Don't Always Expect Them To Be Rational

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Every day, every one of us performs myriad instances of sales. We sell ourselves as a potential employee, a proposal for a new initiative, a co-worker on a new software architecture, a board on new investments, and, for a small percentage of us, a potential customer on whatever product we, as titled salespeople, are selling. When we sell, we expect our customers to be rational and self-interested. Dan Ariely may have done  a pretty good job questioning that assumption, but we still expect it to be true.

The only people who seem to instinctively get it, that people aren't always rational, are the few truly successful professional salespeople. Some of them are slick and slimy, like the stereotypical used-car salesmen or real estate agent (see Glengarry Glen Ross); others are highly professional, like the very few world-class enterprise salespeople I have met over the years. Any one of these knows that sales are only partially rational; the rest is emotional.

The used-car salesman will cajole, beg and even threaten, and tap into your fears and doubts to get you to buy. Unsavory, even unethical, it works, because fear and doubt are much more powerful motivators than logic.

The smart professional salesperson, on the other hand, will still make the best case, but understand that a crucial part of the buying process is always emotional. Do you trust the salesperson? Do they make you feel good? They don't buy you dinner to bribe you - if you're spending enough on their services, you can certainly afford dinner yourself - but rather to create a positive atmosphere and feeling around it.

Of course, emotion isn't enough, it also has to make sense. I worked recently on behalf of a client evaluating a purchase worth $100-250k recurring per year. While all the good salespeople did the emotional side, the best ones did both, while the failures focused on just the emotional. They were willing to wine and dine and fly us in anywhere, probably would have bought us lift tickets in Vail or Aspen (and I don't even ski!), but they never did the groundwork to make their case.

And sometimes the emotions indicate to walk away from the deal. A really good salesperson can recognize when, despite the deal being in the customer's best rational interests, they nevertheless might emotionally be unable to complete the deal.

A great example came last week from the world of medicine, specifically vaccinations. Scientific evidence has proven, beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt, that vaccination has saved, and continues to save, untold numbers of lives, especially children. Even further, the elements of society with a weaker immune system - the elderly, infants, people undergoing treatments like chemotherapy - benefit from the "herd immunity" that the vaccinated rest of society provides.

A group of scientists from Dartmouth College, Exeter, Georgia State and the University of Michigan performed a study - original in Journal of Pediatrics, lay review in Slate - to try to understand which of several types of messaging, if any, could change the minds of anti-vaccine parents and thus encourage them to vaccinate their children.

Unfortunately, the results were depressingly even: no message makes any difference.

But while no message made any difference in vaccination rates, one of the messages was more effective in changing parents minds. Called "autism correction," the message uses scientific information and language to describe why vaccines are both safe and effective.

So if "autism correction" actually was effective in changing parents' minds about vaccines, how could it have no impact on vaccination rates?

The answer is even more fascinating. Apparently these parents, even though they knew and understood that vaccination was both safe and effective, could not change their practices! They were emotionally invested in non-vaccination.

Put in other terms: they did not refuse to vaccinate because they believed it was unsafe or ineffective; they believed it was unsafe and ineffective in order to provide a rationale for their emotional need to refuse to vaccinate. Once presented with scientific evidence to the contrary, they accepted the rationale, but did not change their behaviour... because the underlying emotions had not changed.

Trying to get parents to vaccinate their children may be a nobler calling than trying to sell enterprise software, but both have the same underlying dynamics of reason and emotion.

Everyone is in sales. Everyone is a buyer. Just don't expect buyers to be rational.