Psychologists have found that we often invent justifications for choices that seem rational, but are in fact motivated by emotions, not reasoning. This actually serves an important purpose. Your “gut”, which is really your subconscious mind, lets you filter noise and make quick decisions, rather than be overwhelmed by our world’s complexity. It protects you from “paralysis by analysis”.
But the human mind is far from foolproof. After all, even something as vague and simplistic as horoscopes can affect our emotions and actions. The human brain is incredible, but also has its limitations and quirks. The good news is that by better understanding how our minds work, you can develop a compelling sales pitch to grow your business quickly. Here are some ways that you can leverage human psychology and emotions to be more persuasive and get more customers.
First impressions run deep
Our decisions are influenced by something called the primacy effect. I’ll talk about that in a moment, but first, let me explain the difference between Volvo’s and Audi’s:
Volvo cars are built to be safe, sturdy, rugged, dependable, comfortable, spacious and beautiful. By contrast, Audi cars are designed to be beautiful, comfortable, spacious, dependable, sturdy, rugged and safe. Without pausing for thought, tell me, quickly – which car would you rather be driving if you were in a wreck?
For a business or person, the quality that is emphasized first becomes part of its identity. Our minds need to compartmentalize stuff, simplify it. When you interact with a client, he usually assigns one or two ‘descriptors’ to your business. For instance, depending on how you communicate or what your service is like, you could be:
- Friendly and approachable, or
- Low-cost, or
- Dependable and quick to respond, or
- Professional and knowledgeable, and so on
However, if you insist that you are not only professional, but also friendly and low-cost and premium and professional and responsive and dependable and knowledgeable and quick to service, nothing will register in your client’s mind. Don’t get me wrong – any business should strive to provide a wide range of services to clients with different needs. But if you try to be all things to everyone, you will mean nothing to no one. Leverage the primacy effect to communicate the one, or maybe two things that you want to be known for. You can apply it to differentiate yourself from your competitors (and capture a different section of the market), to entice a specific category of customers (e.g. medium and large companies), or to get more work in your areas of expertise.
The primacy effect also influences in-person interactions. A client will, often unknowingly, form biases about you based on first impressions. That said, there’s no one formula for pleasing everyone. A suburban client may value friendliness, whereas a mid-sized business would prefer to work with a company that has established systems and processes, has more employees and has consistent branding. What’s interesting is that once we form an opinion, we tend to ignore new information that contradicts it. This is called confirmation bias. For example if you’ve provided excellent service to a client the first time around, he will be more likely to overlook a delay or mistake in the future. On the other hand, a poor first impression will place everything you do under a lens. Any mistake you make subsequently will be more evidence that you are incompetent.
Does this mean that you’re doomed to a lifetime of unfair scrutiny if your initial impression was less than ideal? Fortunately, time is a great healer. Just as our minds are subject to the primacy effect, or remembering first impressions, they are also affected by the recency effect, or remembering only the most recent interactions. With the passage of time, recency trumps primacy. The recency effect is why we are open to changing our minds about something – but only after some time has passed. If you have read “news” stories about a new phone, movie or book before it came out, that’s a marketing team applying the primacy and recency effect to make you want to buy, watch or read it. They want to make sure that the most recent opinion that you hear about something is positive, and that it remains at the top of your mind.
So if a customer has formed a poor opinion of your business, there’s no point in being “persistent” and begging them to change their minds. It’s better to move on to other contracts. Thanks to the recency effect, they might be open to working with you again in the future – but it’s important that you give them space in the meantime.
If your pitch is what you say, framing is how you say it. Some years ago, researchers asked a group of respondents to choose between two kinds of meat. One was labeled “98% fat free”, and the other “With 1% fat”. Most weight-conscience respondents actually preferred the first, even though it claimed to contain twice as much fat as the second. The Volvo vs. Audi example was all about framing. Psychological and social experiments have revealed some dependable ways of framing your message effectively.
Glossing, or describing something in a more palatable manner, is a popular way that framing is done. Companies and government agencies employ glossing all the time: firing hundreds of people for no fault of theirs is right-sizing. A dramatic fall in share prices is a correction. Companies do not face problems and risks, only challenges and opportunities.
With the right framing, any of your professional traits can be presented to your advantage. Don’t have a college degree? That’s great news for your clients, you charge lower rates because you don’t have a student loan to pay off. And if you have a degree, it means that you’ve had “exposure to a wide range of technologies and can work in a structured setting”. Working out of your garage? Great – you have more ‘spirit’ and low overheads. If you manage a well-staffed office, it shows that you are a reliable service provider and a ‘trusted name in the business’.
Stories are more effective than statistics
Psychologists have found, not surprisingly, that using a story for communication triggers a stronger emotional response (and likelihood of action) than compelling, even painstakingly verified facts and statistics. They call this story bias. Reality is complicated and multi-layered, but a stories simplify reality and ‘free up our mind’. That is why we love them. Consider this: each year, tens of millions of children die slow and painful deaths due to malnutrition or outright starvation. It’s a problem that we, as a global community, have not felt compelled to solve. However, social experiments at charity events show that when charities raise money for “Mikobi, a 3 year old boy orphaned, sick and starving in Sudan”, rather than for “10,000 children who need food and education”, they receive donations from more people, for larger sums. So much so for the rationality of the human mind.
If you’re selling an annual maintenance contract to a small business, you might want to tell potential customers about Mark’s Car Sales, who would have lost years of customer data without your support, or Jane Smith the wedding photographer, who relies on you to safeguard thousands of photos in her precious portfolio on her only computer. These would make for a more compelling pitch than simply saying that 21.5% of small and mid-sized businesses in your county use your service.
Always provide a reason
In the 1970’s, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer conducted a series of famous social experiments. In one of them, she approached people standing in line at a photocopier, awaiting their turn, and asked, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the machine before you?” She succeeded 60% of the time. She then approached a line of people at a photocopier and asked, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the machine before you, as I have to make some copies?” Shockingly, her success rate rose to 93%! Have you ever had a flight get delayed, and the airline announced that it was delayed for “technical reasons”? Somehow, hearing that it was delayed for “technical reasons” (what else could it be?) makes us less anxious.
If you are unable to service a request, or are likely to be delayed, or need to withdraw a limited offer, or face any other situation where a customer might be displeased, always offer a reason. What’s interesting is that just about any reason, even a vague one, would work fine most of the time. In fact, genuine difficulties can sometimes sound so flimsy to a customer (even when they’re not) that you’d be better off not providing a full, detailed justification.
The need to act is a powerful motivator
Human beings have an innate need to act now. And the closer a ‘deadline’ is, the more likely we are to act. Let’s say that you are offered $1000, which you would be paid after a year. You are also told that if you wait for a year and one month, you’ll get $1200. Most of us would be happy to wait for an extra month for another $200, since pay-day is a full year away. But what if you were offered another choice: you’ll get $1000 today, but if you wait for a month, you’ll get $1200. What would you do then? Most people would take $1000 right away. But why? In both cases, you’re getting an extra $200 for a month’s delay, and yet we are strongly motivated by the prospect of immediate gratification!
Through a number of experiments, researchers have identified two interesting human tendencies, which they call action bias and contrast effect. Action bias is our need to act when something grabs our interest. The contrast effect is when we judge something, not objectively, but compared to something similar. In the above example, both tendencies motivate us to get $1000 immediately. The entire discount coupon industry operates thanks to the contrast effect.
In the face of uncertainty, a fear of loss triggers a powerful need to act. If you want to make a special offer, let it be clear that this is an exceptional case, or that it will be valid for a limited period only – and then keep your word. As the Romans used to say, “Rara sunt cara”: what is rare is valuable. By being less available, contrasting an offer against the norm, and offering it for a limited time only, you are applying framing to make your service more valuable. Even if your clients aren’t interested the first time, they will keep you in mind. And confirmation bias will ensure that when they take the deal, they will value your services.
We’d all like to live in a world where our work speaks for itself. For better or worse, perception shapes reality.
In the past, companies used to spend huge sums of money on advertising, pestering people and spamming mailboxes to grow their business. Thankfully, that is no longer effective. We live in a time when, thanks to the Web, sincere, human interaction with a client can go a long way in building your reputation and getting you even more clients.
In the past, companies with deep pockets had the option of outsourcing all their PR to an agency, which wasn’t great news for small businesses. Today, a strong work ethic and respect for other human beings is more important than ever before. Communication is a crucial part of the human experience – without it, we wouldn’t be human. Why not understand the human mind better, learn what moves and compels us to act, and leverage this knowledge to do better work and have happier customers?