The SCARF model & what it means for the B2B buying journey

I recently encountered the SCARF model whilst watching this utterly brilliant presentation by Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy. If you’ve not seen it then frankly you should stop reading and go and watch his video instead (do come back though!).

Anyway, half way through the presentation he talks about this thing called the SCARF model. It only got a brief mention so I subsequently spent a bit of time reading into the subject and considering how it relates to the B2B buying journey.

The model is intended to help us understand how the human brain responds to threat and reward, and the first thing to realise is that the former is a MUCH more powerful motivator than the latter. The problem with threat, and the reason why it often isn’t the best tool for motivation within a business setting, is that it prevents access to the part of our brain that handles complex decision making and creativity. Instead we experience tunnel vision as we focus on the most obvious and immediate source of escape from the impending danger. Which makes sense, right? For the tens of thousands of millennia that homo sapiens were hunter gatherers, if we walked into a clearing to encounter a hungry tiger, it probably wasn’t the time for blue sky thinking or trialling a new innovative method of shaking off our stripy predator!

Hopefully that all seems pretty self evident, but where things get interesting is in how this relates to our modern world, where we’ve traded the rivers, berries and big cats for Zoom, sushi and office gossip. As far fetched as it may seem, the stress emotions we experience in a modern social context are no different from the emotions we experience in a physical context. The same parts of the brain are involved in both physical and social pain, which means the latter can bring on all the same responses as those experienced by our poor hunter gatherer as she sprints for her life!

Needless to say, this is the last thing we want our buyer to be experiencing in the complex world of B2B sales and marketing. On the contrary, we want them to maintain a clear, open and positive perspective, with a willingness to learn new things and adopt new solutions (ours, ideally).

David Rock spent several years observing people’s behaviour within organisations and found 5 categories of stimuli that would trigger these threat or reward responses. If we’re to help our prospects successfully navigate the buying journey, it pays to understand what these our so that we can mitigate the threats and trigger the rewards.

Status – When people realise that something may make them look bad, stress hormones kick in. For example, when you perceive yourself as having a lower status than others, your ability to problem solve and articulate yourself reduces. Whereas when people are recognised for their heightened status, they experience an increase in pre-frontal cortex activity which enables complex problem solving, decision making and creativity. This role of status is particularly powerful within a B2B context, where a smart decision can result in instant status elevation, while a bad decision can derail a person’s entire career. No wonder, as Rory Sutherland observes, the greatest driver of all within business is the avoidance of blame!

So what can we do with this information:

  • Firstly, we need to get the person excited about what’s possible and what this will mean for their status in the organisation.
  • Secondly, we must avoid setting unrealistic expectations, as if the project fails to meet those expectations you will have damaged their status in the organisation (even if the ROI was still positive). Do not expect further business from this individual.
  • Finally, once the project is underway and considered a success, we can think of ways to elevate that person’s profile. Maybe we can ask them to shoot a testimonial video for us (win-win) or perhaps work with them to champion the initiative among other departments in their business, all the while ensuring we place them front and centre of the story!

Certainty – The brain is a pattern recognising machine, which is why music is rewarding as there are simple, repeating patterns that we can predict. So when an anomaly/error is spotted, it triggers an alarm which decreases activity in the reward part of our brain and stress hormones are released. The majority of decision makers would far rather have a guarantee of modest success than take small risk of failure, even if the reward was significantly higher.

Therefore, during the sales process we need to:

  • Provide lots of information to reassure, including case studies and testimonials, and have well prepared answers for every likely question and concern.
  • Provide competitor insight – if you can demonstrate that 3 of their competitors are investing in X and seeing great results, that’s going to remove a great deal of the uncertainty. As I wrote about before, it isn’t enough for the modern day sales person to have exceptional EQ and high levels of commerciality (although those things are crucial), they also need to be able to organise and assimilate high quantities of competitor, product and market insight, as they work to educate and reassure the buyer.
  • Back things up with hard data. Individual examples and stories are important (in fact nothing defines and distinguishes homo sapiens more than its ability to tell (and more importantly, believe) stories), but data is critical for enabling the buyer to rationalise their decision to themselves and their colleagues. This explains the growing obsession with big data, as it appears to reduce uncertainty and risk (even though data can only tell you the net value of the activities you have performed, not the opportunity cost of those that you haven’t).

Autonomy – We like to do things ourselves. It’s about exerting control. Any parent will know the frustration of trying and failing to encourage their child to do something, only for the child to happily do that very same thing 10 minutes later entirely of their own volition. As Rory Sutherland points out, this was also evident with Brexit and the slogan “take back control” – for many people the question of control was more significant than the thing being controlled (immigration, regulation, etc). Interestingly, research has shown that if we believe we can control a threat, we’re significantly less impacted by it than if we think it’s inescapable. For example, I have a long and unfortunate habit of social smoking on a night out. If this cocktail of carcinogens was being forced upon me, it would no doubt cause me significant stress and anxiety, but knowing that it’s entirely in my control and I can stop at any time (my next birthday, always) makes me feel rather relaxed about it all. Unfortunately.

So what does this mean for the sales process:

  • We can give options to allow the buyer a sense of control. Although if you still want to weight the odds in favour of a particular selection, you may want to consider the possibility of a decoy option which Rory Sutherland explores in his book – Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense.
  • Avoidance of long term contracts or large upfront costs will also reduce barriers, hence why subscription products have become so popular. People are far happier entering relationships that they can scale up, rather than those that bind them in and limit optionality from day 1.

Relatedness – As social creatures, our instinct is to put people in categories of friend or foe. In-group preference means we have a we have a bias to people that we can relate to, while strangers are innately threatening.

The good news is that the alert system can be quickly de-escalated by small actions:

  • We must establish rapport with the person. Find mutual points of connection. It’s why high EQ is so important in the complex sales environment. If we like and trust someone we’ll work hard to rationalise why we should work with them. If not, the opposite applies.
  • We should always encourage referrals among our existing clients, as the conversion rate where mutual connection exists is so much higher.

It’s also the reason why I believe teleconferencing is not the panacea that many have made it out to be during lockdown. The ability to meet someone in the flesh and shake their hand (or feet, even) is so fundamental to lowering that threat response with new connections.

Fairness – If someone perceives your actions as unfair then their desire to engage shuts down. You have been moved to the “foe” category and from this moment on they are likely to interpret all of your actions in a way that reinforces that belief.

This is why during the sales process:

  • It’s so important to consider the multiple stakeholders in an organisation. For example, if you’re looking to sell a new technology into a large company, but this solution is perceived as a threat to someone within the business or perhaps the investment is benefiting other departments more than their own, that individual will go to remarkable lengths to sabotage the purchase. Finding ways of consulting and pacifying these people could be crucial.
  • Demonstrating your organisational values is so important. Whether that’s through ambitious CSR strategies or throwing open your doors via social media to reveal the culture within – these are hugely powerful in reassuring the buyer that you are fundamentally good and fair people that can be trusted.

Remember, fear is a far greater driver than reward, so if any of the above go awry the decision process is likely to grind to a halt, and if it’s a large organisation with multiple stakeholders then you may never even find out why.

Imagine it like a giant game of Operation, where just one loss of concentration during a long, meandering journey can spell game over. Cavalier and aggressive sales tactics can work on the car forecourt because the fear of missing out on “the deal of a lifetime” can for a brief moment overtake the fear of buyers’ remorse. No such luck in a complex B2B sales environment. The journey is long and attempts to accelerate it will be stymied by the 17 administrative hoops. So be smart, be patient and do your homework. Even a single threat alarm can be fatal.


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