For most salespeople, what I’m going to say next might seem like a “Well, duh.” But bear with me.

Here it is: When you’re discussing your range of products or services with a prospect, you should probably spend a lot of time on the one you think would be the best fit, the one you really want her to buy, and little on the others.

Of course. But this statement is more powerful than it appears on the surface, for reasons you might not have thought of.

Perceptual contrast
These reasons have to do with what behavioral scientists call “perceptual contrast.” Briefly, perceptual contrast means that what you think about something is a function not just of the thing itself, but of the thing in comparison to other things.

Two psychologists did a set of interesting experiments with perceptual contrast that’s relevant for those of us working in the sales arena.

The researchers, professors Zakary Tormala of Indiana University (he’s now at Stanford) and Richard Petty of Ohio State, wanted to investigate people’s perceptions of how much persuasive information they have about a product. So they designed their experiments to see whether the amount of information people think they have about something can be influenced by the amount of information they think they have about something else.

What they did was ask volunteers to read messages giving positive information about two fictitious department stores. The participants all received the same message about the second store. But the messages about the first store, which they read first, varied. Some of these messages gave a great deal of information about the first store — more than what they received about the second store — while others gave a mere smidgen.

More info, less info
The results demonstrated the force of perceptual contrast in a compelling way.

Those who read only a tiny amount about the first store thought they had 32% more information about the second store than those who read a lot about the first store. In terms of attitudes toward the two stores, those with only a little information about the first store were 21% more favorable toward the second store than the other participants.

The researchers did one more experiment to see whether the prior information even had to be relevant to create perceptual contrast. And they found that it didn’t. When the participants were given more or less information about a certain model of car, and then information about a department store, the perceptual contrast effect kicked in again, in the same way. The human mind, it seems, really wants to make comparisons, even when things aren’t strictly comparable.

Making sure you know what’s right
So what does all this mean for sales professionals?

For one thing, it stresses the critical importance of doing a thorough discovery of the buyer’s needs. If you’re going to leverage perceptual contrast by giving only a little information about the products you think aren’t right for your prospect, and a lot about the one you think is right, you’d better be darn sure you know what the buyer really needs.

For another, it means that you can range pretty far afield for your comparables, the things you want to give just a little information about before giving a lot of information about your target product. Remember that things don’t have to be perfectly comparable to create perceptual contrast. So you don’t have to limit your comparisons to your own product range. You can quickly mention one or two competitive products, giving cursory information about them, before proceeding to your detailed presentation of the product you’re pitching.

You may be able to come up with further uses of perceptual contrast to improve your sales success. If you do, please let me know — with a lot of information!

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