Robert Cialdini's Number One Sales Rule

There’s one condition that can often make the difference between sales success and failure. It’s the “liking effect,” but there’s a new and unexpected twist to the concept that has turned into influence expert Robert Cialdini’s number one sales rule.

Liking is one of Cialdini’s famous Principles of Influence. In short, if you want to influence someone, get them to like you. Most often, the quickest way to create liking is to point out attributes you have in common, a technique we’ll explore in detail below.

Cialdini’s new book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, adds a new dimension to the liking effect. He reports on research showing that if you are hoping to influence someone, it’s even more important that they believe you like them.

According to Cialdini, person A will trust person B if person A genuinely believes that person B likes them. The reason is that under these conditions, person A sincerely believes that person B will not only never lead person A astray, but will also always keep in mind their best interests.

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To repeat this somewhat counterintuitive finding: it’s important that your customers like you, but it’s even more important that your customers think you like them!

Sales Rule #1

Cialdini doesn’t mince words in Pre-Suasion:

The number one rule for salespeople is to show customers that you genuinely like them.

The buyer feeling liked is the basis for a strong, confident, and lasting relationship with the person or brand he or she wants to do business with. Essentially, you are creating a belief in the buyer’s mind that “this person is looking out for me.”

Note, too, that Cialdini emphasizes “genuinely” – no salesperson hoping for long-term success should manipulate customers in a false or unethical way.

Flattery Invokes Liking

So how do you persuade your customers that you like them?

One tactic is flattery. Research shows that flattery leaves a long lasting and positive impression.

Surprisingly, flattery is effective even when the flatterer’s motives are suspect. Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta, scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, write in the Journal of Marketing Research, “from the marketer’s perspective, the results suggest that [even] insincere flattery can exercise a persuasive influence on consumers’ automatic reactions.”

flattery and liking - you are the best

Just because insincere flattery works doesn’t mean you should lie. Long-term relationships won’t be built through dishonesty. But, don’t be afraid to find something about the customer that you can turn into a legitimate compliment.

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The Role of Timing

Another important part of this tactic is timing.

In fact, the underlying theme in Pre-Suasion is the importance of timing. Specifically, what happens just before a persuasion attempt can have a big influence on the outcome – hence, the use of the term “pre-suasion.” The moment immediately after the customer has been flattered is the critical time to make the sales pitch.

Cialdini offers a personal anecdote of how this technique was used on him to great effect. He was planning to spend a semester at a university with no major responsibilities. He planned to use this time to work on the book that ultimately became Pre-Suasion. Before he left for the school, he received a call from the school’s dean, who described in glowing terms the office, staff support, and other accommodations that would greet Cialdini upon arrival.

This unexpectedly flattering and generous treatment made it clear that the dean and faculty thought highly of Cialdini.

Then, the other shoe dropped… An absent professor wouldn’t be able to teach one course, and the dean asked Cialdini if he would mind teaching it. In my recent interview with Cialdini, he described the incident:

I wound up agreeing to teach this course because he asked me in the moment after I said how much I appreciated what he had done for me. If he had called me a day later, I think I could have marshaled the ability to say, “Well, you know, I have a book that I need to write. I can’t really do it.” But not in that moment. There was something about the moment before he delivered his message that made me say yes.

Pre-Suasion is packed with research that shows the importance of timing.

Often referred to as “priming,” exposing subjects to various stimuli has been shown to change their behavior immediately following that exposure. Often, the subjects are entirely unaware of the priming and that their behavior was altered.

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Look what we have in common…

Highlighting your similarities is another tactic to create a liking effect. Most often, this approach is used to get people to like you. If I point out to you that we went to the same high school, are fans of the same pro football team, or share a hobby, you will like me more and be more persuadable.

Salespeople have used liking to curry favor with customers for decades.

One somewhat shady example is the successful car salesman who would invent common attributes for every customer. If the prospective car buyer had recently moved from Iowa, the salesman would describe his Iowa-born-and-bred uncle in loving detail. There was no such uncle, but the common tie became an element in building liking. Of course, most of us would find this method of invoking liking problematic.

Generating liking via honest means isn’t usually that difficult. A quick conversation or glance around a prospect’s office is likely to establish legitimate shared attributes or interests.

The dimension that Cialdini adds in Pre-Suasion is that focusing on those similarities will almost certainly generate an expectation of liking in return. In other words, if I mention our common origin, not only will you like me more, you will no doubt believe that I like you more.

In fact, Cialdini concludes in Pre-Suasion, “the evidence is clear” that when someone seems to be similar to us, we believe that they like us and that “it is the belief that similar others will like us that accounts for why we come to like them so much.” Liking, it turns out, is seen as reciprocal.

In short, to close a sale don’t focus just on getting customers to like you. Instead, concentrate on showing your customers you like them.

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