What You Didn’t Learn in Sales Training: Behavioral Psychology

by Ben Zelinskas


Spoiler alert: Those of you who are top performers in sales, marketing, and public speaking, this comes naturally. Kudos.

Customers don’t make decisions in a vacuum, or rationally. If they did, there would be no reason to have a sales or marketing department. They would just compare all options and choose optimally based on a structured, economic value equation—benefit(s) over price. But humans don’t operate this way. We choose irrationally—typically when something feels right.

What this means is that you need more than just a presentation of the facts, features, benefits, and a smile to sell something. It’s not to say that performance data is unimportant, but it’s not the sole reason consumers are buying the widget that really is four times faster than anything else in the marketplace.

So, I’d like to present a few insights from the realm of behavioral psychology that you didn’t learn in sales training. My goal is to quickly and easily explain these drivers of human behavior while providing tactics that can help you when selling an idea, product, or service.


Communicate Consensus: Without Consensus, Would We Exist? 

Hard-wired over millennia, a group-think strategy has reduced risk and maximized the certainty of human decision-making. As a species, it’s kept us alive—if everyone ate the white mushrooms instead of the orange mushrooms, that choice (white mushrooms) was likely the right one for survival. 

Today, consensus is instinctual, biasing decisions and actions well below our level of conscious awareness. It’s the reason why you favor the food truck with a long line instead of an opposing truck with no line. Why products on Amazon with a high number of user ratings/reviews sell more frequently than similar items with fewer results. And why many authors buy enough copies of their own book to acquire the sticker, “New York Times Best Seller.” 

If you haven’t picked up on it, popularity is the cue for consensus and gains importance in times of uncertainty or increased complexity. 

Many sales are abandoned because of these factors. Consider the car salesman who relies solely on performance measures and attributes: fuel mileage, horse power, interior design, cargo space, w-ifi, etc. Taken across all available car models and makes, the decision for a potential buyer becomes highly complex. Mix in a sketchy pricing scheme, and you’ve created an environment of overwhelming uncertainty for the average buyer. 

Add consensus cues along the path to purchase, “Our most popular model,” “Most women choose the silver R3,” or, “Ninety percent of our buyers add the 100k bumper-to-bumper warranty,” and you begin to implicitly build confidence for the decision a potential buyer is making.

This is applicable in any environment or interface where you’re selling. If you’re offering CRM software with four available service levels, add, “best seller” or “most popular” to one of the middle options and watch conversion rates increase. 

The job of consensus is to eliminate the risk and uncertainty of choosing poorly. So, highlighting or synthesizing a perception of popularity allows your potential buyer to rationalize the decision based on the actions of many other people making the same decision. It just feels safer.


Activate Affinity: Find Markers of Similarity

People like to feel good about the items or ideas they’re buying, but also about the person or entity they’re buying from. So activating affinity—a natural liking or feeling of similarity—is a strategic advantage for anyone selling an idea, product, or service.

Being friendly, attractive, and/or funny are important prerequisites. However, perceptions can be strengthened by revealing markers of similarity. In fact, genetics research and evolutionary psychology theory supports the fact that we’re more attracted to those that are similar to us (Bons and Rushton 2005).

Like consensus, the human brain is hardwired to react favorably to markers of similarity without being consciously aware of them. For the salesperson, this yields an unobtrusive way to enhance perception and deliver a message that’s more influential. For the hostage negotiator or teacher, it translates to saved lives and higher test scores (Taylor and Thomas 2008).

Markers of similarity extend far beyond just physical looks: shared nationalities, interest in sports teams, hobbies, and popular brands are a few examples. Implicitly, mimicking facial expressions, language style (types of words and verbal expressions), body language, posture, and tone can all have a profound impact on the message recipient.

As a salesperson, this underscores the importance of pre-call planning and understanding your target audience. The more you know, the more you can adapt to their preferences. It gives you more persuasive fire power.

Signaling similarity improves your perception in the mind of customers. Whether it’s obvious or implicit, you become more likeable and trusting. One could argue that, like consensus, you’re reducing uncertainty for the decision maker. Whatever the measure, it’s positive. More signatures land on the dotted line when customers feel as though you like them and they like you.


In my opinion:

Consensus and Affinity are the ‘big two’ behavioral psychology heuristics to be aware of when selling. Without them, uncertainty and ambiguity creep in and diminish consumer confidence.

Outside of Consensus and Affinity, there are more heuristics that are influential like message framing, pricing structure, loss aversion, and reciprocity. But these are highly contextual. Their relevance depends on where you are in the sales cycle, and what medium you’re selling through.


Today, Tomorrow and the Future:

For a salesperson, being cognizant of these invisible influencers is a must in today’s VUCA world. This realm of behavioral psychology will continue to grow at an accelerated pace. We’ll begin to see more adoption and activation through this lens of human behavior within our everyday lives.

Universities are rapidly adopting new programs of behavioral studies. Governments are creating policy through this lens. Law enforcement, school districts, B2C organizations, and Silicon Valley are all exploring and innovating around how best to leverage these insights.

I encourage anyone with a piqued interest to investigate the depths of behavioral psychology. It’s fascinating and will change not only the way you see the world, but the way you sell ideas, products, and services.

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