Neil Patel

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Pain: The Missing Ingredient in E-commerce

Don’t let the title put you off. Pain is actually a good thing, especially in an e-commerce setting.

  • Pain can help move a customer to action.
  • Pain can create a sense of relief in a customer.
  • Pain can tighten the conversion funnel.
  • Pain can improve conversion rates.

Pain is obviously a significant factor in online sales. But we need to be more specific. What exactly is this pain? Who’s feeling it? And how do we apply it to e-commerce?

What is pain in selling?

If you’ve gone through any specialized sales training, you may be familiar with the idea of “pain sales” or the “pain funnel.”

The term was popularized by the late sales guru, David Sandler. Sandler developed the Sandler Selling System, which coached professional salespeople on how to increase and improve their sales ability.

One of the features of the Sandler Selling System is the idea of pain. Here’s how a Sandler Training website expressed it:

It’s not about features and benefits anymore…certainly not in the beginning of your conversations with a prospect. It’s about the PAIN they’re in, and they’re trying to determine if you are a solution. They buy YOU first…then they think about your product or service.

Sandler’s followers expanded upon the idea of pain with “The 3 Levels of Pain.” According to their philosophy, the salesperson should “dig deeper” and uncover three intensifying levels of pain:

  1. Level 1 Pain — Getting Technical. Find out what technical issue the customer wants a solution to.
  2. Level 2 Pain – The Business-Financial Impact. Go beyond sales to understand how this problem affects the business, especially in a financial sense.
  3. Level 3 Pain – Personal Interest. Finally, determine how this pain is affecting the buyer individually, and create a relationship that is built upon trust and an interpersonal relationship.

Sandler’s method proposes a series of questions that will help to uncover the pain. It is called the Pain Questioning Path.

  • What have you tried before to fix the problem we’re discussing?
  • Did that eliminate the problem?
  • Why do you suppose that didn’t work?
  • How much did it cost you?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • How committed are you personally to resolving the problem….not how committed is your boss or your team……..YOU?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see myself asking questions like that. Talk about awkward. And if someone started asking me questions like that, I would probably tell them that I already have a counselor.

One feature of the method is called “striplining,” which isn’t as risqué as it sounds. Striplining is basically asking the seller questions so that the buyer ends up selling themselves the product. Striplining is intended to reinforce the pain that is latent within the buyer’s awareness as they consider a product.

Many proponents of the pain method go even further down this path. In one of the pain selling resources, they describe a process of discovering the “real pain” of a potential customer:

We ask him, “How does this impact your business?” He responds that they lose a day of production every time it crashes.

Most salespeople would stop there and think “I got this one.” The cost of losing a day’s production is far more than replacing the server but that is not his real pain.

A Vendere Partners prospect Manager asks, “What happens when you lose a day’s production?” “Well it affects my bonus!” He responds.

The average sales representative thinks to himself; now I got this? Wrong, The Vendere Partners next question is: “…How does that affect you personally?”

That is when we find out that his only daughter is getting married this summer and his worst fear is telling his baby “no” to anything that she may want for this big day. There is his real pain!

The process of this pain discovery has taken the salesperson from a simple server outage to the highly emotional intensity of a father who wants to give his daughter the wedding of her dreams. Other examples depict a car salesperson helping a client not just to buy a car, but to buy a car in order to skillfully avert a divorce.

This method has some merit. It has identified human motivation. Every human being wants to either avoid pain or seek pleasure.

The problem is, using pain as the exclusive sales technique is flawed. Pain can and should be part of a sales strategy. But to build an entire system off of pain is making too much of one thing.

B2B salespeople must also realize that, at some point, their role in selling has a logical endpoint. Uncovering a customer’s deep pain is borderline intrusive, but pretending to solve such emotional needs is downright deceptive.

A New Way to Use Pain

I’ve studied pain-based selling, but I’m not sold on it. There are a variety of reasons why I’m hesitant to base my entire strategy upon pain. Let me explain.

Pain is not a strategy. Pain is a neuromarketing reality.

I prefer to look at pain as one method of many that can advance an online sale. In this way, I value pain not as a strategy necessarily, but for its psychological impact. I see pain as a neuromarketing advantage.

I carefully explained the idea of pain selling, because I want to understand how pain selling is applied in some contexts. I believe that such strategies go too far. However, I do think that introducing pain into the process is appropriate, provided we do it the right way.

The Psychological Reality of Pain

Pain should be viewed as a psychological reality, but not necessarily an experience that we should exploit in the sales process. We should identify it and respond, but not probe for it and exacerbate it. There’s a difference.

Pain is real, and we must respond to it in a genuine and straightforward way. I’ll explain how in just a moment.

Pain is something that every human experiences. But the pain that we’re discussing here is not the physical sensation, but the emotional impact.

Inarguably, pain — even physical pain — has mental effects. There is an unbreakable link between physical pain and its emotional response, as numerous clinical and psychological studies have determined.

We as marketers should understand that our customers have pain, that it is real, and that we can satisfy it in a limited way.

“The Secret of Neuromarketing” is Pain

In 2012, The New York Times released an article in which they discussed “The Secret of Neuromarketing.” What’s the secret? Pain.

As proven by neuroimaging, the brain’s amygdala lights up when humans are confronted with a proposition to buy a product. The amygdala is the same part of the brain that is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Fight-or-flight is what we experience when we are undergoing an intense experience such as an attack or another dangerous situation. The “reptilian” brain, which is the oldest and most primitive part of the brain, is responsible for prompting this response.

Interestingly, this is the same section of the brain that is triggered when we are faced with a purchase situation. That’s why neuromarketers have identified pain as the part of the brain that must be targeted in a sales setting.

How do you use pain in e-commerce?

So, let’s get down to business.

We recognize that pain is a psychological reality. We recognize that the brain’s pain center is triggered in a sales setting. So, how do we bring these principles to bear upon an e-commerce sales process?

It takes a three-step approach:

  1. Identify your customer’s pain.
  2. Remind them of the pain
  3. Show them the solution the pain.

This is very different from the pain-oriented selling process that we surveyed above. According to that process, the salesperson would dig around for the customer’s deepest emotional pain point, and then work backward to demonstrate, often circuitously, how and why his product could solve that deep emotional pain.

This process is far more straightforward. You simply acknowledge that the customer has a pain of some sort. That’s why they are considering your product. Then, you gently remind them that they are experiencing that pain. Finally, you provide a solution to that pain.

I’ll take a closer look at each of these points with some examples.

Examples of using pain in e-commerce.

Watch this process at work. Remember, it’s a three-step approach 1) Identify, 2) Remind, 3) Solve.

The lawn is getting long. The customer does not want to mow it, because it takes too long. Pain: Wasting precious weekend time.

This e-commerce site reminds the user of this pain with the phrase “Take your Saturday back.” This resonates with a customer who has been upset over losing precious weekend hours.

1 taskeasy home page

A customer doesn’t like to have to buy razor blades all the time. He wants them delivered on a schedule. Pain: He wants to avoid unnecessary trips to the store. He doesn’t want to run out of razors.

This landing page identifies that pain, reminds the customer, and provides a solution.

2 gillette landing page

A customer has a cracked iPhone screen. She is experiencing the pain of a damaged product and embarrassment. TT Wireless knows the pain, shows the pain with the picture of a cracked iPhone, and solves it with their solution.

3 tt wireless

A customer is unsatisfied with how they hang pictures on the wall. It’s inconvenient, and they often get it wrong. This website identifies that frustration, reminds the customer how agonizing it is, and pitches the answer to the pain. The phrase “no more frustration” is a clear pain-focused word.

4 patent pending tool

A customer is not getting good sleep at night. This e-commerce page identifies that pain, mentions it, and has the perfect solution. “Better nights and brighter days” subtly reminds the customer of the sleepless nights and weary days that he experienced without the Casper Mattress.

5 casper mattress

This painting tool promises to “cut your painting time in half,” which successfully identifies the customer’s paint point — time-consuming painting jobs.

6 accubrush paint edgers

Remember, your product or service should not be about you at all. It’s all about your customer.

This page advertises a product that identifies a painful problem — inconvenience and backaches. They solve the problem with their product — “spraying flexibility.”

7 experience the temprid

Orkin’s landing page identifies the painful situation of “bug invasions,” and promises protection.

8 pest removal zone

Often, landing pages make a mistake when they talk all about what a great company they are. Phrases like these don’t have the same customer-focused approach. A customer is always thinking about their pain and/or pleasure. How do statements like this really target the customer’s pain and pleasure? They don’t.

“We are the leading firm…”

“We have a history of…”

“We have developed a track record…”

“Our solution is carefully engineered…”

All those statements draw the attention away from the customer, and on to the business. That’s now how effective marketing works.

The customer is thinking of themselves, their pain, and how to alleviate it. As long as you successfully identify that pain and remind them of it, they will be more likely to convert.


Pain selling in the traditional sense has its obvious drawbacks. Pain-focused marketing, however, has its obvious advantages.

For one, you are doing your customer a favor. You are empathizing with their pain, and providing a solution. It’s not a contrived effort to meet a need that you pried open. Rather, it is an honest attempt to provide relief for the pain they are experiencing.

Using pain can work in content marketing, too. If you target your customer’s pain, then you can help solve it through instruction. I use this model often when I write articles on topics such as improving blog traffic (pain: not enough traffic), or advanced SEO techniques (pain: poor SEO).

Pain is prevalent. We need to be prepared to identify that pain and alleviate it.

How will you use pain in your e-commerce site?

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