The best sales teams are those that know how to influence people. But while certain salespeople have an innate understanding of the skills necessary to persuade potential buyers, there are others who need development in those areas. The good news is that with a basic understanding of certain integral psychological principles, anyone can learn the abilities necessary to achieving success in the sales process. Here are five skills vital in not only influencing a buyer, but sales success.
Throughout the course of human history, conflicts of the Man vs. Man variety have had the most influence on the development of society. This is especially true when you expand the definition of the word “conflict” to encompass all forms of human interaction.
Even in cases where war and physical violence never come into play, the simple act of communication almost always involves an element of contention. We present our ideas, others present their ideas, and then we struggle against each other’s opinions and experiences in an effort to gain support for our own way of thinking. On paper, this form of conflict may not sound very productive, but the reality is that--thanks to humanity’s innate ability to engage in ideological discourse---we can learn to cooperate, negotiate, persuade and be persuaded.
Think how this applies to your sales team: A sales team’s job is to communicate with the potential customers found by the marketing team, and lead those customers on the journey from interested, to firmly committed to doing business. Sales teams are only able to function due to their capacity to forge human relationships and use those relationships to guide their clients along the path.
In essence, persuasion is the heart of the sales process.
In the last half-century, psychologists have begun to understand that persuasion—though a natural ability for some—can actually be approached scientifically. And, although it isn't an exact science, it’s worth noting that an overwhelming evidence suggests that most men and women rely on specific ‘shortcuts’ to help them with their critical decision making.
Learning to take advantage of these principles of influence is the first step toward achieving a mastery of the skills at the heart of the sales endeavor. Psychologist Robert B. Cialdini has identified six such principles of influence (as addressed in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, published in 1984):
1. Reciprocity: People are more likely to treat others in the same way that they are treated by others. This also means that people are more likely to agree with those to whom they owe favors.
2. Scarcity: People assign value based upon availability. Supply and demand. If something is in shorter supply, people want it more.
3. Authority: People are more willing to follow the suggestions of those who appear credible and authoritative.
4. Consistency: People are more likely to take actions that they have taken before, or to make larger commitments when prefaced by smaller commitments.
5. Liking: People are more likely to agree with those that they admire.
By taking these six principles into account, sales teams can adapt their strategies to better influence potential clients into making long-term commitments.
Of course, doing so takes more than simply understanding what impacts the decision making process in the human mind; it takes an understanding of the real-world application of these principles. Here are five influencing skills that winning sales teams use in order to achieve success.
Offering a sample of your product or service is a good way to demonstrate to customers the value of what you have to offer. However, even more than that, giving a gift to prospective buyers activates the human drive to pay back favors. This demonstrates the principle of reciprocity, and can have a substantial impact on a company’s sales. In some cases, offering free samples has been known to increase sales by as much as 2000%. Remember, not all samples need to be something physical that can be handed to a customer; trial memberships or demos can be equally valuable (esp. for companies offering services), and a gift with purchase can also inspire present and future business.
Humans naturally procrastinate, and this is especially obvious when it comes to making difficult decisions. Rather than take the risk of choosing poorly, we often delay making a decision for as long as possible. This makes perfect sense in most cases--after all, good things come to those who wait. However, this natural desire to watch and wait only holds sway while the decision is available for an indefinite period of time. As soon as a deadline is introduced (or more accurately, as soon as a specific offer is designated as being ‘for a limited time only’), decision makers suddenly become much more willing to commit. Human beings tend to assign value to things based upon how available they are. As soon as something becomes ‘limited’ or ‘scarce,’ we instinctively desire it more. In sales, this means that offers that are only available for a limited time are often much more well-received than those that are always available. However, there are limits, because when too many things become scarce, the perceived value drops. In fact, studies of retail sales have shown that if more than approximately 30% of goods offered are designated as scarce or limited, then the effectiveness of this method quickly decreases.
Most customers are well aware that they don’t know everything about your product. This limited knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean they are willing to defer to your expertise, because they recognize you are hardly in any position to be objective. That leaves the customer in need of an impartial and educated third party. This is where experts come into play. When a sales team is able to acquire the endorsement of an expert, then potential customers are much more willing to take a chance on purchasing the product or service. Now, this isn’t to say that you should invent experts, or misrepresent data to suggest that your product is anything more than what it is. On the contrary: You should focus on delivering the best possible product, and then make sure experts have the opportunity to try it. You can also pay to have certain studies done that might lend your product an air of authority, but once again, you should always make sure to remain truthful about the results. If your product can’t impress the experts or deliver facts on its own, then you should be more concerned with improving it than selling it. Also, bear in mind that the word ‘expert’ doesn’t always refer specifically to someone with a PhD or a lifetime of experience; sometimes ‘experts’ are simply everyday people who have had a chance to test the product. A 90% majority of consumers say that their buying decisions are influenced by online reviews, so providing prospective customers with a chance to see what other customers have said about your product is a must.
Making a purchase can feel like a big commitment, especially if the product or service being offered is one that requires some form of ongoing payment. Rather than lock themselves into a commitment that may end up extending far into the future, many prospective customers will choose to err on the side of caution, and not do business at all. On the other hand, if you can introduce your customers to your product by first asking them to make smaller, less significant commitments first, then they’ll be more likely to agree to the bigger commitments later on. This is because people like to appear consistent in what they do and will often (unconsciously) agree to further commitments when initial commitments have already been made. Asking potential clients to sign up for an email newsletter or try a free trial membership is a great way to help establish that pattern of consistency, so that when the time comes to suggest a purchase, your customer will already be in the correct mindset to do business. The proof is in the numbers: Customers who agree to sign up for newsletters spend on average 82% more than those who do not.
Additionally, introducing your customers to small commitments, and then following up on those commitments shows persistence, dedication and faith in your product. Failing to follow up shows none of these things, and only demonstrates to customers how little value you place on what you are offering. This is unfortunate, because almost half of all salespeople fail to follow up with prospective clients.
Good or bad, your customers aren’t simply buying a product or a service: They’re buying the person offering it. Humans are a very social species, which means we often have trouble divorcing the product from the seller in our own minds. Or, as Mark McCormack (founder of International Management Group) famously observed, “All things being equal, people will do business with a friend; all things being unequal, people will still do business with a friend.” The reality is that we generally put less emphasis on how we feel about a product than we do on how we feel about the person who is selling it. Take advantage of this fact by training your sales team to develop their personal skills. Speaking clearly, showing professionalism in dress and grooming, learning how to be an active listener, and knowing how to show respect in words and actions are all soft skills that will more than pay for themselves in increased sales. And, perhaps the most important aspect of likeability is a respect for time. Respect the time that your customers sacrifice in order to hear your sales pitch or research your product, as it is a valuable commodity. When meeting with customers, make sure to keep your sessions brief and to the point, and always be willing to conform to the customer’s schedule.
If you plan on making any sort of proposal, remember that the most memorable part of any presentation is generally the concluding five minutes, so be sure to share your most important information last (and don’t hesitate to cut out the unnecessary parts in the middle to save time).
When mastering these five influencing skills for use in your professional life, don’t neglect the advantages they could be bringing to the other aspects of your life as well. After all, to say that human interaction is based upon conflict may sound harsh, but it is at least partially true. And, it is just as accurate to say that most interaction contains aspects of the buyer-seller relationship as well.
Allow the science of influence to improve the way you interact with others, because whether you’re selling a product, or simply selling your own personality, there’s always a right way to do things.