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Pain Points: Do Buyers Respond More to Pain Or Gain?

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
13 min read

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Pain Points: Do Buyers Respond More to Pain Or Gain?:

Full Transcript

Don’t Drink and Fry. That’s the title of a 2011 campaign to help stop New Zealanders from cooking when they get home after a night of drinking. I’m not making this up. Go look it up on YouTube. The commercials are hilarious.

The reason that those commercials exist is that drinking and frying was a big problem. Mike Hall, National Commander of New Zealand’s Fire Service says, “50% of all fatal house fires start this way. People go out, they drink too much, they put the frying pan on, and they fall asleep. You know the rest,” so New Zealand hired a big ad agency to make commercials, warning the public about the perils of drinking and frying. These commercials had two primary messages, drinking and frying is bad, buying takeout while drunk is good, which I can tell you for a fact is true.

The New Zealand government was selling behavior change to the public, but which messages worked better, pain or gain? In this episode of Modern Sales, we’ll examine what’s most effective to get and keep your prospect’s attention and move them to action. Yes, we’re diving into the age-old debate between gain and pain points. Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast for entrepreneurs, business owners, and salespeople looking to have more and better conversations with your perfect clients. You’ll get a healthy scoop of psychology, behavioral economics, and sales studies to help you create win-win relationships. I’m your host, Liston Witherill, and I’m pleased to welcome you to Modern Sales.

There are two main buying motivators, pain and gain, pleasure and pain or loss and gain, however you want to think about it, but which has a greater effect and what role should it play in your selling? I was having a conversation with my friend, Jason over on LinkedIn actually. He posted about his Beats headphones and how he was totally happy with them. Then, his wife urged him to try on some Bose headphones. He wasn’t planning to, but he ended up buying the new Bose headphones because the sound was so much better and the noise-canceling was better too.

His conclusion, people don’t just buy to stop pain, they also buy out of desire or to gain something, but of course, me being me, I wanted to examine this a little bit more closely. Prior to trying on the Bose headphones, Jason had no idea how good noise-cancellation could be, but once he found out, he realized there was a gap in what he had versus what he could have. Same with the quality of the sound. Once he learned how good the sound could be, he realized he was using an inferior product, and who wants that, right? What was more important, the pain or the gain, and how did my opinion differ from Jason’s?

I’ll give you the answer right after the short break. Welcome back. Look, here’s what I thought about Jason’s article. It all comes down to pain. In response, he argued that both pain and gain were necessary. There was no single driver, and he also argues that they’re equal contributors.

I didn’t agree with that last part, I still don’t agree with it, but I also had to admit that I didn’t quite know what the science had to say, so that’s exactly what we’re going to find out in this episode. You see, the problem is whenever we start a conversation with someone, we only have one chance to open up with our messaging, so do you lead with pain or do you lead with gain? You need to figure out which is most powerful during the sales process, and I would say as a solution, let’s follow the science, and we’re going to dig into this in a second, but the big headline is we need both, pain and gains, so Jason and I, Jason Bay, if you’re listening to this, you and I do agree on the big idea, which is we need both, and I’ve built my entire SDS Methodology around this. We need both pain and gain, and I’ll get to that a little bit later. First, let’s go once again into the buyer’s brain and find out what the research has to say about all of this.

Now, there’s a lot of research around the question, “How do we respond to pleasure and pain in decision-making?” Different researchers go about it different ways, but I’m just going to summarize for you what the big ideas are that come out of this research. The biggest one is that both pleasure and pain factor into our decision-making, so pleasure is magnetic. It draws us to something, whereas pain is a repellent. It pushes us away from something.

In the case of selling someone something brand new, we can use that pain to push them away from where they are now and towards a new thing, right? That’s how we would use pain, but the bottom line is both pleasure and pain are very well-established as factoring into decision-making, which beg the question to me, “How much? Are they equal or is there a difference between the effect that pain and pleasure have on our decision-making?” What we find in answer to that question is that loss is a stronger motivator than the effect of gain. People tend to value the things that they have right now, much more than the things that they don’t have.

If you haven’t read it, there’s a fantastic book called Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, and one of the stories that he tells in that book is about Duke tickets. He’s a professor at Duke University in North Carolina, a renowned basketball program. Great, great basketball program. Lots of great players to come out of that. Zion Williamson on the Pelicans, if you’re a basketball fan is making many splashes, and there’s a thing that happens anytime there’s a home game, and that is students form an insanely long line waiting for tickets in order to go to the basketball game.

There are more students than there are tickets available, and so some of those students will even camp out intense, waiting for the tickets to go on sale so that they can reserve their place in line, and a funny thing happened. When he asked people who waited in line and already invested all of this labor, and I’ve talked about the IKEA effect here before, they’ve invested all of this labor into buying their tickets, those people valued those tickets much more than the people who didn’t have tickets. Meaning, if I have tickets now and I sell them, I am losing the opportunity to go to the game. Suddenly, it’s worth a lot more to me because I’d be losing something, whereas if I don’t have the ticket, I’d have to buy something, and that effect is much lower. In fact, a lot of the students valued their tickets five to 10 times more than students who didn’t have tickets but would be willing to buy them, and so people tend to value the things they have more than the things that they don’t have, which means loss is a stronger motivator than the effect of gain.

Worse yet, the increased pain of a worse exchange exceeded the increased pleasure of a better exchange. Meaning, the pain of a bad experience is much more awful than the pleasure of a wonderful experience is good. The effect is stronger. Pain is more painful than pleasure is pleasurable. I mean, when you think about it, it seems like a really good survival mechanism.

It seems obvious enough. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that expectations have a whole lot to do with this. In one of the papers that I was reading in preparation for this podcast, they talk about the example of online gambling. People lose a lot of money when they gamble, but many of them enjoy the experience, and the reason is their expectation is already set. Most people, most informed gamblers don’t think they’re going to win a lot of money, and so their experience of loss and gain is significantly different than people say buying a service or buying whatever product that they think is going to do something for them, but it doesn’t, right?

That would piss you off obviously. Whereas, you have an expectation when you gamble that you’re probably going to lose the money, or at least there’s a good probability that you can, usually at least a 50/50 probability that you’re going to lose. That’s what the science says. It says pleasure and pain are both factors in decision-making, but loss and pain are much stronger motivators. They have a bigger effect than gain. Now, you must be wondering, as I was, “What the heck do I do with this information?”

The first thing I’d like you to do is test your messaging for prospecting and marketing. When Jason and I got involved in our conversation, what became clear is I’m a sales process guy. I’m a conversation, human interaction kind of guy, right? Like that’s my bias when I come to these conversations, and he was coming to the conversation from a prospecting perspective. The difference there is in prospecting, our sole goal is to get someone’s attention and start engaging them in a conversation.

Whereas, our goal in the sales process is to mature that conversation so that people make an informed buying decision, yes or no, it doesn’t matter, right? Very, very different things here, because on the one hand, with prospecting, I’m trying to get busy people who don’t care about me to slow down, pay attention, and give me a couple minutes. On the other hand, during the sales process, I’m trying to demonstrate to people what I can do for them and how it’s worth their time to move forward and make a significant investment in what it is that we’re talking about. Different things. What will cause someone to stop and give you their attention may be different than what will cause them to buy.

I’m going to come back to this, but a gain type message or a positive type message may actually work better in order to get your prospects to stop and pay attention to you, but what will actually get them to move from the status quo and change, and we know how hard that C word is, what will actually get them to change must, by definition have a significant amount of pain, because there’s two types of pain in any change. One is the change itself, “I already know what I know,” “I’m doing things now,” “They may not be working perfectly, but I understand what they are.” That’s pain number one. Pain number two is, “I got to pay you and I got to take a risk here,” and I don’t know about that, so we know that there’s got to be enough pain with where they are now to overcome that second pain, which is associated with paying you, making the change, and taking on the risk. Now, in terms of testing your messaging for prospecting and marketing, there’s positive and there’s negative language, which I would just associate with pleasure and pain, or loss and gain.

In one study, examining the effectiveness of anti-drunk driving messages, which is a fairly big and important sale, they also drew a distinction between immediate and future results, so you can just create a matrix here. On the one hand, you have pleasure and pain or positive and negative language, whatever is easier for you to think about it, and then on the other hand, we have immediate and future results. I would test those things, and so if you just drew a two by two positive, negative, immediate, future, you could probably come up with several different types of messages that you can try out. Here’s my guess, the more consultative your sales process and the more customized your service and the more expensive, the more likely your market will be to respond to future results. The more transactional and commoditized, the more immediate the promise has to be.

Again, that is just a guess. I urge you go test it out, but this is a very structured, concrete way. You can go try it. The next point is you really do have to establish both pain and gain during the sales process, so we know that pain has a bigger effect, a bigger magnitude, a stronger influence, a stronger drive to action, but we also know that people make decisions based on both pain and gain, which means necessarily, they both have to be there, they both have to be tangible, we have to create a vision for those, and our clients need to clearly understand what they are. You can go back to episodes 79 and 80 in your feed, where I talk about establishing client pain and goals.

Just scroll back in your feed. It says at the start of the episode what number it is. Those are episodes 79 and 80 if you want to learn about how to establish pain and goals as part of my sales training series. Here’s a clue. This really comes down to asking good questions and it comes down to being a good listener.

Part of being a good listener is asking good follow-up questions, so it’s not enough to just read off of a script. When you’re talking to people, you have to understand where they’re giving you openings and where there’s more to say about something that they mentioned. Plus, affective communication also requires confirmation that you’re understanding the other person correctly. Ask them, check in with them. This is part of active listening.

Let them know not only that you’re paying attention, but also ask them, “Am I understanding you correctly?”, and get their confirmation. If you do those things, it’s going to help you establish both pain and gain during the sales process. The next point is that pain and gain are mirror images of each other. In my training, I talk about PGV, pain, goals, value. This is an absolute straight line from where your client has gaps to how you can fill those gaps, and what’s required to build that argument is your client’s pain, goals, and value.

Because pain and gain are mirror images of each other, you can think about it as two sides of the same coin. Both are critical. Typically, the pain is a mirror image of your client’s goal, and vice versa. One is framed negatively, one is framed positively. If a client comes to you and you’re selling, I don’t know, software development services, and they say, “Look, our goal is to build this app so that it’s a joy to use and it is the absolute best option in the marketplace for this thing that we’re doing.

“If that’s the goal, then the pain is, “Our app is kind of a pain in the butt to use right now, and it is not a market leader, and we are in trouble, so we need to do something about it.” If we start from the goal or the gain, we can work backwards to the pain, and vice versa. It’s a direct route to both. Once we know what that goal is, we can set the value, so it’s important to remember pain and gain are just mirror images of each other, and we want to understand what those are. The last point I’d make here is that because in a complicated sale, we’re dealing with a lot of different people and we know that pain is the strongest motivator, we want to establish what is the baseline collective pain that people are feeling within the organization that’s most likely to motivate a purchasing decision.

Again, it’s a yes or a no. We can’t control what they say. We can influence it, but we can’t control it, and given that there are multiple people with wildly different views of what they all stand to gain, what we want to message on is the baseline collective pain being felt within the organization. Now, those are a bunch of points. Let me get to the actual steps, the action points that you should be taking right away.

The big headline here is to establish the pain points and client goals that you are most likely to encounter. I’ve talked on this podcast before about the scourge of making assumptions, especially wrong ones, right? It’s okay when we make right assumptions, but the problem with making assumptions is we know that some percentage of the time, we absolutely will be wrong, so what I want you to do is make assumptions about your perfect fit client’s pain points and goals, and I want you to do that based on your average client so that you’re informed, but you’re not going to assume anything at the individual level so that you can remain open-minded. What this looks like in practice is simply a list. Just make a list.

“What are the possible pains my clients are encountering and what goals do they have in stopping those pains?” Collectively, again, that looks like the gap in the organization, what they’re missing out on, and your solution, of course, is a bridge that takes them from where they are now to that future state that they want to be in. I’ve built it right into my Serve Don’t Sell Methodology. It is that important, so make your full list of potential pains, make the full list of potential gains and client goals. Once again, I call this PGV, pain, goals, and value.

If you’d like to revisit the Value Setting Process, you can check it out. It’s in episode 81 back in your feed if you want to do extra homework as a result of this one episode, but the bottom line, be prepared to message on both pain and gain, but keep in mind, the pain will almost always be a stronger motivator for your client to take action, particularly in a group setting. Here are the key takeaways from today’s episode. The pain versus gain argument isn’t very useful because one is a reframing of the other, kind of like Yin and Yang. Pain and gain are so closely related, they’re just a reframing of each other.

The research shows that loss is a stronger motivator than gain, so minimize the risk of people doing business with you and show them what they’re losing by not taking action. By the same token, you have to show them what they stand to gain. Test your messaging for prospecting and marketing to find out what’s most motivating, establish both pain and gain during the sales process, and one thing that might help you do that, write out the typical pains and goals of your clients so you’re prepared to have the conversation and make it as constructive as possible. If you use my SDS Methodology, you’ll be able to draw a line from the gap your client is experiencing to the exact thing that you’re selling. That’s it for this episode.

In next week’s episode, I’m starting a new series on Sales AI to answer the questions, “How real is it?,” “Which jobs, if any will it take?”, and importantly, “When?” If you aren’t already subscribed to this podcast, please do so by clicking the huge Subscribe button or the Follow button in Spotify. You can also get notified of all podcast episodes and get daily, yes, daily sales insights emailed directly from me to you in your inbox with a custom hand-drawing every single day. All you have to do is go to That’s It’s linked in the show notes and it is, as always 100% free.

Thanks to everyone who makes this podcast possible. Juan Perez is our editor, and Mary Ann Nocum is our show assistant. Our show theme and ad music is produced by me, Liston Witherill. Show music is also produced, some of it at least by me, and some of it by Logan Nickleson at Music for Makers. Thanks so much for listening. I’m Liston Witherill of Serve Don’t Sell, and I hope you have a fantastic day.

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