It's a tough economy, no doubt about it. And though the pace of business is accelerating, some businesses are taking longer to make buying decisions. When the people talking with vendors and potential vendors are hesitant, they could be concerned about making a wrong move and losing their job over it. Yet change happens, and prospects do decide to make positive changes and buy. So it's useful for any person in sales to understand the process by which positive change does happen.

James Prochaska in his book ‘Changing for Good,’ has a model for the stages of change that I find both interesting and incredibly useful. It identifies five stages of change that people move through before a change is firmly entrenched in their lives. Successfully introducing someone to a product or service has the potential for positive change. So when you’re not getting the results with a prospect that you think should be possible, that’s a good time to stop pressing ahead, drop back and learn about what your offer means to the client, and then walk them through the stages of change.

The first stage is ignorance. For some, ignorance is bliss. In sales, it's not. More often than not, it's our own ignorance about our prospect's ignorance that gets in our way, because what we don't know can hurt us. This first stage is a delicate one that precedes introducing information. Maybe your prospect is ignorant of the benefits of what you're offering, and telling them the benefits is all they need to progress to the next stage. Or maybe they know about the benefits, but are ignorant about how to gain those benefits for themselves. In that case, information has to be about educating the prospect to take full advantage of whatever you are offering. Or maybe they know what the change is that you're asking them to make, and they even know how to go about it, but don’t know why they should care one way or the other. In that case, information should be motivational, speaking to their interests, values, and needs. Whenever you engage with someone in order to facilitate change, assume they are at the ignorance stage about all of these until you’re certain that they’re not.

The second stage is recognition. That’s when they see the light. It dawns on them that there is something they can do and want to do, and they start seeking information about their options. In that moment, a person starts asking questions about how to go forward. This is a great moment, the AHA moment, the transformational moment. This is when your prospect realizes that a change is possible, or realizes that the method for a certain change is something they can employ, or they recognize that there are very good reasons to care about making the change. Listen well and provide the information they are asking for, and they move to the next stage.

The third stage is planning. This is when a person begins to access and organize the information and resources available, to plot a course, to develop at least the next step or two of moving forwards towards a desired change. At this stage, offering a helping hand is all that’s required. It’s a mentoring and modeling stage.

The fourth stage is action. With a plan in place, they begin to move forward, to take the step. In making any plan, people can try an idea on for size to find out what happens, then learn from the experience and improve on it. Don’t be surprised if there are a few false starts at this stage, since whenever you ask someone to do something new, things rarely go as expected. Offer reassurance and encouragement, give support. Help them to make sense of what's happened and fine tune their relationship to the product or service. Reliable feedback is invaluable at this stage.

Walking through something once doesn’t mean that a pattern is going to be set for the rest of your prospect's life. Starting takes a lot of energy, keeping something going takes less, but it does take energy and commitment. You can’t just walk away believing things are handled. Instead, you go to the fifth stage -- repetition.

This is the stage in which you review what you've learned and how your product or service addresses it, the plan to move forward and the next step actions needed to complete the process.

The biggest mistake that most people make in facilitating change is that they expect people to go from ignorance to action in a single step. The result is that they wind up introducing so much dissonance into a person’s thinking that the natural impulse is to deny, ignore or overwhelm the information with counterexamples in order to discharge the dissonance. The end result: Nothing changes.

Whenever you seek to persuade others, you can’t leap from stage one to stage five, or even three. You move one stage at a time. So it’s important to gauge exactly which stage a person is at regarding the change you want to persuade them to make.

Your goal is to move the person to the next stage only. This will dramatically increase your success in persuasion.

So here are three rules to keep in mind:

1. Tailor what you do to the stage.
It’s foolish to use the same approach for somebody in Stage One (ignorance) as you would to somebody in Stage Three (planning).

Your goal is to move a person (or group) to the next stage. Organize yourself accordingly.

2. Go forward one stage at a time.

No one goes from ignorance to habit in one move. Instead, don’t push the river, as they say. Patience is truly a virtue. If someone is ignorant, your sole purpose is to introduce meaningful information, not to get a change. If they’re in recognition, all your efforts should focus on accessing resources and making a plan. If the person has a plan, all your efforts should be devoted to getting them to take a step forward, to take action. If they’re taking action, then you focus on review and reinforcement.

3. Plan enough time.
Since you can't skip stages, and your ultimate goal is a self sustaining result, you simply must plan enough time. When you or your prospect feels pressured, it becomes difficult to think clearly or to take action.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Rick Kirschner has helped millions improve their communication skills and have better relationships and careers. He is co-author of the classic, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, and co-creator of the all-time bestselling audio and video program, How to Deal with Difficult People. His new book How to Click With People (July 2011) reveals the secret to better relationships in business and in life. For a free one-hour audio on Difficult People, visit: