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Mastering the Psychology of Persuasion

Think you're so smart at selling and managing? Test your "gut instinct" skills and answer these questions.

• Does guilt work better on men or women?

• Which of these is better at recognizing a liar: police officers, teachers, or dogs?

• Are women or teenagers more prone to fear motivation?

• Who would you trust to hold your expensive camera while you went to the bathroom at crowded sporting event: a man or a woman?

• Is either the fear of fire or excessive water more dangerous to the average person?

• Are musicians more likely to excel in math, physics, or psychology?

• Is superstition a valid approach to decision-making when it comes to making a purchase over $3000?

• Are left-handed people more prone to some mental illnesses, accidents, or seeking positions of power?

• Would you be willing to get one painful shot in your arm from a licensed professional or 150 less painful shots in your arm from a licensed professional?

As you read these questions, your brain started to formulate answers based on personal experience—i.e., your perceptions of the world. Mentally, you were looking through old picture albums, searching for familiar faces, dialogues, memories, facts, and figures to confirm your initial internal response. Your present age, gender, race, religion, stereotyping, prejudices, superstitions, ignorance, and bias also played a role into forming your answers. It's all part of being human.

And while these questions may at first appear to have clear yes or no answers, in reality, there are no definable correlations to them. All of these questions have exceptions to the rule. "It depends," is the best practical answer. And yet, all answers you came up with in your head may have value if you're in the sales and management profession.

Let's take a look at some of these questions more closely. With regard to left-handed people and power: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama are all lefties. Power hungry? Maybe. What about women and fear motivation? Women show fear differently than men, but handle it fine—maybe even better than men. What about sniffing out liars? Lying is about being misleading, and dogs are pretty good at sensing when a person is friend or foe, intending to harm their master, or in trouble.

How about holding your camera while you hit the bathroom? How bad you have to go is the real determinant. Lastly, the shot-in-the-arm issue. Young people think nothing of getting a painful tattoo from some strange dude, yet won't get a vaccination in a sterile doctor's office to prevent the risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease.

When it comes to selling in a recession, sales managers and sales professionals must reconfigure selling strategies (persuasion) that will be more effective and sustainable in a fear-based and emotionally charged recession like we have today. You are influenced and persuaded into decision-making every single day, whether you want to admit it or not. Did you buy your wife roses because you really wanted to, or because you feared her wrath if you didn’t bring home the flowers? Guilt, as you see, is just one powerful tool.

Here are the most recognizable persuasive elements we experience in society:

Habitual patterns. Trigger words or fixed action patterns, automatic behavior patterns, and biases help people organize thoughts and actions.

Consistency and commitment. MacDonald's hamburgers taste the same from Russia to Denver.

Reciprocation. "I love you. Will you buy my guitar?" The person may be more influenced to buy the guitar as a way to return the gesture of the stated love. Guilt falls under this category.

Likeability. We like people like us. First impressions, and all.

Social proof. Everybody is buying, saying, eating, reading, etc., so I must also.

Authority/power. Law is law and rules are rules.

Scarcity. The more we want something and can't get it, the more valuable it can appear.

Fear or gain. Research shows fear of loss is stronger than the desire for gain.

Now that you armed with these valuable insights into human behavior and tendencies, what can you do to reset your sales and marketing presentations to capture the right emotion and persuasive trigger of your customer? What can you present that will engage as many different emotional cues, as well as logical cues, for them to buy your product or service?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Brochures and Website material. Use words and images that elicit stronger emotional appeals, in addition to the practicality of your product or service. Value is critical, and an emotional appeal to the real cause of the pain the customer would feel by not buying your product is the true target of your sales pitch.

2. Provide the data. Saying "We care about our customers" is weak. Everybody says that. Give facts: 85.3 percent of our customers are from referrals! Now that's compelling. Show how much people save, earn, smile, laugh, or relax when they buy from you.

3. Dates don't matter. "We've been serving customers for 54 years!" So what? Longevity in business doesn't carry the same weight it used to. Yahoo! and Google, for example are less than 15 years old, but are as well-known companies as GE and Microsoft. Persuade with a compelling advantage.

4. Match marketing materials with your sales team's ability. A great-looking, emotionally charged brochure must fit the salesperson making the presentation, or else it'll flop. If your salespeople can't say the words that are hard to speak, then the message is lost and sales falter. Train your team to present the data, the emotion, and the benefits in a way that is assertive, close to the heart, and rewards them to make the sale.

5. Train your sales team to avoid the very tactics of persuasion they're being trained to embrace. The fear of job loss and stress of customers saying "no" in a recessionary climate is both stressful and demotivating. Contract with a proven trainer to teach your team to learn how to modify their internal and external behaviors in order to build resilience to the negativity. A better-than-industry average commission plan and measurable goals with benchmarks aren't bad ideas, either.

6. Explore ways to imbed your product or service into the typical habits and behavior patterns of your potential customers. Example: If you sell Website development, send examples/data to show how others are updating their sites to capture new sales with new technology. Bankers love data and low risk; focus your pitch to show less risk when buying your service.

7. Tie your sale into a common theme that month, year or decade to enhance recall, retention, and common ground. People join and are part of associations to feel part of the tribe'—to gain access to special knowledge. Your ability to allow them the "secrets" is a powerful tool.

Every decision you make is a result of some form of persuasion infiltrating your emotions to influence your behaviors and thinking. The more elements of persuasion you become familiar with, the better you'll be able to judge which approach is the right one for the selling situation.

Russell Riendeau, Ph.D., is a behavioral scientist, senior partner of The East Wing Search Group, and co-author of "The CEO's Guide To Talent Acquisition: Finding Talent Your Competitors Overlook." E-mail him at russ@eastwingsearchgroup.com.