Our mediatized culture has become used to two (or more) talking heads, holding conflicting positions on some issue, yelling at each other on TV. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for salespeople to do the same.

Obviously, I don’t mean your reps are going to go on CNN or MSNBC anytime soon to argue with competitors. Here’s what I do mean: Imagine a rival has gotten out there in customers’ faces with some literature or other that purports to prove their product does the job better and faster than yours. Your reps might be tempted to rebut their case with arguments of their own.

But recent experiments done by a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada call into question the very idea that “battles of experts” do much to enlighten or persuade those watching them — in this case, your buyers.

Degrees of agreement
A research team led by Professor Derek Koehler presented participants in one experiment with a summary of the weight of expert opinion on a number of economic issues. For example, participants were told that 93 of the experts cited agreed that a carbon tax would work to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, while only two disagreed and five weren’t sure. Meanwhile, on a more debatable issue — whether increasing the minimum wage would make it harder for unskilled workers to get jobs — they were told that experts were far from unanimous, with 38 agreeing, 36 disagreeing and 27 unsure.

Then the researchers stirred the pot a little, trying to replicate what happens when experts fight it out. To do so, the presented one group of participants with a comment from one expert on each side of the various issues.

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Then the researchers asked participants, for the various issues, whether there was a consensus among the experts or lots of disagreement. This question turned up a very interesting psychological result: When participants were exposed to conflicting comments, they lost track of which issues were pretty much settled — like the carbon tax — and which were not — like the minimum wage. Everything just seemed to get murky, even when the participants knew that an overwhelming majority of experts agreed on something.

As Koehler told The New York Times, the battling expert opinions affected participants’ “judgments of whether there was sufficient consensus to use it to guide public policy.”

Why did this happen? Koehler speculated that comments from experts on both sides of an issue take the form, in our minds, of a one-on-one confrontation, like on the old CNN debate program “Crossfire.” In other words, in a head-to-head confrontation, both sides seemed equivalent. Even when we know that the actual ratio is, say, 85 experts on one side versus one on the other, our brain doesn’t evaluate it that way.

‘You’re both unreliable’
This result has some possibly disturbing implications for sales managers.
Basically, it means that engaging in a “battle of the experts” by trying to rebut another salesperson’s arguments probably doesn’t help your customers make up their minds. It just muddies the waters. The result could be that buyers just conclude “a plague on both your houses” and decide that neither of you can be trusted.

So what’s to be done? Should you just sit back while the competition asserts that experts agree on the superiority of their product or service?

Of course not. But tell your reps to resist engaging in a debate. Instead of directly challenging the competition’s “expert(s),” have them re-emphasize your unique selling proposition and the benefits that only you can provide the customer. That way, you’ll be playing from a position of strength and making your own clear case, rather than appearing to muddy the waters over whose experts are righter.

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