How Social Consistency Helps Make the Sale


A friend recently told me that, despite having no ability to play the banjo, he recently outbid others at a silent auction. Once he expressed a minor interest in the instrument, he found it hard to walk away. Combine this with the scarcity of the item and the time crunch, and he found himself drawn into an impossible situation. He was asking if I had any tips to pass along. Nope! Do you have any banjo tips to share?

Last week I introduced Social Consistency. As you saw, people want to remain consistent to the public statements they’ve made. They don’t want to eat their words! Pointing out someone’s inconsistent statements will often force them to revert to those previous attitudes. People like to agree with their previous selves, don’t you think?

People also work to maintain consistent behavior, and use words that reflect those behaviors. No one wants to appear erratic. Erratic is synonymous with crazy, and crazy is dangerous. People avoid crazy, and the socially acceptable alternative is consistent behavior. Get up, go to work, same shirt. People often hide behind this routine, never changing much in their lives, never trying to get ahead. Their internal scripts define what they’ll do next. To do otherwise is scary.

Erratic behavior can be dangerous! Photo "Cars on I-90 floating bridge" by Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
Erratic behavior can be dangerous! Photo “Cars on I-90 floating bridge” by Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

Persuasion, in this scenario, requires that we introduce people to new ideas about how they can live their life. Maybe we’re trying to convince people to use the bus, or to change their plastic bag habits. We have to introduce new behaviors, ideas, beliefs, habits. These aren’t easy to ingrain, and require multiple persuasion techniques with no guarantee of success. Forming new habits requires people to believe the alternative is worse. It often requires multiple exposures to the new habit or idea before that idea will stick. People need the habit to fit within their lifestyle. New habits are hard to form.

We can be reasonably sure that people will continue an existing habit that they find beneficial. For example, we can expect that hot sauce eaters will continue to buy hot sauce for the foreseeable future. I will (and I’m looking to increase it after a few years on the mild side). Here, persuasion might be used, not to introduce a new habit, but to change the brand I buy. This takes far less effort because there is nothing major to alter in my life for the influence to be effective. And if I find “my new favorite,” the producer and vendor can expect I’ll buy that brand again.

Persuasion modifies existing behavior easier than creating new habits. "Holy Hot Sauce" by Mighty Travels, Flickr CC-By-2.0
Persuasion modifies existing behavior easier than creating new habits. “Holy Hot Sauce” by Mighty Travels, Flickr CC-By-2.0

All of these examples, ultimately, come down to the emotions people feel. They fear being seen as inconsistent and socially inept, and they’re trying to avoid embarrassment. Or they’ve found excitement with a new discovery. Or all of these.

…it almost doesn’t matter. You might put up a weak argument about cost, but your emotional needs are met.

There is a common sales technique which exploits Social Consistency. Find a product to meet the needs of a customer. These might not even be real needs, but emotional wants that a person believes she’d benefit from. Maybe it’s the right color that really hooks a buyer. Maybe it’s a feature they can see themselves enjoying. If the salesperson can get the buyer to state out loud that she wants a specific feature, all the better. The buyer is building an internal checklist that she won’t want to argue against, and she’s socially discussing her behavior and preferences.

As the salesperson, find that product! Once a customer’s needs are met, it’s hard to walk away. It would be inconsistent. The customer will sell themselves on that product meeting their needs.

Picture yourself shopping for a new car, and say you have a decent budget. You, the customer, will express a wish for the extra option which may be handy. Sure you need that extra fog light package. Safety, you know?

All of your emotional boxes will be checked off for all the right bells and whistles, and when you see the price tag… it almost doesn’t matter. You might put up a weak argument about cost, but your emotional needs are met. The monthly price breakdown seems so small, and the salesperson just needs to tug on those emotions to remind you what you really want. Price is just one factor of many. To walk away from that situation risks being seen as inconsistent with those other factors. The pressure for consistency is there and, frequently enough, the sale is made.

My friend now owns a $150 banjo and has no idea how to play it. We’ve all walked away with a purchase that we’ve regretted buying, or we’ve been pressured to be consistent with previous attitudes, against our current interests. Think about the last time this happened to you, and share with us in the comments below!