Understanding the Gap: Expert Tips on Breaking Down Customers’ Resistance to Change

May 31, 2019

Natalie Severino

So much of the selling process focuses on trying to get prospects and customers to visualize a better future for themselves, their business, or even their own customers. The problem with that strategy, which seems logical, is that it often fails to overcome people’s resistance to change — and thus, fails to convince them to buy.

Keenan headshot
Keenan, CEO, President and Chief Antagonist, A Sales Guy Inc.

Keenan, CEO, president and “chief antagonist” at A Sales Guy Inc., a leading sales consulting and recruiting firm, says really understanding customer’s problems is foundational to sales success. In short, reps need to dig deep to get at what the customer’s current problem is, and then show them how that problem can be solved in the future. To do this, Keenan suggests that sales teams learn the art of “Gap Selling.”

I recently sat down with Keenan for a Q&A session to ask him to expand on the concept of Gap Selling, which is the focus of his best-selling book, Gap Selling: Getting the Customer to Yes: How Problem-Centric Selling Increases Sales by Changing Everything You Know About Relationships, Overcoming Objections, Closing and Price. Here’s some of what we talked about...


There are a lot of sales methodologies that focus on uncovering pain. How is Gap Selling different? And why does the gap matter?


Well, first off, Gap Selling doesn’t focus on uncovering pain. Pain is a symptom of a problem. So, for example, if I ask you, “Hey, does your arm hurt?” and you say, “Yeah, my arm hurts really bad,” the question then is, “Why?” Does your arm hurt because you have a tumor or a broken bone or a bruise? Those are three different problems. You see, you can’t diagnose the pain or solve the pain if you can’t get to the root cause. You need to go for the problem.

Secondly, Gap Selling matters because it’s based on the premise of three elements: the current state, the future state, and the gap. It’s designed that way because we use these three steps to decide if we want to buy something. We sit down and think, “Hmm, am I hungry or thirsty?” or “Is my house big enough? Do I like where I live?” or “Can I make my goals? Do I have enough customers?” Whatever it is, we start with the idea that we need to evaluate our current state: Where am I currently today? Is that tenable? Do I like it or not? Does it feel good or not? Can I achieve my goals or not?

Then, after we go through a complete assessment of our current state, either consciously or subconsciously, we look to our future state. We think, “Could it be any better?” It’s the “grass is greener” concept: If only I had this … If I only I could do this … If only this was available …

The gap is in the middle. It’s the mental calculation of deciding whether it’s worthwhile to make the change from the current to the future state, from where you are today to where you could be tomorrow. And so, if this is how we decide to buy something, then why in the world would we not build a sales methodology that maps to that? That’s what Gap Selling is all about!

Awesome! I love that you got so fired up on the first question.

Oh, I’m always fired up! Always!

Sales managers need to push their reps to dig deep to find problems that prospects and buyers may not even knowthey have.


CEO, President and Chief Antagonist, A Sales Guy, Inc.


Now, one thing that you talk about in your book is that customers are resistant to change. Why is that, and how do sellers move past it?


This is why Gap Selling is so important. You need to include the current state and the future state and the gap to get the customer to see the value of the change, right? People resist change unless you can show them the impact that the change will have on them.

It’s hard to get them to see that. And that’s why a lot of reps lose deals late in the sales cycle. They didn’t really understand or couldn’t show the value of changing. The couldn’t show the value of the other relationship, or the size of the gap between the current state and the future state. So, they just become order-takers who are unable to influence the sale because they don’t understand what the customer is dealing with in the current state. And they don’t know the desired outcomes — the future state. They can’t process the gap. So, that’s why Gap Selling works.

In the book, I talk a little bit about longevity bias — the idea that we naturally have an unconscious bias towards things that have been around for a long time. They make us feel comfortable. They are familiar. We know how they work. And so, we falsely attribute value to them that may or may not be warranted. So, you have to break the bias to get them to accept change. You have to show them changing isn't necessarily a bad thing. And again, that’s why the gap is so important.

Most salespeople sell to pleasure. That’s nice, but the fact is that most of the time, people will move away from pain before they move to pleasure. So, why compete? When you gap sell, you are actually selling the pleasure and the pain, intertwined.

Nice. I like that. I think the pain part is what drives the urgency to change — but you have to be able to show people the end result to get them there.


So, do you think salespeople do enough to really understand the root cause of their customer’s problem? Why does that matter and what should they do better?


No! I don’t think they understand it at all, actually. I blame the sales organizations for that. They spend an inordinate amount of time teaching people about the product. That’s all they do — product-centric selling. Product, product, product. But they don’t do things like, “Let us explain your prospect’s environment.” or “Here are the things your buyer is struggling with, and here’s why.”


What should sellers do to make sure the customer really understands the gap between where they are and where they want to be?


Ask questions! Because it’s all customized. The current state consists of five things, right? Physical and literal, the problem, the impact of the problem, the root cause, and the emotional state. So, when you’re doing discovery, you have to make sure that, whatever road you take, discovery gets to all of those five things in the current state. And then, you need to do the same thing for the future state.

A seller has to ask questions to really understand the root cause of the customer’s problem. Then, they can make sure the customer really understands the gap between where they are and where they want to be. I’ve listened to thousands of people tell me, “Oh, we do great discovery!” And I’m like, “You know what? You don’t.” All I have to do is put them against that test — the five things — and they’re lucky if they get 1.5 of them.”


You say it drives you crazy when you see salespeople feature selling. Why do they fall into that trap, and why do they ultimately fail?


Again, it’s because of what they’ve been taught. If I don't teach my team what the problems are or educate them on solving those problems, but I teach them about the product, what do you think they are going to do?

They're going to sell features.

Exactly. Yes! And I would love it if a sales organization had the guts to do an experiment — and it would take some guts — to hire a team and teach one half about the product and educate the other half on the problem. And then, see who sets up the most appointments and close more deals. I’ll tell you right now that it will be the people who weren’t told anything except the basic details of the product.


Let’s shift gears a little bit. A sales manager’s job is to coach reps to success. And you say that “stripping” is the most powerful methodology they can use to really help their reps peel the onion, so to speak, and get to the customers’ problems and needs. What should they be doing to make sure that their reps are stripping hard enough?


They need to get very specific — very, very, very specific. Look, every organization has what I call the “first layer” answers to their questions. They’re asking the buyer to tell them what their problems are. But we need to coach them up so they’ll be more productive and we can shorten the sales cycle. A lot of sales leaders think they coach, but the reality is that a lot of reps don’t feel like they’re being coached.

There’s all this high-level stuff sitting in the CRM that sounds good, right? And a sales manager thinks, “Okay, great. Here’s all the information about why people are buying.” But then, the sales cycle is taking too long and the team starts losing deals and people start leaving. So, you look more closely at the information in the CRM, and you realize that all the deals have the same types of details.

You need to strip down until the deal is identifiable. Say you’re selling a coaching solution. A rep says, “The customer says they’ve spent a lot of money on coaching already and the salespeople feel they aren’t being coached.” The sales manager coaching the rep should respond with questions like: Well, how much did they spend on coaching? What did they spend the money on? How did they roll it out? What did they roll out, specifically? What were the goals? What did they actually achieve? What do the salespeople feel they’re getting? Are they getting any attention whatsoever? Are their coaching meetings set up? How many? Who runs them? Are they ever missed?

Now, all of that becomes very specific, because no two accounts can be the same when you get to that level. Even if they have the same problems, nothing underneath can ever be the same — ever, ever, ever. So you’re making sure that your reps are stripping until they know it’s a unique, one-off opportunity and you can position a specific solution to their problem. Sales managers need to push their reps to dig deep to find problems that prospects and buyers may not even know they have.

I love that. I do feel like people often grab that first surface answer and then don’t keep digging. That’s where they’re missing out.


So, here’s my last question, which is on a similar thread: What signs should sales managers be looking for to identify if a rep has effectively qualified an opportunity?


They’re looking for the gap — seriously. Say a rep is selling B2B phone service and trying to close a deal with a large company. The sales manager needs to ask, “What is the current state?” Or, “What is the problem the customer is trying to solve?”

The rep says, “They’re not happy with their current provider.” The sales manager asks, “What’s the problem?” And the rep says, “They think the service is too expensive. They’re paying a million dollars a month for 10,000 employees.” The sales manager then asks, “Okay, so we can save them maybe what, $100,000 a year? Why do you think that’s a good deal? And is that the only problem they have?”

The rep says, “Well, no … they also said they have a problem with customer service.” So, the sales manager then learns from the rep that it takes so long for the customer to get phones fixed or upgraded that the company’s executives end up buying other phones—5,000 in the last month alone. That’s costing the business a lot of money and other headaches.

So, you see? That’s the pain. Saving $100,000 a year wouldn’t be enough to get the customer to switch, but helping them to see a future state where they wouldn’t need to deal with poor customer service and duplication of phones would. The bottom line is that the gap, in this case, isn’t about the cost of the service. It’s about the business racking up unnecessary costs and managing frustrated executives.

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