Like it or not, we are all in sales.
Not the sales of the aggressive close, but gently, continuously persuasion of those who may have a need for what we can do for them. How many times have you bought something, then wondered, ‘how did that happen?” How did that sales person get me to part with my money, I just came in to have a look.
We live in a complicated world, we need ways to sort out the important stuff from the trivia, we need short-cuts to make decisions, to respond without taking too much intellectual bandwidth, energy and time making up our minds, as we are bombarded with thousands of messages daily, designed to influence our behaviour.
The most effective selling is when you have successfully persuaded someone to buy your product, and they think that not only is it a really good deal, but that it is their idea.
This post is intended to give you a taste of the psychology underpinning some of the tools that a good sales person can use on you, without you even being aware that you are being manipulated. They are using the auto responses you have against you, or at best, in their own interests, not necessarily yours.
Often these tools they are using are learnt by experience, what has worked for them in the past, but at their core are a function of Evolutionary Biology. These tools can also be learnt, and there is a huge sales training industry, part of which is based on these basic psychological drives.
A really good sales person will use these tools, often several in combination, and unless you recognise them, you will be driven by your automatic responses to a purchase decision.
Human beings are extraordinarily complex, and the complexities all are interdependent, in one way or another, so the tools following will be mostly familiar, although you may not have thought of them as sales tools, simply observe them ‘happening’. It is when a skilled sales person assembles a bunch of these things, uses them in layers, that they become so potent as you do not need to close any more, people close themselves.
An alternative view of the human brain.
We are all human, we evolved over hundreds of millions of years into what we are.
Our brains resemble an iceberg: there is more unseen than there is to be seen by casual observation.
The part that sticks out of the water is the part we use to actively think, store language, logic, speech, and all the other things we use every day to engage in everyday life.
The bit that is around the waterline is partly automatic, partly under our control. If we think about it, we can exercise some control, but there is a huge degree of automation. Breathing, our emotions, attitudes, the cultural stuff we absorb that drives our behaviour.
Finally there is a deeper hidden part, the medulla, or Lizard brain, the part that keeps us safe, and allows us to dream, and improve ourselves. It also manages the insanely complex working of our body. It is the part that enabled our evolution to take place, and it still drives us, automatically, every minute of every day, keeping us safe, enabling those ‘instinctive responses’ we are occasionally aware of.
When our safety is assured, our brains allow us to do other things, consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we all saw in High school: Safety, food, shelter, ……….
We are all familiar with the ‘flight or fight’ response, that automatic response when danger appears, and the ‘Pavlov’s dog’ response. They are just two of hundreds of frameworks that happen automatically, without us being aware or being able to control them. They all served an evolutionary purpose, and whilst there are no sabre toothed tigers any more, these automatic responses still drive our instinctive behaviour.
Our only defence against them is to recognise what they are, so when they occur so we can consider and manage our response, still a very difficult thing to do.
Think about it as an auto remote button that can get pushed to deliver a reaction.
These responses all evolved to keep us safe, to enable good choices to be made instinctively, but as there are no sabre toothed tigers any more, play a less essential role, but are still there, still operating.
If someone understands what those auto responses are, and what triggers them, they are in a position to manipulate you.
So, Let’s look at the 6 headline categories into which all the tools fit in one way or another. These categories were first articulated by Dr Robert Cialdini in his book ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’ first published in 1984.
The 6 principals that drive persuasion
These are the 6 headlines, the buckets if you like that all the autoresponses go into in one way or another.
Let’s take a look at each very briefly.
You do something for me, I will do something for you.
Doing something for another, sets up in the others mind, an obligation to do something in return.
This is a powerful instinctive response, vital to us surviving the depredations of those sabre tooth tigers. It means we stick together, help one another, it builds trust, it is a vital component of the glue that holds small groups together.
It also has many forms, can be used in many ways, and can lead to very unequal outcomes. You do something small and easy, then ask the receiver at some point, for something bigger in return, often you will get it. There is a huge body of psychology testing in all this.
Do something for someone, unasked, and they will trust you more. Do it with no expectation of getting anything in return, and they will trust you more again, do something that is against your own best interests, that benefits you, and they will go over the bags for you.
Reciprocity also works in reverse.
If I make a concession to you, you will respond by making a concession to me. Negotiators use this all the time, in industrial negotiations, it is often called an ‘Ambit claim’. Ask for something you know is too big, and probably will not be accepted, then make a concession when the resistance kicks in. The other party will feel obligated to make a similar concession, going towards you, and you will feel further obligated to move in their direction because they have made a concession to you.
This is generally called anchoring in the negotiation literature.
In industrial negotiations it is generally called making an ambit claim. You are anchoring the negotiation at a ridiculously high starting point in the hope that they will meet somewhere in the middle.
So, start high.
Here is a tip. When your kids come home with a box of chocolates to sell for school fundraiser, cheap chocolate for a couple of dollars, hard to sell. Go out and buy them a box of OK chocolates, and ask them to sell them for $10 to adults. They will get almost 100% rejection, but after the rejection, they then ask if they would buy a bar $2 for the original bar.
The adult will feel bad for having rejected the expensive box, they will feel obligated to buy the $2 bar, not for the kid, but for themselves.
Reciprocity and self image at work.
Another one that works. ‘Free sample’.
Amway built their business on this. They would go around and drop off a box of samples, no obligation, no selling, just for you to try what you might like. They will come back and pick up the leftover product in a few days. Guess what, they usually also picked up an order, even if the person had not tried any, and if they had tried, the sale was almost assured. Once you accept the product into your house, even if you do not use it, there is an obligation created.
Often untrained sales people start at the low price to increase the chances of getting the sale, they think, and hope that can upsell on the extras, to make a buck.
It is much better to start at the top, over the top, and make concessions in the bargaining process. You will end up with a better price in the end.
If I was a waiter in a restaurant, depending on tips, I would deliver the mints separately to the coffee, with some nice words. Then, after having turned around to go away, I would turn back, and give out some extras, with the words, ‘you have been such nice people tonight, I hope you had a great evening, here are some extra mints for the kids’.
Watch the tips soar.
When you are selling, consider what you might give away, something small that creates the instinctive reaction of reciprocity.
Committed and Consistent
We like to be seen as committed and consistent, it makes us predictable, reliable, trustworthy, so good to have in the cave when the Sabre tooth tiger is outside, looking for a feed.
We are driven to act as we said we would, and consistency is seen as a measure of moral strength and integrity.
They are powerful pressures on us to conform and be a part of a group, so much so that the need to be consistent overrides the need to be right.
There is a tsunami of information coming at us, we need ways to sort it out, to make the decisions easy, so we tend to either just repeat earlier decisions that have worked out well.
Look at politics. These dills often put aside reason & common sense, just to be consistent. The stupid voluntary mail plebiscite is an extreme example of this pressure to be consistent, as to be inconsistent in politics is seen as death, a sign of being indecisive, insensitive, and inconsistent, so they throw away common sense to be consistent.
About 15 years ago, in the foyer of the AICD building in the city I was accosted by a very attractive young woman who wanted to take a few minutes to ask a few questions about the facilities for business people in the CBD. She asked about restaurants, how often I dined out, if I travelled much, and I answered, perhaps exaggerating a tiny bit, after all, she was very attractive, and it is natural for an old fart like me to be flattered by her attention and want to look good. She then set about using my responses to sell me one of those high end books of vouchers to high end restaurants and hotels in the city.
If you can get a small commitment, no matter how small, then follow up with a larger request, the person will usually accept the larger commitment, to be consistent with their previous position.
There is a huge amount about your self-image tangled up in this.
There was a whole library on this written after US POW’s were released at the end of the Korean war.
The Chinese had not tortured prisoners to get what they wanted, they used psychology, bit by bit, increment by increment, and the result was profound, and many servicemen who had been prisoners when they returned were deemed to have been ‘brainwashed’ . After all, how hard would it be to get a black US infantry POW to agree that there was not complete equality of the races in the US?
This is depicted in the movie ‘Unbroken’, telling the story of US Olympic runner Louis Zamperini in a Japanese POW camp. The parts where they offer him a better deal, for seemingly minor concessions, offering tiny things in exchange for agreeing obvious things such as that everything in the US was not perfect, obviously this is the case, but having got him to agree to that the next agreement was expected to be easier, he just held out.
The Chinese insisted that the concession be written down, even had them copy them if they were not prepared to write them themselves, but once written down, it was the new starting point.
You must get it written down to create the ‘ownership’ in the subject. Not on a computer, on a piece of paper, with a pencil, which becomes a powerful indicator of commitment, even if the writer at the time does not recognise it as such.
The implications for a sales situation are obvious.
Get a small commitment first, a very easy one, even just getting someone to say ‘Yes’ to a simple question about some aspect of a product is a great start.
This tactic is used a lot in digital sales, give away a free book, all you do is pay for the shipping, but once you have made that small commitment, the next is easier. In the vernacular, this is a ‘tripwire’ technique. Get you to put your hand in your wallet for $3.97 for shipping of the ‘Free gift to you’, the next ask is much easier, it just builds on the commitment already made.
When you buy something these days, there is a cooling off period legislated.
When brought in, this caused some problems, as the cooling off resulted in a high subsequent rejection rate. The very simple solution: get you to fill in the form, that way you are committed because you need to be consistent for the benefit of your own self-image.
Usually, before the legislation, the salesman would fill it in, quicker, easier, and they can read their own writing, but the simple act of getting you to fill in the paperwork commits you.
The next time you are buying a car, and the salesman gets you to fill in your details, you know what he is doing, getting your ongoing commitment to the sale just made.
Another tactic widely used in digital sales: get you to fill in a survey, Facebook even has a tool that enables marketers to easily send out a survey. ‘No cost, no obligation, we are just interested in your opinion’. Surveys have a high fill in rate, but then, when the pitch comes, they refer back to your survey, and create the need for you to be consistent.
Weight loss clinics, this is all public, you get on the scales, you commit to the group to lose a kilo/week, you have made a public commitment, so it is much harder for you to change it than when you are at home, telling yourself to lose a kilo a week. Usually. You are also encouraged to write it down, and show it to your friends, not at the weight loss clinic, makes the commitment even stronger.
I found giving up smoking very easy. I did it every weekend for a couple of years, and sometimes even got to Wednesday before I cracked. The last time I gave it up, I told everyone I knew, particularly those whose opinion I really valued that I would never have another cigarette, and they should hold me to that. It worked. It would have been even stronger if I had written a note and sent it to every one of them.
There is another factor at work here, way more subtle.
It is the degree to which you can encourage someone to ‘own’ the decision they take.
When a behaviour is dictated externally, by authority, it is easier to walk away from it, than if the behaviour is internal. ‘owned’ by the person.
Back to Korea.
The rewards offered for compliance were very small, of relatively little value, so those that did the writing down, in return for the reward did not have the excuse, to themselves and others, that they only did it for the reward. This is counter intuitive, and works powerfully when you can create the situation. It is the difference between long term commitment and short term compliance driven by an external power inequality.
Humans are pack animals, we respond to authority in fairly predictable ways, which are all again, a function of our evolution.
We need to stick together, to be able to rely on the other person to stay awake, keep the fire going at the mouth of the cave so the sabre toothed tiger does not get a feed.
It also removes the need, and intellectual bandwidth required to make a decision every time something comes up, you do as instructed by those in authority, or an established set of rules administered by those in authority.
The scary thing is how we respond to authority, the degree to which we automatically defer.
In 1961, Yale psychology professor Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that was repeated many times with absolutely consistent results, although the experiment has not been repeated recently, as the ethics that underpinned it are a bit confronting.
The experiments set about determining the extent to which people would go against what they knew to be right, by setting up a situation where the subject was required by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to an anonymous third party.
Originally Milgram, set about answering the question of how it was that so many sensible, educated Germans were prepared to inflict huge pain on others, then later claim it is only because of ‘orders’. The question came up in 1961, again, as a result of the publicity surrounding the capture and trial of the Nazi Adolph Eichmann, who was the architect of the logistics of the ‘final solution’.
The results stunned the researchers.
It proved the deep seated sense of duty to authority in all of us.
Deference to authority confers on communities the ability to conform, to move together, to get things done. All religions and cults rely on the notion of a higher authority in order to impose their will, and their doctrine .
We see the use of authority figures in advertising all the time, even when we know the figure has nothing to do with the product, we know it is a paid endorsement by an actor, we still confer some level of authority and credibility to it.
There are many sources of authority: titles, clothes, trappings, uniforms, we defer to them.
If you can build authority in the eyes of your potential customer, you can get them to buy from you without a high pressure close.
What others think.
We had to act together, as a group, to survive, as individually we are the weakest predator around.
Conformity regulates our behaviour in groups, again making the choices easy, unconscious.
Psychologist Solomon Asch did some experiments in 1951, which have been repeated many times with the same results.
Participants, who were all actors, except 1 person were shown the two cards, then asked which of the lines on the second was the same length as on the first, and to write the answer. Almost 100% correct.
When the question was asked, but the answers were spoken, and the actors deliberately all said the wrong answer, the target also changed their minds and gave the wrong answer in most cases.
What others think, what the group thinks is a very strong tool that helps us navigate the multiple decision we would otherwise have to make, sorting through the options.
We take the actions of others as a guide to our own actions. BBBZZZZZ
Social proof acts as an auto pilot, great most of the time, until there is some dodgy data fed in.
Ever heard the term ‘Calque’ or ‘Clacking’?? It started in show Biz in France and Italy, around opera, in the early 1800’s. As a promoter, there were people who were paid to be loud clappers, yelling support for the show, with a sliding scale of charges based on the level of enthusiasm. Everyone knew about it, but it works.
The evidence is everywhere. Canned laughter on TV shows, we all know it is fake and is annoying, so why use it?? Because the research says it works, it tells us when something is funny, or supposed to be funny, it makes the un-funny, just a little funny.
Cults act this way, they remove from the individual the burden of making choices, and taking any responsibility for the consequences, which appeals to a few people.
What this means, use testimonials in your marketing. The more specifically identified is the testimonial giver, the better.
Unfortunately, this word has been hijacked recently, what it really means is that we have some level of positive emotional engagement with another. Dunbar’s number is 150, an evolutionary reality, you can only have an emotional connection to others up to about 150, beyond which, we humans are incapable of maintaining those connections.
Like has a second dimension: people who are similar to us.
Again, this is an evolutionary drive, based on family and close blood relatives, we can trust them, and they look, feel, think and act like us.
It is not a ‘semi-auto’ tick on a website.
None of us like to say no to someone we know like and trust.
When we get invited to a Tupperware party, we know the objective is to sell us stuff, but it is our friends asking, so we go along, and buy more bloody Tupperware. Pretty much all MLM’s work this way, leveraging personal networks.
The most successful car salesman in history, (Guinness book of records) Joe Girard, who sold Chevrolets in Detroit, had a 1:2 rule.
- Offer a fair price
- Be someone they like to buy from.
Joe ran a CRM system before anyone had heard of it. He wrote birthday wishes, car anniversary wishes, change of season wishes, when a car he sold was in for service he made sure he saw the owner, and reassured them of his continuing service, he made people like and trust him. All the cards he sent out simply said. I like you.
Clarence Darrow regarded as Americas greatest trial lawyer said ‘The main work of a trial attorney is to make the jury like his client’. Once they like them, the odds are that they will be found innocent.
We are more likely to like someone similar to ourselves. The oldest sales strategy in the book is to find some trait of the target and take it for yourself. Eg. Walk into an office and see golf memorabilia around, you would likely start talking about golf, how you loved the game, to build some rapport.
We also like people with whom we share a goal and when no party has all the necessary information to reach the goal, so collaboration is essential. People will collaborate, we know this, but is also increases the degree to which they like each other when they are forced to interact by serving their own best interest..
Imagine the car salesman who takes your side and goes in to bat with the sales manager to get you a better price. You will like him.
A part of liking is association. We like to be associated with things that go well, and avoid being associated with things that do not go so well. Nobody would ever volunteer to be the messenger from the generals in the field back to the King in ancient Persia. If the battle was won, the messenger was feted as a hero, but when the battle was lost, he was beheaded.
When you get to like someone, your liking for them rubs off on the value you see in the deal. If you were buying a car, and you found you were really liking the salesman, because he also had kids who loved soccer, and went camping on his holidays, it might pay to think that it will be you driving the car, not him, so look at the merits of the deal on the merits, not on the person communicating them.
Who has not played musical chairs as a kid, felt the tension of there being 10 kids and only 9 chairs?
We all want more of what we cannot have, scarcity adds to the value.
Good sales people create scarcity in any way they can. It is usually a combination of numbers and time. This is a tactic used all the in time sales, it is so common the impact is unrecognised, but it is a powerful driver.
Grab it, it is the last one!! Creates tension and a compulsion to buy.
This is another reason why there are cooling off periods in many situations, to work against the tension sales people can generate to buy immediately, not to wait, not to miss the great deal.
Sales people create competition for an item, there is only 1, and when we are in competition, we want it more. This is why all houses in Sydney are auctioned currently, there is not enough stock to go around, and agent can goose the price by both scarcity and competition at an auction, and why it is illegal to take blind bids.
Good cop bad cop
The more expensive it is the better
The fewer the seats at the musical chairs game, the greater the tension.
Creating a contrast between the options open to a buyer works across all of the 6 strategies, highlighting the benefits to be derived from buying. Weight loss products are particularly obvious, and common users.
A last word
I am not sure where this fits into the headline categories, but I have seen it work.
Try and sneak into a line at a checkout by saying “can I just nip in, I only have a few items’ will get you into some lines.
Add the word Because. ‘can I nip in, because I only have a few items’ and you will roughly double the number of times you are let in.
This has been a skate across the top of the huge range of complexity in the sales environment, and generally does not apply to small sales that are more one off transactions than a sale requiring some level of human interaction, like picking up a newspaper on your way to the train (does anyone do that any more?). Your choice however on your way to the train, of whatever small item you have just bought has been influenced by all sorts of marketing activity that is also covered by these sales foundations. It is a huge, and deeply complex but engaging area of human activity, vital to our commercial success and standard of living.