How to persuade others with small changes that make big impacts

That’s the theme of the excellent book, ‘The Small Big’, by Martin, Goldstein and Cialdini that occupied a lot of my reflection time on holiday recently.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the fifty+ tips, suggestions and recommendations contained in the book. The short, surprisingly effective, case studies and findings that support them cover a range of everyday business activities, from sales and marketing, to people motivation and achieving personal goals.

The content focuses on the art and importance of persuading people, sometimes individuals, often groups. However great your skills at producing pitch decks and  presentations, at crafting HR structures, juggling financials, giving speeches or wearing titles, people buy from people.

We are not – yet! – in a position where robots are running our companies, so persuading people to pay attention to you, to consider you credible, to trust you and then to take that all important next step to buy from you, matters today as much as it ever did.

And that’s an unavoidably subjective, often very instinctive, decision-making process for those whom we encounter; a process which, whether we like it or not, makes us all salespeople and brand ambassadors for the businesses where we work, regardless of our job titles or where we might sit in any corporate hierarchy.

The authors of The Small Big recognise that because we are living in the single most information over-loaded, stimulation-saturated environment that has ever existed, we simply do not have the capacity to fully process every piece of information that we come across.

Fascinatingly, however, through their pretty extensive research, they’ve discovered that

people today are just as likely to be influenced by small changes in how we communicate with each other as by the larger and more radical ones

In fact, we should even find the smaller changes more efficient, easier to implement or accept, less risky, less costly and more effective at delivering our objectives, than the larger ones…

Because, I’m sure, like me, you may often struggle for the richness of time to read a good book, I’ve cherry-picked the bits of the book that struck me most (3 themes in total), so that we can share and practice the tips and suggestions together.

So, here goes…

(1) The value of social proof: recognising that business relationships, like any others, are personal and that rapid attention-capture is critical to being memorable and desired

How to harness social proof and achieve distinctiveness

Chapter 1 of the book focuses on the value of ‘social proof’.

Most of us are more than a little bit ‘sheep-like’ in our tendency to be convinced by the behaviour of others, especially those whom we admire or consider influential and authoritative on certain topics.

It’s easy and reassuring to follow.

Many times, as consumers and as businesses, we’re persuaded to follow the crowd just on the evidence of numbers. There’s significant persuasion power in feeling that comforting sense that ‘lots of people are doing this already, so I should follow these pioneers and do it too. I don’t want to miss out’.

If you or your business can harness the apparently approving wisdom and peer pressure of a crowd that is persuasive to your target audience, then your prospects of rapidly growing your business with that audience and generating substantial sales leads are greatly improved.

It’s why, for example, connecting with key industry influencers who will help endorse what you do, getting and displaying well-presented testimonials, even at pre-MVP stage, and casting your product or service-testing net wide, to include not just friendly contacts, but those who can help you to refine and to promote what you’re working on, can make all the difference.

Even the less enthusiastic sceptics, once you’ve taken on their feedback, can become great brand advocates for what you’re doing.

(For a really useful run down of well-proven influencer marketing tactics that you can try, take a look at the 7 suggestions set out in Jeff Bullas’ neat blog here.)

Don’t just connect with the existing influencers or the easy wins either, go out and create new and relevant ones, listen to all the feedback, act on it well. Keep in touch and keep talking, showing and listening. Help others to spread the word about what you’re doing and create those waves of momentum. This is how you harness social proof and grow a powerful support network too.

In the wise and experienced words of my pal, Tom Charman, (serial entrepreneur and most recently, founder of the brilliant traveltech business, Kompas),

 “don’t hide away building something that you believe is great…if people don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll never know if it’s something they really want.”  

And you also lose the opportunity for others to spread the word on something you’ve made them feel excited about.

Make sure what you’re doing is properly understood and ‘felt’ and you’ll be moving in the right direction. And it’s a lot cheaper and easier to do than relying on traditional marketing tactics to raise  awareness of what you’re doing and selling.

(Chapter 11 of the book has some good advice on influencing others with stories and testimonials. While its core focus is on employees and their productivity, the tips and learnings are just as relevant to your powers of persuasion on external contacts and targets.)

 Find the uncommon in common and unite to be the difference

Focussing on shared identities can also help materially, if you want to increase potential for sales partnerships and collaborations.

Find common ground – which might involve suggesting a partnership to jointly sell to a mutual target customer group or to combine resources to solve a particular challenge that you both experience. Then you can move forward together, united in a shared determination to create something great, to differentiate yourselves and so jointly benefit.

Emphasising the mutual problem-solving or mutual opportunity-enhancing benefits of an idea under discussion, can expertly re-position a simple sales pitch from what often feels aggressively one-way to the pitch-recipient, to an intriguing and compelling, certainly more memorable, possibility.

Take time to find out what your customers want to achieve, how they plan to achieve it, what may stand in their way. Consider how you can meaningfully support the achievement of those objectives with what you’re offering.

(According to the research highlighted by the authors in chapter 6 of The Small Big, finding uncommon things in common can also be exceptionally powerful for internal team-working and leadership exercises too: creating a sense of being united in difference can be especially motivating for a team that needs to bond and grow together.)

 Beware the anti-proof

Conversely, and just as importantly, the authors sound a word of caution about publicly working with or targeting others with whom your existing or target customer may not self-identify.

Beware the anti-influencers.

When you start out, be focused and clear on who you’re targeting. As you expand that audience and your proposition, be sensitive to the impact that these growth changes will have on those already in your customer community. It’s not just about who your customers see as their rivals or influencers, it’s also about who they see as damaging their own brand and growth potential.

This is something I learned early on, with a business that I built a while ago. Preserving the distinctiveness of distributor offerings was really important to our ability to supply a number of target distribution customers, many of whom were rivals to each other and/or did not necessarily want to be associated with others amongst our distributor community.

We knew of course that there is persuasive force in telling one customer that a big rival to them had already agreed to buy or distribute our product.

However, if we’d offered each of these distributors the same proposition, giving them no leeway to differentiate themselves from the version of our product that was being sold by their competitors, (often to the very same target audience), we knew we’d also have a far harder time persuading them to sell our proposition – even if it was the best version of what was available on the market. (In some cases, given the sentiments that several of our target distributors expressed about each other, there was no doubt that if we signed up with one of them and offered the same thing to the other, we’d probably lose them both.)

We also knew that some of our earliest adopter distributors were not considered aspirational or a business peer by other larger or more diverse organisations within our distribution community.

This created a dilemma: we would never have gained market traction without these early adopters and as a business and design team, we hugely valued their early belief in and enthusiasm for what we’d created. They were also great fun to work with and one of the most active and creative sources of design feedback and ideas.

But we also had to be wise to market and financial realities. We were ambitious and we wanted to scale up. We also wanted to bring in the sales to ensure we could afford to keep innovating and improving. So we had to ensure that we were able to offer something brand-supportive and brand-sensitive to these larger and or rival distributors – or risk them not coming on board, in spite of all our product design and sales efforts.

It wasn’t just about price, or about being a great quality product and better than other options; convincing these distributors to buy from us was just as much about empowering them to create something original with what we were offering, while simultaneously providing them with the reassurance (social proof) that their respected competitors (serving the same type of customers) had already done the due diligence ahead of them and concluded that we were a great solution.

Oh – and a final fly in the ointment: we didn’t want to fully white label our brand and lose our own brand distinctiveness or our discoverability and appeal to customers who wanted to buy from us directly. So we had to find a hybrid way of working that didn’t obliterate our brand identify but still enabled us to sell to as many distributors as possible.

If we’d not worked creatively to fulfil that requirement of distinctiveness and been super-sensitive to the impact of offering it to others who were rivals – or indeed, to brands that they considered inferior to themselves and with whom they’d not want to be compared, we’d have lost significant opportunities for our business.

It’s a tap dance, at times, to achieve this kind of balance and avoid anti-influencers or negative proof damaging your proposition. And on occasion, we learned the hard way. Especially in the early days, we had our fair share of disappointments.

Knowing your target customers and the diversity of their own ambitions and motivations is critical to being able to persuade them to buy what you’re offering.

So invest your time and money wisely. It’s not always easy to put a customer’s priorities ahead of some of the developments and innovations that you’d otherwise like to be focusing on and that, quite honestly, you feel much more excited about.

But if you can’t make your product work in their world (and they are a distributor that brings real market value and sales opportunity to your business), then no amount of innovation investment on your part is going to achieve the growth that you need.

 What is ‘personal’?

We often say – rightly in my view, that business is personal and I’m a big believer that without the right people, the magic won’t happen.

There are some great illustrations in the 5th chapter on how making things personal and more professionally ‘intimate’ and meaningful can make a big difference to a sales pitch or to who volunteers for that challenging office task.

Simple gestures, for example, punctuating conversations appropriately, with people’s first names, can strengthen the sense of connection between you and your counterpart and add to your persuasiveness. Anyone can make that change. We all like to feel as though we matter, that we’re memorable and that at the very least, the people we encounter can remember (and spell!) our names.

Just as important is to really keep it personal – i.e. keep keeping it personal. Don’t assume that longer standing clients are predictable and that their actions or preferences are well-known. Most businesses change over time, just as the business landscape in which they operate changes.

It’s well known that acquiring new business is more expensive than looking after existing customers. According to the Harvard Business Review’s investigations, getting new customers can cost anywhere from 5 to 25 times the cost of retaining current customers. And according to research by Bain & Company, increasing customer retention rates by 5% typically increases profits by 25 – 95%.

The bottom line: keeping your existing customers happy is valuable. Invest as much time in keeping existing clients close and in understanding the current and predicted pressures on their businesses as you do in pitching your business to new customers.

(2) Make it easy to say ‘yes’. ‘Follow in’ to get the best outcomes at meetings and to start making the changes you want to happen

The authors point out that “it’s a well-established first-order law of behaviour change programs: …to make change easy for people”.

Make change easy. It’s what we also learned with the business I mentioned above too. The most important objective you should have, whether it’s changing employee culture, persuading a new customer to buy from you or diversifying a product portfolio, is to make it easy to say ‘yes’ to what you’re proposing.

To get to ‘yes’, you need, firstly, to make initial meetings or interactions happen, so that you can get to the point where ‘yes’ relates to that something being proposed and decided on.

And then, just as essential, is not to take that first ‘yes’ to that first interaction at face value. You need to ‘follow in’ to make sure that it happens, that the call or meeting where you can begin your compelling pitch gets diarised and that enthusiasm to attend it endures.

Chapters 8, 9 and 13 of the book look at the ‘follow-in’ approach in more detail and they are worth a read. Getting to the right person, persuading them to take your calls and/or to meet with you can be just as challenging as persuading them to do business with you.

Yet all too often, a business focuses too much effort and resource initially on how to persuade someone to buy at that first meeting, not how to get that meeting successfully scheduled and attended.

“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” Leonardo de Vinci

Chapters 8 and 9 looks at how you successfully influence people and persuade them to keep appointments with you. They make a number of suggestions drawn from the case studies and research conducted by the authors.

The trick, essentially, is to ensure that your target attendee is invested in the meeting and really feels the urgency and value of it to them, from the outset. That can be easier said than done in many cases, especially if you want to sell and your target has no pressing need to change what they’re already doing.

If you find you’re making appointments and then they never quite happen due to postponements or no-shows, these two chapters are worth a quick read, including their suggestions for creating the sense of ‘uncancellable commitment’ in the mind of your target attendee(s).

Creating the un-cancellable meeting

How do you stop people from saying yes to a call or meeting, and then subsequently cancelling or postponing it, so that momentum and opportunity is lost?

The authors suggest tips such as asking your attendee(s) to pose questions that they would like addressed at the meeting. This is intended to make those target attendees mentally more invested in and committed to a meeting, because it feels more relevant and tailored to their interests or requirements.

That approach may or may not impress in my experience, since some attendees may expect you to have predicted what they’ll want to know. So, it may be better to say you assume they’ll want to know [x, y and z] … which you’ll be covering in the meeting and that if there’s anything else they’d like you to cover, to let you know.

I’ve personally found that a good question to ask at this stage is also what it will take to persuade them to make the decisions or to take the approach that you want them to make, e.g. what would persuade you to buy from us?

This is a question that is generally less predictable (and therefore asking it is more likely to impress them and to make them think about the ramifications themselves). It should give you good insights into their thought processes, decision-making hierarchies and time-frames, as well as their overall attitude towards the relevance and value to them of your meeting at this stage.  From this response, you may be able to gauge whether you are wasting your time – or indeed, whether you need more time to impress them.

Also recommended in the book, is getting your attendees to take action to accept an appointment. The example used is getting them to write down the appointment details.

For many of us in business, that’s not a very customer-friendly or efficient suggestion, though I fully appreciate how effective it can be, as the scenarios in the chapter demonstrate.

Most of us these days accept digital calendar invites, often followed up by reminder notifications – although these of themselves, are not going to achieve the ‘investment’ impact that will prevent appointments from being cancelled, postponed or not attended by the right decision-makers.

But I have learned from experience that one thing that could help in this context is to ask your target attendee to see whether other colleagues many be interested in or relevant to the meeting. Ask whether you can send something to help your target attendee to explain the purpose of the meeting and what will come out of it to those fellow colleagues, even perhaps whether those further colleagues might have additional questions that you can cover during your meeting.

If you can persuade someone to explain the purpose of what you want to discuss to someone else, that typically tends to make that person think a lot more about the value of the interaction, how they will position it internally to their peers and it can help to firm up their commitment to attend. If you success, your initial target attendee will have essentially joined you in helping to make that meeting happen.

Ahead of the meeting, the authors also recommend making mutual agenda action points as well as mutual commitments, that are specifically outlined not generic or vague.

It may also help, in appropriate circumstances, to make things a little public, like tweeting a thank you at a customer or target, showing appreciation for their time and excitement about a coming meeting or opportunity that you’re going to explore together.

You can’t always do this of course, since some discussions stay confidential til the very last moment and some targets may not react well to public disclosures of a conversation or potential relationship. But consider doing it where you can. It can be a persuasive tactic and help to create momentum and shared excitement or commitment to make the meeting happen.

Keeping momentum in your favour during the decision-making process

Chapter 13 continues the technique of ‘following-in’ to enhance the quality and output of meetings. Again, the authors emphasise the need to act long before the ‘follow up’ in making things more likely to happen in your favour.

Don’t consign your efforts to the ‘follow up’, when your ability to influence and gain positive comes from the meeting is limited to none, they counsel. By the time you’ve reached the follow-up stage, you’re on the back foot if the outcome hasn’t already gone your way.

I really like the simple techniques advocated in this chapter. It’s all about starting to make your interactions feel more substantial, more relevant and important to your attendees.

The small questions to ask at the end of a first meeting are easy to ask and can be very influential, such as: when will the decision meeting/presentation of the proposition to your decision makers meeting take place? do you need anything more from me to help present us in the best way, e.g. a 1-pager? Stats?

Then a day before or even on the day of that decision-making meeting, (depending on timing of the decision-maker/next steps meeting for your target), you can make contact to reiterate the offer of additional help and also to wish them a good meeting and arrange a time for a subsequent feedback call.

Pitching… and being as big as you are on the inside

Chapter 20 picks up on the theme of selling yourself well when it comes to ‘following in’. It offers some interesting pitching advice for businesses, demonstrating how leading first with an emphasis focused on your potential to achieve what the customer wants, only then followed by evidence of your competence to do so, may in fact inspire greater initial interest and willingness to engage with you, than simply listing outright, all the actual times and ways you’ve done the same activity before.

It sounds a bit counterintuitive – a fact acknowledged by the authors and others, whose research they cite. But they nonetheless conclude that you should

“focus on your potential because… the potential to be great at something will often seem more compelling to decision-makers than actually being great at that very same thing. In other words, the promise of potential often outshines the reality.” Chapter 20 (page 106)

Potential, they say, tends to arouse more interest and spark a greater commitment to attend a meeting, to pay attention to what’s discussed and to consider someone for collaboration or partnership – particularly where real examples of what you’re already capable of are immediately provided after that potential is demonstrated.

Now there’s a motivating fact for all those new businesses, changing businesses and intrapreneurs out there. You have the potential. Show it and celebrate it. You may well find that you can compete just as successfully as incumbents and those who’ve done the same thing many times over.

You are memorable and interesting because you are capable. Those who can launch things and change things are usually capable of doing it more than once.

“Idris: Are all people like this?

The Doctor: like what?

Idris: so much bigger on the inside.”

Neil Gaiman, author, Doctor Who

(3) Keeping customers is as important as winning new ones

‘Should I stay or should I go?’

…The question your customers may well be asking themselves. This theme picks up and expands on the social proof and keeping it personal advice made earlier in The Small Big.

So how do you make customers choose ‘stay’? Of all the suggestions that I anticipated on starting to read chapter 7 (which begins with a discussion of a tv show about newly-weds), what I discovered was not a single one of those!

But like the rest of the content of the book, the suggestions are simple, cost-effective and creative. The chapter provides some telling insights as to why in business, the longer we have a relationship with fellow businesses, the less we may in fact really understand what is driving them – and therefore what may keep them loyal as customers:

“…people in long-standing relationships typically consider themselves to be more committed to each other by virtue of the extended time they have each invested. As a result, they may think they know each other better than is actually the case and consequently, become less likely to notice changes in attitudes and preferences, especially those that occur slowly or subtly…! Chapter 7, (page 43)

Indeed, they may apparently even be tempted to tell white lies to each other or to avoid frank and candid conversations.

Really useful suggestions to counteract the risk of you assuming things about your existing customers that are no longer in fact true include: occasionally inviting a colleague who knows the client less well to a meeting (which might trigger the discovery of big new opportunities through the colleague asking questions that you’d feel unable to ask without losing credibility), and arranging for regular informal catch-ups and exchanges of new information.

I’ve often found that sending a client or a known prospect something genuinely intended to be personal and interesting to them and providing a properly considered and tailored comment on it that is designed to elicit a response from them, can uncover comments and/or perspectives that may trigger useful conversations and follow-ups.

As someone who loves to ruminate on the things that I learn and blog about them, one of my favourite things to do is to share what I am puzzling over or intrigued about with others and then to ask them for a thought or even a quote, which I can then attribute to them in what I later publish. Not only do I gain the benefit of wider and more diverse wisdom and help to generate awareness of my own brand, I’m giving something valuable back as well: increased brand profile for those kind enough to engage and comment.

You can take this approach even further by applying it to future meetings with targets and including such observations and commentary from a representative of your target customer in your sales meetings with that customer. I’ve seen this done very neatly and effectively.

These types of engaged responses and how you go on to use them can often serve to cement relationships and keep them transparent, personal and accurate.

You may even be able to avoid the inbox altogether and, for example, retweet (attaching a considered comment) a tweet at your customers or comment on a blog post that they have shared. In this way, you’re not just visible and demonstrating relevance to them, you’re publicly supporting them, helping spread their words and expand their profile. When they do then come to meet you – or consider whether to meet you – in a sales environment, you’re far less of a cold contact.

In this age of blogging and social media activity, keeping tabs on what your customers and targets are writing about and with whom they are engaging, can also provide you with very valuable insights into what may currently be driving them and/or capturing their interest.

Be part of that movement and any online conversations, where relevant and possible. In so doing, you run far less chance of making inaccurate or outdated assumptions about their motivations and needs and you’ll have a much deeper understanding of what it’s going to take to convince them to meet and to do business with you.


There are many other great well tried and tested tips in The Small Big and if you do have the time, it is certainly worth the read.

persuasion blog pic2 - 15102017

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