The Truth About Urgency

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One of the most commonly misunderstood strategies of sales/influence is that of creating urgency. I will admit that during my first few years of selling, most of my attempts to create urgency went horribly wrong. I was taught to build urgency by creating the impression that there was a risk of missing the opportunity if action was not taken. I was instructed to use words like, “limited supply” or “for a limited time” or “they are selling fast”. I tried a number of variations that didn’t seem fake or completely transparent. Yet, the reality is that my attempts were almost always transparent to the customer.

As I have studied the theory behind urgency and worked through solutions with my clients, I have come to understand why most people struggle with this technique. Here are a few ideas and strategies to make proper use of urgency whether you are in sales, leadership, or corporate management.

Step One: Create value first– The most common issue is that sales executives often attempt to create urgency because they are the ones who “urgently” need the sale. Specifically, they fail to consider urgency from the customer’s perspective. Sales executives typically resort to urgency when the customer is not willing to commit to their attempts to close the sale. Ironically, trying to create urgency only turns them off faster.  Without interest from the customer, or at least a basic comprehension of their attitude towards the product, urgency is useless. Here’s an example:

If I am trying to sell a single woman a men’s shaving razor, she probably will not have any interest. If I add that for a limited time, the razors are 50% off, she probably still won’t care that much. The product has zero perceived value to her and the urgency is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how badly I want to sell her a razor. Before I can create urgency, I need to create value. My only hope is to make the appeal that men’s razors are ideal for shaving legs and provide much less irritation than traditional brands. Whatever the pitch, there is no urgency without value.

Step Two: Understand the components of urgency – Urgency is derived from two powerful mind-sets known as commitment and social proof.  Together, they create a mind-set often referred to as scarcity. Before we move forward, let’s get some definitions out of the way.

  1. Social Proof – Social proof is behavioral phenomenon evidenced when people mimic the actions of others to align with a perceived “normal behavior”. It is based on the premise that if others are interested, it must be credible. Examples: Best-selling lists, trending topics, waiting lists, and clothing fads.
  2. Commitment – Commitment is established as we participate or take an interest towards something. This “engagement” enhances the value of the item, especially if there is a chance of losing it. Examples: High school dating, test-driving a car, qualifying for a promotion.
  3. Scarcity – Scarcity is the belief that there is not enough supply to meet demand.  Scarcity explains why people pay $10 for a gallon of gas – or water – during a hurricane.  Scarcity is also why real estate values inflate so fast during booming markets.

Understanding how these three components interplay is critical to understanding the true nature of urgency. Urgency can only be established if an interested customer believes that everyone else will also be interested.  The customer will reason that this common interest will create demand and therefore, due to a limited supply, it will soon be gone. Therefore they have to act.

The most common issue is that sales executives often attempt to create urgency because they are the ones who “urgently” need the sale.

Let me illustrate how they work together in a hypothetical situation of a board-room pitch.  Assume I am an executive who is trying to win over a few senior executives on the idea of opening up a new location. How can I create the most compelling “natural urgency”? Here is how I would do it:

1. First, I would do some homework and make sure I clearly understand the goals, values and objectives of the company. If I am not in alignment, I am wasting my time. There can be no urgency without value. 

2. Next, I would make sure I understand any competitive market factors that will elicit scarcity or a threat from my competitors. Example: Are any competitors considering this strategy or location?

3.  I would engage as many credible supporters as possible to participate in the pitch. For example, having various co-workers prepared with relevant market data to support my pitch will lend credibility to the executives in the form of social proof. I would make sure that I have engaged as many participants as possible to help provide supporting information and opinions throughout the delivery. Assuming there are ten people in the boardroom and three are decision makers, create the perception of seven vs. three instead of one vs. nine.

4.  I would facilitate commitment by engaging the executives in the discussion.  By asking them questions that help them arrive at the same conclusion themselves will make them feel like it was “their idea”. This is a very persuasive technique to create powerful results. Draw on prior discussions involving supporting comments from the executives during the pitch.  This will create even more commitment. Example, “Bill I was thinking about our conversation last week regarding your idea to expand into a new market.” (I can assure you that Bill is now on board with the idea.)

5.  Once value has been established and there is a palatable sense of commitment from the decision-makers, I would build reinforcement through scarcity. The fear of loss of something that has perceived value will strengthen the resolve to take action.

6.  Finally, I would remember that decision is worthless without action. Once I have delivered my pitch and the executives have reached a decision, I would instill action around the commitment while the energy and commitment level is high.

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