Let’s talk psychology. No, not the meaning of that awful recurring nightmare; the one where you’re running naked past the presses in a panic that you’ve forgotten to action your company’s biggest ever order – with the fiery unicorn of justice in hot pursuit, baying for your blood.
Not that…anything but that! This is about gaining psychological insights and turning them to your commercial advantage.
Long before taking up residence in the White House, everybody’s favourite orange president, Donald Trump, published The Art of the Deal, a bestselling book on the methods he used to amass a fortune. But while there’s undeniably an art to successful negotiation, understanding the complex and wonderful thing that is the human mind, and how to go about influencing it, is more of a science.
Yet the psychological aspects of selling are often neglected and little understood. Is it helpful to have a grounding in psychology? Should it figure in sales training? And is there any evidence that the application of psychological techniques improves results?
“Psychology most definitely plays a part in sales training as it is the study of mind and behaviour, and we need to understand people fully in order that we can build solid relationships,” says Andrea Norcott, sales director at specialist greetings card and creative printer Windles Group. “Strong salespeople strategically unleash psychological triggers, which enable them to influence clients and close successfully.”
Norcott studied psychology as part of her degree. She says what she learned about this science has never left her because she is intrigued by people and the complexities of behaviour. She applies theories learned years ago in her sales director role and in the management of people.
A significant influence is Abraham Maslow, known for his pioneering Hierarchy of Needs theory, who revolutionised humanistic psychology. She is also interested in Carl Jung’s work on personality traits, specifically his study of introverted and extroverted people and how their personalities were formed.
“During my 20 years of sales, I have found that one must enter into negotiation aiming for a mutually beneficial outcome,” says Norcott. “This is only ever reached if the sales professional has prepared well for the meeting and set their objectives clearly. The use of open questions gives us the ability to extract important information and this information is paramount when closing the deal. Ultimately, the science behind selling effectively is listening and understanding specifically what it is that the customer needs.”
Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that face-to-face meetings are 34 times more likely to deliver a desired response to a request than email. Non-verbal cues and the ability to build a rapport with the prospect made all the difference. And of course, for someone well-versed in pushing the right psychological buttons, the chances of a favourable outcome should be significantly higher still.
“Empathy is the word that comes up time and time again,” says Webmart founder and chief executive Simon Biltcliffe. “It’s understanding what your customer needs, and the reason face-to-face works so well is you can get so much more out of that meeting.”
Webmart uses ‘colour personality assessment’ – wherein certain personality types are defined by different colours – as part of its sales training; both to give salespeople a clearer understanding of their own character traits and to help them better size up prospects and clients, and then decide how to proceed. Biltcliffe adds that the sales force also keeps abreast of the latest relevant academic research.
“Rightly or wrongly, people make almost instantaneous judgements about you, your character and most importantly whether they can trust you within seconds of meeting you,” says Richard Courtney, managing director of super-wide printing specialist Gardners. “Once this has happened it’s hard to change their perception of you. That’s why making the right impression at the start, not engaging in psychological ploys as such, is crucial to paving the way for a favourable deal.
“Looking for common ground and learning the subtleties and nuances of meaningful communication are the cornerstones of successfully relating to the person you are trying to build a rapport and negotiate with. This is certainly linked to the psychology of sales. In particular, being able to personalise the experience. However, having self-awareness, being able to read a person – and situation – and communicating coherently with them to demonstrate understanding, empathy and commercial awareness as well as getting your point across clearly is what helps strike a favourable deal.”
Professor Peter Ayton of the Department of Psychology, City, University of London, is an expert in behavioural decision theory and a member of The European Association for Decision Making. He thinks there is definitely greater scope for inclusion of psychology in sales training as it can boost persuasiveness.
“The underlying message is the malleability of people’s preferences,” says Ayton. “People might think they know what they like and don’t like, but actually that is all up for grabs. You can be made to like certain things and dislike other things simply by the way they are offered to you.”
By way of example, he cites a simple experiment involving, of all things, ice cream. Participants were shown two servings of ice cream in tubs and asked to judge which they would be pleased to receive: one had 8oz of ice cream served in a 10oz cup, so it looked a short measure; the other, 7oz of ice cream bulging out of a 5oz cup. As you’ll doubtless have worked out, the majority expressed a preference for the smaller serving – which they would not have done if both portions had been presented in the same sized cup. Clearly, psychological ploys can be potent.
Ian Speakman, senior lecturer in Key Account Management at Cranfield School of Management believes psychological skills count because sales people need to understand the decision-making behaviours of the people they are selling to.
“The way I would put it in layman’s terms is, to get inside the customer’s head,” he says. “The days of presenting canned presentations and going along with feature, advantage, benefit and just trying to sell product are well and truly gone. Now it is more about exploring the person you are selling to and matching your product or service proposition to meet their needs. And you can’t do that without a deeper understanding of where they are, where they are coming from and what they think. That means sales people have to be more adaptable.”
Speakman points to the work of US professor Barton Weitz, a pioneer in the field of studying and quantifying adaptive selling – altering sales behaviour during a customer interaction or across a series of interactions based on perceived information on the selling situation. Studies show, says Speakman, that adaptable sales people are 20% more effective than those who can’t adapt. “It’s very difficult to teach someone how to adapt, but the adapting comes from a deeper understanding of psychology,” he adds.
So, should psychology definitely figure in sales training? That, Speakman responds, depends on how much sales training someone is given. If it’s just a three-day sales course, his view is probably not. “But if it’s a three-day sales course, followed by another three-day sales course, I would say ideally a day and a half and at least a session should focus on psychology of sales, with some exercise that allows attendees to explore this.”
That will be music to the ears of Mark Williams, founder and director of training business Sales-Mind, which doesn’t offer any traditional sales training. “What we do is all around psychology – about enhancing focus, resilience, motivation, confidence and empathy,” he says. “The irony of that is, if you run a traditional training needs analysis none of that will come up because people don’t know what they don’t know. They would say I need product knowledge or even negotiation skills, but actually you should be thinking about what you need for your work to succeed.”
Williams is keen to stress that the main thrust of his work is psychology that one can apply to oneself, not the customer. In his opinion, there is a “prospecting challenge” in that sales people per se do not spend enough time effectively prospecting for new business “because it’s bloody difficult and fraught with rejection, so they can always find something else to do that’s ‘urgent’, like answering emails.” Psychology can be used to bolster an imbued sense of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, to root out avoidance activities in favour of refocusing on key selling activities. Another area of Sales-Mind’s work is helping sales people overcome self-doubt and “inner demons”.
“When we put the company together and looked at the content we could use there was a challenge that we could come across as being a bit Californian or Paul McKenna or crystals, and we’re absolutely not,” says Williams. “Everything we use is science based – peer-reviewed journals, gone through the scientific rigour. We don’t use neuro-linguistic programming because it’s not science based.”
Finally, there are other ways psychological knowledge is being applied within the print sector to enhance sales. Richard Orme, Group chief technology officer of Photobox, explains that in-house psychologists work with the group’s tech team, providing advice on solutions that help address customer anxiety. This arises because creating something like a photobook is an emotional decision and often customers worry they are not telling the story in the “best way possible”.
Now there’s some food for thought.