We know we can assist our clients in two different circumstances: when they have an aspiration (e.g., “they desire an endless supply of chocolate”) or when they suffer with a problem (e.g., “they have run out of chocolate!”) Which scenario should we focus on, and how should we present it in our marketing and proposals?
Pretend you’re about to invest $9,000 into equipment for your consulting firm. A purchasing consultant claims that he can save you money. He offers two alternatives:
He will guarantee you a savings of $2,400.
There’s a 30% chance he can save you $8,000, and a 70% chance he’ll save you nothing.
Assuming he charges the same for both alternatives, which one would you choose? Don’t overanalyze it. Just choose the alternative you prefer.
Economists call this scenario a “positive frame” because it focuses on your potential gain. According to a study published in The Journal of Economic Psychology, when a choice is in a positive frame, people generally prefer a sure thing over a risky benefit, even when the economic value is the same.
Colloquially speaking, a bird in hand beats two in the bush.
Okay, let’s run this same scenario again. You’re about to drop $9,000 on equipment. A purchasing consultant says that he can help you spend less. He offers the following alternatives:
You will pay $6,600 out of pocket for your equipment.
There’s a 70% chance your equipment costs will remain $9,000 and a 30% chance they’ll drop to $1,000.
Assuming the fee is the same, which alternative would you choose? Again, don’t take a lot of time. Just note your preference.
Economists call this a “negative frame” because it highlights your losses. (In this case, your “loss” is how much you’re spending.) The research shows that when the same problem is presented in a negative frame, people generally prefer the riskier option. They want a shot to reduce their losses more.
Hence, gamblers’ temptation to go “double or nothing” in an attempt to wipe out their debt.
One Step Further
Because you’re a smarty-pants, you realized all four alternatives are economically identical; two alternatives involve risk and two are guaranteed. How people react depends on the frame.
Our learning so far is:
Positive frame → communicate guaranteed gain
Negative frame → communicate chance for less loss
But as consultants, we generally don’t guarantee gains or losses. Our projects include risk.
That means we only offer the less preferred alternative in the positive frame. In the negative frame, we offer the more preferred alternative.
Clearly this leads us to Alternative B being the best offering. In other words…
If we are not going to guarantee results, we are better off with a negative frame.
i.e., “I’ll minimize your likelihood of loss.”
I often assert that solving a problem (reducing a negative) is an easier, faster sale. The research backs that up. Whether it’s rational or not, clients react better to a chance of reducing pain (i.e., solve a problem) than a chance to make a gain (i.e., achieve an aspiration). Most clients, anyway.
My Experience and Your Input
My own experience mirrors the research. For Ascendant Consulting’s new-market work, I’ve found the promise that wins the most projects is: “I can reduce the likelihood that you will go into the wrong market.” That’s a totally negative frame, and yet it works. Very well.
On the other hand, my frame for consultants is 100% positive: “I can help you win more projects from more clients at higher fees.”
Do you think I should rework the promise to consultants into a negative frame? Let me know your suggestion in the comments box below.
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.