The Science of Selling


We know that psychology is used in selling. We like to think we are immune to sales manipulation but the scientific evidence strongly suggests we aren’t. Hidden selling tactics are effective and here’s how you can use them

1.Emphasise social similarities

Research has shown that we are more likely to buy from people whom we trust and like – and we trust and like people who are more like us, even when the characteristics we share are incidental. In a study conducted by Professor Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University, customers sharing the same name or birthday with the seller spend up to 50% more.

2. Create illusion of demand

Colleen Szot, one of the most successful in informercials famously changed an advertising call to action from “Operators are waiting, please call now!” to: “If operators are busy, please call again.” The subtle change capitalised on something called “social proof” – a principle that says we look to others to inform our own decisions – and led to an increase in sales.

People are more likley to act if they perceive they have a unique opportunity to do so. In another set of experiments, Burger and his colleague David Caldwell told participants Group A that they had a unique opportunity to buy travel mugs as they were in short supply. Group B were simply told that there travel mugs were reduced in price. Sure enough Group A were more likely to buy the travel mugs because they perceived a unique opportunity and didn’t want to miss out.

3. Spread benefits, bundle costs

This is an advertising rule whereby “But wait, theres more” is used to spread the gains that the customer receives from the product. If customers are told all of the benefits at once, the sell becomes less effective.

This is not the case when it comes to paying. Research suggests customers prefer to experience all losses at once. The best time to persuade a customer to spend more is when they have already committed to a large amount. A good example of this, is the car salesman, selling you something extra for your car, at the point of purchase – they know the best time to persuade you to spend $200 is when you’re already committed to spending significantly more.

4. Induce a feeling of obligation

Studies have demonstrated that when people receive a favour from someone, they feel obligated to reciprocate in some way.

In a 2006 study, Burger and his colleagues found people are more likely to grant a second request even after they had already reciprocated a favour, at least for a short period. “A lot of times, salespeople go through extra effort for you and go through all sorts of gestures, because they know it will be really hard for you to later say no. People feel bad taking something for free or somebody’s time and effort without paying them back in some way,” says Burger.

5. Think emotional triggers

According to recent research, we are particularly likely to be influenced when we are overwhelmed or uncertain about the right course of action.

Some research suggests emotions also affect our commercial activity – both as a buyer and seller. A 2004 study, for example, demonstrated that participants were willing to spend 30% more for an item if they had first watched a sad movie clip. (Sellers who had watched the sad clip, meanwhile, were willing to sell the item for 33% less.) Another 2004 study suggests that people who are judged to be particularly emotional have a decreased ability to perceive differences in numbers and assign corresponding values in a rational manner.

Author: Leila Mezoughi

Leila is PCA’s Head Editor and Researcher. She holds a 1st class Law with Business degree and became a published author at 25. Former crime investigator turned business journalist. On a mission to show businesses that presenteeism is a thing of the past. Everything seems impossible until it’s done. Typically found working from a white beach in South-East Asia embracing rapidly changing technology.

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Science of Selling