We're all negotiators no matter whether we judge ourselves as inept (as do I) or a real tough, effective participant in working a deal. In February, I had the opportunity to speak at the Sales, Profit and Marketing Summit in Phoenix. The keynote speaker was hometown expert Robert Cialdini, who has the reputation of being the most quoted social scientist in the world. Cialdini is famous for several books but is probably best known for Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (more than 2 million copies sold).

I found his presentation remarkable. Given that I have attended numerous conferences and listened to surely 100 presenters as the editor of this publication, this should signal that what he said was really special.

I attribute the high praise to several elements during Cialdini's presentation. First, Cialdini, a Ph.D. in psychology, rests his assumptions on studies, some that fly in the proverbial face of common sense or everyday practices. In short, he and his fellow researchers (he is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University) try to remove the guesswork or gut feeling from our marketing or sales approach. They want to base it on observable science. Second, it's the question of ease. The changes he suggests are often minor, in some instances only making a word change or two. Third, he urges that practitioners of his scientific approach to persuasion only use his tactics for ethical purposes. This last notion is a pleasant and refreshing idea, though its “enforcement” admittedly leaves me wondering.

One of the most famous cases that I associate with Cialdini is his observations about a jewelry store that had slow-moving items. The owner, who was leaving for a weekend trip, told the assistant to drop the price by a significant amount. I don't remember the figure, but it was about 50 percent. The owner went away for the weekend and returned to find most of the jewelry sold. He was extremely pleased. Then he found out the assistant had misheard the instructions. He RAISED the price by 50 percent. In short, the perceived value of the items made them more appealing.

When I give presentations about public relations, I use a study published in a journal of the American Academy of Sciences. It shows that the more expensive the bottle of wine, the greater degree of satisfaction the drinker derives from consuming it. In this study, the most expensively labeled bottle got the highest reviews even though it was, in fact, the cheapest. Again, people equate price with quality. We all know how Consumer Reports puts a real dent into that theory. But we also know that we don't always buy with our minds, no matter how objective we consider ourselves to be.

Since I work with words, this is just one example I love. A restaurant in Chicago would ask potential customers to phone in a cancellation if they couldn't keep their reservation. “Please call us if you intend to cancel,” was their request. While most people agreed to do so, only about 10 percent complied.

By simply adding two words, “would you” in front of the usual request, compliance jumped to 30 percent, a significant increase. Why? To put it into nonscientific terms, they made a personal request out of it.

Here's another Cialdini approach. If you're considering whether to start a new initiative at your distributorship — one that you really want but also one you want to appear to be democratic — don't just point out the benefits of the idea. Rather, ask people if they might be willing to support the idea. Then wait for the “yes” answer. In all likelihood, you've already made the “sale,” and it will seem just as democratic.

While some of Cialdini's observations might seem like trickery, they aren't. As I mentioned previously, he supports his scientifically supported studies under the umbrella of an ethical basis. I like that too. Because if someone ultimately feels you've manipulated him during the decision-making process, the long-term relationship will surely suffer.

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