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The Persuasion Principle

By Kim Wright Wiley

To land the big ones, fishing requires the right bait. To reel in sales, salespeople need the right words. Persuasive words. In short, words that sell the product or service. It may sound simple, but Robert Cialdini has made his life’s work studying the behavior of buyers and now turns his attention to the words sellers use to connect with those buyers.

For more than two decades, social psychologist Robert Cialdini’s Influence has been the accepted sourcebook on the topic of persuasion, and now Cialdini is back with a new book: Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive (Free Press, 2008).

This text helps sales professionals break out of habituated behaviors and learn to reevaluate every situation on its own. “One of my clients spent the past fifteen years trying to isolate the single most effective sales strategy in the world,” says Cialdini, “and he came to this conclusion: the single most effective strategy is not to have a single strategy. Times change and every situation is different, so it’s a fool’s game to use the same persuasion techniques all the time.”

Of the 50 ways to be persuasive listed in his book, Cialdini believes the following have the greatest application to sales:

People are most persuaded by people like themselves.

Cialdini cites a hotel water-conservation study on what language would most encourage people to reuse their towels. After trying different cards with different wording, the study showed that the most effective approach was not to scold the hotel guest with environmental warnings, but to point out how many other people were reusing towels. And not just any people…the people who had stayed in the exact same room.

“The behavior of ‘similar others’ steers customers,” says Cialdini. “Telling hotel guests that a high percentage of people who had stayed in room 215 had recycled their towels had a greater effect on their willingness to recycle than telling them how many people in room 217 next door recycled.”

In listing testimonials, salespeople frequently put the clients they’re most proud of at the top of the list, but Cialdini suggests it’s more effective to “put ego aside. Don’t brag about your biggest or most famous clients. Instead, craft your list of testimonials so that prospective clients see the ones most like them at the top of the list.”

Don’t give people too many choices…

“The conventional wisdom is that people love having lots of choices,” says Cialdini. “But the conventional wisdom is wrong. We live in a society that [suffers from] information overload, an avalanche of alternatives.” He cites the example of Procter & Gamble, which increased sales of Head & Shoulders shampoo by cutting down on the number of items in its product line. “People want to simplify things in their lives. If you give them too many choices, they may refuse to make any decision at all.”

…but present the ones you do give them in the best possible way.

“When we present an array of possibilities to clients, we’re foolish to cut right to the chase with the single one we think is best for them,” says Cialdini. “Ideally you present three choices, with the one you think best in the middle.”

Why position the best choice in the middle? Because humans tend to compromise. “Bracket that one with other options that are more and less expensive,” says Cialdini. “You might start by saying, ‘Here’s one option, and it’s top of the line, but you might not need all that. We might be able to deliver everything you need with a step down in pricing.’ Then discuss this middle choice in more detail, and finally, finish with the third and least expensive choice by saying something like, ‘This is the lowest-priced option, but it doesn’t have everything you need.’”

As Cialdini points out, “You have to start out with the top-of-the-line option, because there will always be some people who will want that. Certain customers define themselves as the kind of people who buy premium, just as there will always be some customers who automatically buy the cheapest thing possible. But most people are going to go for the compromise. By sandwiching what you believe to be the best option in the middle and spending more time detailing it, you’re gently nudging them toward it without making them feeling forced – and without their noticing that you’re nudging them at all.”

Use matching language.

Research has shown that waiters can improve their tips with one simple strategy: repeating back, word for word, what the customer ordered.

And salespeople can improve their commissions by doing the same thing. “After a client expresses a need,” says Cialdini, “say something like, ‘So what you’re saying is…’ and repeat exactly what the client said. It’s far better than paraphrasing, because it shows you heard [what the client said], you understand, and that everybody is on the same page.”

The same benefits come from mirroring your clients’ body language. “If you align your body with theirs and reflect their nonverbal behavior, they’re more apt to buy what you’re selling,” says Cialdini. “We feel most comfortable with people who seem to be like us.”

Use positive examples.

In times of economic downturn, it’s easy to let our language take a downturn, too. But such negative phrasing as, “Nobody in the department is meeting the numbers,” can make your message self-destruct.

“When you say that everybody’s failing, or we’re all making the same mistake, it actually makes people relax,” says Cialdini. “As we’ve seen, people want to be like their peers. If a manager points out that everybody’s below quota, the salesperson might think, ‘Oh, OK, I’m not the only one,’ and thus the negative language actually normalizes this undesirable state of affairs.”

There are better ways to use our human desire to fit in. “If you say something like, ‘If even one of us doesn’t make his numbers, it undermines our whole department,’ you’ll motivate the sales team more,” says Cialdini. “Nobody wants to be the one person who brought down the team.”

Tooting your own horn? Bad. Getting someone else to toot your horn? Good. Very good.

Is there a way to show off your credentials without coming off like a braggart? Sure. Just get one of your colleagues to do it for you. Cialdini suggests you get the ball rolling by praising a co-worker in front of his clients or sales team. When your colleague hears about it and thanks you, that’s your chance to say, “I know if the situation was reversed you’d do the same for me.”

Use your client’s natural loss-aversion to sharpen a sales pitch.

“In sales, we’re typically brainwashed to believe that we should always show clients the benefits,” says Cialdini. “That’s true – but it’s only half the story. In times of economic uncertainty, people are more motivated by what they might lose.

“When people are worried, they freeze,” Cialdini continues. “They don’t want to do the wrong thing, so they do nothing. Switch your language away from telling them what they stand to gain, and instead tell them what they stand to lose if they fail to move in your direction. Their natural loss-aversion will prompt them to act.”

Become a Jedi master of persuasion.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, with one phrase, persuaded Darth Vader not to kill him: “I know there’s still good in you…” Your clients might not be as tough as Darth Vader, but they’ll still respond to the words you use to describe them.

“People live up to the reputations we assign to them,” says Cialdini. “They want to be consistent with what they’ve committed to and how they’ve behaved in the past. If you describe them as long-term partners, they’re much more likely to stay long-term partners.”

For more information on Robert Cialdini’s book Yes! Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, visit •