Two years ago, a group of researchers brought in 86 people one at a time and had them sit down for a negotiation game. Imagine you want to buy a new car, they told folks, and you’re haggling with the sales person. The sticker price of the car is $16,500. Your job, they said, is to write down two offers: your opening offer, and then a second offer that assumes your initial gambit has been rejected. What they didn’t tell people during this little game is that half of the respondents were given a hard wooden chair to sit in, while the other half got to sink into a soft cushioned seat. After the offers were collected and they let the folks go, they took a look at the results: on average, there was no difference in the opening offer. But once they had to negotiate, the people sitting on the soft seats offered $350 more than did the folks on the unyielding wooden chairs.
This is just one of dozens of studies that reveal how your brain is wired to use physical experiences as a code for ideas (I’ve written more about this here and here). The reason people in the cushioned chairs were willing to spend so much more money is because sensations of hard and soft are a kind of code for concepts of strictness and adaptability.
This code is evident in the words and phrases we use every day. For instance, when I say that someone is "hard headed," the word "hard" tells you that I mean the person is stubborn and not open to change. These connections between physical experiences and ideas present an enormous opportunity for any company that depends on sales and marketing to drive their bottom line, because they are not just a part of our language—they actively shape our thoughts and behaviors.
Here’s another scenario for you to ponder: In a separate 2010 study, another group of researchers brought folks in one at a time and told them they had been randomly selected to be the receiver in a game. The other person in the game—the sender—had been given $4, and had decided to send the full amount over to the receiver. Any money sent would be tripled, so now the receiver had $12. Their only job: decide how much to keep for themselves and how much to send back to that trusting, anonymous sender. The wrinkle: Half of the people walked into a room that had been sprayed with one single, solitary spritz of citrus-scented Windex. Folks in the clean-smelling room sent, on average, twice as much money back to the other participant.
The sensation of "clean" is code in your subconscious for ideas of morality and doing the right thing. In any sales setting, establishing trust in the sales person is a key component to making the sale. This study reveals that finding ways, either with scent, appearance, or environment, to create sensations of "clean" can give you a head start on the trust you need.
The same group of researchers who did the study on soft and hard also concocted a brilliant study on sensations of rough or smooth. They had folks come in and complete a short, five-piece jigsaw puzzle. For half of the people, the puzzle pieces were coated with sandpaper, while the other half used smooth, glossy pieces. Afterwards, everyone read an ambiguous social situation, and then provided feedback on the interaction. Participants who handled the smooth puzzle felt that the people in the situation were coordinated and cooperative, while those who worked with the sandpaper pieces thought the whole interaction was difficult and harsh.
Many field forces have moved to the iPad to present customers with sales materials. iOS is a great platform; it’s easy to update and allows for visualization and animation. Plus, the hardware is just plain cool. But this study points out a deeper advantage to the glossy glass and smooth, curved aluminum body of the iPad: It makes your brain think ideas like easy, coordinated, and cooperative. This was a big unconscious advantage the iPhone had when it first transformed mobile computing, but it can also be an advantage when your sales person is interacting with a prospect. As they glide their fingers through a pitch, they’re also triggering the right ideas to create a smooth, easy connection with your customer.
These are just a few of the more interesting studies, but there are dozens of experiments showing how little changes in experience can influence what people think and how they behave. To start incorporating sensations into your sales strategy, begin by asking yourself what metaphors customers use to describe your sales people (or what metaphors you want them to use). Metaphors are verbal clues to the unconscious. Is dealing with your sales people like a warm hug from an old friend? Or is it more like driving a finely tuned sports car? In each of these analogies, there are little experiential anchors that you can build into the touches, smells, and tastes that accompany an interaction with your team. Incorporating the right sensations into your sales experience can be the edge you are looking for to boost your numbers or get a leg up on the competition.
The last example I’ll leave you with should give you pause if you have ever thought it was okay to shake hands with a prospect when you’ve got cold fingers. In a series of studies, researchers revealed that the sensation of warmth codes to ideas of affection and friendliness. In one study, people who briefly held a hot cup of coffee rated an ambiguous personality as more friendly, helpful, and trustworthy, while people who held a cup of iced coffee thought the same person was more distant and hostile. I think we can all agree that we would rather our reps are seen as warm and trustworthy.
Increase your sales with tips from the Fast Company newsletter.
[Image: Flickr user Ricky Romero]