Fear is universal for humans. Business is no different -- fear of loss, fear of missing out, fear of competitors leaving us flat in the dust. This is why employing fear is one of the most effective sales tactics you can ever use.


We’re chemically wired to react to fear at a primal level. Whether someone’s putting a knife to our neck or you’re falling short on your sales numbers this quarter, your brain will start pumping chemicals throughout your body to create a fight-or-flight response.

Marketers and advertisers have capitalized on this for centuries -- everything from warding off scurvy and various diseases to protecting yourself from cybercrime.

In sales, fear often introduces the urgency needed to close a better deal or convince a prospect to open, read, and reply to an email.

But before you go peddling doomsday scenarios to all your prospective clients, it’s important to understand there are correct and incorrect ways to apply fear. Knowing this distinction will help you motivate and inspire rather than scare and paralyze. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:

1) Know Their Pain Points

First thing’s first: You need to know and understand the other person’s fears. Offering up a bunch of random, scary business scenarios isn’t motivation by fear; it’s just plain old fear-mongering.

Start by researching your prospect’s pain points. What are the market forces at work in their industry? How do they stack up against the competition? Are there internal struggles at their company? What do their customers need right now that they’re not delivering?

The IT sector, for example, is a major playing field for fear motivation right now. The pressure is on for companies to cut costs, and there are dozens of cloud solutions claiming to do just that. Many of them promise the same results for their customers: Faster and cheaper than the clunky, expensive legacy systems many still use.

When picking pain points, choose the ones relevant to the solution you offer that you think will resonate most with your prospects. If “fast performance” is your product’s superpower and “slowness” is your customers’ common complaint about their existing system, focus on pain points that result from a slow speed, like higher costs, missed opportunities, and other related consequences they’re likely to also care or complain about.

2) Prioritize Those Fears

In order to motivate people through fear you have to understand which fears to focus on. Which problems are most relevant and urgent to the buyer?

Say you are an ecommerce software company, and you’re trying to sell to a small online retailer facing two big issues: Improving security at checkout and expanding their store to serve multiple countries. Both are relevant concerns, but poor security and compromised data will destroy customer trust for any retailer. Not having a presence in France carries less drastic consequences, and would therefore feel less urgent as a fear scenario.

You can even take this a step further by intersecting your prospect’s biggest fears with the most relevant items you offer. If you make ecommerce software, chances are, you have reliable security built into your platform.

Include that fact as well as the dangers of poor security so your prospect recognizes the pain point -- and also understands how your service or product can resolve it.

3) Be Subtle

How you talk about clients’ fears is almost as important as how you prioritize them. You want to express urgency, but the most effective kind of fear is subtle and realistic. If the first thing you say to a potential customer is, “Hackers are going to steal all your customers’ information next week,” you probably won’t get very far (unless you have some evidence for this claim). Claims like this only make your buyer defensive and immediately hurt your credibility and any chances of building trust.

A less extreme version of this sentiment is something like, “You never know if someone is trying to steal your customers’ information, which is why it’s so important to secure your checkout area.” The message still feels urgent, but the danger is presented as a realistic possibility -- which is avoidable with the right steps.

In general, you should be careful about accusing prospective customers of anything, as this will only put them on the defensive. Instead, consider mentioning similar scenarios you have seen or heard of from your own customers to convey the pain.

4) Finish With Excitement

Fear for the sake of fear is great in movies, but not so useful in sales. That’s why your pitch needs to end on a positive note -- one that offers the other person an actionable solution to their problems.

Once you’ve made sure your pain points are in line with your offering, it’s time to generate a little excitement. What new discoveries or advantages will the recipient find after talking to you? What does it mean for the overall business? To briefly return to the shopping cart example, what advantages can the retailer gain over competitors by addressing concerns about a secure checkout process?

Even when your aim is not about hitting pain points or insecurities, fear can still be a useful power to wield in sales. That’s one of the biggest advantages about this particular tactic: It’s infinitely adaptable. Just choose wisely when and how to use it.

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Originally published Aug 16, 2017 8:30:00 AM, updated August 15 2017


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