One of the most common sources of pain I see for sales professionals is the “frozen prospect” scenario. Some level of interest is initially shown by a prospect, be it accepting a meeting or even issuing an RFP, but once the sales person engages for real, the prospect goes dark or seems frozen. That is highly frustrating for most salespeople. The pain of prospecting is bad enough, but the added pain of seemingly having to recreate interest after it was initially shown is confusing and demoralizing.

The instinctual reaction of most sales reps is to then double down on the contact frequency and pressure, assuming that they had a “live one” on the line, and that it represents an easier close than some of the other non-engaged names on the lead list. The result is a prospect that feels harassed, a sales rep who is frustrated, and a sales pipeline full of “maybes” and “considering it” accounts.

Sadly, the instinctual response of most sales reps is often contributing to the prospect going dark by triggering some of their instincts, specifically survival instincts based on animal distress behaviors. While it has no capacity for language, our limbic (or lizard) brain still influences our human decisions and actions far more than we realize.

In the late 70’s and 80’s, a series of studies were done on a concept called Tonic Immobility. I once read a great summary of this research by Dr Peter Levine, a trauma specialist. The studies in question discovered that an African gazelle being hunted by some cheetahs starts with the commonly known fight or flight response.

A prospect either engages & negotiates (fight) or attempts to avoid you (flight)

When trapped beyond flight being possible, the gazelle is likely to fight, even against enormous odds, but at the exact moment of physical contact, before any injury occurs, gazelles often have an automated physiological response that drops them into an almost catatonic state. In other words, they freeze up physically, as a subconscious response to being caught. Scientists believe the evolutionary advantage of this reflex is that a sudden end of movement in a prey inhibits aggression in predators and often stops the attack/kill response entirely, giving the gazelle a small but possible chance at a later escape.

If you hiked in the woods as a kid, park rangers often advised you NOT to run from a bear, for the exact same reason, and based on the same science.

While I don’t consider most salespeople “predators” and I don’t consider being called one by a salesperson a “trauma”, the fact is our animal brains still contribute to our actions more often than we think, and the only reference point the animal brain has, is basic primal survival instincts. Your prospect’s brains are no exception.

A prospect freezing up is a sign that they feel threatened, trapped, unsure and uneasy. Most good buying decisions require an environment of feeling safe, trusting and comfortable. You often need to be able to challenge your prospect’s thinking to complete a sale, and people who feel threatened are far less likely to be comfortable with having their thinking challenged, or open to being convinced. Treat your prospect like you’re a predator, and they are likely to respond like prey. Prey runs. Prey hides.

Those who still believe in the “hard close” actually lose far more prospects than they gain clients. Almost every case study I have seen on the subject proves that. Hard closing, pushing them harder, calling them more feels right to our predator instincts, but is actually based on letting our animal brains take control.

Ease off of a frozen prospect. Give them space. Go back to discovery mode and try to identify the pains that support a buying decision. Invert the paradigm by even suggesting a non fit. Minimize the predator threat, and allow the prey to start moving again. I even suggest going so far as to take “doing business” off the table entirely to get a prospect to re-engage. The safer you can make the prospect feel, the more likely the “maybes” will engage again. The “No’s” who still don’t want to tell you will still be unresponsive, so you have lost nothing in letting them go.