small numbers and power of suggestion in effective sales

“…we pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability…” Daniel Kahneman

When we are caught up in the emotional truth of a statement or story we discount the context, the container.

When a salesperson tells us we look really good in the outfit we are trying on, few of us can avoid being swayed by how that compliment feels. We know the person may be saying that to close a sale. We know the person is may not even be qualified to make an aesthetic judgement like that. But we are seduced by the content of the message and seldom ask questions about the container.

Kahneman’s research shows we are unimpressed by annoying details like the unreliable behaviour of small numbers, inadequate sample sizes, lack of objectivity… we believe what seems (or what we wish to be) believable. He playfully calls this “the Law of Small Numbers” as small sample sets are as relied upon as they are unreliable.

As a Seller

The lesson if you are in sales: things presented as simple, positive statements that sound like fact are more likely to be accepted as true than we realize.

We equate the simple with the truth and the complex with doubt. So don’t over-explain.

Keep your sales pitch simple and focused on one thing only: “WIIFM? (What’s In It For Me?)”

Especially in retail, detailed technical specs matter more to you than the customer. In one sentence tell the customer what the product or service will do for them. Do you care how many gigabytes a device has, or how many photos or songs it can hold?

As a Buyer

The lesson if you are a buyer: ask questions, any questions. Create a more information-rich environment.

This has two values that lead to better decisions: with a larger number of questions we move the conversation from the message to the context; and in the simple act of asking questions we are activating the lazier part of our brain, the watchdog called doubt (or Kahneman calls it ‘system 2’).

My favourite questions when dealing with suppliers are:

  1. “Why do you believe that?” This is phrased in a way to cause the person to dig deeper. ‘Why’ and ‘belief’ create instant cognitive and emotional complexity.
  2. “What makes you say that?” This challenges the motive for a statement and asks for greater detail. In the clothing example above, that question would force the salesperson to get beyond the glib ‘content’ and give more context (colour, fit, etc).

Neither of these questions is a stand-in for anything like scientific proof, but they do break the spell of the ‘law of small numbers’.

I have always found it interesting how many people will spout “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “Trust your gut” within a few breaths of each other. I’ll go with the former every time. Try not to judge a book by its cover and trust in asking good questions.

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