Linda Richardson interviews Zakary Tormala, Psychologist and Stanford Professor of Marketing
Zakary Tormala, psychologist and professor of marketing, teaches courses on persuasion to MBA’ s and Doctorate students at Stanford University. The passion of his research is persuasion, and he has caused me to rethink how I have long viewed the word persuasion. Central to his message of persuasion is the concept of certainty, which he sees as the catalyst that turns attitudes into action—or, in sales lingo, liking into buying.
Zak doesn’t restrict his view of persuasion to the traditional model of one person changing another person’s attitude toward something. His view is broader. He sees it as the efforts we make to shape people’s thoughts, feeling, opinions, and behaviors, through strategic communication—that is, through the messages we send or give to others. He recognizes that for salespeople to communicate with today’s educated buyer the messages they deliver must not only be more carefully designed to get through all the noise in our information-rich environment, but also deal with the potentially increased resistance buyers have in light of their increased access to information.
To achieve these goals, he advocates two major paths. One is self-persuasion by shifting the onus of persuasion from the convincer to the convincee – that is, find ways to help customers persuade themselves. He shared with me three key interconnected communication strategies that can help buyers sell themselves. The other path is to build certainty. Certainty is a profoundly important, yet often overlooked, layer of the persuasion matrix. (Incidentally, Zak also stressed that these approaches are not unique to sales, but could be applied in any persuasion-relevant context—for example, increasing healthy eating or drumming up support for social causes. These are general principles, he says, that can strengthen your persuasion arsenal.)
In essence, self-persuasion is the opposite of the traditional model in which salespeople provide information to others with the goal of persuading them. With self-persuasion, the goal is to help buyers form their own conclusions. Generally speaking, when buyers come up with their own ideas, arguments, or conclusions, they are more apt to accept those ideas, arguments, or conclusions as true. The key is that the salesperson turns the buyer into the source of the message, and buyers -like all people – are naturally inclined to like things (such as ideas or opinions) that they associate with themselves. In our conversation, Zak described several techniques that salespeople can use to help turn their customers into self-persuaders. As it turns out, these techniques largely center around questioning:
Self-Generated Conclusions. Rather than telling a buyer why a product is good, the salesperson should ask the customer why he or she feels it is good. Because buyers tend to be more informed these days, they are more poised than ever to think about these issues and answer these questions. So, for example, rather than telling prospective buyers why your product is right for them, ask them why they believe it might be right for them. Asking for rather than feeding information is persuasive, at least partly because people tend to think of reasons that uniquely reflect their own idiosyncratic preferences, and they feel quite confident about those reasons! Moreover, self- generated reasons tend to be persuasive because most people have a high opinion of themselves and feel good about the reasons that they themselves come up with.
Self-Perception. Self-perception theory suggests that people often infer their own thoughts and opinions by observing their own behavior. So inducing a positive behavior, such as smiling or nodding, can push a person’s thoughts and preferences in a more positive or negative direction. For example, if you smile, you actually feel a little happier – facial expressions communicate that inner feeling to the brain. Similar effects can be achieved by asking people questions that get them to reflect on their own behavior. For instance, asking the question, “Do you recycle?” can improve attitudes toward recycling because people answer “yes” and conclude that they are recyclers. However, asking the question, “Do you always recycle?” can worsen attitudes toward recycling because people answer “no” and conclude that they are not.
Mere Thought. Finally, the mere thought effect refers to the idea that when people merely think about their opinion of something, that opinion tends to become a little more extreme. Someone who starts off liking Coke, for example, might be even more favorable after 60 seconds of thinking about Coke. Zak and his collaborators have found that simply asking people to think about the positive or negative features of a product or policy can push their attitudes and perceptions in a positive or negative direction, respectively. So asking a buyer what she likes, or what the benefits about x are, lets her make the case for herself. So if a salesperson can get buyers to think about their attitude toward something for a minute or so, it tends to become a little more extreme, which can promote behaviors such as purchasing sooner, spending more, and the like. After all, Zak explained, we are all biased thinkers, so when we think about our attitudes we think attitude-consistent thoughts. Those thoughts, in turn, tilt or slant our attitudes even further.
Zak points out that questions are central to many of these persuasion strategies. Not only can a salesperson be more persuasive using questions, but he or she also will learn more and build better relationships.
Traditionally, persuasion researchers look to attitude change as something to be measured on a scale ranging from, for example, one to seven. Zak has found that there are a number of persuasion variables, or techniques, that sometimes fail to elicit change on these kinds of measures. When they do, Zak argues, it is imperative to shift your attention from attitude change and instead focus on possible change in the certainty people feel and express. In fact, Zak has devoted much of his career to understanding the factors that make people feel certain or uncertain of their own attitudes and opinions. This form of certainty, or conviction, turns out to be a crucial driver of behaviors ranging from buying to voting to advocating for a cause.
Because it is a customer’s level of certainty that ultimately promotes action—that is, people take action not when they like or dislike something, but when they are certain that they like or dislike it—the importance of certainty cannot be overstated in sales. In other words, a customer liking a product is nice, but not enough (particularly in today’s information-rich environment) to motivate action. The goal he sees for salespeople is to build customers’ certainty to a high enough level that will make a purchase. He has found that most businesses overlook that the strategy they employ to get people to like a product is different from the strategy needed to get them to buy a product. Some of the factors that increase Certainty are:
Consensus. Establishing perceived consensus around buyers’ opinions helps give buyers certainty—that is, confidence that they are right. When a buyer’s opinion is where the salesperson wants it to be, the salespeople can reinforce the notion that others share that opinion. This essentially amounts to informing buyers that, for example, “In our surveys we’ve found that 85% of our customers share your opinion.” This perception of consensus builds certainty and promotes action.
Repetition. Getting buyers to repeat their own opinions increases certainty. Again when buyers hold a desired opinion, encourage them to express that opinion multiple times. Research shows that the more frequently people express their own opinions, the more certain they become. For example, in the world of surveys, when customers give a positive answer (perhaps a favorable rating of your product or service), ask more questions that cause customers to repeat their positive response. More repetition equals more certainty, and more certainty equals more purchasing, spending, and recommending.
Defense. Defending an attitude increases certainty. Zak’s research shows that if a salesperson can get someone to defend his or her attitude by softly pushing back or being a devil’s advocate in a reasonable way, that person will feel more certain. A successful defense of one’s opinion sends the internal signal that one’s opinion is right, and is worth acting on.
Zak’s Advice: In short, build certainty. People’s opinions often are where you want them to be but that is not enough to make a sale. Your customers might like your product or service but liking does not make the purchase. One of the biggest missed opportunities is not understanding the factors that can turn liking something into buying it. Certainty will help turn your customers’ attitudes into action whether it is advocating for you or spending with you. Of course, if a customer does not hold a desired position, you would not employ these techniques. If you do, you’ll be shoring up customers’ certainty about the wrong opinion!
Zak also stresses that most these ideas are based on psychology research and the sales application has not been tested. It is up to us in sales to apply some of these strategies to help customers, who are inundated with options and offers, to feel certain and make the best possible decisions.