How to influence a decision (ethically)

Simon saying "you need this" gesturing to a box to another Simon asking "do i?"

There are 4 Ways to Influence a Decision… but whose interests are being served?

Psychologically, there’s a lot going beneath the surface of a sale. There are factors that affect buying decisions that have been transformed into well-documented and researched selling tactics.

These external factors are often used to manipulate the buyer. But once you’re awaredeep of them, it’s up to you what you do with them: use them to coerce a sale, or use them in the buyer’s interests.

If you believe volume of sales is all-important, maybe coercion doesn’t feel so problematic.

But if your work requires you to build a relationship with each client, and for them to invest in the work you do together, it may be best if they don’t feel pressured into making that commitment later on.

So what are these factors or methodologies that can influence peoples decisions?

Decision-making shortcuts

Let’s talk about heuristics.

Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts our brains use when making decisions. Another way to describe them is as the assumptions we make without even realising – and those assumptions can be used to lead us to one decision option over another. Here are four examples:

  1. Single option aversion – Have you ever noticed how hard it is to make a decision when there’s only one option? That’s ‘single-option aversion’. We instinctively see more risk and struggle to see value without a comparison. In purchase terms, this means only having one option can result in a no-sale (because we’re just not sure). But show a few alternatives and we’re more likely to pick one.
  2. Asymmetric dominance effect – Choosing between two very different or complex options can be challenging. One way to influence the decision is to introduce a third option that is clearly inferior to one of the other two options (but only inferior in some ways to the other). Also called the ‘decoy effect’, the result is that the more ‘dominant’ option becomes more attractive.
  3. Likeability bias – Also known as the ‘halo effect’, likeability bias is what happens when our overall impression of a person, company or brand influences our feelings and thoughts about them. We’re no long thinking about the service or product options on offer; instead it’s a question of how much we like the person (company or brand) presenting them to us. In manipulative marketing terms: make someone like you, make a sale.
  4. Social proof – This can be a powerful influence on our decisions and behaviour and basically comes down to how others react to the offer. There’s less perceived risk in buying something new if other people like or endorse it. The power of the crowd – especially powerful when that ‘crowd’ is made up of people like us.

Powerful but short-lived effect

So far, this all sounds like a toolkit for mega sales figures, right? Especially if you don’t mind manipulating the buyer.

However, the effect of using these heuristics doesn’t last long. Long enough to make a sale, maybe, but with a bit of conscious thought and reflection, the buyer will see through them.

So, if you use these heuristic factors to drive a sale, the client is more likely to suffer from ‘buyer’s remorse’ at some later point. And that’s likely to be a problem if you’re engaged in relationship-dependent deep work with the client.

Be aware of the effect you might be having

It is evident that these external influences are potent motivators of human behaviour and a large part of the buying process. Like any tool or knowledge, they can be used for good or bad – to help the buyer make the best decision for them or just to manipulate more sales for you.

It’s all in how you apply them to your marketing and interactions with potential clients.

The answer is to flip your perspective.

Instead of seeing marketing as selling a product that you want to sell, see it as selling a product that the client wants to buy.

As Seth Godin says, “If they knew what you know, would they still buy what you’re selling?”

This is a great way of reframing the marketing process and how you sell. Those heuristics are still playing a part in the decision, but if you know that, you can aim to market more ethically – not allowing restrictive choices, decoys, personal charisma, or social pressure to convince clients to buy what they don’t need or want.

For example, single option aversion means it’s easier to decide when there’s a choice. So, offer a choice – that’s helpful. But those choices should both (or all) be potentially genuinely helpful or desirable. Thus avoiding the decoy effect. The buyer’s choice can then depend on which option actually meets their needs best, as opposed to being psychologically pushed in the direction of the seller’s choice (probably the most expensive!)

The basic principle of more ethical marketing is that you stop and consider how you are presenting the offer from the buyer’s point of view.

But… If these tactics work, I can sell loads!

Yes they work, they work very well.

But if you’re selling a process, a working-together-over-time, ask yourself whether using these tactics fosters a new client’s commitment to that process. If you need someone to show up for weeks or months and do the work needed for the process to succeed, what happens when they start to feel manipulated into saying ‘yes’ in the first place?

Isn’t it better to work with someone who sees the value and relevance of what you’re offering from the beginning?

In fact, many of the big brands themselves are starting to realise that these tricks don’t result in long-term customer satisfaction and retention. Lego stores don’t try and sell you Lego. They just want to get you excited about it, and if you buy your bricks later via Amazon, they don’t mind – you bought the product. The same with Apple. The in-store strategy is just to show you the products, ask you about what you want to achieve, and then show you some ways in which their products might help. The purchase decision often comes later.

What do you want? Mega sales or great clients?

You can use these heuristic factors to make a lot of sales.

Or you can use them to help people make a good decision that they’ll be happy with.

As long as you considering why the buyer is making the purchase decision, and can truthfully say that they would still buy if they knew what you know then I believe your marketing will be ethical.

If you want to learn more about who it is you want to work with, how you can design a product they really want to buy, and then market it more ethically then check out my book, Reframing Marketing. It’s a 3-step guide to creating an effective and ethical marketing plan that doesn’t rely on manipulative tactics to make a sale.