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Persuasion - The 3rd Way

Steve J Martin, managing director of Influence At Work UK, explores the opportunity for businesses to profit from the science of persuasion to cope with these uncertain times.



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In times of economic uncertainty it might just make the difference for your business.

The messages of impending doom which appear to be broadcast with increasing frequency by business leaders, analysts and media commentators share some striking similarities to another forecasting favourite – the trusty weatherman. Even the language is often the same with talk of storm clouds brewing, a bleak outlook and unpredictable, changeable conditions ahead.

Of course all predictions, whether meteorological or economical in nature, can turn out to be wrong. But this happens less often than one would expect primarily for one important reason.

Forecasters are very often correct.

Sure there are exceptions. Michael Fish’s prediction of only light winds in October 1987 and few seeing the 2007-8 financial meltdown are two of the more cited examples of recent times. In general it is easier for people to remember predictions where forecasters “got it wrong”, rather than the times when they get it right. It’s unlikely the topic of discussion at the water cooler starts with someone remarking how much they admire the breakfast news weather forecaster “for getting it right again.” Much more likely to make comment if they are wrong, simultaneously signalling their annoyance that “had they known better they would have brought their umbrella to work with them”.

But back to matters of business. There appears to be a consensus that business is in for a turbulent ride; at least in the short term. So what practical steps can businesses take to survive and prosper in an environment that is not only predicted to stagnate but that is already competitively overloaded and full of customers who are uncertain and time scarce, not to mention cynical too?

Of course it makes sense for any business to look carefully at its policies and procedures. At the very least to look for ways to reduce inefficiencies, save on expenditure and, if necessary, restructure operations. But it is unlikely they alone will be enough. Policies and procedures are but two legs of a stool - and two-legged stools tend to be unstable.

Fortunately there is a third leg; one that perhaps historically has been most often overlooked or misunderstood. It is called persuasion.

Like the scientists who study and measure meteorological and economic climates, persuasion scientists study and measure the factors that influence peoples’ decision-making. One of the discipline’s best known, Dr. Robert Cialdini, is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and a long standing colleague and co-author of mine.

Cialdini’s central claim is as profound as it is simple. When uncertain, overwhelmed and 'time scarce', people increasingly rely on just a handful of mental shortcuts to guide their decision-making and behaviour. Understanding these shortcuts can provide some extraordinary opportunities for organisations and businesses to become more effective at persuading customers and clients to choose their business over the competition in ways that are at both ethically sound and sustainable.

Two of these decision shortcuts, Social Proof (we follow the lead of comparable others) and Authority (we look to experts to guide our decision making) are likely to carry particular sway in times of uncertainty such as those we are currently facing.

Here are just two examples that show what remarkable returns a greater understanding of the persuasion process can yield when used ethically and in an informed way.

Effectively using people power

No one particularly likes paying their taxes, but most citizens do recognise the contribution taxes make to the smooth and fair running of society and the need to pay them in a timely manner. One might argue that timely payment is never more important than in periods of austerity. Unfortunately there will always be those who fail to comply with this requirement and so there should be no surprise that policymakers will deal with such a problem by instigating fines and other penalties to late payers. This makes sense and one would find it hard to argue against such a policy. But is there a way to improve on such a policy by bringing the often under recognised force of Social Proof into play?

For the last two years we have been working with HMRC to trial a range of letters that point out to recipients that the vast majority of UK citizens do pay their taxes on time. The studies have found that this Social Proof message increases response rates by some 15% resulting in more than £350million in additional cash-to-bank revenue to date.

If an understanding of the persuasion process can generate such impressive returns for actions that are not especially motivating to people (paying taxes) imagine what it could do for your business, in this case by understanding when and how to employ the persuasive pull of a Social Proof campaign.

Follow an expert

If I asked you to think about examples of people that you consider to be credible, trustworthy experts it is fair to assume that estate agents would unlikely appear at the top of your list. However one agency was remarkably successful at gaining such an accolade by understanding the authority shortcut - the idea that, when uncertain, people may decide on the best course of action by following a credible authority’s suggestion. However did this agency achieve this? They simply and honestly tell their customers that they are experts; or rather the receptionists that answer the phones do.

When customers call with an enquiry the receptionist not only informs the customer who she is routing the call to, but also mentions her colleagues’ credentials and expertise at the same time. Those interested in letting a property are told “I’ll connect you with Sandra who has over 15 years experience letting properties in this area”. Customers who want more information about selling their property are put through to Peter. “He is our head of sales and has 20 years of experience selling properties.”

Like the tax letters, such a small change seems unlikely to generate much difference, but when staff are introduced in this way the number of valuations they agree with potential customers rises by around a fifth compared to when they are not introduced first. New business contracts rise too, typically by 15%. Not bad for intervention that required little in the way of policy or procedural change but instead an insight into effective persuasion.

The tax letter studies and the estate agency story share several other common features too. Both were entirely ethical and honest to employ. Most people do pay their taxes on time. The agency staff are experienced and knowledgeable experts. No wool was pulled over anybody’s eyes. The interventions were cost effective too, realising impressive returns on investment.

Importantly both originated not from a policy or procedural change but instead from a change informed from persuasion science. And I don’t use the word science lightly.

In the same way science can help forecasters to correctly predict weather patterns, persuasion science can help businesses and organisations correctly predict the strategies that will be most successful at influencing business outcomes – with their customers, clients, business partners and work colleagues.  

Unlike meteorological science however, persuasion science is somewhat easier for an organisation to understand and practically apply; primarily because it is founded on a handful of principles that are trainable, measurable and can be applied as a system.  

Will persuasion alone be the answer? Of course not. But combined with the right policy and procedural changes it could mean the difference between getting change to happen and winning that all important business or not.

In these uncertain times businesses that embrace the persuasion process could find themselves in the enviable position of prospering when others around them flounder.

Further Information:

Steve Martin is co-author of the New York Times Bestseller Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion http://amzn.to/rL9puG.

He is managing director of Influence At Work UK which provides a range of training and consultancy services individually designed to help organisations become more persuasive, with proven and measurable returns. www.influenceatwork.co.uk




 
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