A psychological insight to help you sell more effectively
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A psychological insight to help you sell more effectively

Salespeople are taught to be persistent. On the other hand, salespeople are human, and when a prospect says “no” — to a meeting or demo, or to the sale itself — they may be tempted to think that no means no, and drop the effort.

That’s natural, but it isn’t necessarily the right thing to do. In fact, behavioral research indicates that you shouldn’t always accept a prospect’s initial refusal.

This experimental research took place at Stanford University. The idea of the study was to determine how likely people are to say “yes” to a second request after they’ve said “no” to a first.

The results were surprising. Those who said “no” to a first request were not predisposed to say “no” to a follow up request.

An aversion to negativity

According to the study, when you persist people are just as likely to say “yes” as “no” because of a powerful psychological effect that makes it hard for people to be negative all the time. Most of us just aren’t comfortable being perceived as somebody who always says no.

The Stanford experiment also turned up another fascinating effect, this one in the mind of the person seeking the favor — the position you’re in when you’re selling. The data showed that requesters were 37% more likely to expect a second “no” than potential helpers were to say it. In other words, for most salespeople, the fear of a second “no” is irrationally high.

So, the research shows that prospects who initially say “no” may say “yes” on a second effort simply because repeatedly shutting the door in your face makes them feel bad.

What to do next 

But what do you do when that initial “no” unexpectedly turns into a “yes”? You want to be as graceful as possible, and make sure you don’t spoil this new opportunity. Here’s a three-step approach:

1. Empathize.

Acknowledge the person’s discomfort about saying “no.” For example, “I understand that you’re busy and didn’t see the value when I last reached out, but I appreciate your taking this call.”

2. Ask an unexpected question that shows you’ve done your homework.

This takes the prospect away from the “still-not-interested” script they likely have mapped out in their mind. For example, “Based on the data I’ve seen about your industry, I’d guess you’re looking at a 15% hike in production costs next year. How have you prepared for that?” Instead of talking about yourself and your product, you’re asking about them.

3. Reinforce the unique benefit you offer and request a time to meet.

For example, “We’ve done a lot of work with companies facing large competitors. We have some ideas that might help you. Can we talk more on Thursday at 2:00?”

Using this framework, you increase the likelihood that the “yes” you earned through persistence will actually turn into a sale.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “When the Prospect Says No: The Psychology of the Second Effort.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Newark, D.A. et al.  (2013) Once Bitten, Twice Shy: The Effects of a Past Refusal on Expectations of Future Compliance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(2), 218-225.


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