Cognitive Bias: How to Make People Want What You’re Selling

Cognitive Bias: How to Make People Want What You’re Selling

“People don’t buy for logical reasons. They buy for emotional reasons.” – Zig Ziglar.

People, by nature, are extremely emotional. We may feel like we’re making logical and rational decisions every day, but there are so many influences subconsciously playing into our emotions and steering the direction of our thoughts and judgment.

This may sound like bad news for salespeople. The lack of certainty in how a prospect will behave makes it difficult for salespeople to feel in control.

Assuming the need is there for your solution, it seems reasonable to think that you should be able to present the benefits and ROI of your offering, and in return your prospect should be able to see the logic in choosing your solution. Why can’t we all just make some rational decisions?

The reality is, we can’t.

We make bizarre, illogical and irrational choices all the time.

Why? Because our brains are wired to rely on shortcuts and patterns to solve problems and make judgment calls quickly.

Improve communication by understanding consumer behavior

These mental shortcuts are called heuristics. We receive tremendous amounts of information every day, so we depend on heuristics to speed up our problem-solving time. Heuristics allow us to function efficiently, without constantly stopping to think about our next course of action.

While heuristics play a critical role in decision-making, they also leave us prone to cognitive biases.

Cognitive bias is an error in reasoning that causes us to deviate from good judgment and make illogical decisions.

Leverage psychology hacks to supercharge your sales

So, how can we use this information to regain control and boost conversions? The good news is our irrational behaviors are not random. Dan Ariely, best selling author of ‘Predictably Irrational’ says:

‘Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless – they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains.’

If consumer behavior is predictable, then success in sales comes down to understanding it and communicating accordingly. Sure, we can’t control the final outcome, but we can certainly influence it and do so with confidence. An understanding of how and why people make decisions is a powerful sales tool to persuade our prospects and direct them along the path to purchase.


DISCLAIMER: With this knowledge comes a responsibility to use it with integrity. There is a big difference between persuading someone to buy your solution and manipulating or misleading them. Remember, you are also susceptible to these biases so imagine the situation in reverse. Treat this tactic as ethical influence.

7 cognitive biases that can make or break your sales

Anchoring effect

Don’t you love when you go to book a holiday and the booking site has suddenly displayed a price drop? The cost is still high, but it’s half the price it was before. That’s surely reason enough to justify handing over your credit card, right?

This is the anchor effect and we have all fallen victim to it at one point or another.

We have a habit of relying too heavily on the first piece of information we’re given and then we use that information as a base for subsequent decisions.

How can you exploit it?

Whether your first point of communication involves a call or email, the very first thing you say matters. Carefully plan out how you want to introduce yourself and make sure the first piece of information your prospect receives about your product sets a positive tone for the rest of the conversation.

Play to this bias by unveiling the price of your solution in stages. If you are offering a discount, start with the full price and follow with the discount cost. Alternatively, demonstrate a price comparison by referencing a competitor price that’s higher. When your prospect sees the second price, they’re more likely to view it favorably as they still have the initial quote in mind.

Strengthen your case by sharing testimonials that show how customers have earned or saved far more than they paid for your solution.

Ambiguity effect

Imagine you had the choice between two routes to reach your destination.

You’ve traveled the first route often and you’re familiar with the roads. You can plan your time of arrival down to the second.

You have never taken the second route before. The roads could be bumpy, traffic could be bad. You can’t guarantee you’ll reach your destination on time.

Which route are you more likely to take?

Most people are risk averse and will opt for route one. This is called the ambiguity effect and it causes people to lean towards the familiar and avoid options that are unknown. It also causes people to shy away from making decisions if they don’t fully understand what’s involved or what the results will be.

How can you exploit it?

Before you reach out to your prospect, make sure you anticipate any knowledge gaps. Having the relevant information to hand when your prospect has questions is key to conquering this bias.

Don’t overload your prospect with information on your first email or call – focus on the highlights and simplify what you are offering.

Try to gauge the existing knowledge of your prospect. Don’t use jargon, acronyms or technical terms, especially if they don’t fully understand what you are selling. It will scare potential buyers away.

Focus on results and clearly inform your prospect of what they can expect. Include case studies to share concrete examples of customer results.

Do your research on your prospect to help anticipate questions or objections. Smart contact data allows you to find valuable insights quickly to pre-qualify your leads. This allows you to store key information so you can have it on hand when contacting your prospect.

Bandwagon effect

From Beanie Babies to Bitcoin, at some point in our lives, we have all fallen victim to the bandwagon effect, also known as social influence.

Social influence can have a profound impact on how people make decisions. We like to think that we’re strong enough to resist letting others influence our decisions. But whether we like to admit it or not, we tend to trust something a lot more if we know it’s already popular with others.

How can you exploit it?

Talk about your customers.

If your first point of contact is on a call, leverage social influence by referencing other customers in your conversation, for example: “Most of our clients use X to achieve Y”.

If you are reaching out to your prospect via email, include case studies that demonstrate how your prospect’s peers are using your offering. Don’t be afraid to show your prospect what their competition is doing.

Why not run a split test to see which customer stories are most effective to create need and close deals. The Pipedrive Sales Inbox allows you to cold email efficiently using templates, and track your progress to see which of your pitches is driving the most success.

Social proof is powerful – when you hit a customer milestone, broadcast it on social channels, newsletters and whenever you can drop it into conversation!

Confirmation bias

“We all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.” Robert B. Cialdini

In short, we love being right!

Confirmation bias is the tendency to jump to conclusions that confirm what we already believe to be true. Sometimes we subconsciously seek information that validates our beliefs, while discounting anything that opposes them.

You may not want to believe this one. Surely only small-minded or egotistical people could succumb to this bias, right? Feel a sudden urge to disprove it?

That just might be the confirmation bias kicking in!

Confirmation Bias

How can you exploit it?

It’s not easy to change your prospects preconceptions. Instead, you should cater to them and share information that compliments their existing beliefs.

There’s an easy way to do this – stop talking and listen.

Use your discovery call or meeting to ask guiding questions that help you to understand your prospect’s point of view and what they want to achieve, and listen carefully. If you launch straight into the benefits of your product or service you risk saying something that will clash with your prospect’s beliefs.

Halo effect

First impressions matter.

Nicholas Boothman claims when you meet someone, you only have 90 seconds to make an impression. If you don’t spark a connection in that time, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever trigger their interest. This time is critical.

We tend to blanket our feelings, so if your prospect likes you, they are more likely to have positive associations with your business and product. The opposite is also true, so it’s important to set a positive tone from the very beginning.

How can you exploit it?

Pay attention to your facial expressions, eyes and body language. It’s essential for all three to convey a sense of warmth and openness:

  • Position your body with your heart facing towards your prospect and avoid crossing your arms.
  • Don’t be afraid to make eye contact – it is an effective way to gain trust.
  • Smile! It shows that you’re enthusiastic. Like yawning, it’s infectious so it won’t be long before your prospect is smiling back.

Make sure your voice, body language and expressions match. Lack of consistency can make you appear ingenuine and compromise your credibility. Boothman says that:

‘All relationships are built on trust. Trust is built on congruence’.

Mirroring your prospects mannerisms also brings synchronicity into the conversation. As human beings, we do this quite naturally and it helps to build rapport. This can include posture, volume of speech and facial expressions. A mismatch in communication styles can destroy a potential deal. For example, if your prospect is particularly softly-spoken, shouting your pitch certainly won’t work in your favor!

Focus on what you want to get out of your conversation. Ask the right questions and actively listen. This means not only paying attention to the words, but the person’s feelings as well. Truly understanding your prospect and where you can bring value is key to building a genuine connection. And in Brian Tracy’s words.

‘ As a rule, the person who asks questions has control.’

You can also use this to your advantage when pitching your solution. Focus your pitch on your best skill or product benefit first – then let the Halo Effect shine onto your other products and services too.

IKEA effect

‘‘The effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us and the way we evaluate that object. Greater labor leads to greater love.’ – Dan Ariely

Have you ever felt a real sense of achievement when you look at a shelf from the popular Swedish store that you have just assembled by hand? It may be a little wonky, but I bet it means a lot more to you that the superior antique shelf that you had delivered.

That’s the IKEA effect!

People tend to value something significantly more if they feel they have played a role in building it, regardless of the end result.

How can you exploit it?

Work together with your prospect to customize your solution to cater to their specific needs. Make them feel like they have a hand in shaping the solution. Offer them a free trial and ask for feedback.

This can also work nicely when it comes to customer retention. Get your customers involved in BETA trials for new products. It makes your customers feel important and shows you value their opinion. In return, you receive valuable feedback to enhance and refine your offering.

Sunk-cost Fallacy

“Persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort.” – Robert B. Cialdini

We instinctively want to finish what we start. We are especially, and sometimes irrationally, committed to finishing something and sticking it out when we have already invested time, energy or money into it.

Think about a game of monopoly that goes on for hours and hours. Everyone’s starting to get tired and there is no end in sight, but you feel like you have to keep playing. Otherwise, it all would have been for nothing, right?

How can you exploit it?

Encourage your prospect to agree to small commitments. This is similar to the IKEA Effect – you want your prospect to get involved.

Send questions for your potential buyer to consider before your next meeting. This is also a useful technique to frame how your prospect thinks about your offering.

Email some reading materials and useful resources to your prospect. This not only works to increase commitment, but shows that you are helpful and want to add value.

If your prospect has cooperated with the requests so far, it’s likely that they’re interested in your solution. Why not offer a free trial to dial up the commitment levels? This also plays nicely into the Hyperbolic Discounting Effect – we are more attracted to immediate wins, than long-term rewards. Delayed payment terms are an effective way to satisfy your prospect’s desire for instant pay-off.

Key takeaways to create urgency and drive more sales

Understanding these cognitive biases and playing to them instead of against them is an important skill when it comes to creating a need for your solution and demonstrating value.

Here are 4 key takeaways to bring to your everyday sales processes to create need, build trust and motivate your prospect to buy:

  • Research – Know as much about your prospect as possible before you ever reach out. Try to match prospects against lookalike customers to anticipate any possible objections, challenges and preconceptions.
  • First impressions matter – Carefully plan your opening line, how you want to present your solution, and of course, how you present yourself. You need to be likable and set a positive tone from the very beginning if you want to build a meaningful connection.
  • Actively listen – Ask open questions and give your prospect the opportunity to express their opinions and needs. Active listening is key to establish rapport and to truly understand your prospect’s values, pain points, and desires.
  • Find the need and create value – Find something your prospect really cares about, like a personal objective or business goal, and center your focus on that. Look at your solution from their perspective. What problem can you solve for them? How is your product or service going to make them more successful?

For more sales tips and actionable advice, check out The Sales Pipeline Academy. Learn how to refine your sales process and increase your conversion rate in our free 2-week email course.

You can combine this actionable sales advice with your newfound knowledge of cognitive biases to supercharge your selling right away.  

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Aoife O'Mullane

Aoife is a freelance writer and marketing consultant with a passion for content and storytelling. Aoife specializes in B2B marketing, business transformation and digital media, working with brands to generate awareness and drive engagement online.