Selling is all about influence skills, yet few of us have learned how to apply the art and science of influence to our work. Influence is not something with which we’re born. It can be learned, and there are numerous studies that have demonstrated the principles of influencing other people.
Unfortunately, much of the science of influence is couched in academic mumbo jumbo. Few entrepreneurs ever slog through research about influence or figure out how to apply it to their situation.
This article identifies a set of principles that any Web designer or developer can use to sell more projects. It then explains how to apply those principles in both marketing and selling situations. As a result, it can help you:
- Achieve your influence objectives while strengthening relationships (instead of coming across as too pushy).
- Know what you want before you go into a meeting, and plan an effective strategy to succeed.
- Be more comfortable influencing other people, so that you don’t withdraw during healthy conflicts.
- Understand how to be more influential when you are in selling situations.
- Choose the conversations that are most effective in a selling situation while avoiding those that are not.
Influence is the ability to proactively shift the thinking, actions, and even emotional states of other people. Influential people have a picture in their mind of how they want others to respond to them, and a high percentage of time, they are able to make that picture become real.
Twelve Powerful Principles That Will Help You Be More Influential
The following twelve principles represent some of the most powerful "rules" about influencing others. As you read them, assess your own strengths and weaknesses. Which principles already shape how you interact every day? Which of the principles do you know to be true but don’t practice (and why not)? And which are new to you, "aha’s" that you can put into action right away?
Balance Results and Relationships
In any influence situation, you have two goals: achieve a specific result, and strengthen the relationship. Some people are too forceful when they try to influence others, so they come across as obnoxious and coercive. They might achieve results, but they damage relationships. In selling situations, this does not lead to long-term client relationships.
Others are too meek. They avoid conflict and the possibility of hurting the relationship. They come across as passive, and rarely achieve their influence objectives. Ironically, they also hurt their business relationships, because prospects don’t respect their timid style.
It can be tricky to balance both results and relationships. Different people have a different sense of when someone is being too pushy or too passive. People who master influence are able to gauge each person’s balancing point.
People do Things for Their Reasons, Not Yours
To successfully influence people, you have to find reasons that matter to them. Following are two attempts to convince a co-worker to go out to Chinese Food with you for lunch. Which is more compelling?
Example One: Joe, let’s go out to Chinese Food. I’m starving and I’ve been craving Chinese Food for weeks.
Example Two: Joe, let’s go out to Chinese Food. You say there are no decent vegetarian restaurants around here, and the place I have in mind has over thirty vegetarian dishes. Also, they have a 15-minute lunchtime guarantee, so you’ll be back in plenty of time for your afternoon meeting. Couldn’t you use a little time away from the office?
The second is more compelling, at least to Joe, because it is all about him.
Whenever you are in an influence situation, try to use the word "you" twice as often as you use the word "I." That way, you can be sure you’re focused on reasons that matter to them.
People Really do Things for Emotional Reasons, not Logical Ones
Ultimately, people act for emotional reasons — even those who seem completely analytical by nature. We all take action to experience pleasure and avoid pain. If you can show people why your ideas will help them feel pleasure and not pain, you will be successful.
Most of us feel pleasure when we:
- enjoy a sense of success
- have more time
- eliminate headaches and hassles
- look good
- feel smart
- stay safe
Alternatively, people will go to extreme lengths to avoid the negatives. Few of us want to:
- feel like a loser
- be harried
- deal with frustration and struggle
- look stupid
- feel insecure
Of course, different people respond differently to different emotions, so be aware.
People Want Things that are Scarce
If you can give the impression that your services are exclusive, that your business is full, and that you only work with a few clients at a time, you will be more attractive to prospects. That’s because people want what they can’t have, especially special, unique things.
To give a specific example, setting yourself up as a national, or international expert is a great way to create a sense of scarcity. For instance, my consulting business took off when I began to focus on an international marketplace. Suddenly, I seemed far away to many of my prospects, and that created a sense of scarcity. People started to perceive me as a highly sought-after expert, instead of as one of thousands of consultants in the local marketplace. Why not set your firm up as an international expert, and become the proverbial guru on the exotic mountaintop?
People Take Action when there is Urgency
This principle ties closely to scarcity. I doubled my sales in a recent direct marketing piece simply by adding this sentence: "Order today, because prices are going up at the end of this week."
To create urgency:
- remind prospects of what they’re giving up every day they don’t move forward
- share what their competition is doing and how it will hurt them
- tell them that you are going on vacation in two weeks and need to start now so that they have a solution before you leave.
People are Influenced by "Social Proof"
Social proof means that people believe respected, third party sources. They even believe sources that they don’t respect, if enough of them are in agreement. That means that all of the following can help you influence other people:
- testimonials from opinion leaders
- case studies
- referrals from people they know and trust
- articles about you and quotes by you in the local paper
- volunteer work with leaders in your target market
- facts backed up by solid sources
People Listen More to Those who are Similar to Them
To be more influential, be more like the people you want to influence. Dress like them, talk about things that they care about, show common ground and values. If they talk quickly and get to the bottom line, do the same. If they talk slowly and like to get into the details, then shift your style to be more analytical. Focus on business and the numbers if that’s what they care about; focus on technology if they seem oriented that way.
People Listen More to People they Like
David Maister, one of the most respected authorities on professional service firms, has determined that there are two questions people must answer affirmatively before they will hire you:
- Can you do the work?
- Do I want to work with you?
Whether you’re likeable or not goes a long way towards answering the second question — and may even influence the first.
It’s not hard to get people to like you, and you don’t have to be a "suck up" to do it. Here are 6 characteristics of likeable people:
- They are humble.
- They take an interest in others by asking intelligent questions and listening to the answers.
- They have a can-do attitude.
- They are grateful.
- They acknowledge and validate others.
- They empathize with others’ problems and never make them feel stupid for having problems.
Pulling is Almost Always More Influential than Pushing
There are two fundamental ways to influence other people: you can push, or you can pull. Pushing means that you make suggestions and tell the other person why he or she should listen to you. This works fine if you are a recognized authority with unique facts. It’s a good way to convince people that what you have to say makes sense. Unfortunately, that’s not enough in selling situations. Doubly unfortunate is the fact that most professionals use a push approach to sell, because they are trained to share their knowledge.
Pulling means that you attract people to you by asking questions and understanding their needs. Pulling leads to commitment. That’s because, by listening, you can shape a custom solution to fit their unique concerns and needs. Also, the other person feels like he or she is in control of the conversation, which makes them more likely to agree to move forward since the decision appears to be 100% in their hands. For these reasons, pulling is more effective in selling situation.
Different Types of Conversations Work Best in Different Influence Situations
Just as you use a knife and not a spoon to cut a loaf of bread, so you need to choose the right type of influence conversation for each unique situation. Researchers have found that there are a handful of types of influence conversations that get results (using logic and facts, asserting, negotiating, asking and listening, and sharing a vision for the future) but that for each situation, there is one optimal type of conversation to use.
Unfortunately, the same researchers found that most of us use only one type of conversation over and over again. For instance, many of us only use logic and facts to make a point. Like a broken clock that tells the right time twice every day, we occasionally get results in this way — but not nearly as often as we could if we better adapted our conversations to the situation at hand.
Later on, this article will show you the exact flow a selling conversation should take to effectively influence your prospects. Hint: asking questions and listening makes up a key part of that conversation!
Follow the Rule of Three
You will be much more effective if you make no more than three points, or give no more than three reasons. People can’t absorb more than that, especially in conversations.
Yet too many professionals blab on and on, until the other person loses interest.
Be clear and concise.
Stand on Equal Ground with the Person you want to Influence
Finally, you are more influential when you stand as an equal with the person you want to influence. In selling situations, this means that you are a busy, successful professional — not a vendor desperate for business. You are entitled to ask probing questions, take time to assess a situation, agree on a time line with deadlines, fit the prospect into your schedule, and push back if the prospect seems to be on the wrong track or has not given you accurate information.
If a prospect does not give you what you need, then you have every right to say, "Listen, you don’t seem to be taking this seriously. Do you want me to solve your problem or not?"
If you stand on equal ground, your prospects will respect you more. You will therefore be more attractive to them, and also more influential.
Make Your Marketing Materials More Influential
This article distinguishes between influence in marketing and in sales. While there is overlap between the two, marketing here refers to activities you use to get visible in your target market. "Sales" refers to face-to-face conversations you have with prospects.
Following are eight ways to apply the principles of influence to your marketing strategy and tactics:
Create Scarcity by Being Unique
Most Web designers and developers look and feel pretty much like all the others. To influence more prospects to contact you, you need to position your firm and your services as unique. That way, you are one of a kind.
There are a few ways to do this:
- Offer an unmatched service guarantee.
- Develop a methodology that sets you apart in your ability to generate consistent, fast, affordable results.
- Bundle more services than anybody else.
- Become the dominant provider to a specific industry (e.g. "We are the only Web development firm that specializes in bars, and have developed Websites for the top 20 bars in Boston, Massachusetts.").
- Market a proven, proprietary technology or product that quickly solves a problem in your target market.
- Separate yourself by being more visible in your community than any of your competitors, in a way that establishes you as a leader, a professional, and somebody that others want to hire.
Make your Marketing Message about Them First and You Second
Since people do things for their own reasons, make sure all of your marketing materials talk about your prospects and their needs. For instance, your Website headlines should not say, "Welcome to XYZ Design", but, "Lawyers: Learn how to get more new clients with an effective Web presence."
Talk about your features and services after you describe the problems your market faces, your solution, and the benefits of your solution. And when you do talk about your qualifications, explain why that matters to them. For instance, don’t simply say, "Our firm has won prestigious design and usability awards." Be sure to add, "You’re working with experts who understand how to attract prospects to your site and convert them to customers."
Use Their Language, Even if it Seems Generic to You
Lawyers, doctors, accountants, bowling alley owners, cafÃ© owners, and all the other business owners you know have their own language. To you, they might all seem to be talking about increasing sales and cutting costs. But each of these people is part of an industry with specific, unique issues. Your marketing materials should reflect this fact by speaking in their language.
Use Emotionally Charged Words and Phrases
Because people are influenced by opportunities to experience pleasure and avoid pain, be sure to use words and phrases that tap into emotions. For instance:
- Stop struggling…
- Stop being frustrated…
- Feel proud about how your company looks on the Internet…
- Experience the thrill of having new customers buy from you while you sleep….
- Finally get rid of the hassles from….
Light a Fire
People only spend money when they have to, which is why the principle of urgency is so important. Find ways to convince your prospects that they’re standing on what many consultants call a "burning platform," and convince them to jump.
- "As part of our New Year’s special, we will assess your Website for free in the next week. After that, the price for this assessment — which includes a 5-page customized report — will go back to $195."
- "Our research shows that cosmetic companies are giving up $500 per day by not having an effective ecommerce presence. That’s $3,500 per week, $14,000 per month, and $168,000 per year. What are you waiting for?"
Use Plenty of Testimonials and Case Studies
You should have a huge collection of testimonials that rave about you, your professionalism, and your results. You should also have a healthy collection of case studies. That way, you take advantage of social proof.
Be Visible where it Counts
Since people work with people they like, get more visible to your target market. Join associations that they join. Speak where they go. Write in publications they read. Volunteer side by side with them on issues that matter to them.
The more your prospects know you as "one of the gang," the more business you will attract.
Educate and Create Curiosity to Pull them In
Remember that a pull strategy is more influential than a push strategy. Therefore, make your marketing materials educational. Instead of writing sales pitches, provide tips and information that apply to their problems and what you do to solve them. Then make an offer to them to get more information.
How to Be More Influential in Selling Situations
This section describes how you can apply influence to face-to-face selling situations. The recommendations that follow build on the principles we discussed earlier. They also lay out a structure for selling conversations that succeed.
Make a Great First Impression
I’ve videotaped IT professionals in mock sales meetings, and the results are nauseating — especially in terms of the impression that many of them make: sloppy dress, weak handshake, no eye contact, taking notes on scraps of paper instead of a professional pad, distracted, rambling on an on, mumbling and failing to build any rapport… This is a small sample of the problems that arise.
People work with people they like and trust. Start to influence your prospects immediately by making a strong first impression:
- Show up two minutes early.
- Dress like they do, or a tiny bit better.
- Thank them for their time.
- Take notes on a solid looking pad of paper. As Brendon Sinclair notes, use an expensive pen.
- Listen with your full attention and with no distractions.
- Make the prospect feel comfortable by adapting to his or her style and mode of communication.
Stand on Equal Footing
Stand on equal footing with the prospect by suggesting an agenda and a proposed outcome for the meeting (e.g. "By the end of the meeting, it’s my goal to confirm whether we should move into more detailed discussions. Does that sound like a reasonable goal to you?").
Also, as the meeting progresses, feel completely comfortable asking critical questions to qualify the prospect, the same way they’re qualifying you:
- Do they have a budget?
- What is their timeline for making a decision?
- Are they serious about moving forward?
- Who else is involved in the decision-making process, and when can you meet them?
If the prospect shows up late (repeatedly), fails to make a decision on a key date, or gives you inaccurate information, you can call them on that behavior. For example: "Mary, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about a potential project. But at the same time, it concerns me that you have not been completely forthcoming with me about your budget. Going forward, I need to know whether you are serious about making progress, and what your actual budget is. That way, you will know what kind of results you can really get."
Earlier, this article indicated that different influence situations call for different types of conversations. It also noted that pulling prospects in with questions is very effective – as opposed to pushing at them with facts, figures, and your own assumptions. In selling, research has shown again and again that asking questions, listening, and then drilling deeper with more questions is the most effective approach hands down. Neil Rackham’s Spin Selling is perhaps the best-known research on this subject.
Unfortunately, too many salespeople jump into a pitch or presentation about why the prospect should buy from them. They use facts and data without knowing anything about the prospect. This causes the prospect to lose attention.
Instead, ask questions and listen. Work to understand the prospect’s pain and opportunities in logical and emotional terms. You don’t want to act like a psychiatrist, but you do want to probe below the surface in an appropriate way.
Good questions include:
- What is this costing you? (Then lead them through specific costs.)
- How long have you tried to address this problem, and what’s causing you to act now?
- What happens if you do nothing?
- Many of my clients in this situation have found that…..What about you?
- How does your current Website make you feel?
- How do you feel when you compare your situation to your nearest competitors?
See also the SitePoint article Make That Sale Without The Sleaze for more suggestions.
By asking questions, you control the conversation even though the prospect feels like they are in control. You pull them in and show that you understand their unique situation. You also find out what matters most to them, so that you can frame your solutions in ways that get their interest.
Collaborate to Shape the Future
Once you understand your prospects’ situation and how it affects them, you need to move to a new type of conversation. At this point, if you’ve done your job, your prospects feel a bit raw. They’ve just shared some serious problems with you, along with how they feel about those problems.
Now you want to create a bright future with them, and show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Tell them what you can do to address their situation. Be very clear about how this will make their frustrations and fears go away, while making their life easier and more satisfying. Tie your solution directly to the issues that matter most to them. Give them reasons why you think your solution will work for them, for instance by telling stories about other clients who have had similar problems and seen great results with your solution (e.g. via social proof!).
Once you have laid out a possible solution, sit back and return to a pull strategy again. Ask them what they think about your suggestion. Build on their thoughts. Work together to develop a mutually agreeable engagement. If they have objections or concerns, answer them authoritatively, backing up your answers with experience from other projects.
In this sense, you’re not selling at all. Instead, you’re sitting on the same side of the table with your prospects, working together to solve their unique problems.
Pull Back and Let Them Decide
Finally, give your prospects room to make up their own minds about what to do. But do it in a way that balances results and relationships, the first influence principle shared in this article. You don’t want to be coercive and ask, "When do you want to start?" You also don’t want to be too meek and say, "Well, thank you for your time. I’ll wait for your call."
Take the middle path by asking for a decision without being too pushy. Here are three examples (you should adjust these based on your comfort level and what you know about your own prospects):
- "I believe that our discussion showed how my solution solves your problem, and gets you the results you want. What would you like to do next?"
- "Many of my current clients have been in your shoes, and they are very glad they took action to move forward. What are your thoughts about working with me?"
- "Well, I can say that I’d be delighted to work with you on this project. And, based on my experience with other companies in your industry, I’m confident that you will be 100% satisfied with the final product. But what would you like to do?"
Teaching influence skills in an article is hard. In fact, having taught influence skills to executives over 3 to 5 day training classes, I know that teaching influence skills in any format is challenging.
This article laid out a set of principles, and practical ways to apply them. I hope they help you to be more influential when you market and sell your services.