One of the most common sources of pain I see for sales professionals is the frozen prospect scenario. Some level of interest is shown by a prospect, be it accepting a meeting or even issuing an RFP, but once the sales person engages the prospect goes dark or seems frozen at a certain stage of the process (pre or post proposal). 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 a meeting seems unfair.

The instinctual reaction of most sales reps is to 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-presented to names on the lead list. The result is a prospect who feels harassed, a sales rep who is frustrated, and a sales pipeline full of “maybes” and “thinking about its”.

Science offers a plausible explanation and better course of action.

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 animal brain still influences our human decisions and actions on a daily basis.

In the late 70’s and 80’s, a series of studies were done on a concept called Tonic Immobility. I recently read a great summary of this research from a Dr Peter Levine, a trauma specialist. The studies 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) based on the same instincts. When trapped, the gazelle is likely to fight, even against enormous odds, but at the moment of physical contact, before any injury occurs, the gazelle often has an automated physiological response that drops it into an almost catatonic state. In other words, it freezes up physically, as a subconscious response to being caught. Scientist believe the evolutionary advantage of this to be 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.

I’ve never had a chance to test the advice, thankfully, but aren’t we always told not to run from a grizzly bear by the park rangers? That advice comes from the same science.

While I don’t consider most salespeople “predators” and I don’t consider being called one by a sales person a “trauma”, the fact is our animal brains still contribute to our actions more often than we think. Your prospects are no exception.

A prospect freezing up is a sign that they feel threatened, trapped, unsure and uneasy. Most good buying decisions require a environment of feeling safe, trusting and comfortable. You often need 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. Treat you prospect like prey, and they are likely to respond like one.

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. Go back to discovery mode. Invert the paradigm by even suggesting a no. 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 ones that were “No’s” and didn’t want to tell you will still be unresponsive, so you have lost nothing in letting them go.