How to Use Scarcity to Spin a Solution into a Sale

By Geoffrey James

If you want to sell more software, think negatively rather than positively, according to a leading researcher in sales methodology.

Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, the internationally known expert on persuasion and influence, tells the story of a high-tech company whose marketing emphasized the technical sophistication of its products. New sales campaigns always touted the wonderful new features that existing customers could get by upgrading to the new version. On Cialdini’s recommendation, the company changed their sales and marketing approach from a here’s-what’s-new to a here’s-what-you’ve-been-missing approach and achieved a 45% increase in sales.

The remarkable impact of that minor change in emphasis results from what Cialdini calls the principle of scarcity. His extensive research indicates that customers are more likely to buy if they believe the product or service being sold is rare or dwindling in availability, or if they stand to lose substantially by not buying. For example, in the case above, customers of the existing product were made to feel they lacked something important, which turned out to be a more powerful sales motivator than the desire for something new.

Here’s how to harness the principle of scarcity in your sales presentations.

1. Emphasize the disadvantages. Rather than emphasizing the advantages of your software, emphasize the disadvantages of not having your software. Rather than talking about the positive financial impact that will result from your software, talk about the lost revenue and profit that inevitably will result if the customer doesn’t buy. Rather than painting a rosy picture of how productive everyone will be with your software in place, paint a grim picture of how much time and effort will be wasted without it.

2. Raise concerns about availability. Reveal to customers any circumstances that might make your software difficult to obtain in the future. For example, rather than hiding the fact that customers are waiting for installation, explain that if the customer doesn’t purchase quickly it will become even more difficult to implement your software on schedule. This simple technique can make even a mediocre product appear attractive. For example, when GM announced the end of the Oldsmobile product line, the Oldsmobile models that had been on the lot for months sold within a few days.

3. Emphasize the benefits of purchasing now. When faced with problems that your current software version doesn’t address, rather than talking about future features emphasize the cost advantage of purchasing now. Get customers to buy now by offering substantial discounts for future releases and then showing them how much more money they will lose if they wait until the next release to buy. That’s far more likely to result in a sale than focusing on the advantages of the partial solution that’s available today.

The above is based on a discussion with Robert B. Cialdini, PhD, author of the bestsellers Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion  (Quill Publishers, 1993) and Influence: Science and Practice (Allyn & Bacon, 2001). He can be reached at 480-967-6070 or at