challenge to winning the sale?

To progress the sale the seller should focus on helping the buyer to transition from one step to the next.  This can be quite different to the traditional ‘always be closing’ sales approach.


Are The Changes Hard Or Soft?

To understand the changes for your customer it is helpful to distinguish between what we call ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ changes.

‘Hard’ change includes changes to:  – Process       – System        – Strategy      – Structure

Take for example:

– The purchase of a back office administration system.  Successful implementation is likely to require process changes as well as changes in strategy and perhaps a restructuring of administrative function.  The appetite for these changes is likely to have a major bearing on the buying decision.

– The implementation of a new compliance regime is likely to require new forms of reporting, as well as changes to systems in order to present the required compliance data.  The total cost of ownership will include the cost of all of these related changes.

‘Hard’ changes can be costly and time-consuming.   However they may be more manageable than what are ironically called ‘soft changes’.

‘Soft’ change, include changing people’s:   –  Behaviours    –  Attitudes      –  Beliefs


The Hardest Type Of Change

Changing the code in a software system or the steps in a process is easier than changing the way people think and behave.

The problem however is that ‘hard changes’ often necessitate ‘soft changes’ to take place in tandem.   This is where organizations often face their greatest challenges.

It is often in the areas of changing behavior that systems, process and strategy initiatives fall down.  This is manifest in:

– Poor levels of user adoption of systems

– High levels of non-compliance with process

– Gap between the strategy and its implementation.

Getting people to change is almost universally recognized as a challenge.  But, what can the seller do about it?  Let’s examine that next…


Getting People To Change

Organizations invest millions in new initiatives, leadership, coaching and just about everything else in the hope that people will change.

That is in spite of what is often a deep-rooted cynicism about the ability of people to change – a cynicism borne out of many past disappointments.

After all who has not had his or her own personal experience of broken promises, lapsed commitments and unrealized goals?

We may justify our failure to change with a variety of excuses:

– I don’t have enough time – I’m too busy! – It is not working out as planned!

– I don’t have the tools or resources required!

– The goals set were unrealistic! ‘

– There are other people in the way! But predictable excuses aside why is change so difficult to make?


Technical Versus Adaptive Change

To better understand why change initiatives fail, Kegan and Laskow-Lahey make the distinction between adaptive and technical challenges relating to change.

For example we all know that providing people with additional information, new skills or even new tools – the technical solution – is often not enough to change behavior.  That is because the key gap is often not a technical, but rather an adaptive one.

How much of the challenge faced by your customer is technical, rather than adaptive?

In short knowing what to do is not enough.  Adapting mind-sets and behaviours goes deeper than acquiring new knowledge or skill. Training, although important, is only so effective as an agent of change.

This has important implications for the sellers of so many products and solutions and in particular the role and format of customer and user training.

Do you over-rely on customer training in getting customers using your solution?

If how your customers actually use, or derive benefit from your solution (once sold) matters, then enabling users to change their behaviors is key.  As we will see next that requires identifying the customer’s competing commitments.


Are There Competing Commitments?

Here is the problem with change – people have made a commitment – they may earnestly want to change, but something stubbornly prevents them from doing what needs to be done.

Kegan and Laskow-Lahey  provide the example of cardiac care patients who fail to make the changes their doctors say are required.  But what greater motivation for change could there be that staying alive?

Change is not just an issue of awareness, or a motivation.  That is not enough!. Any change to become manifest requires that the organization, team or individual do more of certain things and less of others.

This brings us to the reason why changing behavior is tricky.   That is because existing patterns of behavior often have deep roots in terms of our psychology. Having closed the sale the challenge of changing behavior remains.

What does your customer need to do more, or less of, in order to act on their commitment?

We do what we do for a reason (however subconscious it may be).  That explains why we say we want something but act in a contradictory manner. Our behavior is based on our beliefs and emotions and these are variables that can be highly resistant to change.

That brings is to the nub of the problem – attempting to change behavior without changing underlying attitudes and beliefs is likely to result in failure.


Is There Immunity To Change?

The things that we need to start, or to stop doing are often silently over-ruled by a pre-existing commitment, or set of beliefs and assumptions.  This is what Kegan and Laskow-Lahey  call ‘immunity to change.’

Individuals and groups have immunity to change in the form of embedded behaviors.  These are habituated patterns of behaviour that are deeply rooted and psychologically, as well as emotionally driven.

For example a manager wants improved visibility and control in the business and better reporting by staff.  That requires buying the software to make it easy to collate the information.

However that is the relatively easy-part. Acting on the commitment means that the manager must change his behavior, particularly in terms of insisting on the reports being submitted by staff and following up with those who are unwilling, or unable to do so.

What attitudes and beliefs are holding your customer back from changing?

Therein lies the problem – such behavior runs counter to the manager’s ethos and the belief that senior members of staff in particular should be given autonomy to run their own parts of the business without excessive interference.

It also contradicts the manager’s desire to be seen as a friend, as well as a boss to all the staff. To the salesperson selling the software it is all very confusing. Next we will examine why…


The Customer’s Internal Tug-of-War’

Have you ever noticed that part of the customer may be systematically working against the very goal that they want to achieve?

There is often a tug of war between the old and new, as people wrestle with change. The customer may be saying one thing, but doing something else. He, or she appears unable to act on their commitments, or to deliver the change required.

Will your customer face a tug-of-war between the old and the new?

To the detached outside observer – such as the salesperson – this ‘tug-of-war’ between what the customer says he or she wants and how they behave is frustrating, even baffling.


Glued To Existing Attitudes & Beliefs

In exasperation the sales person may think the customer weak-willed, or even dumb. But there is a perfectly reasonable psychological basis for what is happening.

Although they run counter to the manager’s stated desires, or goals, the customer’s conflicting behavior and underlying beliefs serve a valuable purpose.

The customer’s existing attitudes and beliefs have served him, or her well, at least psychologically speaking. They serve to retain intact the customer’s ego, self-concept and identity. They may have an important role in protecting against unspoken risks, fears and vulnerabilities.

Do you get unnecessarily frustrated by the customers apparent indecision, or inability to act?

Scientists tell us that there is is an in-built desire to ensure consistency with our existing attitudes and beliefs.  As a result they can act as a powerful in-built change prevention mechanism.

Again, it is not that we don’t want to change. However we may be poised to systematically produce the opposing results. That explains why dieters typically end up 107% of their pre-diet weight (Kegan and Laskow-Lahey.

OK so change is not easy! However the seller is not helpless. Next we will examine a number of strategies the salesperson can employ to empower the customer to change and thereby advance the sale.

Here are some of the strategies you can apply in order to help the customer to change and thereby maximize your prospect of winning the sale:

Changing Enabling Strategies For The Salesperson

1. Understand where the customer is at on the 5 step transition to change (as examined earlier) and focus your efforts there.  Is the problem one of awareness, or of taking action for example.

2. List the changes that are likely to be required by the customer and distinguish between hard and soft changes. Focus on the changes that pose the greatest challenge.

3. Use the 4 step questioning process outlined by Kegan and Laskow-Lahey to uncover and tackle immunity to change:

– What commitment is required?

– What behaviors are required by your customer – what do they need to do and indeed stop doing?

– What competing projects or commitments exist (that underpin those contradictory behaviors)?

– What underlying beliefs or assumptions need to be challenged?

4. Listen to any chatter which indicates confusion, uncertainty or disagreement regarding the planned changes.  It may serve a useful purpose – to alert to immunity to change.

5. Don’t over-rely on information, education and training as the vehicles for change.  Tackle the adaption, as well as the technical challenges around change.

6. Mix thinking with feeling in presenting  your pitch and proposal.  Logic or the business case alone is unlikely to change behavior.  Remember while you can justify with numbers, you must compel with emotions.

7. Stop complaining and criticizing your customers who struggle with change.  Try a more empathetic approach, seeking to understand what is preventing them from taking the action that is required.

8. Help your customer in the process of self-reflection.  That means helping them to stand back and to observe themselves and their behaviors. The objective is to shed the light of awareness of behaviors and beliefs that threaten to hold them back.

9. Understand the environment and culture of the organization – it sets the scene in terms of the rate of process that is likely to be achieved.

The environment or culture of the organization has a major role to play in immunity to change.

These things facilitate change These things hinder change
Effectiveness leadershipGood communicationCollaborative culture

Good teamwork

High levels of mutual respect

Willingness to innovate & take risks

High value placed on personal development

Learning culture

Openness & Trust

Willingness to make mistakes

Poor leadershipBlame cultureBack biting & Back stabbing

Lack of trust

High levels of uncertainty


Failure to follow through on commitments

Mandates and edits from ‘on high’

Conservative or risk-averse culture

Unwillingness to admit mistakes


10. Create a safe environment for the open discussion on change, as well as the honest exploration of attitudes and behaviors that could prevent it.

– Don’t assume that people are aware of their dysfunctional behaviors, or limiting fearful beliefs.

– Don’t let it get personal – it is about people’s attitudes and behaviors rather than the people themselves.

11. Facilitate the discussion on the process of change, including defining or planning:

– First steps

– Progress milestones

– Success

12. Focus the change effort on the ‘One big thing’ that the group overall, or each key person, needs to change.

That involves asking questions, such as:

– What is the single thing that you think is most important for you, or your team to get better at?

– What single change if made would have the greatest potential impact on success?

– What single change if made would allow you to maximise the chances of success of this initiative?

– What single obstacle if removed would clear the way for you to make most progress in this area?


This insight leverages the work of Kegan and Laskow-Lahey applying it to the context of the complex sale. Their research can be viewed at:

Kegan and Laskow-Lahey – Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good)

Kegan and Laskow-Lahey – How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation