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The Value of Frame: Theory

July 2004 Communication

“She who controls the frame, controls the decision.”

Frame refers to the perspective used in evaluating different options in a decision making opportunity. As business executives involved in sales and marketing, the issue of the framing affects our performance in how we sell and how we make decisions.

The Frame’s Effect

The way in which a proposition is framed determines the lens through which it is evaluated. It sets the questions, metrics, and expectations. This relationship between the frame of perspective and the decision criteria can be understood by considering some simple examples. The following points provide diametrically opposing frames and the resultant concerns that are raised when considering an approach.

  • Is the approach considered a cost-of-doing-business or an opportunity-to-improve-return? These frames determine whether solutions are evaluated for cost-minimization or gain-maximization.
  • Is the approach known by the decision maker or is it a new best practice? These frames determine whether the approach is undertaken with an eye toward incremental improvements or strategic change.
  • Is the approach driving business performance or ensuring career stability? These frames determine whether profit maximization or political buy-in is the stronger influencer.

Framing and Selling

The issue of framing affects the sales and marketing message and approach directly. The specific message and approach are crafted in order to shape the frame of reference for prospects towards a more positive position that is likely to induce purchase. A short business article such as this cannot explore all of the means through which sales and marketing attempts to shape prospect’s frames, we can only provide a few examples.

  • In crafting the brand message, market research and customer interactions reveal the most positive frame through which an offering can be examined. This most positive frame is then reflected back to the market through branding in order to maximize the attractiveness of the offer.
  • In managing the buying process, experienced salespeople seek to develop interactions with prospects early in their buying process. Developing interactions early in the buying process not only increases the potential to develop stronger and broader relationships with prospects, but also enables the sales team to set the expectations or, in other words, shape the frame of reference to reflect more positively on their offering.
  • In “bake-offs” when multiple pitches are to be given by competing vendors for a single selling opportunity, salespeople will seek to be either the first or last presenter. The ability to make a memorable impression is often cited as the reason to select these presentation slots, but of corollary importance is the potential to set the frame of expectations by presenting a strong proposition early.

Framing and Decision Making

Just as sales and marketing shapes the frames of prospects to influence buying decisions, the management decisions of the sales and marketing executives are shaped by their own frames. In many instances, the frames of experienced sales and marketing executives enable heuristics for fast decision making and avoiding junior pitfalls. In some instances, managerial frames inhibit innovation and encourage ruts. Driving out-of-the-box thinking requires deliberately breaking the decision frames to which executives have become accustomed.

Breaking the corporate frame of reference requires injecting new ideas into the decision making process. Analogies to other industries, revealing customer research, and interactions with outsiders, each supports better decision making because of their ability to reshape the frame of reference and thereby enable new ideas to develop. While many of the new ideas will be found less fruitful than the current approach, some will deliver blockbuster results.

Driving Performance

Framing affects the performance of sales and marketing teams in two critical dimensions. First, our individual sales and marketing messages influences the frame through which prospects evaluate our offerings. Second, our own decisions are guided by the frame through which we evaluate an opportunity. If we agree that the issue of framing drives performance, then the following questions should be raised and reconsidered from time to time.

  • What is the customer’s frame of reference? How will your company shape their frame?
  • When is it necessary to break your own managerial frame? How will you deliberately take steps to inject new ideas into your thinking?

In summary, consider where people are coming from, consider where you are coming from, and consider how you can shape their perspective to your advantage.



About the author

Tim J. Smith, PhD is the Managing Principal of Wiglaf Pricing, and an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University of Marketing and Economics. His most recent book is Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures.

Tim J. Smith, PhD
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