Solving the “Invulnerable Customer” Problem


Often, consumers don’t buy products because even though they recognize a risk exists, they don’t think they will be victims. The belief may be irrational, but they see themselves as invulnerable. So, they don’t buy life or disability insurance, they don’t invest in healthcare products products or services, they don’t join a gym, or take other common and desirable steps to protect themselves. This poses a problem: what’s the best marketing strategy for consumers who seemingly believe in their own invulnerability?

What, Me Worry (about Germs)?

The prescription for this marketing dilemma was found in a hospital, of all places. Can you imagine a group likely to be more careful about hand-washing than healthcare professionals in hospitals? Not only are they well educated about hand hygiene practices and the reasons for them, but they actually see patients who suffer from the same kinds of infections that can be transmitted when hands aren’t washed properly. Surprisingly, according to Penn psychologist Adam Grant, even among health care professionals hand-washing practices leave a lot to be desired.

Grant attributes this behavior to a feeling of invulnerability on the part of the healthcare pros. This feeling is amplified by the fact that they are exposed to germs often in the course of their work but rarely become ill. So, Grant conducted an experiment by placing a sign next to a hand hygiene area. One version of the sign read, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases,” while another version said “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.”
Hand washing signs
Bearing out the invulnerability theory, the sign that pointed out the threat to the healthcare professionals didn’t change their behavior at all. In contrast, the sign that changed just one word but pointed out the danger to patients (a group seen as vulnerable to disease) increased the use of soap and sanitizing gel by 33% and boosted the probability that the healthcare pros would wash their hands by 10%. (See Science Daily and the original paper. HT to Wray Herbert.)

Business Applications

This data is highly actionable not just for soap and sanitizer suppliers, but all types of companies that offer some kind of protective product. Whether it’s disability insurance or bicycle helmets, sales may not be made because some customers think a low-probability event won’t happen to them. They acknowledge that people do become ill or pitch over the handlebars of their bike, but assume that they are sufficiently healthy, careful, or lucky to avoid that fate themselves.

The key to selling these “invulnerable” customers is to point out the risks not to them, but to others. Those others could be family members, for example, or others they endanger (like the patients in the hospital study).

For an invulnerable customer, selling a car based on safety features won’t work unless it is put in the context of protecting family members, particularly when another driver causes an accident. That approach addresses invulnerability in two ways – first, it’s more believable to the customer that a child could be injured than himself, and second, it’s more likely that someone else will cause an accident than he will. Together, these elements create a more compelling sales message than one which tries to convince the customer of his own susceptibility to an accident.

Many products are sold on the basis of self-concern, and rightly so. But, if that’s not working with some customers, alter the message to reflect the risk to others!

Is there a “protection” product you know you should buy, but have put off purchasing because you think the odds are high that you won’t need it? Leave a comment and share your feelings of invulnerability!

  1. Aida says

    How can this be applied in B2B space? Since we are not necessarily solving their personal problem, but rather a company/business problem, what advice would you give?

    Thanks – Aida

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Actually, the doctor/patient experiment IS sort of a B2B situation, albeit at a fairly personal level. I think many business managers would, in fact, be motivated by self interest, and would take risks that could harm them seriously. But, if that’s not working, they may be concerned about employees, customers, etc. It really depends on the product, but I’d say often it could be framed in terms of protecting someone else.

      In some cases, the buyer’s interests may seem to be opposed to those of others. For example, extra product safety testing might hurt the manager’s bottom line. But, framed in the context of avoiding injury to customers, it becomes more persuasive.

  2. Eric says

    Interesting post. We’ve been working on tools and resources to help people gamble responsibly for several years now, and the thing we hear over and over is “This isn’t for me, but important for everyone else.” Essentially saying everyone else has a problem, I can handle myself. Talk about an invulnerable customer.

    Wonder how we could apply this thinking in our case. The risks of irresponsible gambling are very personal and don’t generally affect others beyond that person’s immediate circle of friends/family.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Eric, I think you’ve answered your own question – a gambling problem almost always affects the gambler’s family in a negative way. Focusing on the negative effects to one’s loved ones might work better than a more direct approach.


  3. George Torok says

    Roger, I enjoyed reading and thinking about this post.

    When selling to Superman you need to discover his krytonite or Achilles heel.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      George, believe it or not my original title for the article was “Target your customer’s Achilles heel,” but I changed it after wondering whether this cultural reference is as well understood today as when we all had Greek mythology drilled into us.


  4. Paul says

    Hi Roger! This is the first time I come on your website, and I have to say it’s pretty interesting!

    It’s amazing how one word can change everything… Do we (I, my friends, the customers, each single person on Earth) have still the choice to act as we want to… 😉 ?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks, Paul! I’d say most brain scientists would agree that we all have “free will,” but that our decisions are guided more by non-conscious factors than we think.


  5. Jen says

    Hi Roger,

    Great post! This is one of the key issues that we are facing with our customers and it’s great to read your thoughts on this. Like Aida above, I’m working in the B2B space. I’m now excited to tweak our messaging and see how it works out!


  6. Margaret J. King says

    Yes, there is a high-ticket product that baby boomers are considering all the time but buying only 25% of the time: long-term care insurance. This product really tests the “likely loss” proposition — and loses most of the time. People just can’t imagine themselves as feeble, disabled, and dependent when they are able-bodied, and don’t like the images they are forced to call up in a sales situation. I think, based on the article, that the tack to follow is the hardship of care of spouse and children, not the client him/herself.

  7. Samuel says

    Wow with the sign. Didn’t think the the word “you” would have such an effect.

    People don’t like to be seen as having certain problems, especially if they are not even significant.

    I will try to point out others more in my articles, and use that in the title. See what happens! 🙂

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