How quitting is good business: Sarah Wilson’s sweet deal

How quitting is good business: Sarah Wilson's sweet deal

If you think getting a customer to buy something is hard, how about getting almost half a million people to stop using something they have grown up with? 

By any measure, journalist and author Sarah Wilson’s “I Quit Sugar” movement is a lesson in behaviour change, so after attending a talk she gave last week I thought I’d share some ideas on how you can influence people to change by using tension in the right way. It bookends last week’s article on how businesses fail to persuade customers by providing a case study on one who does.

Using positive tension to create anxiety about status quo

Status Quo Bias is our default setting. When in doubt we leave things as they are.

In order to persuade people to make a change you first need to convince them that the status quo is wrong, and that’s what Sarah spends a good deal of her books doing.

In a methodical and straightforward way, Sarah outlines her perspective on sugar and the impact it has had on her health. By outlining her concerns with the status quo assumption that sugar should be a part of normal life she draws the reader into questioning the impact it may be having on theirs. She is using positive tension to provoke a desire for change.

And that’s the first key lesson – you have to create an appetite for change. By pointing to the gap between what’s undesirable now and what is a desirable future you can stimulate sufficient motivation in your customer to be open to changing their behaviour.

In pitches this means you have to spend time acknowledging the status quo before going on to illustrate why it’s no good. In presentations it means usurping your audience’s assumptions to get them engaged. In customer communications it means triggering recognition in their minds that things aren’t all they should be.

But that’s only part of the job. Now that you have their interest, you have to overcome the type of anxiety that holds people back from change, and that sees them cling to the status quo even if they know they need to change.

Overcoming negative tension to build people’s willingness to change

Loss Aversion tells us that people are more motivated to avoid loss than seek gain, so you need to work hard to reduce the perceived downside of progressing with you.

By providing step-by-step meal plans as well as cooking and shopping tips, Sarah reduces people’s fear that a life without sugar is too difficult. In her words, “We are not designed to not do something”, so Sarah promotes abundance and what you can do rather than what you can’t. In fact, by calling the book I Quit Sugar, Sarah has framed the change as active and empowering. Calling the book I Go without Sugar would have evoked a sense of deprivation and loss.

Further, through a thriving blog (engaging over 260,000 every day) and social media presence (over 385,000 followers) Sarah has harnessed a community of advocates and tapped into the behavioural principle of Social Proof. People new to the materials or program who may feel anxious about whether it will work for them can have their fears allayed by seeing how many others have succeeded. There’s no surer anxiety-buster than knowing that someone else has done it before you.

Most interestingly, Sarah also emphasised the importance of standing for something – for being clear on what you do and to be niche in a cluttered landscape. Having a clear value proposition means there is less ambiguity in the minds of your customers about what you can do for them, and this means you reduce anxiety. 

So the second key lesson is that you have to overcome negative anxiety if you want your customer to take action. It means anticipating any fears your customer may hold about trusting you with their business and addressing them through techniques like testimonials, guarantees, returns policies, free shipping, security seals, credible branding and a tight value proposition.

If Sarah can, we all can

The next time you are having a tough day remind yourself that people do make changes and make changes that are hard. After all if people can quit sugar, there is hope for us all.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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