What’s wrong with persuasion?

A sales person was selling me a piece of exercise equipment and I said to her “I’m interested but you’re going to have to persuade my wife.” The sales woman recoiled as if I had suggested she commit a crime. “Oh I don’t persuade people” she said.

Since I coach sales people on how to design and deliver persuasive presentations I hear this kind of reaction now and again. Some sales people say things like “I don’t believe in using persuasion” or “I don’t persuade my prospects I just help them arrive at the right decision.”

I would assert that most of the sales people who have a negative view of persuasion are likely using persuasive techniques in their sales efforts. I expect that in conversations with prospects they are giving examples or telling stories about the positive experiences that other customers have had with their product or service. Or maybe they make the prospect aware of data from a research study that shows that their service is superior to their competition. Maybe they have quotes or testimonials from happy clients on their website or printed on marketing brochures.

Real life examples and stories, statistics and quotes are all research proven persuasion techniques. These techniques help a sales person build a logical and emotional case for why the prospect should buy. And making a case is all persuasion really is. The point is to prove to the prospect that you can in fact eliminate their problems or help them achieve their goals. Persuasion techniques simply give us a way to provide the prospect with evidence that proves to them that our product or service can and will do what we say it will do.

Some people seem to think persuasion techniques are sly or dishonest. Of course they can be used in that way. But this has nothing to do with the techniques themselves or with the concept of persuasion but rather with the character of the individual using the techniques. As the old saying goes – a knife is a weapon in the hands of a criminal but it is a life saving device in the hands of a surgeon.

As long as the evidence provided by the sales person (the examples, stories, statistics, quotes) are based in truth and as long as the sales person sincerely believes that he can improve the prospect’s situation, then there is no ethical issue with using persuasive techniques. In doing so you are simply delivering to the prospect, in a compelling way, the reasons that they should buy from you. And if using persuasive techniques is something that your competition does not do, or does not know how to do, then you have a significant competitive advantage.

Persuasion, of course, has an important and noble history stretching from Aristotle to our own times. Churchill persuaded the people of Great Britain that Hitler could be defeated, Martin Luther King persuaded a nation to pass Civil Rights legislation and Ronald Reagan persuaded that same nation that its best days lay ahead. Why then would some people react to persuasion as if it were synonymous with deception and sleight of hand?

The purpose of persuasion is to influence what people believe and how they act. In fact that’s not a bad definition of sales – if the prospect believes that our service will improve their situation and takes action and buys from us then we are successful. As long our persuasion rests upon a foundation that is honest and ethical then it is one of the most important tools of our trade.


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