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Jacky Sherman

The Consultant's Consultant

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Closing The Sale: The Impact Of Decision Fatigue

Something consultants know well ...


Posted by Jacky Sherman on 12/10/2022 @ 8:00AM

I recently had a really interesting breakfast conversation about a common, frustrating phenomenon called decision fatigue ...

When someone you're supposed to meet with is hiding from you, then they've got decision fatigue!

When someone you're supposed to meet with is hiding from you, then they've got decision fatigue!

copyright: racorn / 123rf

It had been a quiet summer, the interest was there, but the answer was a polite, "not now". You know how it goes, "Let's talk once the kids are back at school and everyone is back from their holidays."

This will be repeated again and again in different forms throughout the coming years, changing only to add the seasonality:

  • "I want to get Christmas out of the way first."

  • "Early Easter this year so how about you give me a call after that?"

  • Then in May we get, "I'm right up against it with two Bank Holidays this month"

  • And then it's July once more and "Let's talk once the kids are back at school and everyone is back from their holidays."

I remarked half in jest that I should write a blog post about it as it appears that we Brits live for our holidays, with a little bit of work interspersed.

Then a wee bit of reading around decision making got me thinking that maybe there's more to it than that. Maybe our prospects are just using a coping mechanism? They need to find a way to cope with their decision fatigue.

I first came across the term 'decision fatigue' when reading Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking fast and slow. The concept that your rational brain has a limited capacity and runs out of energy to make yet another decision. It's like all the spaces have been used up. We then flip to our instinctual thinking and take the easy route.

The classic experiment that he recounts has been published in many a blog post and news article, but bears well for another airing as the implications are quite disturbing, and explain some of the weird decisions people make.

Researchers in the Ben Gurion and Columbia Universities studied what factors affected the decision of the parole judge in whether the prisoner would be set free or continue their sentence.

They analyzed over 1,100 decisions over the course of a year and found that the most significant influence on whether any individual prisoner got granted parole was not decided on the crime committed, the length of the sentence, of time already served. It wasn't even the ethnicity of the prisoner that determined prisoner's future.

The biggest factor seemed to be what time of the day the judge heard their case. If a prisoner appeared just before lunch or later in the day, they were more likely to be going back to jail!

Now, judges were not doing this on purpose, they had decision fatigue hearing case after case and having to rule on each case all day. This weakened their ability to make equitable decisions and to ease the mental strain, they erred on the cautious side with a quick decision that didn't need secondary explanations. Result: no parole.

"If you have spent long days interviewing for staff, you'll know what that feels like!"

Now, how might that affect the busy business owner or manager in delaying seeing you until after the holidays? All day, every day at work they are making decisions. Everyone wants a piece of them, their inbox is relentless, and there is always something that others want a quick decision about.

Decision fatigue is highly likely. Then along rocks a management consultant ... and they know what that means ... more decisions ... a lot more decisions! Not only deciding to see you, but deciding whether to hire you and if they do then even more decisions as the project unfolds.

There are several ways they react and make that first decision:

  • Say yes to the project really quickly without giving the implications a lot of thought. The result can be buyers remorse when they cancel when it comes time to actually commit ( i.e when the formal agreement or cheque needs signing).

  • Or they may just go through the motions, but disengage and you can't get vital decisions made during the programme.

  • Or they just avoid making a decision at all. Even when you get that first meeting and it seems to go so well, they are never in when you call and somehow don't get your emails.

A little anecdote on an extreme version of this: I remember one business owner in my early days in consultancy who had agreed to a meeting with a colleague of mine that had travelled some distance to see him.

We rocked up at his office to be greeted by a sheepish receptionist who told us he was off sick. Then while I was apologising to my colleague for his wasted journey, I saw the MD peeking around the corner of a side door. Hard to believe this man ran a company, but maybe it was one decision too many that day?

"People need to recuperate and give their decision making neurons the chance to recover during a holiday!"

Now, as far as I can tell, there has been no research explicitly done into this, but maybe they need to wait until they are refreshed before making big decisions to introduce change to their business and hire outside experts to deliver it?

So, as consultants, we should raise our awareness of where our prospects are in terms of their decision fatigue. Consider it in planning the start of your relationship with this person.

Have they said yes too quickly without asking questions about the implications? Are they avoiding you? Did they say, "Let's talk once the kids are back at school and everyone is back from their holidays"? I'd love to know your experience of this phenomenon and how you react to it.

Do you pile on the pressure or help them take the time they need to make the decision?

Until next time ...



Would you like to know more?

If anything I've written in this blog post resonates with you and you'd like to discover more about decision fatigue, it may be a great idea to give me a call on 07970 638857. Let's have an initial chat over a coffee and see how I can help you.

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