Hearing “maybe” from a buyer is more common than hearing a yes or no. Sometimes “maybes” indicate lack of decision–making authority. Sometimes they’re a result of a reluctance to say “No.” No matter the cause, maybes disguise a real sales challenge. It’s essential that you address the underlying cause of “maybes” immediately, especially because the very purpose of a ‘maybe’ is to buy more time.

Let’s take a look at a real-life scenario. Jonathan (the buyer) took the time to talk with Heidi (the seller) and liked what she had to say. The conversation was prompted when Heidi phoned to follow-up after Jonathan signed up for a free trial. Heidi took the opportunity to explain features and to learn about Jonathan. She asked how many people would be users of the system. She asked about his time-frame. She even asked probing questions about Jonathan’s current processes and the challenges he wanted to overcome (good job Heidi!).

In closing, Jonathan suggested that Heidi check back in two weeks’ time.

Why did Jonathan ask for Heidi to give him two weeks? Please take your best guess:

  • He is genuinely interested and expects to make a decision in two weeks
  • He is genuinely interested but he doesn’t really know what he wants to do next.
  • He is not interested but doesn’t know how to say ‘no.’

For this situation and many like it, the answer is both a) and b).

Jonathan—like most buyers—quickly estimated in his mind, how much time he thought he’d need to think about it and reach a conclusion. To him, conclusion and decision mean the same thing. And they are the same thing when the conclusion is a negative, that is, if you conclude that a product won’t meet your needs, then you will pretty easily arrive at a purchase decision of ‘no.’

If on the other hand you conclude “yes, I like the product,” or “yes, I think others will like the product,” or “Yes, we’re interested,” it’s not the same thing as deciding to purchase. Most of those sentiments simply mean the buyer has decided it’s worth considering and consideration is still a long way from a purchase decision.

Deciding to purchase is a much longer journey than deciding to move forward with purchase consideration.

Jonathan didn’t think through the various emotional, intellectual, or mechanical layers of a purchase decision (buyers rarely do) when he asked Heidi for two weeks.

So when Heidi called back in two weeks, Jonathan wasn’t ready with a purchase decision. He didn’t yet know if he wanted to buy. Nor did he know whether he didn’t want to buy. All he could say is “Maybe.”

As I’ve repeated many times in my posts, “Time Kills Deals.” If Heidi doesn’t handle this situation the right way, this sale is destined for ‘Maybe Purgatory.’

What could Heidi have done?

Heidi needed to turn the big maybe into a small yes at the very start. Heidi thought of the possibilities. What if, instead of buying into Jonathan’s uncertainty and waiting on the sidelines while time marched by, she could get Jonathan to take a specific action that would help him gain clarity one step at a time?

Here’s what Heidi said that turned the situation around, “Jonathan, I understand that it can take time to make such an important decision. Why don’t we put the decision aside for a short time, and run a simple test. Let’s see how just one of your folks responds to the system. It’s a great way to quickly learn whether you’re on the right track. Would it be worth getting that feedback before going any further?”

Heidi pushed for a small (but important) yes. She eliminated any hidden decision anxiety Jonathan was experiencing by removing the decision from the process for the time being. She offered a precise next step that told Jonathan where to focus—one that would actually be helpful to Jonathan (and to her). In Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Decisive” they refer to this technique as ‘ooching.’ To “ooch” is to construct small experiments to test one’s hypothesis. Ooching is a great method to help people make decisions and become, well, ‘decisive.’ So Heidi decided to help Jonathan ooch and as a result, she won the deal.

“Maybes” are disguises for real—sometimes unrecognized—objections. They are tangible evidence that uneasiness or uncertainty are lurking within. “Maybes” drain your sales focus and put the accuracy of your forecast at risk. If you can turn big maybes into small yeses, you can keep time from killing your deals and push the sales process forward to a close.