A Few Questions To Ask Company Representatives

As a student of persuasion, I’ve had a few sales jobs to get in person experience.

Sometimes representatives of a company will deliberately withhold information to successfully book an appointment time or close a sale. They do this because disclosing certain details will lose them customers if they are communicated before enough commitments.

I know this, so I typically ask salesmen and service reps to figure out if they are being completely honest.

Note that it is impossible to communicate an exact idea of how something will go, unless you want a very, very long conversation. So you have to be selective about what you focus on. The difference is that you, the reader, will want to focus on things that matter to you, while the company rep will have their own interests in mind.

To be clear, a person can be honest with conscious effort and still leave out details that would be important to you. Sometimes details are left out because the person you are speaking to didn’t do a perfect job. That’s okay because nobody is perfect.

But sometimes the details are left out on purpose. When they are left out on purpose, it’s up to you to be aware, ask detailed questions, and be perceptive of how the person replies.

This example will be about booking a technical service installation at your residence. But it can generalize to anything.

Suppose you are talking to a representative for an Internet provider. You are about to agree to an installation date for their services. You ask how long it will take and they reply, “Installations take approximately two hours.” This is tactic number one, and a common response that would satisfy most people. But it leaves out some details, so consider the next two questions for your own use. Ask: How long can it take if there are issues? Will the company commit to a maximum length of time, so you can complain if they go over?

Or consider this possible response from the rep: “Our service team is trained to handle the installation as quickly as possible.”

Note that in this case, there is no specific length of time mentioned. Most people want the technician to take as little time as possible. Failing that, people generally prefer to have an honest estimate of how long an installation will take. They definitely prefer it to being lied to, or given incomplete information, even if it doesn’t feel good to hear it.

Salesmen seem not to know this, or pretend they don’t. What they do know is that you want to spend as little time as possible getting things taken care of (because it’s true). So they are usually trained to avoid telling you that it may, in fact, take a long time. But I have good news. You can squeeze the info out of ’em, if you know how. Questions like…

“What can I expect for a minimum and maximum length of time on the installation?”

Now that question is good, but we can make it even better. If you can pre-empt that question with this one:

“You are committed to honest and quality communication, right?”

And then maybe this one:

“Okay. Now how would I contact one of your superiors if the information you gave me was incomplete?” (Yes, I do enjoy this.)

Those two questions together make asking for a commitment on a minimum and maximum length of time way more effective.

Notice how asking for specific details is different after you’ve had them affirm their honesty and give you their manager’s contact information. It’s no guarantee if the employee knows their manager will be on their side, but it may help. Either way you can then say, “Your employee said he would be completely honest about the results, and this was not included.”

If you don’t want to remember specific questions, the simplified idea is:

  1. Notice when useful information is missing.
  2. If you notice anything missing, ask about it.

Bonus points if you confirm there will be consequences for misinformation. Your negotiating position is way stronger if you ask tough questions beforehand. If you don’t ask, they can say, “Oh, it’s too bad, you didn’t ask.”



Salesmen In Class

A group of three salesmen walk into a highschool classroom. They have with them briefcases full of tests, slides, and demo material, all designed to persuade young minds.

The salesmen introduce themselves. There is a retired clothes salesman. One is a political consultant, who sells politicians to the public. The last owns the city’s biggest car dealership. These three men have over a hundred years of combined experience.

One of the kids in the back row raises his hand and says, “You sold my father his first car!”

That was back in the old days. Before cognitive science learned peoples’ built-in biases. Before hypnotists filled auditoriums for seminars and popularized the tools in books for all to see. And things have come a long way since then.

As the hour goes on, the salesmen lead the children through parts of their future, getting them to vividly imagine all kinds of rewards that were uniquely suited to them — just the right kind. While their attention was drawn to the best kinds of rewards, the salesmen allowed the details to be filled in on their own.

They brought out tests, tests designed to funnel a person’s decisions towards a few select outcomes. All of Cialdini’s tools are deployed.

They showed slides which, as all slides do, left out some aspects of opportunity cost and opposing arguments. Reinforcement for a new bias.

They gave the students demonstration material on computers. Special computers designed to show how challenges of the new path they had chosen could be overcome. A physical connection between then and now.

The salesmen addressed common fears, doubts, anxieties, even before the students realized them. And then they signed up. But signed up for what?

A better future with a higher likelihood of success.

Their parents were consulted. As you might expect, they agreed with the salesmen. Secondary products were introduced and sold as insurance against failures.

And then they left.

At this point you may have felt uncomfortable with the situation. Questions like, “Is this ethical?” and “Am I alright with what they’re doing in that classroom?”

I assert that we are all moved in one direction or another every day of our lives. Very few of those moves come from a source with your best interests in mind. So if a group of salesmen walk into a classroom, it’s natural to be suspicious, yes.

You wonder how they got there, and you wonder what their intentions are. What’s in it for them? What impact will their influence have on the students? And what product are they even selling?

But notice how a lot of the answers depend heavily on the positive outcomes for the students. You can’t compare a downside without knowing the upside. And sometimes, you are stuck knowing only one half of the equation. So notice how the answers change when you can complete it.

It was a service by a nonprofit organization.

The salesmen sold classes in computer programming.

Perfect Presuasion By My Mother

My mother surprised me today with some high caliber presuasion. She has definitely read Dr Robert Cialdini’s “Presuasion,” but I still didn’t expect it. Here’s what she did.

In Presuasion, Cialdini quantifies an enormous lesson in human behavior: The moment before influences the moment after greatly, greatly.

It is the kind of knowledge many of us recognize at one point or another. If you have someone laughing, that is a much better time to make a request than if they are angry at you. But that’s just an extremely obvious example. Cialdini goes much further down the rabbit hole.

As I got home from work, charged up but hungry from a long day of sales, my mother asked me:

“Do you want to eat a mexican casserole tonight?”

While she often makes dinner, she rarely makes that dish. And it’s an awesome recipe. “Mexican casserole,” which is ground beef, beans and cheese baked in the oven. It’s everything I want. I gave an enthusiastic yes. And then she surprised me.

“Do you want to make it yourself?”

I didn’t even hesitate. I went in on it. Yes, even though I have to be asleep in two hours, and learning new recipes is hard, I do want to make that dish. Thankfully, it’s an easy dish. I knew that at the time. This will be important later.

Now only fellow readers of Adams can fully appreciate this. But I’ll do my best to explain.

Past attempts to learn a new recipe are typically nonstarters. I buy the ingredients and it sits there in the fridge until the greens start to wilt. It’s hard to get the motivation to make good food when you have bad but accessible alternatives. But this casserole recipe has a huge payoff, and I might have even commented aloud how simple the recipe is. On top of the spoken comment, my mother also bookmarked the recipe for me with a big orange marker.

The consistency principle states that someone who takes a small step towards a larger action will be less resistant to the idea in the future. So I was already committed towards this idea weeks ago. (If you ask me, the commitment principle qualifies as presuasion, even though it’s from the previous book.)

My mother’s real genius is the timing of it. She might be unaware of this, but many salesmen experience a thing called a “sales high”. You get charged up with energy from having enough people say yes, earning you a commission. It’s a flood of reward in your brain, which charges you up.

In my experience, the charge lasts for an hour or two afterwards. Just enough time for me to get in the door hungry and motivated to say yes to a request that requires a lot of energy. Presuasion gold.

As an extra shoutout, she also took the time to “Grease the path” as @jhreha would say. When you want someone to pick up a new habit, you “grease the path” for them by removing obstacles to their initial success. My mom did this for me by choosing an easy recipe (it’s four ingredients) and placing them together on the countertop. I couldn’t refuse.

I still can’t tell if she did it on purpose.