The Psychology Of Social Proof (Turning Mistakes Into Sales)
You sell the most powerful vacuum cleaner on the planet. Switch it on and it sounds like the mammoth Airbus A380 on takeoff. Not only does it extract dirt from carpet in a frighteningly aggressive manner, it also sucks the glued-on toupee off the nice old man who lives one floor below you.
Tell this to 100 people, and if you were credible enough in both your word selection and your body language, some percentage of them will believe you with no further evidence needed. The others, however, will demand proof before they accept your story as fact. Some prospects, even if they saw the demonstration just once, will be fully convinced, and if they are in the market for a new vacuum, you’ll probably have a signed order in hand.
Others, however, would need a repeated demonstration before they’d consider your claim legitimate, not a hoax. With each successive demo, they’d be looking for the trick: wires, mirrors, magnets, you name it. Until they’ve thoroughly exhausted their suspicion with each showing, they’d remain unconvinced. Finally, whether it’s three, four, or five (or more) demonstrations later, you would have gotten past their convincer strategy, and if they’re good prospects for your product, they’d be closer to pulling out their wallet.
Let’s face it: there’s just so much time in the day. Unless you’re working on massive deals involving extraordinary amounts of potential profit, you probably can’t spend hours with all your prospects to get them over their belief hurdles. At some point you need to decide just how fruitful the relationship will be. You need to continually be judging where that cutoff point is at which you need to walk away and spend your time with another prospect who may not be as tough a nut to crack. It’s simply a matter of effective time management and real-world practicality.
For example, if I encounter a guy who’s just not getting what I’m saying even though I’m pouring my heart into the presentation and have been beating my head on the wall for over an hour, it’s time for me to move on. I’d much rather take the three additional hours I’d need to put a tiny chink in that guy’s defensive armor and spend that time with three other (probably more receptive) prospects.
The likely result would be that I’d probably close two or more deals in the same amount of time I would possibly have wasted talking to just one hard case.
With all this in mind, is there a shortcut that can help us cut through this time-munching credibility obstacle course, this mystery of not knowing what’s going to work for which particular prospect?
Yes, there is one form of credibility builder that, because of the way human beings are wired, is remarkably effective regardless of the product, the service, and the prospect and how convincing you are personally. It’s social proof, and it’s just as bankable as tomorrow’s rising sun.
In nutshell, social proof is a psychological phenomenon in which people look to the behaviors of others to guide their own actions. It’s caused by the common assumption that other people are more capable, knowledgeable, resourceful, or intelligent and therefore are likely to make better-informed decisions. Sometimes called herd behavior, it’s an effective and easy principle to employ.
The most common way to get the cash register ringing via the power of social proof is through the generous use of happy-customer testimonials in every size, shape, and form imaginable. Taking full advantage of this principle’s power is as simple as slathering testimonials anywhere and everywhere.
Testimonials were used by the Ponds company in 1926 in advertising its now famous cold cream (originally called Golden Treasure, a patent-medicine product containing witch hazel). This product was aggressively targeted toward politicians, royalty, and other elites to secure testimonials from “high-class” folks.
The premise behind social proof is to help consumers feel that they can take the same action and survive. Yes, it’s actually a survival mechanism. That’s how we’re wired. Everything we do is first run through the brain’s “will I survive?” mechanism. If the answer is no, the action is avoided. If it’s yes, we’re given the green light and freedom to choose to take the action or avoid it
Of course, social proof doesn’t ensure sales. It simply helps remove the mental barriers that would otherwise pull back the cerebral reins that could halt the possibility of the sale occurring. That’s what consumer psychology is all about: clearing mental barriers to participation. Participation, of course, entails your prospects exchanging their money for your stuff.
The prescription? From this day forward, every satisfied customer you can reach after the sale should be solicited for a written, audio, or, ideally, video testimonial with signed permission for you to use it in your sales presentations and marketing materials. Each one you secure is pure gold, and if you use them correctly, they can help you close sales faster than you ever dreamed possible.
The idea here is to produce a veritable testimonial onslaught that approaches the overwhelming. You want to amass a mountain of quotes, letters, and videos (when possible) and feature them in your ads, brochures, sales letters, flyers, e-mails, websites, and social media—anywhere and everywhere. Frame them and hang them on the walls. Print them and put them in sheet protectors. Put a giant stack of them in a binder that you can present at each in-person sales call. The idea here is persuasive stacking: actually layering yet another persuasion principle on top of the social proof train that already is steaming down the tracks,
According to the length-implies-strength heuristic, people quickly deem more credible things that are longer and more detailed.Let’s look at a quick example:
Let’s say you’re late for work and you tell your angry boss, “Uh, sorry I was late today. I had a flat.” He might or might not believe you, depending on (1) your relationship with him, (2) how many times you’ve pulled that one before, and (3) how much money your sales efforts stuff into his pockets every month.
To enhance your credibility, you instead say, “Uh, sorry I was late today, boss. I’m lucky I’m here at all and not in Desert Regional Hospital on life support in the CCU. While I was driving down Interstate 10, some guy in a beat-up old white catering van—just around the Gene Autry exit—swerved out of the left-hand lane without looking and almost clipped the front end of my car. I almost lost control of my car because I had to swerve to my right to avoid him, and some guy in a blue Prius shot me the middle finger because I nearly smashed into him trying to avoid getting hit. The van forced me off the side of the road just before the exit, and I rolled over something sharp because I heard a hissing sound from my left rear tire blowing out. Did you ever try changing a tire with cars speeding past you at 80 miles an hour? It’s as close to a death wish as you can get short of playing Russian roulette with a loaded .357. I was pretty shaken up and thought about going home and calling in sick today. Anyway, sorry I’m late, but hey, at least I’m alive.”
Which of these two excuses do you think has a greater likelihood of being believed? The second one, of course. Not only is it longer, but the blizzard of specifics makes it more dramatic and more believable.
If you send a “sitting-on-the-fence” prospect a binder jam-packed with enthusiastic testimonials and reviews from current and former customers, chances are that she’ll (1) think, Wow, there really must be something to this product; look how many people are wild about it (causing her to believe what you say versus doing primary research to verify the claims made by those reviewers), and (2) be convinced that it’s a good choice because so many other people have said it’s great (causing her to whip out her credit card and make your company’s cash register go ka-ching).
“Come on, Drew. Everybody knows that testimonials are an effective part of any good sales presentation.”
” They might know it, but most don’t do anything with their knowledge. How about you? How many testimonials in how many forms do you present when making sales presentations? Let’s consider the very minimum: Do you show any? Next, do you show only hardcopy testimonials? How about video, on your laptop or phone or hosted by YouTube? Do you use audio, too? (I sure do. See DrewEricWhitman.com/seminars.) Are these testimonials also featured in all of your support materials? Are they in your brochure? Your sell sheets (flyers)? Your space ads? Do you dedicate an entire page of your website to testimonials? (I sure do. See: DrewEricWhitman.com/reviews for an example of how to really “max it out.”)
Rather than saying, “Everyone knows it,” it’s helpful to ask yourself why you’re not using this principle to its maximum potential. What’s more, it’s one thing to say that the idea isn’t new (as if newness alone made a difference to the bottom figure on your monthly bank statements) and quite another to be taking full advantage of what the idea can do for you. What’s important isn’t new. What’s important is do.
For example, take newspaper advertisers. The one place where testimonials seem to make the most sense is in an ad for a product or service constructed to encourage consumers to try a product for the first time. But look at 99.9 percent of the ads in your local newspaper or shopper publication. You’ll see an endless array of poorly constructed ads. You’ll also experience a deafening absence of the one element that would help them get more inquiries, foot traffic, and cash sales. Where are their testimonials? For that matter, where are yours? Do you have an active program to secure them from your current customers? How about a program for getting them from customers you haven’t seen in a while?
But let’s not stop there. What systems do you have in place to capture new testimonials? Do you actively ask new customers for feedback? Or are you employing the “if they like it enough, maybe they’ll take it upon themselves to send me something” strategy.
Asking for feedback (testimonials) shouldn’t be an afterthought but an integral part of the sale. Testimonials are just as important to you as customer service is to your buyers. But you don’t want just any old testimonials. You don’t want customers to simply call and say, “Hey! Great product; thanks so much,” and then hang up. You want to capture their feedback in writing or, ideally, on video. If you can’t get video, www.biz-tutorial.com try for audio, either in person (if practical) or by telephone. Audio adds an additional element of believability (actually hearing the buyer’s own voice).
“Agreed, Drew. We do ask for testimonials and feedback, but most people just ignore us.”
Surprised? Don’t be. Asking for testimonials after the sale isn’t much different from asking for the original sale. In both cases you want someone to do something for you. In the case of the sale, you asked Bob for a portion of his money in exchange for a portion of your inventory, and only until you talked enough to convince Bob that your stuff was worth more than the money you asked him to give you for it did the sale actually occur.
Now consider your request for the testimonial. You’re asking Bob to put his life on hold to help you build your business, and in return he’ll get, uh, er, nothing at all.
Oh sure, your request doesn’t require Bob to spend more money, but think about it! You’re asking him to spend two other valuable things: his time and his effort. Unless your rapport is so great that he’ll do it because he likes you so much, you’ve got a brand-new sales hurdle to leap.
Enter the incentive, or as some distastefully call it, the ethical bribe. To encourage Bob to give you that testimonial—which, incidentally, could be instrumental in helping you close hundreds of future sales for untold amounts of profit—you need to give Bob some value in return for his effort. In her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand called this exchange “value for value.”
That’s fair, right? If you just shook your head yes or silently agreed, that’s great, but are you currently executing this idea? I learned long ago that amassing a storehouse of knowledge may be fun and ego-enhancing, but it does little to put food on the table. Unless I actively do something with what I’ve learned, my knowledge is valuable only for my next session of Trivial Pursuit, which I haven’t played in close to a decade.
Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.
Some salespeople think that sales is just a matter of talking, but that’s only half of the equation. The most effective sales presentations include showing as well. Then why is it that most car salespeople do nothing more than simply talk to you? There are countless reviews and reports and magazine articles at their immediate disposal that could serve as authoritative testimonials that would help them close countless more sales if they incorporated them into their verbal-only pitch.
For example, say you’re a Toyota salesperson and I’m a prospect. I wander onto your lot and start checking out the just-released Avalon sedan. You haven’t seen one potential buyer all day, and so your heart begins to pound. You jam a stick of peppermint Dentyne into your mouth and begin making a beeline to me.
If after exchanging pleasantries all you do is ask a few routine questions such as, “Have you ever owned a Toyota? Are you looking to trade in your current car? Will you be using this car for business or pleasure? The ride is fantastic: super smooth and quiet. Would you like to take it for a spin?” you’re firing only half of your cylinders. Imagine if you pulled out your professional-looking brag book containing scores of articles, critical reviews, comparison tests, and awards and said things like the following:
“This new Avalon received the Kelley Blue Book Resale Value Award for the very best resale value in its class [show the report]. Polk says that 90 percent of Avalons sold in the last 15 years are still on the road today [show the report]. Avalon was named a Best Bet by Cars.com. The hybrid version was named a SmartChoice Fuel Costs winner by IntelliChoice [show the report]. It was named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety [show the report].”
Instead of my hearing you say what sounds like your own opinions about the car, do you think that all this information—shown in black and white hardcopy—might cause me to be persuaded to choose the Avalon above others?
But wait! you don’t stop after telling me about Avalon’s many rewards. No. You next show me—in black and white—reviews from respected magazine filled with praise about the new car:
- “For modest souls who would never want to ride behind the Lexus badge, the Avalon offers style and features that encroach on Lexus territory.”— Automobile
- “It’s better to drive than both the Lexus ES and the Camry while also delivering luxury and refinement that neatly splits those two cars.”—Car and Driver
- “This latest iteration preserves the high levels of luxury and comfort that made the Avalons of yesteryear such a success, but adds a dose of athleticism and panache to the mix.”—Kelley Blue Book
- “Handsome interior treatments plus quiet operation and attractive pricing, and the Avalon’s appeal expands well beyond its previous limits.”—Popular Mechanics
How about now? Do you think that after your onslaught of the awards and then the reviews and then the test drive I’d be more sold than if you had you only rambled on without any support materials to add credibility to your presentation the way most car salespeople do?
Don’t you see? Without high-credibility sales aids packed with such reviews, it’s just you—some commission-paid sales guy—telling me stuff. Sure, you could sell me without using such support materials, but that’s like eating spaghetti with a onetined fork. Why would you do that?
Back to your presentation because you’re not done yet. Next you show me a giant chart comparing the Avalon to its closest competitors: the Buick LaCrosse, the Nissan Maxima 3.5 S, and the Taurus SEL. You confidently show me how testing proves that the Avalon beats one or more of these cars in multiple categories, including price, comparatively equipped price, city and highway fuel economy, horsepower, and torque,
Benefits, features, facts, credibility. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Do you see what just happened? Now it’s not just you selling me. You’ve hired an army of assistants with firmly established credibility to help close the deal for you. I don’t care how long you’ve been selling cars; you’re a stranger to me, someone I don’t know and innately distrust. Hey, I’m in survival mode. I’ve got my consumer armor up—like Captain Kirk’s Enterprise’s tactical deflector shields—so that I won’t be taken advantage of.
Although you may be a stranger to me, the Kelley Blue Book you mentioned is like an old friend I reference constantly while researching cars online. And I sure know Car and Driver magazine; I used to subscribe and often visit its website. And Popular Mechanics? Very trustworthy in my experience. And yeah, all those awards. Polk and the IIHS aren’t about to lie about safety issues. Cars.com has always been a trusted resource for automobile shoppers; I’ve spent many hours researching new vehicles on its website.
Do you see what you’ve done? It’s called credibility stacking. Like a giant New York deli sandwich, you’ve successfully stacked one form of testimonial upon another, with each new layer producing a unit of believability so that the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts.
qual to more than the sum of its parts. Should you stop there? No way! Instead, you add a brochure filled with comments by Avalon owners who bought from you (and a video of the same people on your website), and you’ve effectively transformed yourself from a stranger to an authoritative consumer-information resource. Now you’re a consumer advocate, not just some partisan salesperson looking for a commission check. You’re now performing a public service, actually helping your prospects make a good decision by giving them real, substantiated, credible facts.
Your goal is to move prospects from a presale state of mistrust and fear to one of confidence. You achieve this by placating their innate human survival instinct when you directly challenge their perception of both the salesperson and the product by introducing credible evidence that others have gone before them and survived. Gather as many testimonials and reviews as possible, including those which directly comment about you as a salesperson. Ideally, testimonials that most strongly address common objections should be grouped together because multiple reviews countering a single objection read (or seen) in successive order have a powerful value-greaterthan-its-sum quality that’s effective in combating even the most entrenched objections.
Tweak the following script for your particular product or service and conversational style, being careful to modify it as little as possible.
“My job is to help you make the decision that’s best for you. So whoever you buy [join/enroll/subscribe/rent, etc.] from, the only thing that really matters before deciding are the facts. That’s because no matter what I tell you, it’s the facts that you’ll be dealing with after you spend your money. I mean, I can say anything I want, right? But if what I tell you doesn’t align with the facts, then what I said was completely worthless. Make sense? Sure, and the best way that I know to determine what’s true about any product or service—whatever it is— isn’t necessarily by listening to the person who’s selling it but by listening to and reading what actual buyers are saying about it after they’ve used it for months and years. It’s one thing for me to tell you how great it is and quite another for an actual customer to do the same thing.” [Show testimonials and reviews.]
Important: Don’t make the miscalculation that prospects don’t need to hear what actual buyers have said about the product or service and their experience of the transaction. In advertising, for example, testimonials are so critical to building credibility that not including them is the mark of a sales amateur. Never underestimate a buyer’s fear of getting taken advantage of. Your prospect desperately wants to make the right decision even for products costing only a few bucks. Multiply that dollar figure by 10 or 29 (or whatever number is necessary to approximate your price), and you’re looking at presale apprehension that’s as constricting on their wallets as a 23-foot Burmese python wrapped around a 925- pound Gloucester Old Spot pig.