Selling Science: The Psychology of Sales

December 8, 2022
 min read

Every now and then it’s important to remind yourself of the basics. The world of sales has its own culture, complete with taboos and rites of passage, and it’s easy to become entrenched in these norms as the years go by. Occasionally zooming out for a more omnipotent-esque view of what your career really means can ultimately help you do it better. 

Ideally, your product or service is filling a need. A simple definition of selling is communicating about your solution in a convincing way. Zoom out a bit more, and selling is basically engaging in an ongoing conversation with someone you probably don’t know very well. Just one human interacting with another, both with interests to look out for. This means for a person to buy a product, even if they truly need it, they have to trust the seller first. 

To foster an environment of trust, focus on your prospect and their needs. When you embark on a sales campaign and end up in a lead’s inbox or call log, they know why you’re there. Ask as many qualifying questions as you want, you’re not fooling anyone. Both ends of the sales equation- that’s you and your lead -know that you’re building up to the sales pitch, but neither of you will address it. Why is that? 

Stalling the sales pitch has become a standard, in part because potential buyers are able to be selective in the face of endless options of products. In an extremely competitive environment, it’s not enough to have the solution to end all solutions. Buyers expect sellers to demonstrate their competence by catching their attention first. Once a seller has their attention, they need to be impressed. And once they’ve been impressed, they need to be convinced. All of which helps demonstrate to the buyer that they can trust the seller’s judgement and ultimately, the seller’s solution.

To Get Some Reciprocity

The reciprocity principle is popular for its success and is also a useful way to stall selling and build trust. The principle suggests that humans are hard-wired to reciprocate, to give something back when we’ve received something. Whether it’s returning a favor with a favor or a compliment with a compliment, the idea behind using this basic law of social psychology is to influence your prospect’s willingness to listen to you.

Methods for initiating the reciprocity principle include: 

  • Explain how to solve a problem your prospect is experiencing
  • Provide a sample of the work you do but for their company
  • Send a link to a helpful download
  • Repost one of their blogs from LinkedIn then message them explaining why you reposted
  • Retweet them
  • Send an invitation to a webinar that will cover relevant information

When One Door Opens

The reciprocity principle leads into the “foot in the door” technique. Due to the reciprocity principle, your prospect may feel compelled to do something for you after you’ve done something for them. When this happens, the foot in the door technique says that once they’ve agreed to one thing, even if it’s significantly less involved than your ultimate ask, they’re more likely to commit to further asks down the line.

Say you start with an ebook.

If your prospect downloads it, they’re more likely to agree to a meeting because they’ve already fulfilled one of your asks. Each commitment they fulfill is reshaping their regard for your interaction. Suddenly it begins to feel more like a collaboration. Now they’ve invested their own time into you, so your requests are no longer something they perceive themselves as totally apart from.

Am I Missing Out?

Conversely, being apart from something can make humans want to be involved. Marketing and sales have long loved the notion of scarcity, or FOMO, as it's often called now.

New name, but it's stuck around because it works.

However, none of these principles are guaranteed and if any of them aren’t your style, it’s best not to use them. When you’re comfortable with and proud of the way you’re conducting yourself, it will likely translate better than cosplaying with a selling style you hate.

Mimicking a technique of other successful sellers when it goes against your own natural inclinations can be worth rethinking at times. 

What Do You Think?

Our favorite psychological sales tool is to play off the fact that humans like to know what other people think. We like knowing that others agree with us and we like joining in on ideas that have the support of a group. This makes social proof significantly more convincing than almost anything a rep could say themself.

Even though we may struggle to recognize it in ourselves, we are all strongly biased. Buyers know this, everyone knows this, when it comes to selling. Of course you’re promising the world with your product, it’s in your best interest to do so. 

While you can’t get rid of your own bias, you can mitigate your prospect’s perception of it. First, be realistic about your product through the language you choose to use. Avoid dramatic emotional appeals, platitudes and buzz words like “revolutionize.”

But more importantly, use social proof. Send your prospect reviews, case studies, and data whenever possible. If you aren’t already doing this in your campaigns, you’ll be surprised by how much of the heavy lifting social proof can do.

8 Tips to Keep in Mind

So those are the common psychological tropes that arise in conjunction with sales, but we want you to keep these other factors in mind as well.

  1. Be human, and not just to avoid being thought of as a mass email. Sometimes we get caught up in the latest insights or best practices and forget that we’re a human dealing with other humans. There are caveats to every rule and we don’t want to drown out our own instincts just to make a word count hit a specific mark or to maximize personalization.

    Don’t lose sight of the question, what would I want if I were in my prospect’s position? 

  1. We’re different behind our screens than we are in person. Maybe you feel more at ease in person. Maybe you appreciate the ability to edit and the sense of control you experience behind a screen. Regardless of preference, what’s important to remember is that your prospect is different behind the screen too. It’s not just you. But if you can access the version of yourself that’s a culmination of the online and in-person you, you’ll have a better chance of reaching that version of your prospect too.

    Doing so makes for a more consistent and authentic interaction. Don’t underestimate the value of authenticity for building trust. It’s great for breaking down barriers. Your prospects are wielding a certain amount of power when they’re the ones being reached out to and asked for something. They could be jaded from receiving so many cold emails every day, or have specific metrics for emails they will answer that are completely separate from their actual needs.

    Present yourself in an authentic way to help overcome barriers your prospect might already be operating with.

  1. You’ve probably come to realize that upon first learning about your product or service, there’s a typical reaction. A principle called fictional fixation describes the human phenomenon of thinking we know exactly what to expect. We spend our lives making associations and oversimplifying concepts, people and things into neatly categorized connotations.

    We have to, otherwise we couldn't process all the stimuli we encounter on a daily basis. It helped our ancestors survive.

    But when it comes to sales, a prospect who is certain they already know what to expect means you need to take the time to expand on their expectations. This requires patience and clear communication. Think about when Amazon stopped solely selling books. It took some time for customers to mentally accept the idea that Amazon could be a resource for a variety of needs.

    Now thinking of Amazon as a bookseller is a relic of the past. So learn what the common expectations of your company or industry are and be prepared to provide more nuance over time.

  1. Biases, stereotypes and other exclusive language choices can be perpetuated through writing, often subconsciously. Communicating inclusively has practical applications that span far beyond sales, but as sellers it’s important to understand the weight that the words we choose have the potential to carry.

    For DEI guidance, check out Regie for the workspace.

  1. Another way to be aware of the biases we all have is understanding that not everyone communicates and processes information in the same way. It seems obvious, but we’re not wired to remember that we’re living in our own subjective reality. Accounting for your own biases and those of your leads means considering both their personalities and your own.

    Sellers need to have a firm grasp on their own selling style first, to be able to adjust to the preferences of a potential buyer. This includes making decisions about optimal tonality, channel, cadence length, social proof and persistence for communicating with a lead. Will they appreciate humor? Should you send data for them to look over? How long should your emails be? Ask yourself questions like these before embarking on a sale.

    For a more in-depth look into the impact of personality on sales, check out Watch Your Tone: How Regie Writes Sequences With DiSC to Improve Engagement

  1. Don’t be unperceptive to objections. When we tell ourselves we need to sell to everyone, we stop hearing the meaning behind our prospects’ words. Selling to a poor fit potential buyer shouldn’t be incentivized, as it’ll only lead to a negative customer experience, wasted resources and negative reviews.

    The opportunity for upselling and referrals is also squandered. If your qualifying process is more about convincing than it is qualifying, you aren’t learning. To make use of the qualifying stage, remind yourself that it’s about listening so you don’t get in your own way. 

  1. A consistent tone throughout a sales campaign leads to greater resonance. Whether it’s from touchpoint to touchpoint, throughout a sales call or from subject line to signature in an email, it’s important to maintain control over your general attitude. If your tone switches from bubbly to stern to desperate, your prospect won’t feel at ease.

    Psychologically we need things to make sense, and an inconsistent tone just doesn’t. Decide on the right tonality for each campaign before launching it. Regie can help, with campaigns guided by the proper tonality for your buyer personas. 

  1. Take care of yourself. It’s difficult to sell well when you’re exhausted, irritable or frustrated. Sales requires teams that are on top of their game at every stage of the cycle. Sending cold emails is daunting enough, but putting out quality writing, even if it is 100 words or less (sometimes fewer is more difficult) can feel impossible when you need a reset.

    Thoroughly researching a lead and the creativity it can require is energy consuming.

    You might miss a pivotal fact when you’re simply going through the motions or just trying to get through the day. And you can’t deliver a show stopping pitch when you haven’t had time to exercise, get outside or prepare a healthy meal at home.

    With each emotion we’re experiencing, our thinking looks different. The words we would normally use, our flow, the ability to put yourself in the mind of your prospect, will suffer if you’re not doing well overall.

    You need a reservoir of brain power to do your job to the best of your ability, so make sure you’re prioritizing your own needs as much as you’re prioritizing your career goals. 
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