November 12. 2012 9:00AM

Tap the power of customer interaction


By Jerry Stapleton

Everyone knows that a nuclear blast unleashes the untold, near limitless power bottled up inside an infinitesimally small particle: the atom. We also know that the scientific community has figured out how to harness that power for amazing good and amazing destruction.

In sales, the customer interaction has the same untold, near limitless potential. But maybe not in the way we might be thinking. And, like the power of the atom, the power of the interaction can be harnessed for amazing good – trust, differentiation, information – or, well…not!

In my last column, I called the interaction the "Holy Grail" of selling. I said that the interaction between the salesperson and the customer is itself our differentiation. It is our value proposition, not simply the platform for delivering it. It is where trust is created, sustained or destroyed.

The response meter on that one tripped a breaker! So let's develop it a bit more. But it'll take more than one column. Here's the first.

The surprising value of stereotypes

One of the best books on selling I've ever encountered is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini. Warren Buffett has said it's the only book anyone needs on the topic.

I won't go that far, but Cialdini does explain like no one else the nuances and subtleties of what goes on in the customer's mind (thus, "psychology" in the title) in the course of the sales-customer interaction.

One important part of that customer experience, or more accurately, the entire human experience, is stereotyping.

You read that right. Sure, stereotypes have a bad reputation. They get us in trouble if they lead us to make shortsighted decisions. And stereotypes about whole categories of people – by race, by ethnic background, by gender, or the like – harm our society.

But the truth is, many stereotypes perform a function that none of us can live without. They capture, in a word or image, much larger, complicated concepts that we can't otherwise verbalize or can't take the time to analyze and process. As Cialdini points out in his book, we need stereotypes just so we can move quickly through the world.

Our lives are so busy and complicated that, without an infinite number of shortcuts that help us manage that complexity, we'd get completely bogged down. Stereotypes are one of those shortcuts.

Learn to leverage your customers' automatic thinking

Consider this example. It's well established that when we make a request of someone, we are more likely to receive a positive response if we offer that person a reason. But it turns out that the substance of that reason matters a whole lot less than you'd think.

Cialdini describes this experiment conducted by social psychologist Ellen Langer at Harvard University. Imagine asking to interrupt someone using the copying machine:

"Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I'm in a rush?"

Langer found more than 90 percent of the people asked in that way stopped their copying job to let the asker cut in.

When the request changed and left out the "reason" – "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?" – compliance fell to 60 percent.

But here's the kicker. Incredibly, when the phrase became, "Excuse me, I have five pages, may I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?" compliance soared right back up to more than 90 percent again!

I say 'incredibly' because the third sentence didn't offer a reason at all. Of course you have to make some copies – you wouldn't be asking for the copy machine to toast a marshmallow!

Yet Cialdini says it's as if that magic word "because" simply triggered what he calls "an automatic compliance response…" for the listener. The word itself was a shortcut, and a sort of stereotype.

As we take in everything we see and hear. We are constantly evaluating it. Do we respond positively? Negatively? Does it make us curious? Does it annoy us or prompt some other negative emotion? With each momentary reaction, we instantly file that moment, and the emotion that gets tagged to it, somewhere in our brain. It winds up coloring the interaction, leaving trace feelings, good or bad, about the moment.

Reading the meter

Covering the presidential debates this fall, CNN displayed the collective reactions of a panel of undecided voters as each candidate spoke. Voters turned dials one way when they liked what they saw and heard, the other way when they disliked a candidate's response, and their reactions were averaged and shown real-time on the screen.

And they were responding in the same sort of automatic way Cialdini describes – applying the stereotypes already in their heads to quickly and subconsciously process each moment. Not only were they not analyzing policy statements being made by the candidates, they weren't even analyzing the words they were hearing. Reality is, those undecided voters weren't analyzing anything; they were applying automatic thinking … stereotyping.

This is precisely what your customers are doing in every phone call and meeting with you. No matter how long you've known them, they are still like the undecided voter turning their own "trust dial" throughout every interaction with you.

Imagine if you could give your customer a meter like the CNN dial for a sales interaction. Instantly you'd know when an interaction was "working" for your customer, and when it wasn't.

So think of your interaction this way: You want to move the meter.

We'll look at how in subsequent columns. But for now, I'll leave you with this:

Only about 10 percent of how the customer "scores" the interaction is based on the actual information exchanged during the encounter: your value proposition, your proposal or presentation, your questions and whatnot.

The other 90 percent? It's split between two things – both of which you control. One is the language you choose. The other is your mindset.

I talk more about those next time. n

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Waukesha-based Stapleton Resources LLC ( He is also the author of the book, "From Vendor to Business Resource."


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