Explained: Why is Uncertainty a Top Sales Killer?

Perhaps you don’t even know you have an uncertainty problem. Many companies don’t. But uncertainty around your product or service makes customers pause in their tracks. Why does it happen and how can you fix it?

In this article you’ll discover:

  • Why paying attention to your customers’ uncertainties is more important than focusing on benefits; 
  • What uncertainty tax is and how it impacts how we value things; and
  • How to use other customers’ choices to alleviate concerns.
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If you're a bit stuck in your marketing efforts, or you’ve already tried different ways to motivate customers which looked good on paper but didn’t really work, and you wonder why then reading this article could be time well spent. You may find that instead of focusing solely on customer-centric communication packed with benefits, the number one question you should ask is why your customers are not taking you up on your offer. 

Instead of focusing solely on customer-centric communication packed with benefits, the number one question you should ask is why your customers are not taking you up on your offer.

We’ve previously written more about why not to fixate on incentives in How to Understand What’s Stopping Customers From Doing What You Want Them To Do. This article zooms in on one particular barrier to changing customers’ behavior: uncertainty. We’ll explain how to identify it and offer handy strategies to remove uncertainties in different situations. 

To better understand how uncertainty impacts the way we act, picture the following situation: 

Two colleagues Liz and Jeff are sitting at a formal business dinner in Browns Brasserie & Bar. They’re both itching to switch from wine, which was chosen by group consensus, and order a cocktail. But they’re also concerned. 

Why? 

Because there’s uncertainty. For each of them, it means something different. Jeff is worried that the glass the cocktail comes in will make him look feminine. Liz is concerned that the glass will be packed with ice from top to bottom and make her proclivity to get sore throats flare-up (as it often does). 

But Liz is feeling rather shy to ask how much ice the drink comes with - especially with her division leader sitting right across from her. Perhaps she should know. That is if she were a regular at this swanky restaurant.

Though Jeff and Liz have different concerns, this will ultimately lead them to the same decision – sticking to wine. It isn’t surprising. 

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Often, an uncertain outcome feels worse than a certain negative outcome

It means that Liz will politely keep on gulping down the 1993 Zinfandel her boss keeps blabbering about, but which she doesn’t particularly enjoy, rather than risk a sore throat or embarrassing herself by admitting she doesn’t know something, or that she’s “fussy” about the amount of ice in her drink. 

Uncertainty can prevent people from getting something they want if they’re worried about a particular part of the offer. And by not addressing customers’ uncertainties, companies miss out on conversions they could otherwise get without flash sales or ‘twofers’. 

Uncertainty can prevent people from getting something they want. And by not addressing customers’ uncertainties, companies miss out on conversions they could otherwise get.

Though Liz and Jeff are fictional, the story is real. Mitchells & Butlers, a UK company that owns a chain of Browns Brasseries & Bar, found that their customers had concerns about glassware because its menu didn’t feature visuals of glasses. 

They hired Cowry Consulting to redesign the menu to increase average customer spend not by changing prices or items on the menu, but simply by changing how the menu looked. Including visuals for glassware was just one of the simple yet significant changes which tripled the goal target set by Mitchells & Butlers. You can read the whole case study here. 

Why is uncertainty so bad?

According to author and professor Jonah Berger, uncertainty is one of the top five barriers to changing minds that he lists in his page-turner on obstacles - The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind.

Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a situation when your customer has incomplete or missing information. A situation when their questions, concerns, and fears aren’t answered.

Uncertainty is one of the worst feelings a customer can have. As a result, they’ll avoid situations that cause this feeling, abandon the buying process and leave dissatisfied. 

But let’s be realistic, uncertainty is a natural companion to any change. Even if the change is inconsequential (like getting a pair of new shoes or a subscription), it involves a certain degree of uncertainty. The problem is, the more uncertainty there is, the less interested we are in making that change. 

Worse yet, the more ambiguity around the product or service, the less valuable that new thing becomes. This decrease in value is called “uncertainty tax”. That’s why for customers to choose something new, the option they’d be willing to switch to can’t just be better, it has to be significantly better.

The more ambiguity around the product or service, the less valuable that new thing becomes. This decrease in value is called “uncertainty tax."

You’re probably thinking this looks pretty bleak. So is there hope? Yes! When you ask customers to do something or take on something new, it’s important to address all their major concerns before these concerns have a chance to stop them in their tracks.

To put it bluntly: your offer can have a hundred benefits, but if there’s one concern or question to which the customer doesn’t get the answer, they may not take you upon it. Conversely, if your business pinpoints and addresses all the customers’ concerns and questions, one good reason to buy can be more than enough.

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Uncertainties in the sales process 

In retail (and especially in eCommerce) uncertainties are usually easier to spot. Here the most obvious concerns are things like: “will it be a good fit and if not what do I do?” 

But uncertainty can act as a major show-stopper in any sales funnel. That’s why the most successful companies like Netflix, Paypal, or Zara adjust their sign-up process & checkout funnels to eliminate uncertainties at each step of the way. If it’s hard for you to think of why a customer might not volunteer for a free thing, check out this detailed play-by-play on how Netlifx clears away concerns that might lead potential customers to pause or leave its free-trial signup process. 

As you can see below they don’t solely focus on the benefits (ad-free, multiple screens, option to download) but alleviate potential concerns, such as whether a user can cancel at any time and won’t be charged without being notified first, by putting them front and center in their registration funnel. 

Netflix doesn't solely focus on the benefits, but addresses customer concerns first by putting them in the center of the registration process.
Netflix registration process addresses major user concerns at each step of the funnel. Source: Netflix payment page

Uncertainties about the product 

The second type of uncertainty includes concerns that are tied to the product itself (a customer either doesn’t know how to use it or has concerns about using it). This can be fixed either by changing the communication around the product or changing its design as Tampax did. You’ll learn more about Tampax later in this article.

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How to identify customers' uncertainties 

Since uncertainty is widespread, it means that before you start thinking of ways to motivate customers to engage with you or to buy from you, you have to begin by understanding their main uncertainties and dealing with them.

Before you start thinking of ways to motivate customers to engage with you or to buy from you, you have to begin by understanding their main uncertainties.

Businesses often think they do enough to clear away lingering questions and doubts; they train customer-facing & digital staff to end the conversation by asking whether a customer has any further questions. They say “NO” and then it’s solved, right? 

Actually, finishing on that note is damaging and can affect how the customer looks back on the conversation, leading them to recall it as less pleasant than it actually was. 

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So how can you tease out uncertainties and what to be mindful of? 

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