If you’ve ever won over a tough prospect or lost one you thought was a sure thing, you’ve experienced the power of sales psychology. The question is, were you guiding those outcomes or watching them unfold?
We’re all compelled by the same psychological principles when it comes to why, when and from whom we buy. However, as psychological selling focuses on the buyer, not on the seller or their product, it stands to reason that you’ll close more deals if you recognize what’s driving your sales leads.
Buying behaviors are fairly consistent and by tapping into what influences the brain’s buying decisions, you can turn more leads into prospects and generate more sales.
In this selling guide, we’ll look at how to use psychological selling to better understand your leads so you can guide them toward the outcome that will best meet their needs.
What is psychological selling?
Psychological selling draws on what we know about social behaviors and how the brain works to influence a buying decision. By making your sales process all about the customer, you can help your prospects gain something they need but don’t have, or rid themselves of something they have but don’t want.
According to Brian Tracy, author of the classic sales book “The Psychology of Selling”, sales resistance is normal. The challenge is to break through that natural barrier by understanding what’s behind it.
There’s a psychological principle known as reactance that kicks in whenever we feel our ability to choose freely is being restricted by somebody else. In other words, if you try to push someone into a purchase, their natural reaction will be to:
- Push back with an even firmer no
- Pull back from discussions and stop responding
- Go off in another direction entirely—potentially in the direction of your competitor
At the same time, says Tracy, every action we take is motivated by improvement.
We buy something because we believe it will improve our lives in some way. At the heart of that belief lies a desire for gain (increased productivity, praise from the boss) or a fear of loss (missing out on potential revenues, losing out to the competition).
In his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, professor of psychology and marketing Robert Cialdini describes six principles that guide human behavior in terms of pursuing gain or avoiding loss.
- Reciprocity: Feeling obliged to give back to someone who’s given something to us.
- Scarcity: Our desire to have more of something that is less abundant or available.
- Authority: A tendency to follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts.
- Consistency: The drive to be consistent in what we say or do.
- Liking: Our preference for saying “yes” to people we like.
- Consensus: A tendency to model our actions and behaviors on others when we’re feeling uncertain.
You can use Cialdini’s behavioral shortcuts—along with the other psychological selling techniques we’ll be discussing here— to guide, rather than push your prospects in the direction of “yes”.
How ethical selling guides the psychological sales process
Psychological selling takes many forms. It’s not how these practices influence your customers’ decisions that makes them good or bad, however, it’s how you use them.
Cognitive biases (built-in errors in our reasoning), for example, help our brains shortcut the decision-making process.
While they can be exploited by unscrupulous salespeople to trick customers into making poor buying decisions, these powerful selling techniques can also be used with integrity—especially when it comes to convincing a naturally hesitant prospect that your product is the right fit for their needs.
There’s an enormous difference between ethically persuading someone to invest in your solution, and manipulating or misleading them into making a buying mistake.
With that in mind, the purpose of this selling guide is to help you:
- Understand your leads and prospects better
- Build a connection between your customers and your brand
- Strengthen that connection through positive influence
Every responsible salesperson wants to understand and resolve their customers’ problems.
One of the most effective ways to do that is with psychological selling guidance that focuses on making first impressions count, building profitable relationships and motivating leads as a knowledge authority.
5 psychological selling techniques you can try
What most sales leads really want is to be engaged in a conversation about what’s important to them. As you work through these five psychological selling techniques, remember that salespeople who ask insightful questions and listen actively to the answers create a more empathetic and mutually profitable buying environment.
1. Leveraging cognitive biases
When you truly believe your product or service will solve your customers’ problems, using cognitive biases like the ones described here will help them believe in your solution as well.
- Confirmation Bias: We’re all more likely to value information that supports what we believe and ignore the data that doesn’t. This is a prime example of how doing your homework on a new prospect and then tailoring your presentation can bump up your sales.
- Reciprocity: This foot-in-the-door technique is based on the concept that, when someone gives something to us, we usually feel compelled to give something back. Bringing product samples or refreshments to sales meetings, for example, can put potential clients in a more open frame of mind.
- Anchoring Bias: It’s common to look for a reference point or anchor to help gauge the value of a potential purchase—and we often take our cue from the first product we look at.
- Social Proof: As social beings, we tend to lean toward things that other people already like. So make sure you have plenty of relevant customer reviews and testimonials at hand when you call, email or meet with new leads.
- Functional Fixedness: Because we tend to link specific objects with a single function, psychological selling is an opportunity to help prospects think outside the box. Showing how your product can help them in ways they may not have thought of will demonstrate your knowledge and enhance your credibility.
- FOMO (fear of missing out): Fear of regret is often what drives us to buy when we discover that supplies are running out or a significant number of other people have already gotten in on the deal. A hesitant prospect will be far less likely to turn down a great opportunity if you can show them what they’ll be missing out on should they say “no”. One way to do this is by providing examples of similar businesses that have taken advantage of your product and the positive forward strides they’ve made as a result.
There are many ways to use cognitive biases as an ethical means of influence when you need to overcome a client’s natural buying objections.
Just remember that, as any selling guide will confirm, convincing a buyer to follow through on a purchase that doesn’t meet their needs will likely result in a negative experience that could impact your sales success going forward.
2. Making first impressions count
Effective sales communication is essential no matter your sales goal—and that includes both verbal and non-verbal interactions. To gain an easy psychological “in” with new prospects, make first impressions count every time by refining the following:
- What you say and how you say it
- The attitude you present
- The way you hold yourself physically
What you say and how you say it. Conversational receptiveness is the practice of using language to signal your interest in someone else’s perspective. Behavioral research suggests that not only will coming across as receptive in your sales conversations make you more persuasive, but your prospect will also like you more and be more interested in partnering with you.
The key to conversational receptiveness lies in using words of acknowledgment and positive, rather than negative terms.
You’ll build stronger connections sooner, and avoid common sales conversation mistakes, if you plan your first phone, video or in-person encounter around listening to and acknowledging what your prospect is saying.
The attitude you present. Sales psychology tells us that both needing to be liked and coming across as overly confident can be big turnoffs for buyers. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t always strive to be likable.
Avoid starting your sales calls or meetings by criticizing the competition. Not only do people tend to attribute the negative traits we describe in others to us (a phenomenon known as spontaneous trait transference), research shows that a positive attitude helps sales professionals perform better.
In his impactful study carried out at Metropolitan Life Insurance in 1985, positive psychologist Martin Seligman demonstrated that optimism played a bigger role in sales success than selling proficiency.
New sales rep candidates who had failed Met Life’s aptitude test, but scored well on the optimism test Seligman included, sold 57% more than their pessimistic counterparts within their first two years.
You can read more about Seligman’s study in his book “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”.
The way you hold yourself physically. Because humans are highly visual, non-verbal communication is extremely important in sales. In fact, according to master selling guide Brian Tracy, your sales message is about 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and 7% the words you choose.
One phone sales psychology tip worth noting is that standing up while you make your cold calls could give you better results. Many sales consultants and coaches recommend giving standing a try for several good reasons:
- It encourages a more accessible posture that will come across in the tone, pitch and pace of your voice
- It opens up your breathing, helping to keep you relaxed
- It allows for freedom of movement, promoting more expressive communication
Research suggests that our posture is linked to our mood. Adopting an upright seated posture when you’re feeling stressed, for example, can help your self-esteem and increase your positive mood. The simple act of standing, meanwhile, is often enough to trick you into feeling taller, and more confident as a result.
3. Building connections
There are many ways you can use psychological selling to build a connection with prospective customers. To start, you should begin every new sales relationship by:
- Getting to know the company, your contact and their market
- Always having your product information and other sales materials ready to go
- Being prepared to share exactly what your prospect can expect to achieve
Bear in mind that it’s easier for us to feel connected to ideas, products and people when they promote a sense of safety or familiarity.
Your prospects will feel less inclined to shy away from new information presented online, over the phone or face to face if you avoid scary technical jargon and stay focused on verifiable results.
Take advantage of social media
Connecting over social media is a great way to build connections through brand affinity. And since social proof tells us that people (including potential buyers) tend to prefer things that other people already like, getting your audience to like your social content is especially important.
Here’s how to do it:
- Determine who your social media audience is from a sales lead perspective
- Publish shareable content that breeds appreciation (like how-to guides, quizzes or exclusive interviews)
- Strive for a positive emotional connection by finding or creating content that reflects, emphasizes and honors your customers’ values
Don’t forget to ask the people who’ve already liked your content to share it with family, friends and coworkers. Due to a cognitive bias called the “Benjamin Franklin effect”, asking for and receiving a favor from someone makes them like you even more.
Give out free samples
As we saw in the reciprocity bias, giving something to a potential customer does more than just make them feel good about your brand. It instills a sense of obligation to do something for you in return—like try out or purchase your product.
In addition to handing out product samples in person, you could consider:
- Offering a discount on first-time sales
- Providing a free gift with purchase
- Setting up a no-charge demo of your product or offering a free trial period
By both introducing your product and allowing potential customers to try it with no obligation, free samples can have both an immediate and a sustained effect on your sales.
This tactic can be especially effective with leads who are careful with their budgets, or during an economic downturn like the one caused by Covid-19—as almost everyone is being careful with their budgets.
4. Giving prospects options
A very simple psychological technique for overcoming sales objections (like the one you might encounter in the video above) is giving your prospects more than one buying choice.
According to some selling guides, the average sales proposal—and many cold sales pitches, for that matter—offer only one product option.
According to business professor Daniel Mochon’s classic buying experiment, however, even if your customer likes that particular product, they’ll be less willing to buy it without considering similar alternatives first.
When participants in Mochon’s single-option aversion study were shown a single DVD player, 9-10% of them indicated they’d buy it. But when different participants were shown two DVD players, 32-34% said they’d purchase one or the other.
Here’s how to put this psychological know-how to work.
First, give your prospect a basic product offering that you’re confident will solve their problem. Next, provide your core product option. Finally, include a premium option.
Sales psychology says you’ll accomplish three pivotal objectives:
- Your prospect will feel less inclined to shop around
- They’ll be more likely to recognize the great value offered by your basic or core product
- There’s a chance they’ll opt for the premium solution based on the quality and honesty of your sales proposal
Just remember that giving your prospect too many options will actually make it harder for them to come to a decision and you could end up losing the sale.
5. Becoming a knowledge leader
Selling from a position of knowledge and expertise will help you make the most of sales psychology. According to Robert Cialdini, we’re more likely to say yes to someone if they prove themselves an authority or have a greater level of knowledge, experience or expertise than we do.
The more assured you are in your knowledge (without coming across as overly overconfident), the more your sales leads will trust your content or stat-backed sales pitch.
Do you hold a degree, achievement awards, or multiple years of experience? Have you written a book or selling guide? Has your brand or product won certain honors or been recognized by an industry expert?
You can demonstrate your product knowledge and share your thought leadership in a number of ways, including:
- In your sales copy and newsletters
- Over your social media channels
- During cold calls, in emails and in-person
Delivering quality information that facilitates a confident buying decision will shore up your prospects’ faith in your knowledge and ability to deliver.
If you’re new to sales, or your sense of authority is still a work in progress, make sure you always have key statistics about your product on hand as a minimum.
These may include:
- Details of any expert-level research that went into its creation
- Tests or studies demonstrating its advantages over similar products on the market
- Numbers-based before and after results achieved by other clients
Regardless of the delivery method, you’ll influence more positive purchasing decisions if you always transfer believable information from your business to your buyer.
Seek out like-minded clients
While part of your role as a knowledge leader is to educate sales leads about why your product is a good fit for them, clients who think like you and your company do are even more likely to invest in what you’re selling.
Cialdini’s “principle of liking” says that we prefer to say yes to people we like. So it’s worth making time to track down and connect with leads who share similar values or interests.
Sharing relatable customer success stories verbally, on your website or over email can be a powerful way to exert influence. Storytelling, especially where your brand is concerned, not only humanizes your company, it can help you sell more products to people who share your company’s beliefs.
Keeping your brand measure, target audience and ideal customer top-of-mind will help you connect with more like-minded leads.
Putting it all together
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to which psychological selling practices work best where. As you’ve probably noticed, many of the techniques described here overlap and can be used in different ways—including during cold calls, over email, online and in person.
One thing, however, is certain.
The more psychological selling techniques you learn and put into practice, the more you’ll understand about most customers and the better you can appeal to their individual needs.
Remember: selling isn’t about you, it’s about them.
So if you feel you’ve been pitching blindly or with less success than you’d like, it may be time to shift your sales approach based on what you now know about a prospect’s:
- Natural sales resistance
- Desire for gain and fear of loss
- Urge to feel connected and heard
Not having their needs properly understood is a common reason potential buyers say no. That’s why effective salespeople do everything they can to learn as much as they can about a new lead, then use psychological selling to customize their delivery and pitch.
Fine-tuning your new approach might take some practice.
But you can get a head-start on letting psychological selling guide you to greater success by simply rethinking your posture and tone of voice, revamping your sales proposals and creating a power-pack of sales materials that tell a compelling story about your product, knowledge and insight.