Most of us need to persuade people that we don’t know personally to do things. A salesperson wants to close a deal. An office worker needs to persuade the new computer guy to fix her computer first. A fundraiser wants to get a potential donor to make a pledge. Our natural instinct in such situations is to avoid asking the individual we want to persuade for any favors other than the one that’s important to us. After all, the only thing worse than being asked for a favor is being asked for multiple favors, right? As you might expect here at Neuromarketing, the obvious and logical conclusion is wrong. Behavioral research shows us that sometimes asking for one favor first can greatly increase the probability of success with the second favor!

My first encounter with the counterintuitive concept that asking for one favor improves the success rate when asking for a second favor was when I read about a study conducted on a city street. A researcher asked passers-by for complicated directions. Not all subjects bothered to help. Some subjects were asked first for an extremely small favor: the researcher inquired as to the time of day. Virtually all of the passers-by checked their watch and provided the time. Here’s the interesting part: subjects that complied with the small request were much more likely to respond to the more time-consuming one. The psychology seemed to be a sort of subconscious feeling that having granted one request, it would be consistent to grant a somewhat bigger one. (Unfortunately, I no longer have the reference for this study and even a bit of determined Googling didn’t turn it up.)

Signs of Success

I was reminded of that time-of-day study when I read Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldsten, and Steve Martin. They describe an experiment in which homeowners were asked to display a large 3 foot by 6 foot “Drive Carefully” in their front yard. Only 17% of homeowners in an upscale neighborhood agreed to do so, despite being offered the slightly scary assurance that the sign installers would take care of all digging needed for the holes for the support posts. Amazingly, the positive response rate increased to 76% among a similar group of homeowners who, two weeks earlier, had been asked to put a tiny “safe driver” sign in their house window. The latter request was a tiny inconvenience, and virtually all homeowners agreed to it.

I find the idea that three quarters of the second group would agree to having people come out, tear up their lawn, and install a big sign quite surprising – in fact, even the 17% number for the first group was a bit of a surprise. That the response rate could be more than quadrupled by such a simple step as an insignificant earlier request is quite amazing.

Foot in the Door

The data doesn’t stop there. Cialdini describes another study involving homeowner inconvenience. Researchers asked subjects if they would be willing to allow 5 or 6 researchers to come inside their house for two hours to root through their closets and cupboards and classify the goods found for a study. An astonishing 22% of the households contacted agreed to this invasion – clearly, a fifth of the population is either unable to say “no” or so bored that they’ll agree to anything for a break in their routine. A second group of households was first contacted with a request to answer a few survey questions by phone on the same topic, a simple favor to which almost all agreed. Three days later, the phone survey group was asked to participate in the invasive, time-consuming study, and the positive response rate more than doubled to 56%! Clearly, the initial “foot in the door” approach of the simple survey caused many more households to throw the door completely open for the nosy researchers.

Door Openers in Marketing, Sales, and Fundraising

The message in all this is clear. Making a small initial request of your targets won’t turn them off. Rather, if it is small enough to be granted by almost everyone, it will make them more likely to respond positively to your ultimate request.

So, accept the cup of coffee offered by your prospective client. Get a trial order, no matter how small. If you are raising funds, get the donor to make a trivially small donation before you make your real pitch. Ask a prospect to complete a short survey. The variety of small setup favors is endless. Regardless of which approach you adopt, that initial “foot in the door” will greatly increase the odds of success later.