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Pain vs. Gain: What Best Motivates Buyers to Buy?
Dan exposes the psychology behind pain and gain, then shows how to use that psychology effectively.

An interview with Dan Seidman by Paul Feldman, Publisher

Find the pain, make the sale–right? Dan Seidman says finding the pain is only the first step toward the proper approach to handling buyers.

Dan has been training salespeople for decades and writing definitive guides, such as The Ultimate Guide to Sales Training and The Secret Language of Influence. He has seen many salespeople fumble through the selling process by being set in their ways. One of those ways is by always using pain to present their offerings.

But what about buyers who respond to gain? You’ve met people who are positive and benefits-oriented. So the question is, how do you know which buyer prefers which approach? How do you tailor your presentation to fit either one mindset or the other? Those are key questions that top sales pros can answer.

But it doesn’t stop there. Once you’re getting answers, what do you do with them?

In this discussion with Publisher Paul Feldman, Dan  exposes the psychology behind pain and gain, then shows how to use that psychology effectively. 

FELDMAN: In the 1960s and ’70s, the trend was benefit-based selling. Then in the ’80s and ’90s, the idea arose that you had to find the pain to get people to buy. What works today? Is it pain, or is it gain? 

SEIDMAN: I began training salespeople in the mid-to-late '80s during the transition period when people were doing both.

People were doing one or the other, but pain was really hot, because some selling systems started to emphasize that. It was a different way to have a conversation with buyers.

Now, we actually have psychological research that shows that people are motivated by one or the other. We know that in the United States, 40 percent of the population are motivated by pain, by solving problems and avoiding the occurrence of bad things. And 40 percent are motivated by gain — good things, goals, a vision for the future, that sort of thing. The other 20 percent were in the middle and could go either way. 

FELDMAN: How do you know which route to take? 

SEIDMAN: We have to figure out whom we’re sitting across from. Then we have to be verbally agile enough to change our conversation so that we’re speaking perfectly for the prospect in front of us. I like to say when you get pain and gain right, you’re speaking the buyer’s dialect. And that’s a huge jump in communication skills, as well as a big rapport builder.

So let me start with a story. Picture this — you’re 12 years old and you fly into the house after school, and you say, “Mom, Dad! Guess what? I figured out today that when I grow up, I’m going to be a doctor.”

And Mom is wonderful, positive, encouraging. “Honey, that’s great! Doctors are so well-respected. You’ll make good money and have a nice house. You’ll find a wonderful spouse. I am so happy you’re gonna be a doctor.”

How, on the other hand, does Dad respond?  Doom and gloom. “A doctor? A doctor! Do you know how many years you have to go to school? Do you know how much money it costs to become a doctor? Do you know how much malpractice insurance costs? And you’ll be working with sick people all day long — do you really want to be a doctor?” 

Dad was always playing the devil’s advocate — disagreeing with and challenging your thinking. Do you see how these two types have distinct responses to a new idea? This is exactly how we experience the difference between pain and gain. Now my hope is that sales pros will begin to see this around them everywhere.

Let’s recognize these differences in  our prospects. Some are very positive, embracing. They love to see you. They’re happy to talk about the issue at hand. Some are not as easy to talk to. They seem to be resistant to everything. 

FELDMAN: What are some key differences between pain-based and gain-based people? 

SEIDMAN: Here’s the concept we want to understand. In psychology, these two different ways of approaching life, decision-making and motivation are what we call direction. People move toward an idea (those are gain-based people) or people move away from ideas (pain-based people).

Gain-based people don’t get started without an actual goal. They have to see something really good happening in the future. They become focused and move toward that goal. They focus on priorities, and they know just what they want.

Pain-based people know what they don’t want, so they’re almost the exact opposite. They’re about preventing or solving. They don’t need a goal to be motivated.

Because you now know that buyers fall into one of two categories, you can adjust your presentation to fit that gain buyer or pain buyer. 

FELDMAN: How did you develop your approach toward these two types of buyers? 

SEIDMAN:  I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, so I realized that my psychology background was a perfect fit for understanding how people buy. Because, essentially, our job is to help people make a decision to change their behavior, change their thinking, change their minds! And this is exactly what a psychologist also does with the patient on the couch.

I cut my teeth in selling in the ’80s and ’90s when I worked in the recruiting industry with a search firm. I ran a team of 15 reps, and I personally worked the desk for medical sales.

I was calling on a Chicago-based medical sales manager, and I said, “Hey, I heard you have an open territory, John. How’s it going?” And he said, “Well, I’m very busy right now interviewing people for that position.” See, he’s trying to get me off the phone with the “very busy” comment.

I said, “Good, I hope you find somebody. I just have one question for you — who’s covering your open territory?” And he said, “I am.” And I say, “Really? In addition to managing your other people and all your work? Wow, that’s probably not taking too much time from your day.”

And he laughed and said, “No, it’s not really affecting my days, I’m just working into the evening every night.”

Now I’m forming some rapport with him, because I’m getting what’s going on with this guy. He’s a pain-based buyer, and we’re starting to talk about the trouble related to him in this hiring process.

So I said, “Since you’re doing the work of this missing person, is your family OK with the extra hours you’re putting in?” And there was a really long pause on the phone, and I’m wondering if he got distracted or something, but really, he was thinking. And he said, “Dan, you know what? I haven’t been home for dinner in two weeks, and my wife is a great cook.” He said those exact words.

So I continued asking other pain-based questions: “Do your competitors know these accounts aren’t being visited? Is the missing person costing the company much money? Is it costing you money?”

So the situation was being framed by the trauma caused by this missing sales rep. Well, five minutes into the phone call, he asked me if I had any candidates for him to interview.

This was really cool, because I hadn’t really talked about what I did at all. I really just had a clear understanding of his experience.

I’ll shortcut to the end, which was a happy ending for both of us. I got a couple of candidates for him. He picked one and got his territory filled quickly. I made a $12,000 fee.

One of his problems was that people knew the territory was open and they were really aggressively going after the doctors, clinics and the hospital in that territory. So we got that hole in the dike fixed really fast.

Well, what was interesting was that he had placed ads in the Chicago Tribune, which he hadn’t told me at the time.

Talk about pain — he got 1,200 résumés. He and his assistants threw out half of them just based on what the envelopes looked like. Just because they were sloppy or they didn’t like the paper. They just had to figure out a way to get rid of going through all these résumés.

And if I had known at the time of the call about all that, I would have quantified the value of the time he was wasting so I could show him an actual dollar amount he was going to save.

Also, you might have noticed that I got into a bit of the personal impact of his pain. The bar goes higher when that buyer starts to equate the problem (or, for others, the good things) that are messing with his home life. Your solutions seem to increase in value. 

FELDMAN: How can you tell if somebody is pain-motivated or gain-motivated? 

SEIDMAN: When you’re talking to somebody and they’re always playing the devil’s advocate. They say, “Yeah, but” or “What about this?” They’re always presenting the bad portion of it — that’s pain-motivated.

I’ll give you another example. If a guy says to me, “I wanna go to Tahiti. I think it’d be gorgeous there. Maybe I can surf and hang out. It’s supposed to be really spectacular.”

And I say, “Oh, my gosh. It’ll take you 16 hours to get to Tahiti. You’ll be exhausted. You’ll have jet lag. You’ll trash your whole vacation.”

And he responds, “That’s OK. I’ll sleep on the plane and get there refreshed.” He’s positive, upbeat — he’s a gain-based guy. 

FELDMAN: How can you learn to message to each of these two types? 

SEIDMAN: There are several ways to do that. I like to have people flip through magazines and look at the articles, ads and even pictures. Like “Click It or Ticket” — you might see that sign in a photo. That’s a warning — don’t do something stupid, something bad’s going to happen to you. That’s pain-based. Or you might see another one that says “Our bank pays the highest return on CDs of anybody in town.” There’s a positive, gain-based message.

So look around you. Take car commercials for example. There are two great car commercials, that are contrasting examples of pain and gain.

BMW had an award-winning commercial where they showed people enjoying driving in their cars. It was a really fun, upbeat commercial. It said “We don’t sell cars, we sell joy.” It’s a perfect example of a gain-based approach to advertising.

In contrast, VW had a commercial that I hated. It was two guys talking in a car, and then all of a sudden they get blindsided, T-boned. Then you see them get out, looking at their car, and it’s all banged up but they’re safe. The campaign was called “Safe Happens.”

I hated that commercial. You have this gut-wrenching “Ugh!” of this impact and it’s a horrible, horrible feeling. Why would you want to leave somebody with that in a car commercial? It didn’t work. The campaign didn’t last very long. People want to enjoy their driving experience. 

FELDMAN: Are there any tools to help develop the pain and gain messages? 

SEIDMAN: This is something we use in training. This exercise not only has the whole group create the message, but it also gives them a message that they feel they have ownership of.

You create a chart of pain and gain, with two columns. On the left side we have gain, and you list as many bullets of benefits as you can think of. On the right-hand side, you have pain bullets, and sometimes you can just write the exact opposite of the left-hand side.

You do this with your sales team to have the collective brain power of everybody in the team working together. And I’ll tell you a fun thing. When people tend to be one type of person or the other, they have a hard time thinking of responses in the opposite condition.

So a gain-based person and a pain-based person can come up with all the bullets you need. But if you have all gain-based people in a group, then they’re going to struggle with coming up with the pain-based stuff. This is why you want everybody contributing.

With financial services, we have a gain-based comment such as, “You’re going to get a nice return on your investments.” And the pain-based is “The money I’ve lost means I have very little discretionary funds.”

We build out ideas, responses and language that fit either a pain-based bullet point or a gain-based bullet point. 

FELDMAN: How do you use the lists in the process?

SEIDMAN: This is used in conversations. It gets built into your questioning skills. It is used – in a big way – in objection-handling. It bleeds everywhere through the sales process. There is something else; it’s something we’ve known forever in selling. People make decisions emotionally and use logic to validate their emotional response. We can use emotional words embedded in our phrases to spike that pain or gain. Gain emotions are relief, delight, trust, contentment. Pain-based emotions, bad emotions, are stress, disappointment, frustration.

A very high percentage of skilled salespeople do not create a good emotional connection with their buyers. In our world, which is so numbers-based, we sometimes get too caught up in the returns and statistics that we don’t create a good emotional connection.

I realized this a few years ago as a sales consultant with a Blue Cross/Blue Shield team in Illinois. I was in the third year of training with this top organization for the top health benefits program in the Midwest. The company’s president had me go on ride-alongs with salespeople to see that they were using the stuff that I taught them.

One of the first calls I went on was with a young rep, but he wasn’t a rookie. He was a real sharp guy — really good with his numbers.

We’re sitting with an owner of this big chain of grocery stores, and he uses a question I taught him during the training. So I was happy he used the question.

The technique is called “Taking away the solution.” The rep said, “You’re talking to us today about changing your benefits and switching to our insurance — what if you didn’t do that? What if you just stayed with what you have? What would that look like?”

This technique gets the guy to help sell himself on switching to our services. And this owner’s face kind of darkens and he says, “Hell no! We’re not staying with our current company!”

He told us that his college-age son ran into a tree while sledding and chipped a tooth. The dentist discovered that his son had two fractures in his jaw and needed surgery.

After his son had the surgery, the insurance company rejected the claim because a dentist suggested an orthopedic procedure. Now, the company is going to pay it eventually. This is kind of a tactic some companies use to just delay paying, because the longer they hold the money, the more their profits are. That’s the way it is.

But this guy’s angry, and his wife’s calling him all the time at work, asking, “Are we going to get our $8,000 back from the last part of that surgical procedure?” And he’s really frustrated, so he’s not going to go with this insurance company any more.

Well, this young rep is taking notes, and this guy’s getting really angry as he’s sharing this story. He finally runs out of gas and stops, and the sales kid says, “Oh, that’s too bad. Let me ask you another question.”

And I was stunned, thinking, “Really, dude? You’re not going to go down the road with this guy, empathize with him or ask how he’s doing? Do something to connect with the guy’s story.” He had no emotional connection. 

FELDMAN: Salespeople often get stuck on a track where they want to ask all these questions. In that case, I would say that was a buying signal. So how do you stop yourself? 

SEIDMAN: Salespeople need to be absolutely phenomenal listeners. Good listeners are really engaged with what’s being said. Bad listeners are just waiting for their turn.

In this case, you have to watch the guy’s face as he gets worked up and also get into his story. You would match his emotion by responding like, “Wow, that’s a really awful thing. Your wife’s really upset about it, huh?”

You can just feed back some of the things that he’s told you — and let him get worked up a little bit more. It’s not going to hurt you at all.

I’ll give you one teaching moment for listening skills. Every one of us has a certain somebody who is a phenomenal listener. And you know that’s true because they’re always sitting there patiently, while you go rambling on and on and on, talking about your day or a sale that you blew. And you feel immensely guilty because you know that they’re such a good listener and you’re not. I know that happens to me.

Obviously, you want to model success on what other successful people do. 

FELDMAN: What are key questions to draw out the person you are talking to? 

SEIDMAN: This is critical. We can ask a question, as early as possible in the relationship, in order to determine if your buyer is motivated by pain or gain. It’s the criteria question. Criteria are the standards by which something may be judged or decided, which is a perfect way to describe a sales call.

Buyers need to make a decision.

That’s a sales call. They’re hiding that information from us, and somehow we have to figure it out or get them to share it with us.

Asking the right questions gets you in sync with people. And if you want to practice at home, here’s a really fun way to do this.

Ask your kids what’s important to them about friends. You can ask about school, teachers or something else. But I like asking “What’s important to you about friends?”

You’ll find their answers fascinating. 

FELDMAN: That’s great! I am going to try that. 

SEIDMAN: And then dig a little deeper: “Tell me more about that.” It’s a really great topic for kids, a way more fun topic than talking about schoolwork or the classroom courses or teachers or anything else.

You’ll learn how to ask criteria questions, and I think you’ll also get a little closer to your kids at the same time. 

Find more information about Dan Seidman at

Founder, President, Publisher [email protected].

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