Approach-Avoidance Conflict and the Brain
Approach-avoidance conflict is a term used to describe a major decision that has both appealing and unappealing elements to it. Since most people inherently mistrust salespeople, nearly every major purchase decision falls into this category. How can we feel good about a deal we’ve just made with a perceived devil? Neuroscience suggests that the less we trust the salesperson, the more risky we believe the purchase decision and the less likely we are to act, regardless of the product’s benefits.
The Brain on Trust
Everything we think or feel is generated in the brain as an electrochemical response to outside stimuli interacting with previous memories. While this statement is an oversimplification, it will work for the purposes of this post. Neuroscientist Paul Zak was one of the first to identify the neurotransmitter oxytocin as an indicator that we are feeling a high degree of trust toward a stranger, as exhibited by heightened levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin and other “messenger molecules” are released in response to internal and external stimuli, flooding specific parts of the brain and triggering specific emotional reactions. Daniel Goleman, expanding on his initial work in emotional intelligence, has discovered that the brains of two people who trust each other have a remarkable symmetry—their brains are so in sync that they exhibit high levels of brain activity in the same parts of the brain at the same time. The same synchronicity has been found in couples dancing and musicians playing duets. Experienced sales professionals may have sensed this syncing of brain waves when things are going extremely well in the sales process.
Zak found that the more oxytocin coursing through your brain, the more likely you are to trust people. It stands to reason that if we can stimulate oxytocin in the buyer’s brain, we can overcome the deeply ingrained tendency to distrust a sales representative. Here are a few behaviors that stimulate oxytocin and make us believe that an individual is trustworthy.
The Power of Touch
Being touched by another human being stimulates oxytocin and other transmitters and increases the feelings of trust toward that individual. Zak found that hugging, in particular, generates high degrees of trust in both participating brains. Handshaking can also improve the degree of trust between two individuals and make the prospect of striking a deal more likely.
Each Purchase Increases the Likeliness of the Next Purchase
When we make a purchase, we feel good about it because our brains reward us with oxytocin. This feeling becomes associated with the person, company, and product that has been purchased, making future sales more likely. Each time the customer goes back over the same pathway, the reward response increases in a virtuous cycle, ramping up the trust level and making each sale more likely than the previous one. For this reason, many online marketers promote low-cost entry-level products, knowing that the buyer will continue to move up to higher-cost items as long as the customer experience remains positive.
All Decisions Are Emotional
While many sales professionals believe that certain types of purchases, such as those made to support a business, are completely logical processes, the truth is that every purchase decision is emotional at first. The “reasons” for the purchase are often concocted by our neocortex—the seat of rational thought—to help us accept a decision that may have originated in the amygdala, the seat of emotional response.
Storytelling Builds Trust and Connection
Stories have a profound effect on the brain. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we are immersed in a story, our brains respond as though we are the protagonist of the narrative. Therefore, stories about others buying and using the product can help buyers see themselves making the purchase decision and generate positive emotions about the product and the salesperson.
You Can’t Fake Trustworthiness
The results above suggest that we should train sales professionals to touch their prospects more often, start with smaller sales and lead the buyer to increasingly larger purchases over time, and use stories to appeal to the emotions of the buyer. If only it were that simple. Remember, our brains are highly tuned survival machines, and at some point in our evolution it became necessary to detect lies in order to stay alive. Today, our brains are capable of detecting false statements or actions within milliseconds. We may not be able to express the reaction in words, but we know at “a gut level” (really a brain level) that some people are not genuine. Trustworthiness cannot be faked; your brain will give you away every time.
If you review the top 20 sales training organizations, you may see a familiar pattern. To me, their content seems to focus on external behaviors that will make salespeople appear more credible. Neuroscience seems to indicate that we should focus instead on teaching sales professionals to be genuine, sincere, and trustworthy—a much bigger challenge with a much greater payoff.