Sales isn’t just about presenting people with a widget that will solve all their problems. To be an effective salesperson, one has to also understand how to get people to recognize that such a widget will solve specific issues or otherwise grant a buyer some kind of benefit. With budgetary concerns at the forefront of the collective mind, however, actually getting buy-in from a prospective customer can be a complex and multi-layered problem that requires sensitivity and empathy.
Sales professionals and psychology experts have developed a lot of tactics that rely on particular quirks of the human brain over the years. Some of these date back to the age of traveling salespeople, going door to door with their products. Others stem from theories that have only been fully constructed and articulated in recent days. They all have one thing in common, though:
A keen grasp of human psychology can help a sales professional at any level get the most out of every point of contact with a potential customer. Be warned: don’t push it if an approach doesn’t seem to be working. Individuals can be fickle, and due to a variety factors might not respond the way you expect given a certain sales technique. Sometimes, the best approach is to back off and let all parties involved have some time to reassess the situation. Sales is about adaptation, and the methods we discuss don’t represent hard-and-fast rules for how to get things done; rather, they are basic starting points for carving out your own unique style of selling.
A Foot in the Door
This basic sales technique dates back to the era of the traveling salesperson, when sliding a foot into the doorway prevented an early end to a sales attempt via a closed door. The premise is simple: start with a small request, such as a minute of the potential customer’s time for a demonstration, before moving on to any larger requests like a significant long-term contract.
Many psychologists and business academics have run tests and experiments to confirm the foot in the door effect since it was first proposed in the late sixties. Almost every experiment has pointed to its strength: it’s basic, it works on the primal human instinct of in for a penny, in for a pound, and it’s very easy to generalize into a wide variety of sales scenarios.
Start small, and don’t overwhelm.
Iterative Foot in the Door: Long-Term Upselling
The great thing about getting a foot in the door is that an initial interaction doesn’t have to stop at the first request or any others that follow. A salesperson can keep steadily ratcheting up requests once customers have an appropriate amount of time to get used to the fact that they’ve already warmed up to previous discussion.
This does have some limits, but they’re mostly budgetary. Political campaigns use this strategy effectively, often starting with handing out pins and bumper stickers and then eventually moving up to soliciting campaign donations. Someone who has already acquiesced to the first request will be more amendable to the second, and it cascades from there. As always, don’t get too pushy. Upselling long-term clients can really pay off if you demonstrate respect for their space and the time that they require to make thoughtful decisions.
The Psychological Reasoning? — Consistency
The reason that this technique works so well is because of the basic psychological principle of consistency. People generally strive to maintain consistency between their actions, and have an especially easy time allowing themselves to sink into comfortable patterns. So long as each sales request follows logically from the last one, a customer will usually be more likely to buy provided that other outside factors don’t interfere with their decision.
Consistency isn’t completely universal, however. While people across cultures are more likely to accept a foot in the door approach, a 2007 study comparing American and Asian participants found that Americans were less likely to accept the initial request, but were much more likely to follow up with subsequent larger requests.
During the same study, people identified as individualistic, regardless of their culture, were more likely to remain consistent in their purchasing decisions than their peers who were more collective-minded. One potential explanation for this is that individualistic people consider the actions they’ve taken to be more important to their own identity, and thus strive to stick close to them. Consider looking into the extent to which a culture favors collectivism or individualism when doing broader business using foot in the door techniques, but don’t discount the impact of someone’s individual orientation on that axis, either.
Reciprocity: A Two-Way Street in Every Sense
One simple, powerful sales psychology principle is reciprocity, which is the idea that people will “return the favor” of how they perceive that they’re treated. This operates both ways: people are more likely to return kindness, but they’re also more likely to expect kindness back if they feel they’re going out on a limb for another individual or organization on a regular basis.
When dealing with reciprocity in sales, the goal is twofold. The first goal is to make sure that the customer perceives the risks taken on and the kindness dealt over the course of a deal. The second is to make sure that the customer isn’t placed into a position to expect something extra that the salesperson isn’t willing to provide. Asking too much of customers can lead to a position where the expectation far outweighs the delivery.
The Door in the Face
The door in the face technique takes a route almost perfectly opposite to the foot in the door, and relies primarily on a combination of a single strong implication, reciprocity, and some degree of guilt. In this approach, a salesperson asks for an unreasonable, out-sized request first, such as signing on to buy 100,000 widgets. The customer understandably balks, at which point the salesperson suggests a course of action much smaller in scope, such as purchasing only 1,000 widgets. The customer might either feel guilty for the earlier refusal and purchase, or find the notion of 1,000 widgets to be a more reasonable request across from the previous suggestion of 100,000.
Reciprocity influences the door in the face approach when the lower offer is viewed as a concession. The salesperson has already made a significant concession, drastically lowering the expected deal in the eyes of the customer. The customer, then, feels compelled to meet that concession with a counter-concession of actually purchasing the product. When applied carefully, this sort of reciprocity lets everyone walk away happy.
Unfortunately, this strategy carries with it a lot more risk than its counterpart. One study of its effects on altruism found that not only did it lead to a refusal of the request, but it also led people to rate themselves as less charitable overall than the group of individuals that was simply given a request outright. While door in the face techniques have earned some attention in sales and psychology literature, current research does well to highlight their risks. Ask too much, and while the worst the customer can do is say no, that no might be a very strong one that can ruin potential purchasing completely.
Keeping It Simple
Sales calls can often get unnecessarily complex. Too many options, not enough clear data, and confusing conversational structure can leave customers feeling bewildered and make it hard for them to reach the comfort level necessary to make a solid decision. Keeping things simple can make it drastically easier for a potential customer to say yes to a purchase.
One mistake many sales professionals who have only recently started selling often make is presenting every option right away. For a customer who isn’t as intimately familiar with all the options as the salesperson is, this can be extremely overwhelming, and can even turn a potential customer off of a sale entirely. Too many options also make it difficult for an individual to remember what, exactly, was interesting about the product in the first place. Failing to turn a lead into a customer due to a structural problem in the way that they are approached can be devastating, especially because it can be difficult to identify until it is too late–after much business has been turned away and lost forever.
The general solution involves keeping the basic psychological principle of chunking in mind. Chunking was initially proposed as a mechanism for human learning in the 1940s. According to chunking theory, human beings are more likely to remember something as a broad construct rather than as a function of its intimate details. Picturing one’s dining room set, for example, is much easier than individually picturing the table itself, the chairs, the forks, the plates, and all the other objects it entails. The overall set is a unit in itself, and implies all of its major components. It is more efficient for the brain to remember data in this fashion.
When going through a customer’s potential options for a product, present them with broad categories first, split up by a major consideration like scope, budget, or general type. Keep going down with major groupings until it isn’t feasible to keep clumping products together, and customers will be more likely to navigate the products they actually want and will face less frustration during the sales process. The flow may feel a little more complex for the sales person, but the gains in user experience from effective use of chunking are immense.
In addition to the sheer structural issues presented when someone has to remember too many things, too many different choices can also present another problem: choice paralysis. Choice paralysis occurs when the number of available options is so great for a person that it becomes difficult for them to weigh the benefits of each against each other. This generally stops the decision-making process entirely: the customer feels the fatigue associated with the choice well before actually making it.
The customer also often ends up walking away less satisfied than if there were fewer options available. Looking back, customers wonder if what they chose was actually the optimal call, and then end up doubting their new purchase or commitment. Customer regret can lead to dissatisfaction with a product experience even it fulfills their needs, since the worry and stress caused by wondering about alternatives can be pervasive.
As with the application of chunking, the goal with minimizing choice paralysis is simple: don’t give customers every single option right out of the gate. Spend some time getting to know their needs, and allow them to become more cognizant of their own needs over time as well, before moving them to the choice stage.
One area in which this particularly applies is donations, as well as within business models like the one used by artists on Bandcamp, where the precise amount paid to a person is flexible. Rather than simply leaving it up to the customer to choose a specific amount, offer a handful of preset options for donation amounts. If the customer finds none of these options agreeable, then they can offer more, less, or something in between the presented options. Customers will walk away more satisfied if they were given a few reasonable options and choose what ultimately works best for themselves.
The reason any sales transaction happens, in some senses, is very simple: the customer feels the need to buy the product now. Now carries a lot of the power in that sentence, and creating a sense of urgency greatly simplifies the customer’s analysis of the situation. No longer is the question, “Could I use this at some point?” A salesperson who does a good job of cultivating legitimate urgency forces the customer to ask instead, “Do I need this immediately?” Rather than a long-term cost-benefit analysis, the question only has two answers: yes and no.
Urgency has a long history in sales, and the tactics used to generate it are sophisticated and commonly discussed. Clearance and sales prices are one potential generator of urgency encouraging a customer to take advantage of a short-lived deal. The threat of a price increase, similarly, can motivate a customer to accelerate a purchasing decision.
Other Psychological Tactics
Some psychological tactics don’t fit neatly into the previously discussed major headers on their own, but are nevertheless valuable in closing sales. Not all of them may apply to every business model, but the psychological nuances behind them can be used as a starting point for more effective customer contacts and better lead conversion.
What Others Buy
One tactic that’s become particularly popular for online retailers when trying to upsell or cross-sell customers is showing off items that are commonly bought alongside the one the customer is already buying. People often take the recommendations of those who have something in common with them when buying. Usually this comes in the form of neighbors or friends, but this tactic seeks to create a small connection solely through purchase data. The mental flow is simple: “People like me buy this thing. People who buy this thing (who are like me) also buy that thing, so I should probably get it, too.”
For salespeople this technique can be powerful if used sparingly. Share an anecdote about another customer who faced a similar issue to the one the current lead faces. Tell a story that invites the lead to project onto that previous customer’s experience who already purchased the product. Building this sort of commonality can rapidly move someone from prospective customer to paying customer.
Tightwads and Spendthrifts
The idea of a pain in the pocketbook is something we all know, but researchers have begun to take it increasingly seriously throughout the last decade. These researchers have categorized buyers based on the extent to which the idea of spending money hurts. The three categories they arrived at include:
Unconflicted buyers–those who find their spending habits just fine, and who see no reason to significantly adjust them–are the most common, and make up about 60% of buyers. Tightwads are the next most common, and spendthrifts are the least common (though studies are unclear about the relative spread between the two, with some ranking tightwads as much more common, while others have the ratio at about 3:2 in favor of tightwads).
Tightwads also tend to have stronger quantitative backgrounds than their more profligate counterparts. If a company deals in products for high-precision, technical industries, its clients are more likely to include a higher proportion of tightwads.
Tightwads are more susceptible to measures that diminish the significance of paying for the product, or which make paying easier. Even small things like calling something a “small fee” instead of a “fee” can make the process of buying easier on a tightwad.
Conversely, spendthrifts focus on the pleasure they’ll receive from the product. Pitches that focus on the benefits of the product are always a safe bet, but they’re an even safer bet when dealing with a spendthrift. They also tend to respond less to measures that focus on the price or on financing, as they generally simply care less.
Consider using a CRM program to keep notes of spendthrift or tightwad tendencies among customers. Before any data is given, a company can at least make a note of some of the factors that associate with position along this spectrum, and then adjust based on sales conversations. This information can significantly inform marketing communications. Spendthrifts might make better targets for promotional material that focuses on novelty, while tightwads would likely respond better to discounts and new financing options.
Tactical Considerations: Psychology
While nothing beats sheer experience for sales know-how, a healthy understanding of the human mind in a variety of financial contexts can help sales professionals get the most out of each and every contact point with a potential customer. Some techniques can be applied at any point during sales interactions, while others involve a long-term relationship with a client that is focused on gathering data and really understanding what it is that motivates each and every customer.
In the end, there are a few simple maxims that underlie many psychological aspects of sales: