EPISODE 442: Cialdini Certified Trainer Brian Ahearn Lists the Three Keys to Ethically Influencing Customers

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Creativity in Sales virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on September 25, 2021. It featured an interview with influence expert Brian Ahearn, author of The Influencer: Secrets to Success and Happiness.]

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Brian’s TIP: “When we talk about ethically influencing people, there are three keys that have to be present. First is truthfulness. Now, it’s not enough to tell the truth, we never hide the truth either, because if we know something will materially impact someone’s decision and we withhold it, we’re not being ethical. They will not look at us as an ethical influencer if they find that information out after the fact. The second thing is we only use the psychology that we find naturally in the situation. For example, if there’s no real scarcity for your product or service, don’t claim that there is. Then the third thing that we look to do is create situations that are good for both parties. I like to say, “Good for you, good for me. Then we’re good to go.” If we can hit all three of those criteria, we can look ourselves in the mirror and say, “You know what? I’m dealing with people in an upright, ethical manner.”


Fred Diamond: Today on the Creativity in Sales webcast we’re talking about influence and persuasion. Brian, I’m really excited to have you here. You’re an author of a couple of books. By the time this podcast is posted as a podcast, your third book – is it your third book, The Influencer: Secrets to Success and Happiness?

Brian Ahearn: Yeah.

Fred Diamond: Your third book, congratulations for you. You’ve written some great ones. Again, we’re talking today about getting the most out of selling with influence. One of our good friends at the Institute for Excellence in Sales, he’s a sales leader, his name is Tom Snyder. He’s a published author. He’s written a couple of books. He was the president of Huthwaite for a number of years. They were the company that did SPIN Selling, and he would always tell me, “Fred, those of us who are in sales, we are professional persuaders.” He said, “That is what we do for a living.” Ethically influencing people, it’s something that we’re very, very intrigued with at the Institute for Excellence in Sales. This is the first time that we’ve specifically spoke on this topic. I’m excited to have you here, welcome. Let’s get started. Persuasion, tell us what it is.

Brian Ahearn: Well, a lot of times when I ask people what they think persuasion is, I will hear, “To change somebody’s thinking or to change how they feel about something.” That might be a good first step, but quite often it’s not enough. Frankly, sometimes it’s not even necessary. I like Aristotle’s definition. Aristotle said persuasion was the art of getting someone to do something that they wouldn’t ordinarily do if you didn’t ask. When you really think about that, it’s a great definition. Get someone to do something that in the absence of your communication, they’re probably not going to do.

Now, if you can change how they think or feel about it, it may take on a lasting impact, but quite often, we aren’t even concerned about how they think or feel. We just need them to maybe take some type of action. That’s how I view persuasion, is getting someone to say yes and do that thing that you know is in their best interest and that they should probably be doing.

Fred Diamond: We talk lot about what is the goal in the sales process? Basically, at the end of the day, it’s probably to get someone to become a customer or for a customer to continue being a customer. But really, it’s to get to the next step. We talk about this all the time. We had the great James Muir, the author of The Perfect Close on about a year ago. I kept thinking as I was leading up to the interview that the show was going to be about closing. You know, “What do I got to do to get you to buy this pen?” That type of a thing. But in reality, you’re closing every step along the way. You’re persuading. Talk a little bit, do we need to be persuading 40 times, is it a different process, or how does that apply?

Brian Ahearn: I love what he had to say about that, because when I would do workshops with independent insurance agents and it was a sales-oriented look at persuasion, the number one question I would be asked all the time is, “What’s the best way to close?” My response was, “The best way to close is the first time you meet someone, look them in the eye, shake their hand.” Everything starts from that point and goes forward. If you don’t do that well, you don’t even have to worry about getting to the final stages of the sales process.

But you’re right, Fred, that every step of the way you’re looking to get a yes. You’re prospecting, you want to get a yes to that so that you can move into a first meeting, qualifying, every step throughout. Rather than just looking at this and saying, “I got to get to this end game,” it’s, “What do I need to do all along the way?” If we think about how we approach most things in life, whether it’s diet, fitness, playing golf or something, there’s always a process, and everything is getting from one step to the next. Step back and just look at those steps and say, “Okay. I got the prospect to say yes. I’m going to meet with them. Now, I need to focus on getting another yes to continue in the process.”

Fred Diamond: One of the first things that you and I did when we connected with each other is you had referenced frequently in your materials Dr. Robert Cialdini. I had mentioned to you that I read his book in 1985 when I was at Apple Computer and you’re certified in the Cialdini method, you’re a certified trainer. If you don’t mind for people who aren’t familiar with his work, talk a little bit about him for a second or two and how that’s influenced what you do, and maybe a little bit of reference for the people watching or listening today.

Brian Ahearn: Robert Cialdini is the most cited living social psychologist in the world on the science of influence. He was a Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University, where he taught for more than 30 years, wrote a book in the mid ’80s called Influence: Science and Practice, and it really is now the gold standard when it comes to understanding the process of influence. What was unique about Cialdini was he didn’t limit his research to academia. He actually took a hiatus for nearly three years, went out into what we’ll call the real world, got jobs, so he could observe people whose livelihood depended on their ability to get others to say yes. He wanted to learn from those people and he also wanted to learn from the training programs.

As he did this, he stepped back and he took all of his understanding of social psychology, looked at everything that he had learned and said, “You know what? We can put almost all of this into six categories of human behavior.” He coined the term the principles of persuasion or the principles of influence. He didn’t discover these, but he did synthesize the information into a way where people could go, “I get it. That makes sense.” Once he had done that, then he was able to start to replicate his model of influence, and so there are a dozen of us around the world who are now certified to teach on his behalf.

Fred Diamond: Congratulations on that. There’s only a dozen people in the world who have that certification. Again, when I had been approached to have you on the Sales Game Changers webcasts, and I saw the reference to Cialdini, I remembered very clearly, when I was at Apple Computer the first time that book was presented to me. I probably still have a copy somewhere in the house. I want to ask you a question here. You’ve written three books. Again, your new book just came out. Congratulations, it’s great. The first book that you wrote was called Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical. Talk about the word ethical in this context.

Brian Ahearn: I love that question. If it weren’t for ethics, I would not be talking to you today. It literally was after I saw a video of Robert Cialdini presenting at Stanford, and he was very clear about non-manipulative ways to move people to action. Subsequently, I signed up for Stanford’s marketing of a number of their resources and I saw a flyer come across my desk one day at work, and it had his picture, old letter at the top, bestseller right below it. It said, “Call it Influence, Persuasion, or Even Manipulation,” right in the headline. I just thought, “I can’t believe they actually used that word.” I emailed Stanford and I basically said this, “I don’t know anybody who is looking to be manipulated. I don’t know anybody who’s looking to be a good manipulator. The word cannot be helping your sales, but it’s probably hurting.” I never heard from them, but sometime later my phone rang and it was Robert Cialdini’s office calling to personally thank me. They said, “Your email is causing Stanford to change the marketing of our materials.” That was the beginning of my relationship with Dr. Cialdini and his organization INFLUENCE AT WORK.

The whole course of my career, and really my life, would be different now if I hadn’t felt so strongly about that word manipulation. When we talk about ethically influencing people, there are three keys that have to be present. First is truthfulness. Now, it’s not enough to tell the truth, we never hide the truth either, because if we know something will materially impact someone’s decision and we withhold it, we’re not being ethical. They will not look at us as an ethical influencer if they find that information out after the fact. The second thing is we only the psychology that we find naturally in the situation. For example, if there’s no real scarcity for your product or service, don’t claim that there is. Then the third thing that we look to do is create situations that are good for both parties. I like to say, “Good for you, good for me. Then we’re good to go.” If we can hit all three of those criteria, we can look ourselves in the mirror and say, “You know what? I’m dealing with people in an upright, ethical manner.”

Fred Diamond: We have our first question here, Brian. It comes in from Robert. He says, “We talk a lot about how people don’t like to be sold. Do they also not like to be persuaded?” That’s a great question. Let’s talk about that for a second. Can you overdo it to the sense where people are like, “Gee, I see what he or she is trying to do, and it doesn’t make me feel good. I don’t want to be a customer of this person”? Talk a little bit about the customer side, because we also talk a lot about that it’s all about the customer. One of our key themes, Brian Ahearn, is that it’s about the customer. It’s not about you, sales guy or sales lady, it’s about the customer. Talk about making sure that you don’t let your customer feel that they are being persuaded, and maybe manipulated is the best word.

Brian Ahearn: One of the nicest compliments I got was an individual who said, “Brian never came across as a guy who was trying to sell us, but in the process he sold us.” I think that’s where we want to get to. I think that when people can see that you’re passionate about what you do, that you are asking insightful questions, and you’re really trying to learn and understand about that other individual so that they feel valued and they feel heard, you can, along the way, share information in a way that psychology says is most effective, that’s where you really are informing people into a yes decision. It’s a conversation that goes such that by the end of it, you’re saying, “I understand where you’re coming from. That makes sense to me.” That’s how we should have the conversations. Not that we’re pulling these levers to try to get people to do things.

Unfortunately, this psychology that we teach can be used for good or bad. There will be people who learn about it and go, “I can use this to get my way.” I always like to get people starting with the principle of liking, because I really believe if we come to know and like the people that we’re dealing with, we will then treat them in a way that we would treat our friends, which would take manipulation out of the equation.

Fred Diamond: Talk about the skill of persuasion. Again, our purpose at the Institute for Excellence in Sales is to help sales professionals take their career up a notch, to the next level, if you will. Is persuasion a skill like phone calling or social selling that people need to develop to become their best selves as sales professionals?

Brian Ahearn: Absolutely. It’s a skill because it’s something that can be learned, practiced, and perfected. I was just doing a workshop yesterday, and that question came up towards the end, where somebody made a comment and they said, “Gosh, all this learning has been great, but it feels awkward when I try to put it into practice.” I said, “That’s exactly the way you’re going to feel.” For those who are listening to this, if you play golf and you go and get a lesson, almost every time what the pro has you do feels awkward, because you’re having to change a habit. But if you stick with it and you work through maybe where your game goes down a little bit, but you stick with it, almost every time your game gets better.

As you learn this psychology, then the part that really is important is that you put it into a verbiage that is natural for you. You don’t want to sound like people who are robotic and they’ve learned some sales technique, and so word for word, they’re going to share something. You absorb what it means. You synthesize it and then it begins to come out in your own language. That’s where it feels very natural for the other person.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great example about golf. We actually have a question here that comes in from Jennifer. Jennifer’s question is, “Can Brian give us some examples of ways we can be persuasive?” Your golf example is a good one. I’ve taken golf lessons. Of course, my game went from bad to worse right after taking the lessons [laughs], and I stopped taking lessons and it’s still worse. But nonetheless, give us a couple of examples here about some things that people can apply today. Of course, I get it, you need to go through a process, you need to learn. But if you don’t mind, give us two or three examples of some things that people can do to begin the process of being a more professional persuader.

Brian Ahearn: Two come to mind, and then I will say to Jennifer and anybody else listening, the first book that I wrote, Influence PEOPLE, has all kinds of business case studies. It takes a look at things that I did at my former company. You’ll get lots of examples there. One example is when I worked for an insurance company, one of my responsibilities was to help to recruit new agencies to join the company, to represent the company. What we were doing was marketing to these agents. Now, this goes way back into the early 2000s. We were kind of ahead of the curve on this. Quarterly, we would either send a letter or send an email to these agents, touting why they should probably come on board with us.

When we learned about the principle of scarcity, which says, “We value things more when we believe they’re rare or going away,” we recognized that we had been missing an opportunity in one of our marketing emails. At the end of the third quarter, we incorporated a paragraph that talked about the number of agencies that we were looking to appoint. Now, the company only operated in 30 states, so not all 50. We only were looking to appoint 50 agents in that particular year, so not a lot. We put one paragraph in, and that paragraph might have said at the very end, “Fred, part of the reason that I’m reaching out to you today is to let you know we’re only looking to appoint 50 agents in our 30 operating states. As of the end of the third quarter, we’ve appointed 40. We hope you’re one of the remaining few that we appoint by year end.” All true information.

What ended up happening with that was my boss was over at my desk within an hour and he said, “I can’t believe it.” I asked him, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I’ve already had eight agents either call or email since I sent the email out.” He said, “I have never had any call or reach back to me within the hour.” We knew it was just that paragraph. Here now, these people are talking to the vice president of sales about coming on board with our company. No better person to talk to in the company. That was one example of a very small thing that we did and we saw an immediate change from what we’d seen in the past.

The other one is more granular for people. You might think, “Well, I’m not in charge of marketing to new insurance agencies. I just need to get my job done.” Another example in the book was somebody who was at my company, his name’s Jim, he worked in IT. He sent an email to half a dozen of us to do something IT-related. I’m a sales guy, I read this email, and like most people, I look at it and go, “That looks kind of complicated.” Push it off to the side. Well, after a while, he emailed all of us again and said, “When do you think you’ll be able to get this finished?” I looked at it, I started working on it, and it was actually really easy. I replied to everybody and said, “All done. That was easy.” He did what most people would do. He replied right back to me and said, “Thanks, Brian.”

I called him up and said, “Jim, has everybody finished this?” He said, “No, waiting on one person in Indianapolis.” I gave them a quick lesson on what we call consensus or social proof, that quite often our behavior is guided by what other people are doing. I said, “Reply back to the email to basically let this person know that everybody else has finished.” He replies back, he hits reply all, and says, “Thanks, Brian. Looks like we’re all done. Jim, when do you think you’ll be able to get this done?” The other guy’s name was Jim, too. Within seven minutes, Jim came back and said, “Count me among those who’ve completed the task.” He felt the social pressure that, “I don’t want to be the one person that holds this up.” Very small win for the company, big win for Jim because he checked it off and he moved on to the next task. Those are two very real-world examples of putting this into practice.

Fred Diamond: We have another question here, Brian, that comes in from Juan. Juan’s question is, “What are we doing wrong? Can Brian give some ideas on things that we should stop doing?” Talk about that for a few moments here. Again, you’ve trained over 400,000 people, that’s insane, good for you, over the course of your career. You have your third book coming out right now. Of course, you’re one of only a dozen certified trainers with Robert Cialdini. Talk about what people are doing wrong and things that they may want to be conscious of moving forward.

Brian Ahearn: I’ll give you two really clear ones. The first one is there’s a principle called consistency, which says we feel an internal psychological pressure, but also external social pressure to be consistent in what we say and do. The mistake that people make when they’re trying to persuade someone is they tell them what to do. Fred, if I tell you to do something, you have not given me any indication that you will do that thing. You’re not feeling the internal pressure to live up to your word. You haven’t given me your word. But if I ask instead of tell, instead of saying, “Fred, I need the board report.” If I say, “Fred, could you get me the board report?” You say, “Yes,” that’s where you feel that internal pressure. You don’t want to let yourself down. By the way, you don’t want to look bad in my eyes. I would tell people, stop telling people what to do and start asking. That’s one mistake that lots of people make.

Second one that they make is everybody knows that if someone likes you, it’s easier to say yes. We have that principle of liking. It’s easier for us to say yes to those we know and like. The mistake that people make is they focus so much on, “What do I have to do, Fred, to get you to like me?” It really should be, “What can I do to come to like you, Fred?” When you begin to sense, “Hey, Brian genuinely seems to like me and cares about my wellbeing,” that’s what opens you up to whatever I might ask, because deep down, you’re thinking, “Friends do right by friends.” You wouldn’t manipulate your friend. I wouldn’t. Whatever I’m putting out for you, you receive it differently. Mistake number two, don’t spend any time trying to get people to like you. Invest all of your energy in doing what you can to like the people you’re with.

Fred Diamond: Again, you have the new book which just came out. It’s different than the first two books that you wrote. Talk a little bit about what you’re trying to get across in the new book. It’s a different style that you’ve written before. It’s a well done book, by the way. You sent me a copy and I read it and there’s links in the show notes to where you can get the book. I presume it’s now available wherever you get your books. Talk a little bit about why you shifted the way you’ve written the previous ones to this style, and talk about what you’re hoping to achieve with today’s book. Tell us the title, by the way, I’ve mentioned it in the beginning, but give us another little plug here, if you don’t mind.

Brian Ahearn: The title is called The Influencer: Secrets to Success and Happiness. My first book, Influence PEOPLE, is really a business/psychology book. The second book, Persuasive Selling for Relationship Driven Insurance Agents, as it says, it’s a sales book. I know that there are some people who will not pick up a hardcore business or psychology book, or they won’t pick up a sales book. Knowing that business parables are really becoming more and more popular all the time, I thought I’d give it a try in writing that. Fred, my personal mission with what I do through my company, Influence PEOPLE, is to help people enjoy more professional success and personal happiness. I believe a big part of doing that is having the ability to ethically get people to say yes.

This third book takes a business parable approach, follows the life of a young man named John Andrews. Literally you find out about him at birth, and then goes to college, takes a Psych 101 class. Learns a little about this influence stuff, promptly forgets it until he’s graduating, and he starts to try it and he’s like, “I got a job.” Then as he goes through his career, whether it’s training, business coaches, mentors, he starts putting the pieces together in this puzzle and understanding how important influence is for his professional success. But not only that, for his personal life, as he meets a young lady and he gets married. I think it’s going to engage a whole set of readers that won’t pick up those first two books. It helps me fulfill my mission that I’m getting the word out and helping people enjoy success and happiness.

Fred Diamond: It’s interesting that you mention the word happiness. We’ve spoken about that a lot over the last year. Again, it’s 18 months. By the time this is launched as a podcast, the pandemic-ish world will be close to two years, a little bit less than two years. We’ve been spending a lot of time, Brian Ahearn, talking about things like personal care, things like achieving what you want out of life, giving back, gratitude. It’s interesting. Prior to the pandemic, we would do one show a year. We weren’t even doing webinars. We were doing live events typically in the DC Area, and we might spend a half of one on a mindset.

Now we’re doing a show a week on mindset, and things like gratitude are coming up. We’re talking about topics like happiness. We’re talking about things like if you get better at sales, your life will get better. You’ll be more of a valued participant in your company. Your relationships will grow. You will be happier. Talk about why you have that in the title. If you don’t mind, I want to pursue that for a few minutes here before we come down to the end. Why did you put the word happiness in a business book?

Brian Ahearn: Because I really believe that when people know that what they’re learning has carry-over into other parts of their life, they can embrace it more. I think people are going to be more engaged to learn about influencing, how it could maybe help them at home with their spouse or their kids, as opposed to maybe learning a business application that is only good when they’re there in the office. The other thing is too, I learned a lot about happiness through people, and there’s a character in the book, and his name in the book is Bud. He’s modeled after somebody I know in real life. This person I know in real life – and we call him Pud, that’s his nickname – had a uniqueness to him where I saw that he seemed to get more happiness out of his friends being happy than even they were. Because I clearly saw this, we were in San Diego one time, my wife wanted to play a golf course out there. We were up early and she was able to get on the course. We were there at like 6:00 AM, and then she got a 7:00 tee time. My friend was so happy for her. That is a unique characteristic.

In the book, it explores what we call reciprocity, that when you do good for other people, they’ll want to do good for you, but you also get to reap the feelings of it feels so good to help people. I have unlimited opportunity every day to do good by people. Even if they don’t do something back for me, I still get something. I get that good feeling. I want people to really understand that that principle of reciprocity, it’s not, “I’m going to give to you, Fred, so I can pull this lever and get you to do what I want.” When I get to know and like you, I’m going to give to you because I want the best for you. I’ll get joy out of that. You’ll want to help me if I need help in return. We’re both so much better off because of it.

Fred Diamond: There’s a great Zig Ziglar quote about that as well, “If you continue to help other people achieve their goals, at the end of the day, you’re going to be achieving yours as well.” You probably know the exact quote.

Brian Ahearn: “You can get everything you want in life if you would help enough other people get what they want.”

Fred Diamond: Absolutely. Where people go wrong sometime is they put a time stamp on that. It’s like, “Okay. I’m going to make everyone get what they want, but I want to see some return in a month.” But that’s really not the way to go. The way to go about it is just be that way. Just have the optimal mindset of gratitude and that’s what sales is all about. One thing we’ve also learned, again is that over the last 18 months, and we’ve always known this, but it’s gotten clearer and clearer and clearer, sales is about service. Sales at the end of the day is about helping the other person to achieve what they want to achieve. You’ve brought that message to us so many times.

We have a note here from Robert. Robert says, “Thank you so much for this show today, Fred.” We have a note here from Jessica who says, “This was a great one. Thank you, Brian.” We have a nice comment here from Ricardo who says, “This was great, Fred. Thank you so much.” Brian, before I ask you for your final action step, that’s how we typically end every Sales Game Changers Podcast episode, I just want to acknowledge you again. I mentioned this before, you have trained and coached over 400,000 people, some virtually, some live. You’ve published, again, this is the third book, and I’ve read it and it’s a wonderful read. It’s not going to take you too long, people, to read this book, and you’ll get the impacts, especially after listening to today’s podcast with Brian Ahearn, but I just want to acknowledge you. Again, you’re one of only 12 people who have been trained and certified by the great Robert Cialdini and his works have influenced millions.

It’s interesting. You mentioned at the beginning, I read his book when I was at Apple Computer back in the late ’80s. That’s where I started my career. When I saw his name on your bio, I knew exactly who he was. Interestingly, you said to me in the prep for the show that his work really didn’t take off until maybe 15 years after it was written, in the early 2000s. Of course, now he’s just absolutely phenomenal. For people watching today, the journey is the reward. As Steve Jobs used to say at Apple, “Keep doing the right stuff and happiness will come your way.” But Brian Ahearn, as we end every show, you’ve given us so many great ideas on how to become better at persuasive selling. Give us one specific action step that our listeners should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Brian Ahearn: I think that action step would be in every interaction you have with other people, go in with the mindset of, “What can I do to come to like this person?” Genuinely get to know and like that person, and then just watch what happens. You will be pleasantly surprised.

Fred Diamond: Once again, thank you so much, Brian Ahearn. Congratulations again on the new book. For everyone else who’s watched today’s Sales Game Changers Creativity in Sales webinar, or for every listener of the Sales Game Changers Podcast, thank you so much.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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