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  • • May 1, 2020

Influence: How to close deals with the principles of persuasion

What makes someone great at sales? This is a question every salesperson faces, from managers first building their teams to reps trying to level up their skills.  Some say it’s about being coachable, and that’s part of it — but that’s also true of any profession. If you can’t learn from the people around you, you won’t make it very far. Others say it’s about personality traits like extraversion. That’s often true as well, but I’ve seen introverts smash quotas while extroverts flail.  Perhaps it’s better to focus on what sales is exactly. Ultimately, sales is about getting people to…

What makes someone great at sales? This is a question every salesperson faces, from managers first building their teams to reps trying to level up their skills. 

Some say it’s about being coachable, and that’s part of it — but that’s also true of any profession. If you can’t learn from the people around you, you won’t make it very far. Others say it’s about personality traits like extraversion. That’s often true as well, but I’ve seen introverts smash quotas while extroverts flail. 

Perhaps it’s better to focus on what sales is exactly. Ultimately, sales is about getting people to say “yes” — “Yes, I’ll buy your software,” “Yes, I’ll donate to your charity, “Yes, you can walk my dog.’

But what factors determine whether or not one person says yes to another person? This is the fundamental question Dr. Robert Cialdini set out to answer in his classic book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

In preparation for this book, Cialdini spent three years studying what he calls “compliance professionals” — sellers, fundraisers, recruiters, and so on. What makes Influence special though is not just Cialdini’s firsthand accounts but the 30+ pages of bibliography that ground this book in cognitive and behavioral science. 

Long story short, this book packs a punch. Cialdini very clearly lays out the principles that govern human interaction and provides powerful strategies for building influence. As I made my way through the book, I started to see the applications everywhere — in family, in politics, and definitely in sales.

Here are the key takeaways you can use in your sales work to grow your impact, get more leads to say “yes,” and ultimately close more deals. 

Rejection-then-retreat (RTR)

Ah, good ol’ rejection-then-retreat. A classic tactic if there ever was one. Back when I used to work as a canvasser for Oxfam (yes, one of those iPad-wielding monsters hell-bent on making you late for work) we called this tactic “parachuting.” You may have encountered it via the related cognitive bias “anchoring.” Regardless of the name, the strategy remains the same: You should always ask for more than you want. This gives you room to retreat when faced with rejection (i.e. negotiation).

Most salespeople are familiar with this tactic and understand it at a common sense level. What’s fascinating, though (and why we should try to employ it even more), is seeing just how powerful it is.

In the book, Cialdini highlights a study where researchers asked people to volunteer unpaid hours at a community mental health agency. The experimenters who used RTR got a verbal agreement 76% of the time, compared to just 26% for the group who didn’t. In other words, people were more than twice as likely to say yes when the experimenter started with a higher ask and then lowered their request. 

But wait – there’s more. Saying yes on the phone doesn’t mean much unless the participants actually follow through. So which group was more likely to show up? You guessed it — the people who were subjected to RTR were 35% more likely to follow through. 

This may seem paradoxical given that RTR can seem manipulative. And in fact, another study looked at this very issue. Researchers wanted to know if people who were induced to say yes via RTR were satisfied with their decision or if they felt manipulated. 

The researchers measured this by asking people to donate blood, and then, as they were giving blood, asked them to donate again at a later date. Nearly every student (84%) who agreed to give blood as a result of RTR agreed to donate again later. Of the students who agreed to give blood not as a result of RTR, only about half as many (43%) agreed to give again. 

In other words, when you start with a higher ask and then parachute down (RTR), not only are people more likely to say yes to you, they’re more likely to follow through on their commitment, and more likely to agree to subsequent requests.

Be direct to save time and build authority

In sales, you will inevitably encounter questions that don’t have a good answer. This is especially true in software sales where the landscape is constantly shifting and there’s a heap of features your dev team plans-to-implement-someday-but-isn’t-on-the-immediate-roadmap.

When faced with a difficult question, there are generally two routes. Inexperienced reps will do what any good lawyer would do: equivocate. They might answer a question tangentially related to the question, but not the question itself. Or they might answer the question in an obtuse manner, hiding the failing in jumbled words. Both are bad approaches. More experienced reps, on the other hand, will probe deeper, ask questions, and search for a workaround.

Sometimes this is the right tactic. Often it will be unclear what a prospect actually wants, and in those cases it is best to dig deeper. But most of the time, when asked a question with no good answer, I’ve found the best response begins with one word: “No.” Generally, it’s best to follow that no with a reason, and sometimes a question. For example, “No, we don’t have Feature X because of Reason Y. Is that critical for you?”

I’m sure this seems direct, but being direct is powerful for three key reasons. For starters, you will learn immediately if this is a dealbreaker. Sometimes it will be and that will be the end of it. If that is the case, congratulations! You just saved yourself hours on a deal that would only harm your close rate.

Secondly, you’ll spend less time discussing your solution’s weak point. If you go down the path of probing deeper, asking questions, trying to figure out their true struggle lying beneath the question, you may find at the end that you still don’t have a good answer. 

And in that process of delving deeper, you may have inadvertently ballooned the problem in your prospect’s mind. It was annoying for them at first, but in talking it through now it’s clear that this is a genuine problem. (This is something Cialdini also discusses in his most recent book, Pre-Suasion.)

However, the real reason the direct approach is best is because it is honest. Being honest with your prospects about your solution’s failings establishes your basic truthfulness and builds you up as an authority. 

This is why Listerine’s slogan used to be, “The taste you hate three times a day.” The taste of Listerine is incidental because what people care about are the health benefits. By being honest about their failings in taste, they build up their authority for when they tell you it’ll make your breath smell delightful.

Small steps to giant leaps

Physics tells us that an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. The same is more or less true for the human psyche. Once we’ve started down a path, we find it increasingly difficult to deviate from that path. This is why Post Malone has so many face tattoos, and why I’ve watched every season of How I Met Your Mother — we’re committed.

So how do you leverage this principle in sales? One way is to slowly build your lead’s effort with small, easy-to-accomplish steps that move them closer to yes. This is essentially the idea behind sales pipelines. You have a starting point A (the first call) and an end point Z (when they pay you), and some intermediary series of steps to get from point A to point Z. The first steps ought to be so easy that they could be accomplished almost accidentally, while subsequent steps should require gradually more effort so as to build up the sunk cost.

However, pipelines are often inadequate. They’re best used as a general roadmap rather than a detailed guide. It would be impossible to encapsulate the uniqueness of each deal into a static pipeline. 

It’s up to you to ferret out the best next steps for your prospect, and the best way to do that is to ask questions. As recommended by Mike Weinberg in New Sales Simplified, you can do this by asking people directly, “What are the best next steps from here?” The prospect knows their situation best, so asking them this question will give you the clearest path forward.

Questions are your most powerful tool

Not only does asking questions help you determine next steps, it helps your prospect commit to them, keeping you both moving steadily down the path to closing. I was recently on the receiving end of this tactic, and it worked brilliantly. 

As part of the trial period at a new gym, I was given a free personal training session with their “top trainer,” Cam. Cam was a laid-back guy built like a tank with a deep bass voice to match. We went through the training session and, aside from realizing how out of shape I’d become, it was great.

At the end of our session, when the sweat was pouring and the endorphins were flowing, Cam hit me with the questions: “So Gray, how do you feel right now?” My legs felt like limp noodles, but altogether I felt incredible, like a fog had cleared from my mind, which is what I told Cam. 

“And how do you see trainings like this improving your health?” I said something about how they’d help me stay consistent and focused on my goals. “And if you were to keep training like this weekly,” Cam continued, “do you think you’d be closer to your fitness goals three months from now?” Well of course, I said. It was then, after my affirming that I felt incredible, that these workouts would improve my wellbeing, and that I’d greatly benefit from doing this each week, that Cam went for the ask. 

What Cam was doing here was asking positively charged questions at the peak of the experience so that I would end up selling myself. I did, and it made trying to wriggle my way out of a $2000 personal training package afterward quite a difficult experience. 

The reason for that goes back to Cialdini’s principle of commitment and consistency. Once we’ve committed to something, we find it difficult to back out of that commitment, especially if it’s been made publicly. 

Asking questions is something most people get right in the “discovery” portion of a sale, but where things go awry is later in the process when the reps are presenting their solutions. There, we often go into “sales mode.” Instead of asking prospects questions, we explain how we think our solution will benefit them. This is fine, but it’s much better if the prospect sells themselves.

And the best way to do that is to do just as Cam did above: Ask positively charged questions that prompt enthusiastic affirmations. One of my favorite questions after presenting a feature in Qwilr is both simple and genuine: “Does this seem like it will be helpful?” 

It’s a question I’ve asked countless times without thinking twice about its persuasive potential. Yet it’s a powerful question for two main reasons: (1) It’s positively charged, prompting the prospect to think of ways the feature I’m referencing can be helpful, and (2) because they will then affirm its helpfulness and articulate it in their own words.

Summing it up

There’s one thing I forgot to mention in the story with Cam. In an effort to free myself from Cam’s persuasive grip, I decided it was time to break the fourth wall. So I asked him, “Cam, have you ever worked in sales before this?” He looked confused and said no. 

“Really? Because some of your techniques are perfect,” I said, offering some examples. Cam looked hurt. Whether genuine or not, he acted as if I’d wounded his pride. His face read: “Gray, I’m not trying to sell you these personal training classes, I’m just trying to help you become your best self.”

I’ll admit that Cam nearly had me here. My attempt to pull his tactics into the light backfired because he acted as if they weren’t tactics at all. He simply cared about my wellbeing and believed that he could help. I hurt him, and I felt more indebted in the process. If not for the tremendous weight of my student loans, I suspect I’d have bought $2000 worth of personal training on the spot. 

So, what is it that makes someone great at sales? Are there any traits that lead people to act in accordance with the strategies outlined here? I’d argue there are. While I’ve framed these tactics as powerful strategies of persuasion, they’re also all things most kind, caring, and thoughtful people will do automatically. 

If I care about the prospect’s work and genuinely believe my solution will help, I’ll probably lower my costs to make things work. By the same token, if I care about their work and don’t believe my solution will help, I’ll probably be honest and direct in telling them that. In short, and forgive me for being cheesy, but I’d argue the secret to being good at sales is simple: Be a good person.

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