Improving Your Sales Skills: Six Principles to Keep in Mind

This article is about sales, but its focus is on principles, not tactics. There is a difference, and it’s important. Tactics are scripted ruses that are intended to increase sales but usually don’t.  In contrast, principles are timeless and unchanging truisms regarding how people perceive, respond, and relate to one another. Successful sales professionals value principles— amateurs depend upon tactics.

Influence:  Science and Practice

One of my favorite business related books is Influence: Science and Practice, by psychologist Dr. Robert B. Cialdini. Cialdini spent several decades studying sales, persuasion, bargaining, and negotiation by virtually every method known to social scientists. His work has been lauded by people in the business world such as Tom Peters and Warren Buffett.   

Cialdini’s research unearthed a distinct pattern in the domain of persuasion. He noticed that when people are influenced in significant ways— to buy big ticket items, to take risks, or to change their opinions on issues— one or more variations on six basic principles of persuasion is almost invariably involved. These principles are identifiable and can be quite powerful in terms of their effects on our decision making and behavior.

Principles are very different from tactics

I’ll describe the six principles momentarily, but first a note on how principles differ from tactics and why the difference is important. 

Tactics are concocted by people strictly for the purpose of getting others to do or to believe what they want them to. Tactics may be well or poorly conceived, and they may or may not produce the results desired by those that employ them.

In sharp contrast, the principles I’ll be describing are not tools to be deployed as weapons of influence. They are truisms that represent some intrinsic aspects of human nature. 

As such, if properly understood they can enhance our knowledge of the social world in which we live and help us to make better choices about how to conduct ourselves. A knowledge of principles may suggest tactics, but that is another matter.  

Six principles of persuasion

Let me reiterate that Cialdini, the author of Influence: Science and Practice, derived these principles from several decades of diligent research regarding sales, advertising, bargaining, and even con games. He interviewed salespeople, police interrogators, trial lawyers, political campaign managers, and a host of other professionals whose success depends upon effective persuasion.

In addition, he reviewed countless scientific studies of persuasion, as well as conducting scores of his own. In his findings he identified six themes, each of which represents a principle that drives human choices and actions related to buying and selling. I’ve summarized them below as rules.

Rule #1. Liking:  Affability breeds affluence

Virtually all highly successful sales people understand the value of being a likeable person. They have the “gift of gab,” they are pleasant to interact with, and they know how to make other people feel at ease. They also know when to shut their mouths and listen. They let others speak and avoid dominating conversations. In effect, they know how to be pleasant to deal with.

Take the famous case of Detroit car salesman Joe Girard, whose success earned him recognition in The Guinness Book of World Records. Considered a modern marvel, Joe’s sales averaged over five vehicles every working day. His annual income was typically between one and two hundred thousand dollars, not exactly what most people would call “chump change.” 

When interviewed, Joe attributed his success to two things— (1) his love for people, and (2) their liking for him. This was not boasting. Joe’s customers agreed that they felt that his expressed concerns for them were quite real, and that they genuinely liked and respected him.

Unlike Joe, a lot of salespeople “just don’t get it.” Many are insensitive, pushy, arrogant, or simply “give us the creeps.” I’m always amazed at the lack of “social intelligence” on the part of those who exude self-centeredness, and I wonder what it must be costing them in terms of lost sales.

Rule #2. Reciprocity:  What goes around, comes around

The Bible commands that we be generous because it’s a manifestation of righteousness. But there are also tangible benefits to being generous toward others. Anthropologists tell us that every society that has ever been studied has a rule for reciprocation— for returning acts of kindness with kindness.

Research on reciprocity also shows that it does wield considerable power in our interchanges, and if applied sensibly, it can often help to enhance sales in certain situations. Good sales professionals know how to convey favors to others in ways that seem quite natural and are not blatantly manipulative.

The reciprocity rule is often abused by poorly prepared salespeople, whose awkward attempts to procure business by trying to appear helpful do little more than insult people’s intelligence. This outcome can be avoided by applying a healthy dose of social sensitivity coupled with a measure of common sense. 

Rule #3. Social proof: When in Rome, what do most folks do?

The behavior of others is an incredibly powerful source of influence over individual choices and actions. Evidence that a product, service, or establishment has a broad and highly satisfied customer base is an invaluable vehicle for enhancing sales. 

For individual sales people, the principle of social proof suggests a number of means of enhancing the likelihood of prospective clients buying from them. Testimonials, or written comments from satisfied customers, are very effective. Even more powerful are “introductions” (formerly called “referrals”), or direct personal recommendations to prospective customers. Don’t be squeamish in asking for these— if your current customers are really satisfied, they won’t mind doing you a favor.

Rule #4. Authority: Create and command respect

We Americans are champions of equality, but we also respond quite favorably to anything that suggests superior knowledge or status. Such things can be as formal as titles, insignias, and certifications, or as informal as a projected air of cool confidence and a professional manner. 

Often this principle works all too well, as it is frequently exploited by con artists. The files of law enforcement agencies contain countless cases of individuals who were able to extract huge sums of money from trusting victims by posing as “experts” who specialize in spreading wealth or as representatives of causes and organizations that are either not legitimate or nonexistent.

Those who are genuine representatives of legitimate sales organizations however, should take every opportunity to speak confidently and brandish as many appropriate symbols of their authority as they possibly can. Take your cue from the con artists— just don’t become one of them. 

Rule #5. Consistency as a motivating factor

People tend to be incredibly true to prior commitments and declarations, assuming that their enthusiasm for them is genuine. We’re driven in part by needs to be consistent, and this very often determines our decisions of what to buy and from whom.

Effective sales professionals succeed not by inducing people to change their preferences, but by offering them opportunities to be consistent with what they already value. Their success in sales comes from an ability to enable their prospects to look or feel more like the person that they aspire to be. Concerns with identity and image are very powerful motivators of behavior.

Rule #6. Scarcity: Supply relative to demand

Profiteers make incredible amounts of money on goods that are perceived to be unique, in short supply, or available for only limited amounts of time. Virtually every sales training program under the sun includes a component that emphasizes the importance of creating a “sense of urgency” in the minds of prospective buyers. Good salespeople don’t want their prospects missing opportunities.

Research on buying behavior shows that the perception of scarcity in regard to a desired item is a powerful influence indeed, often leading to hasty decisions and a willingness to pay higher prices. Auctions, for example, never cease to amaze me in their ability to inflate the prices of available items simply by invoking competition among prospective buyers.

Persuasion as an integral part of human life

In case you can’t tell yet, I highly recommend Influence: Science and Practice as a worthwhile read. A look at persuasion and sales in terms of underlying and unchanging principles instead of as an array of disconnected tactics is the rather unique contribution of one but researcher. 

But in presenting his own novel take on persuasion, Cialdini offers a perspective that is useful to both “persuasion practitioners” and those “not in the business.” Why? Because the more all of us think logically about what drives our decisions and those of others, the fewer errors we’ll have to look back on and regret. The more times we can avoid having to say or think “I blew it”, the happier we’ll be.

For those who make their livelihood by selling, this article is just a little food for thought. For those who don’t, it may serve as a “heads up.” It’s worth being aware that quirky, less-than-rational forces determine many of the important choices that people make. To those not in sales I offer the Latin idiom “caveat emptor”— “let the buyer beware.” To all, happy buying and selling.