Robert Cialdini and other experts offer powerful tools of persuasion
Photography by Brandon Sullivan
Picture a world in which you hold the power to consistently win a “yes,” a world where clients and prospects comply with your requests without even thinking. No fantasy—this is a reality, and one that can be achieved simply by folding into your unique approach six basic principles that drive human behavior.
For more than a half-century now, researchers have documented that, beyond many folks’ innate gift of persuasion, there are systematic, scientifically confirmed strategies that can be used to easily steer people in your direction.
The research shows, for example, that the mere addition or subtraction of a word, phrase or gesture within a request can profoundly influence behavior.
Indeed, persuasion is both an art and a science.
Social psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. Regents’ Professor Emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, literally wrote the book on the science of getting what you ask for: Influence: Science and Practice (Pearson, 2009), a bestseller that has been published in 20 languages.
“For financial advisors, persuasion provides leverage. It’s the ability to move people in your direction so that they’re more likely to say ‘yes’ to a request, proposal or recommendation,” says the Phoenix-based Cialdini, who is also president of Influence at Work (www.influenceatwork.com ), a training and consulting firm whose clients include Merrill Lynch, Prudential, Nationwide Insurance, IBM and NATO.
Certainly, it’s important and timely for advisors to cultivate the skills of effective, ethical persuasion. Trained in finance, few have background in the social and behavioral sciences of what makes people tick or the “soft skills” used in these disciplines.
Applied to financial advisor-client relationships, proven techniques of persuasion can heighten outcomes, help expand practices and boost overall success.
Cialdini deconstructs the psychology of compliance as six principles of ethical influence, which are intrinsic to the human condition: Reciprocation, Scarcity, Authority, Consistency, Liking and Consensus.
He says that when raised to the surface under appropriate circumstances, these principles—“weapons of influence,” he calls them—can provide a context for obtaining what you ask for.
A dynamic public speaker, who trains trainers from countries worldwide in his methods of persuasion, the amiable Cialdini maintains that, through wielding a single principle or combinations thereof, people can be steered and educated into saying “yes.”
In addition to decades of academic research into the influence process, Cialdini spent three years posing as a trainee investigating the sales and compliance techniques of a number of companies and organizations. Undercover, he sold cars, vacuums and insurance, and closely observed the methods of advertising agency copywriters and charity fundraisers.
Completing these spying missions (a scientific tack known as “participant observation”) Cialdini detected that six chief principles of behavior were universally put in play to effectively persuade. Called into action by communicators, they can bring about what he has dubbed “unthinking compliance” or “automatic influence.”
One of the most vital, and fascinating, aspects of Cialdini’s process is the “moment of persuasive power.” It is when an individual is most apt to say “yes.” For example, applying the principle of Reciprocation—which creates a sense of obligation in the other party—such a moment pops up immediately after a client enthusiastically thanks you for an achievement on their behalf.
The advisor, suggests Cialdini, should respond: “I was glad to do it. That’s what partners do for one another.” Then, right away, perhaps ask for a referral.
“After you’ve done something for people, they’re very willing to want to do something for you in return,” says Cialdini. “In the moment you have just demonstrated your competence and conscientiousness, you’re empowered in a way that you wouldn’t be any other time. People listen differently and are processing the next thing you say more deeply.”
The doctor himself isn’t immune to his own FA’s moments of persuasive power when he calls with new, as-yet-unpublished information relevant to his client’s portfolio.“If I could press the phone into my head any more deeply,” Cialdini says, “there would be an indentation in my skull.”
According to Raphael E. Lapin, a Harvard-trained negotiation and communication specialist and founder-president of Conflict Management (www.conflict-management.net ), based in Los Angeles, the advisor who functions as a genuine counselor and near-therapist is in the strongest position to influence client behavior.
“True persuasion is helping the individual reach their own decisions in an informed way,” says Lapin, with clients such as AT&T, Yahoo! and the U.S. Air Force. “If you’re trying to persuade clients to take an action that is not in alignment with their best interests and get into sales and pitching mode, that’s aligning with your interests, not theirs—and you start sounding desperate.”
Cialdini concurs: “The hard-sell pitch does not work with the more sophisticated high-end, high-wealth client. They don’t want to be pitched or pressured. They want to be informed into yes.”
The chief means to that end, in Lapin’s approach, is to ask good questions that get clients to think. “Questions are the fuel for persuasion. They stimulate the clients’ thinking, which makes them start seeing you as a real consultant helping them with their real issues,” Lapin says.
If, for instance, prospects are reluctant to open up and talk about their retirement visions or financial fears, he advises: “Don’t lecture to them. Engage them to talk about their values and priorities. Get them to do the work. Don’t impose a solution. Instead, make them partners in the problem-solving. They’ll have much more ownership in the solution and will therefore be more compliant.”
Of course, trust must be established before clients can ever be expected to comply.
“You can’t authentically persuade someone unless they trust you. Helping them to an informed decision has to be built on trust,” Lapin says. “The more that people feel they’re being heard and understood, the more they’re going to trust you.”
He continues. “Once you demonstrate that you understand the client, they’ll feel less compelled to talk and much more receptive to what you’re about to say. You’re getting their buy-in every step of the way. By the time the decision has to be made, you don’t have to sell it—it’s an automatic process.”
Meeting with a prospect, the advisor should seek to control the interview’s direction, says Darci Hemsley Brown, M.Ed. managing partner and performance coach with Aaron Hemsley & Associates (www.aaronhemsley.com ), a sales and psychological training firm based in Las Vegas. “But throw away the script and be human!” she counsels.
“Clients are already nervous,” Brown notes. “Some people who come to see an advisor are anticipating pain, like when they go to the dentist. Tell them, ‘My job is to reduce your financial stress and worries so that you can sleep better’.”
Often, however, certain words can be more persuasive than others. To wit, changing only one word of your presentation or recommendation can have significant positive impact and even mean the difference between “yes” and “no.” Let’s say a client has been saving for retirement according to plan. You tell her: “Congratulations on your progress toward your goal.”
Nope. That’s the wrong thing to say, Cialdini insists. “Research shows that if we characterize such behavior as ‘making progress,’ it gives people license to coast. But if we say, ‘Congratulations on your commitment toward your goal,’ that spurs them onward. Commitment is a loaded word and forward-moving. When you characterize a goal-consistent action as a commitment rather
than progress, you sustain that action into the future. It’s the principle of Consistency.”
Clearly, you, as an advisor, have no hierarchical power over clients and prospects. But bringing out your unique features or providing exclusive information—i.e. uncovering the principle of Scarcity—gives you weight.
If, for instance, clients refuse to adhere to their financial plans, don’t hesitate to tell them the top qualities that differentiate you as an advisor. Here, you should also exercise the Authority principle: You’re an expert and a credible source of information.
However, Cialdini cautions that to be most persuasive, the Authority principle must be highlighted at precisely the right time.
“The single biggest mistake that communicators make when trying to move people in their direction,” he says, “is sending in the strongest arguments—the most positive features—without first establishing their credibility and trustworthiness.”
The correct way, Cialdini says, is to note, fairly early in the relationship, a drawback or weakness—perhaps in a strategy that you’re recommending, like lengthy time to accomplish a particular goal. Then right away say: “But here are the strengths to doing this.”
“When you mention a drawback,” he says, “people believe the next thing you have to say. That’s the place to send in your strongest argument because people are now more confident about your trustworthiness and willingness to give them the pros and cons of a situation.”
Empathizing with the client’s situation or point of view is a prerequisite to effective persuasion. Consider, for instance, the scenario of recommending a conservative strategy but the client’s insistence on aggressive investing:
“Step out of your space and into their space,” Lapin advises. “Step over to their side and ask: ‘How does that help you?’ Walk along with them before bringing them back to problem-solving. It’s like fishing: Before pulling in the line, you let the fish” wear itself out.
Likewise, if you want to persuade existing clients who also have assets at another firm to consolidate with you, encourage them to talk. You say: “Your portfolio is doing well here, but I know you have assets elsewhere. Help me better understand what your thinking is and why you feel that having money with a different advisor is working for you,” Lapin suggests. Then explain how you’d invest those assets with the likelihood of producing better results.
“That’s so much more effective,” Lapin notes, “than saying, ‘I really think you should put your entire portfolio with us. Here’s why.’”
Cialdini’s Liking principle seems easy enough to activate. Liking, when raised to consciousness with a client or prospect, harnesses great persuasive power. “We like people who like us. They feel we’ll take care of them—and we do,” he says. “Liking comes from positive connections that people feel with us.”
One way to bring out this principle is before a proposal, to invoke similarities, commonalities or parallels between you and the client or prospect. This creates a bond: People see you as an advocate who listens to them.
Notes Brown, a former psychotherapist who teaches a graduate-level Hemsley program, “The Psychology of Persuasion”: “When people feel liked and respected, trust grows. But if what you’re saying with words doesn’t match up with what you’re otherwise communicating—by facial expression, tone of voice, body language—people will not trust, believe or like you.”
Expressing genuine compliments and establishing common goals are two more ways to raise your likeability quotient with clients en route to successful persuasion, Cialdini says. “People typically believe praise, and they like those who confer it.” Just so, “people like others who work with them toward common goals, a real mutuality of purpose.”
A major mistake, though, is trying too hard to make a good impression in prospect interviews, Brown says. “The idea is to try to get to know them as intimately as you can. Ask probing questions, find out what their needs are. It’s all about them. Forget about you !”
In a first interview, “ask a lot of find-out questions—who, what, when, where, how, why,” she says. “Don’t ask complicated questions, and don’t imply that the prospect is stupid by being condescending.”
Throwing around jargon is “a fatal mistake,” Brown says. “Some FAs try so hard that they start talking over the prospect’s head. That raises their anxiety level, and they stop listening. They’re feeling uncomfortable, and you’ve lost the sale. If you have to use technical terms, define them.”
In seeking compliance, it’s also critical for FAs to control their voices so they come across confident and assertive, yet caring.
“Speaking too fast,” Brown says, “makes the client feel anxious. They’ll shut down, stop listening, tune out—and all you’re going to get is a ‘no’.”
Active listening—being attentive and giving feedback to what the other is saying—is essential. It is, Lapin says, “the building block of any communication.”
Such listening is vital in trying to diffuse client anger when the market has plummeted. In this situation, Brown suggests using the potent psychological approach, “anger starvation.” “Be quiet and listen to the client vent. You want to exhaust them so they get everything off their chest. But while they’re unloading, make supportive statements like, ‘Our relationship is very important to me. I want to understand how you’re feeling’.”
The next step is “crucial,” Brown says. “Ask: ‘Do you believe it’s my fault that the market crashed?’ The client will probably say no. If they say yes, you need to re-teach the risks of investing—but in a loving way.”
Suppose a client won’t take your financial advice. To help avoid this in the first place, employ Cialdini’s principle of Consistency. At an early stage in the relationship, draw up a mutual agreement detailing values, priorities, goals and investment strategy. But don’t you write it down; that’s the client’s job.
“People live up to what they write down,” Cialdini says. “By asking them to be complicit in the commitment to their set of goals, the client is more likely to stay congruent with them in the future.”
The principle of Consensus, or Social Proof, is brought to bear by indicating, for example, that others just like the client have had success with a particular investment vehicle.
You say, “Other individuals in your circumstances have chosen to shift their assets into what I’m recommending because they want to optimize their outcome for retirement,” Cialdini offers.
The persuasion process actually begins in your office reception room by offering the prospect or client water, coffee or a soft drink. “This makes people want to open their ears and mind to the next thing you provide. It’s the principle of Reciprocation,” Cialdini says.
The bottom line: Ethical, effective persuasion stems from effective communication techniques. “If an advisor is using persuasion to help clients and prospects make informed decisions in a timely manner,” Brown says, “they’re using it in the best possible way—to serve and protect.”
These are Dr. Robert B. Cialdini's Principles of Ethical Influence, as discussed in his books and other materials:
Reciprocation. Be the first to give: service, information, concessions.
Scarcity. The rule of the rare. Emphasize unique features, exclusive information.
Authority. Establish position through: professionalism, industry knowledge, credentials, admitting weaknesses first.
Consistency. Start small and build: with existing commitments, from public positions, toward voluntary choices.
Liking. Uncover: similarities, areas for genuine compliments, opportunities for cooperation.
Consensus/Social Proof. People power by showing: responses of many others, others’ past successes, testimonials from similar others.