You may have heard that sales is more of an art than a science. And while it’s true that some people have a natural ability, research shows that making the perfect pitch doesn’t just depend on intuition and luck.
This article delves into the worlds of social psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics to uncover powerful methods to influence others.
You’ll learn the patterns behind your decision-making process, and how to hone your sales strategy to be more convincing. Armed with the scientifically-tested methods presented here, you’ll be ready to make your next pitch a winner.
Understanding the science of sales will improve your performance
Have you ever met a naturally gifted salesperson? Someone with a stellar smile, approachable personality, and magic ability to close any deal? Maybe. But according to research, skilled sellers like this are not the norm.
A study from the Harvard Business Review found that only one-third of salespeople are consistently effective. Even worse, a study from ES Research found that 90 percent of sales training delivers no improvement at all.
With stats like this, it’s amazing that businesses survive at all. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. If we look at sales through the lens of science, it’s possible to find evidence-based approaches that work.
It’s common to think of sales ability as a static quality – you either have it or you don’t. But science tells a different story. Our brains are amazingly adaptable. And with effort and practice, we can rewire our neurons to develop new skills. This is called neuroplasticity, and it lets us improve our natural talents over time.
A problem comes up when we focus on learning the wrong skills. Unfortunately, this happens a lot, because the most common sales advice is based on anecdotes instead of evidence. For instance, many people believe that extroverts make more sales. And yet a study from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that those who score high on measures of extroversion perform worse than average.
Science also shows us what can improve sales outcomes. In fact, research has uncovered many surprising methods for boosting sales called peripheral routes of influence. One example is the asymmetric dominance effect. This dictates that customers are more likely to buy when presented with two options – one good and one great. Why does this make the sale easier? Because having a good option makes the great one seem even better.
Scientifically-proven approaches like this are based on a simple idea: salespeople are more effective when they understand what’s happening in a customer’s brain. After all, if you understand what a buyer is thinking, you can tailor your pitch more effectively to their needs and desires.
Smooth out the sales process by answering the Six Whys
A shopper is browsing a grocery store when he spots a new cereal on the shelf. He walks closer and looks at the box. After a moment, he puts it in his cart with the rest of his purchases. But why?
When asked this question, salespeople give all sorts of answers. Maybe it was the box art, or the price, or just the fact that he was hungry at the time. And while none of these answers is wrong, none of them is completely right.
Deciding to buy a product isn’t the result of a single choice. It’s actually the final outcome of a series of six choices. Your job as a salesperson is to help consumers through the process.
If a salesperson can answer each of these questions, the sale is easy. If at any point the salesperson is unsure, the sale is lost.
The first question is “why change?” Humans are wired to prefer things as they already are. And because making a new purchase means changing in some way, it needs to feel justified. So, when answering this question, make sure you can explain what’s lacking or undesirable about the buyer’s current situation.
The second question is “why now?” Here you must explain why buying makes sense at this specific time. For example, is there a temporary discount or another factor that creates urgency?
The third question is “why your industry?” Before you pitch your specific product, you must pitch your entire industry. Think about it. If you sell online courses, you have to explain why online courses in general are better than alternatives like seminars or books.
The fourth and fifth questions are “why your company?” and “why your product?” This is when you get into the specifics and pitch the things that make your offering stand out – whether that’s the quality, the expertise, or the countless satisfied customers.
The sixth and final question is “why spend the money?” To answer this, point out the financial benefits of your product or service. Be sure to mention both cost-savings and any loss-prevention qualities it may have, such as better payment tracking.
As you walk potential buyers through each of these steps, their hesitation about purchasing should disappear. That’s how you’ll make the sale.
Boost your sales by lifting your buyer’s mood
Imagine you’re on trial and the jury has found you guilty. Now it’s up to the court to determine your sentence. At this point, you may be tempted to give the judge a persuasive argument for leniency. But according to research, you may have better luck by offering her a sandwich and a nap.
It seems silly, but it’s true. Studies show that judges give out harsher sentences when they’re tired or hungry. In contrast, a well-rested and well-fed judge grants parole 65 percent of the time.
This just goes to show that human behavior isn’t always completely rational. Even the most impartial authorities can make decisions based on their emotional state. And if it can happen to an experienced judge, it can happen to potential buyers too.
We like to imagine that our choices are always based on reason, logic, and facts. And yet just the opposite is true. Our internal emotional state plays a huge role in our decision-making.
More specifically, neuroscientists have found that positive emotional states make us more outgoing and open to persuasion, while negative emotional states close us down and make us harder to influence. Understanding and using this dynamic is crucial when it comes to making a sale.
This was demonstrated in a study conducted by behavioral scientist Irving Janis. In a series of experiments, he found that salespeople could measurably increase their persuasiveness by offering customers peanuts and soda, which just goes to show how important a positive environment can be for sales.
Of course, a good salesperson won’t always rely on snacks when there are other ways to encourage positive feelings. For instance, you can project an upbeat attitude with your body language and vocal tones. Thanks to a phenomenon called emotional cognition, these non-verbal cues can be contagious. This means that if you approach others with a big smile and bright demeanor, they’ll often mirror your cheerful emotional state.
Even a bit of casual chit-chat can go a long way. For example, if a buyer seems to be in a bad mood, try lightening things up with positive conversation and questions that trigger happier thoughts, whether it’s about his last vacation or hobbies he’s recently come to love. This type of banter can shift the atmosphere enough to smooth out the sales process. That way, everyone leaves happy.
Focus your sales pitch with powerful questions
For medical professionals, questions are tools of the trade and are just as important as thermometers or stethoscopes. That’s why a trip to the doctor is often filled with all kinds of queries about what’s bothering you, how long it’s been a problem, which treatments you’ve tried, and so on.
Even though it can feel like a bit of an interrogation, it’s exactly what you want. Just think of how strange it would be if your physician began prescribing pills before asking you a single question to figure out what was wrong. You’d probably feel like the doc didn’t understand you at all.
The same concept applies to sales. So, before you can start selling your product or service as an answer, you need to ask the right questions.
Why are questions such an important part of the selling process? For one, even asking basic questions can influence a person’s behavior, as was demonstrated in a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It found that merely asking someone if they were going to vote increased their chances of voting by 25 percent.
Whenever you ask a question, you start a mental process called instinctive elaboration. Without even realizing it, the person answering will reorient their thinking toward the subject. For instance, when you ask a manager about her business needs, her brain will immediately start conjuring up all the problems and priorities she’d like to address.
Even though questions are a great way to focus a conversation, you shouldn’t start your sale with detailed ones. According to a phenomenon called social penetration theory, humans think most clearly when information is presented in layers. This means it’s important to ask questions in the right order – starting with general inquiries before narrowing your focus based on the answers you get.
For example, to get basic facts about your customer’s current situation, ask broad questions such as “how was your revenue last quarter?” Then shift to more evaluative queries, like “why do you think income has slowed?” Finally, finish with specific questions about buying motives, such as “do you want a product that will boost efficiency by 6 percent?”
By following this framework, you’ll discover exactly what issues are most important to your customer. You’ll also show her how your product or service can address those concerns.
Make sales based on your buyer’s actual needs
There’s a classic story about two sisters fighting over an orange. Both assume the other wants the whole thing, so they compromise and split the fruit in half. That’s a win-win, right?
Unfortunately, no. As it turns out, one sister was just thirsty for the juice while the other only needed the peel for a cake recipe. If only they had known each other’s true desires, they would have both gotten more of what they wanted.
This just goes to show that listening can make a huge difference. This is especially true when it comes to sales. More often than not, the key to closing a deal is taking the time to understand exactly what the buyer wants.
According to the Harvard Business Review, all top-performing salespeople share a similar quality. They can see the world from their customers’ perspectives. It makes perfect sense. If you truly understand your clients’ needs and desires, you can more easily adjust your pitch to their particular situations.
Unfortunately, most salespeople fail to meet this simple standard. They get so focused on highlighting what they think is important that they don’t consider what will actually appeal to their buyers. Psychologists call this phenomenon inattentional blindness. Salespeople who fall into this trap might spend all their time talking about a product’s great price when their customers only care about how well it works.
If you don’t want this bias to trip you up, identify your customers’ primary buying motivators. These are the key elements people consider when making a purchase and are often about the problems they need to solve. By using the power of pointed questions, you can guide your clients toward explaining the problems they face. You can even suggest common problems to see if they resonate.
Once you understand the problem, identify any other key criteria your buyers consider essential. These are the minimum requirements your products or services must satisfy if you want to make the sale.
They could be obvious features like falling within your customers’ budgets, or they could be less obvious concerns like satisfying a specific decision-maker within the buyers’ organizations. Either way, once you know your clients’ needs and desires, you can tailor your pitch to address those specific points.
Make sales seem worth it by demonstrating the value of your product or service
Imagine two scientists show you a photo of a man. Just by looking at him, could you tell if he was a hero or a villain? Well, it depends on what those scientists tell you.
In a famous experiment, behavioral scientists Myron Rothbart and Pamela Birrell showed people images of an unassuming individual. They told half the participants that he was a decorated war hero and the other half that he was a notorious war criminal. Amazingly, the first group thought the man looked kind and selfless, while the second group claimed he looked evil and heartless.
As this study shows, how we perceive the world depends on how it’s presented to us. For salespeople, this means it’s crucial to present offerings in the right way.
Many scientists who study human behavior agree that a lot of social interaction can be explained by social exchange theory. This states that people like to maximize their value while minimizing costs. In other words, when it comes to human relationships people are happiest when they feel like they’re getting a good deal.
Given this basic fact, it’s important that salespeople present their products or services as valuable investments. To do this, most salespeople merely point out key features.
For instance, they might explain that their tax reporting software has certain functions like robust fact-checking tools. But this isn’t enough. To demonstrate value, they must also explain how those features connect to their buyer’s specific primary motivators.
For example, if you know that your client wants to save money, you could highlight that your tax software’s fact-checking ability will catch errors before they occur. Then you’d explain how this creates value by cutting accounting costs and avoiding expensive audits in the future. By taking a generic feature and turning it into a specific benefit, the software seems like a bargain!
You can further highlight your offering’s value by comparing it with inferior competitors. This is sometimes called inoculation, because it prevents objections before they happen.
For instance, after you explain the amazing upsides of your tax software, briefly point out which of these features and benefits aren’t available from anyone else. Once it’s clear that competitors can’t offer the same value as your excellent cost-cutting tools, your buyer won’t consider anyone else.
Perfect your sales presentation with scientifically-proven strategies
You’ve probably heard that variety is the spice of life. When it comes to sales, however, working with too many spices can ruin your dish. To find out why, let’s take another trip to the grocery store.
In an instructive experiment, social scientists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper arranged a tasting booth of jams at an upscale market. When they presented 24 jams, only 3 percent of customers made purchases. But when the array was reduced to six jams, sales shot up 900 percent.
It turns out that the human brain is better at making decisions when there are fewer options to choose from. The more you can apply this and other mental quirks to your next pitch, the more you’ll succeed at making sales.
The human brain is a funny thing. Scientists have found that it works in unusual ways and can be influenced by unlikely factors. So, if you want to be a better salesperson, you must apply insights from psychology and behavioral science to improve your outcomes.
Take the psychological phenomenon of anchoring. This occurs when you unconsciously compare new information to old information. For instance, a $30 bottle of wine may seem expensive. But if you’re first offered a $500 bottle, that high price becomes the anchor.
Suddenly, a $30 bottle seems like a great deal! You can apply this concept to your next sales pitch by presenting expensive anchors – perhaps from competitors – before you reveal the true price.
Another useful psychological trick is the narrative paradigm. This refers to your brain’s natural tendency to be swayed more easily by stories than by plain facts. According to neurological research, a compelling story can bypass your critical thinking faculties and tap directly into the emotional part of your mind. So, when crafting your next pitch, present your offering within a narrative framework.
Rather than just giving a dry list of details, introduce a character, a conflict, and a resolution. You could, for example, talk about previous clients. First, explain what issues they faced. Then, tell the exciting tale of how your product or service helped them out. This simple trick will introduce your offering and give it a satisfying emotional resonance.
Ultimately, your goal is to tailor your pitch to fit the ways brains actually work. With these scientifically-sound methods, you’ll see real results.
Sales shouldn’t just be a game of trial and error. Decades of research into psychological and social science have revealed effective strategies for making pitches more reliable and effective.
A smart salesperson should focus on creating positive feelings, demonstrating the value of their products or services, and asking powerful questions to truly understand their clients’ needs and desires. By applying these insights to your practice, you can improve your abilities and get better results.