How to Motivate a Prospect Who Won’t Commit

A couple of years ago, a freelancer friend of mine, Carl, ran into a problem common to service providers everywhere—he had a hot prospect who kept delaying making the buying decision. In an attempt to move things along Carl decided to do what a lot of people do—put a little pressure on the prospect to make a decision.

Under pressure

Carl’s pressure tactic was to pass on a discount one of his suppliers was offering for the current month. He called his prospect up and told him that if he agreed to the proposal within the next three weeks he’d be able to take 10% off the price. The prospect thanked him for the offer and said he’d get back to him.

Selling on a deadline

What Carl did was something I call deadline selling, where you ask a prospect to make a decision by a certain date, or suffer some consequence. The loss of a price savings, which Carl used, is a common bait. Like most people who use this tactic, Carl had good intentions. He really could save the prospect money if the deal got closed quickly. He also knew that the prospect badly needed his help and the sooner he got going, the better.


Despite having his client’s best interests at heart, Carl was using a tactic that rarely works. In fact it frequently backfires completely, ruining any chances of a deal.

When the day of the deadline arrived, Carl still hadn’t heard from his prospect. Now he was really stuck. If his prospect wasn’t going to take the discounted offer, why would he agree to the regular price? That’s one problem with deadline selling—if the deadline passes, you’re usually in a worse position. But the real problem is that deadline selling is a bad idea anyway. And it helps to know why.

Fancy psychology

The reason it doesn’t work has something to do with a fancy psychological term called the principle of reactance.

Reactance is what psychologists call the push-back that happens when a person feels that their choices or freedoms are being limited. They feel it as a pressure. And that pressure can make them take a position that is actually opposite to what you hoped for. Roadblocks appear. Walls go up. They may even walk—as a way of reasserting their freedom, which is what Carl’s prospect ended up doing.

Bottom line: the reactance effect states that prospects always proceed at their pace—not yours. Offering incentives like deadlines, deals, and discounts won’t change that.

An inside job

So, what could Carl have done differently? We can turn to Carl again to get at an answer because after finding himself in a similar situation a few months later, he asked for my help. One of the things I explained to Carl is that urgency to act has to come from within the client, rather than be imposed.

Psychology gives us some key insights here too. Two of the most powerful internal motivators are control and recognition. In general, people want control over themselves and their environments. They also want their achievements recognized by others.

Digging their heels in

Research done by David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College, shows that adding on external motivators—like a deadline—when someone is already internally motivated to do something can actually increase the likelihood a prospect will dig their heels in and say no. They may start to question why they are thinking of taking action. They might even feel you’re trying to bribe them.

So, instead of putting external pressure on your prospect, try to appeal to those internal motivators, namely the desire for control and recognition. Carl was able to do that in his next meeting by asking questions and telling stories that focussed on how Carl’s solution would give the prospect more control of his business, and how great that would feel compared to his current situation. Carl also showed the prospect how his services would help him make better decisions—making him look good in the eyes of his business partners—the all-important recognition factor. The prospect quickly became a new client.

The last word

When you try to win a client by focussing only on external motivators like deadlines you run the risk of scaring them off. Clients always move at their pace, not yours, and that pace is set by how internally motivated they feel. Put your client in control and show them how your solution will raise their profile. If you can do that, you’ll convert more prospects into clients.

More great ideas to grow your business

Discover how to use stories to motivate people.

Find out how many options you should offer your prospects.

Learn how one small business owner doubled his revenue by changing how he presented.

about the author

FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.