Using Persuasion Science To Better Engage With Prospects and Customers

Robert Cialdini is the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and was a visiting professor of marketing, business and psychology at Stanford University. He’s best known for his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, which was based on 3 years’ undercover research at used-car dealerships, fund raising organisations and call centres where persuasion was used as a strategy to secure more income. The book, published in 1984, has sold over 5 million copies and been translated into 41 different languages. Familiarising yourself with Cialdini’s 6 key, scientifically validated principles of reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking and consensus and using them to influence and persuade others in an entirely ethical way will help you to win, manage and retain more customers for your business. Below I look at the principles individually and how you might apply each one within your business.

Reciprocity. Cialdini noted that people feel obliged to give back a gift or behaviour that they’ve received or experienced first. Observing waiters in a restaurant, he saw that if the waiter gave a diner a single mint with their bill, tips increased by 3%. If they gave 2 mints at the same time as the bill, tips rose by 14%. If, however, the waiter gave a single mint, walked away but returned with a second mint saying “for you nice people” tips increased noticeably by 23%. He concluded that, for reciprocity to work to maximum effect, you need to be the first to give, make the gift personalised and unexpected.

Looking for ways to connect people and encourage collaborations is a great way of adding value to your business network. Although I do this with no agenda or expectation, the Law of Reciprocity often comes into play, with those people I’ve helped introducing me to people in their own networks. If you’re a service-based business, have you thought about offering a free consultation, where people receive some value without commitment? If you’re selling a product, whether tangible or digital, are you able to provide a free trial? Car dealerships are a classic example where they loan a prospect a new car for a weekend to try out, in the hope that they’ll be reluctant to hand back the keys afterwards! Perhaps you could create a "lead magnet" where people can visit your website and download something of value such as a research paper.

Scarcity. People want more of the things they have less of. When British Airways announced in 2003 that their Concorde London – New York flights would no longer be operating, sales increased hugely. Nothing had changed except that Concorde had become a scarce resource. But it’s not good enough to simply tell your prospects and customers about your service. You need to clearly explain your value proposition, the unique selling points that you offer and what they stand to lose if they don’t consider it.

If, for example, you sell workshops online, could you offer an “early bird” discount to people buying in return for an early sign up? Brands sometimes offer time-limited 2 for 1 deals, a limited run variant of a product (fashion item or car model), a unique bundle offer or a free upgrade (airline seat). Remember that people have a “fear of missing out” (FOMO).

Authority. Cialdini noticed that physiotherapists were able to persuade more people to comply with their instructions by displaying their medical diplomas in their consulting rooms. He found that people were more likely to give change to someone in a uniform, such as a policeman or traffic warden, than someone who approached them dressed casually. But you need to signal what makes you a credible, knowledgeable authority before making your influencing attempt. He also discovered that when, for example, a buyer is recommended to a supplier, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the person making the recommendation is connected to the supplier or stands to benefit in some way from the introduction. He observed with some estate agents, that where callers were told by receptionists that they were about to be transferred to someone with many years’ experience, the mentioning of the credentials and expertise led to a 20% rise in the number of appointments and a 15% rise in signed contracts. This small refinement to the customer experience was both ethical and cost nothing to implement.

There are many opportunities to develop yourself as an authority, sometimes referred to as a “thought ‘leader” in your sector. Look for opportunities to deliver workshops, participate in seminars or sit on panels at events. Writing and publishing research papers is another good way to demonstrate your expertise. Are you a member of any professional bodies and leveraging this? Does your website have an “About Us” page which clearly describes your skills and experience? Having regular contact with more established industry influencers can also raise your profile within the business community.

Consistency. People like to be consistent with the things that they’ve previously said and done. This consistency is activated by looking for small initial commitments that can be easily made. Cialdini discovered that residents in a particular neighbourhood were reluctant to put up large, ugly driver safety campaign signs in their front gardens. Elsewhere, residents who’d made a commitment to put a small card in their windows in support of the campaign, were then 400% more prepared to accept the large sign later. For consistency to really work, you should look for voluntary, active and public commitments and ideally get these in writing. Cialdini also discovered that getting patients in a health centre to write their own appointment details on an appointment card led to an 18% reduction in missed appointments.

Have you approached your customers and asked them for testimonials? If so, could that lead them to doing a video testimonial or a more in-depth case study for you? If you sell online, encouraging your customers to create an account rather complete the transaction as a guest is another example of consistency. If you ask a prospect or customer to complete a survey and this provides positive feedback, on a trial for example, applying the principle of consistency this should mean less resistance to closing the sale.

Liking. Cialdini noted that people prefer to say “yes” to people they like. “People buy from people” is a commonly used phrase and sales and account management is all about relationship building, so this observation makes perfect sense. We also need to be aware that we’re disposed to liking people similar to ourselves, that pay us compliments and those who co-operate with us to achieve mutual goals. He observed two separate groups of salespeople, the first being told to get straight down to business with a prospect and the second, where they were encouraged to build rapport before commencing the negotiations. The latter was done through identifying a similarity or something in common between the seller and buyer and developing this at the start of the conversation. With the second group, 90% of the buyers and sellers achieved a successful outcome that was typically worth 18% more to both parties, so it was apparent that substantial gains could be made from finding similarities and giving genuine compliments before starting the negotiations.

People often use storytelling to describe themselves, their journey and their businesses, aligning their personal experiences and values with others they’d like to connect and work with. Your branding, marketing materials, website copy and tone of voice will all attract a particular buyer persona too. Have you noticed that staff in Apple stores are dressed smartly but casually to appeal to their ideal customers? In face to face and online communications, paying someone a genuine compliment at the start of the conversation is always good for rapport and relationship building.

Consensus. People look to the actions and behaviours of others to determine their own. How many times have you looked to buy something on Amazon and were influenced into a purchasing decision, based on the positive, 5-star reviews written by others? Cialdini researched the reuse of towels and linen in hotel rooms. If a sign was placed in a hotel room, describing the benefits to the environment in reuse, this led to a 35% compliance rate. If the same sign was reworded to say that 75% of hotel guests reused their towels and linen during a 4 or more night stay and used the phrase “So please do this as well”, the rate of reuse rose by 26%. If the sign said that comparable previous guests had reused their towels and linen, there was a 33% increase in reuse. The key here is to point to what many, similar others are doing.

Social proof is a powerful tool. Ask your customers to leave reviews and recommendations about the service you’ve provided them on Google, Trustpilot, LinkedIn and other similar platforms. Do you include testimonials and case studies prominently on your website, in marketing materials, on social media and in proposals? When requesting a testimonial, remind your customer of the ways in which you’ve helped them and impacted positively on their business. Software as a service (SaaS) businesses, such as those providing customer relationship management (CRM) software, often display price plans on their websites but highlight a particular one as their “Most Popular”. This can be a great way to upsell and increase your average order value. Have you noticed the number of companies that have “brand ambassadors” and use influencer marketing to drive up interest? Could you collaborate with another company, providing a complementary product or service, where each party endorses the other?

So, it’s clear that by employing these 6 principles, it’s possible to influence and persuade both prospects and customers in an entirely ethical way and, in doing so, generate more business.

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Bruce McLeod
Experienced coach, mentor and sales professional.

Helping ambitious startups and established businesses to grow quickly and profitably.

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