Harness the power of promises
  • sales
  • Blog post

Harness the power of promises

A key part of human nature is the need to be consistent in terms of commitments made either verbally or in writing, and to remain true to one’s own attitudes, value and actions. Salespeople need to cultivate this consistency in themselves, of course. But understanding the power of consistency and commitments among buyers can also help advance the sale. Research by Robert Cialdini, an author and professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, addresses the science behind this fundamental aspect of human behavior.

An experiment at the beach
Researchers posing as beach visitors spread a beach towel on the sand close to a sunbather before heading toward the water for a swim. In the first part of the experiment, the sunbather was asked to watch the radio. Most agreed and verbally committed, saying something like “Sure, I will.” In a second part of the experiment, the researcher simply went for a swim without making any sort of request.

Then the real experiment began. A second researcher posing as a thief ran past, snatched the radio and took off with it. It’s not surprising that asking for a verbal commitment made a difference in whether the sunbather who witnessed the theft gave chase. What may be more surprising is how powerful this simple request turned out to be. Only 4 out of 20 of those who were not asked made any effort to right the wrong. In contrast, 19 of 20 sunbathers who were asked to watch the radio took off after the thief.

Actually getting people to say “yes” out loud matters. Cialdini cites an experiment aimed at decreasing the number of reservation “no shows” at a restaurant. Hostesses who took reservations over the phone typically told callers, “Please call if you have to cancel.” Changing to a question: “Will you please call if you have to cancel?” — and waiting for a “yes” response — increased compliance by 33%.

Small changes at the doctor’s office
Experiments addressing the “no show” problem at three different doctor’s offices took the idea of commitment a step further. During the first series of experiments, receptionists making appointments with patients over the phone asked them to take a moment and read back the date and time before ending the call. The result: No-show rates fell 3%, which doesn’t sound like much but scales up quickly in dollar value.

But wait, there’s more. At those same doctor’s offices, the healthcare receptionists typically wrote out and handed appointment cards to patients. Another zero-cost change made a huge difference when the receptionists asked patients to write down the time and date of the next appointment on the card themselves. Over a four-month period that small change reduced no-shows 18%.

That’s further evidence that commitments people actively make themselves are more motivating and persuasive. Another piece of insight you take away from this is that often during the course of routine day-to-day meetings and interactions, we tend to default to doing things ourselves, knowing that at least they will get done. Some examples:

After a meeting or phone call with a prospect or customer, it may be that you have many follow-up items on your task list, while the buyer has few or none. How committed to the sales process will he or she be, compared to you?

You may think that writing out a tailored action plan and timetable for the customer shows that you are service oriented, attentive and on top of the process. But would the customer be more committed if he or she had filled out that plan or at least collaborated in developing it?


The takeaway for sales
Chances are good that you’ve heard all about “getting to yes.” This new research not only demonstrates the behavioral science behind getting commitment, but how small and seemingly minor changes in approach can have a dramatic difference in terms of overall results. Here are some things to consider, as well as possible changes to make in your current sales process:

  • Seek verbal commitments. This may seem obvious, but cutting the conversation short in an effort to move on to the next thing could be a missed opportunity. Seek some kind of verbal commitment to what has been agreed upon, whether it’s the problem to address, the next appointment, or who should attend the next meeting.
  • Change your approach to email. When you are sending a follow-up email to one or more members of a buying team, ask recipients to reply with a “yes” response if your notes accurately reflect their understanding of the next steps.
  • Get people more involved. If you want to increase the chances that someone will attend a meeting, for example, as them to submit a question in advance for the Q&A session. That small commitment will help ensure they attend.
  • Look for ways to collaborate. Get prospects and customers more involved in the sales process whenever possible, filling out questionnaires or surveys, working with the raw data, participating in whiteboard sessions to probe for root causes.
  • Get them to own it. Research has shown repeatedly that the odds of a commitment standing will increase when it’s owned, action-oriented and made publicly by the person or group committing to it.

Source: “The Small BIG: Small changes that spark big influence,” by Martin, Goldstein and Cialdini; Hachette Book Group, 2014; ISBN 978-1-4555-8425-3.

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