His point was that when persuading – or in our case when selling – it's critical to understand the underlying beliefs of the person you are trying to persuade.
People tend to demand far more evidence for a statement or recommendation that clashes with one of their existing beliefs than they do for one that is more in line with what they already believe. So as a sales strategy, it's usually far more effective to work to position your recommendations as building on an existing belief than to have to challenge and overcome one.
In reality, most salespeople rarely think consciously about the beliefs that might be impacted by what they are selling. But a little thought can cast a great deal of insight and help shape a more effective strategy.
For example, if you're selling some form of management consultancy services then it may seem that what you're doing doesn't challenge any significant beliefs in your potential client. After all, you are highlighting ways for them to improve their business by using your services – what could be challenging about that?
But if what you are proposing to do falls under the remit of the potential client or other person with influence over the buying decision then you had better be careful. It could well be that a belief you are challenging is their belief that they need to be seen as not having any weaknesses in their capabilities. In other words, if they need you to help them, doesn't that make them a bad manager? Shouldn't they be able to do this stuff themselves? Very often potential clients are seriously concerned about whether hiring you may make them look weak in the eyes of their managers, staff and peers. What you are selling challenges their belief that they need to be “on top” of all the activities in their remit.
For this reason, when selling consulting services I always look for a “get out clause” for my clients. A reason why it's OK for them to need me that isn't damaging to their self image and their fear of what others might think. I explicitly look for a rationalisation for why they can't do this themselves. There has been a change in what customers need that they couldn't have been aware of, for example. or perhaps they need to focus on managing their team and optimising today's performance while someone with an “objective viewpoint” looks at their strategy. The logic doesn't have to be iron-clad. Just something to make them feel at ease and comfortable hiring me without feeling they are admitting failure somehow.
Of course, different issues will arise in different selling situations – but it's surprising how often what seems like a purely rational buying decision will have a powerful emotional dimension due to the impact of the decision on the underlying beliefs of the buyers.
* Image courtesy of Skeptical Enquirer magazine.