7 Cognitive Biases Salespeople Must Know to Close Deals [Cheat Sheet]

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Aja Frost
Aja Frost



If humans were purely rational, sales would be a snap. Salespeople would simply need to demonstrate the ROI of their product. Once their buyers saw the logic of buying, it would be a done deal.

But our decision-making processes aren’t straightforward or rational.

Not only do our emotions often get in the way, we tend to make the same reasoning mistakes again and again.

There’s a silver lining. Salespeople who understand how their prospects make decisions can help them overcome irrational thinking. With tricks to manage these seven cognitive biases up your sleeve, you can get buyers on the right track.

1) The Bizarreness Effect

What it is: It’s easier to remember unusual or unexpected information than common information.

How to use it: Salespeople should make their message more memorable by starting with a surprising fact or story.

For instance, a rep selling virtual meetings software might say, “If you’re looking for a way to boost your team’s efficiency and increase their job satisfaction, try offering work-from-home privileges. People are 69% more productive when they work remotely.”

2) The Empathy Gap

What it is: People subconsciously believe what they’re feeling at the moment is how they’ll always feel. If they’re calm, it’s hard to imagine feeling anxious, and vice versa.

How to use it: This phenomenon helps explain why the status quo is your biggest enemy, not the competition. Prospects don’t typically make “nice-to-have” purchases: They buy because they’re nervous about what will happen if they don’t.

Reps should never manufacture false fear -- but if there’s true need, it’s their job to uncover it and then lead the buyer to acknowledge the negative impacts of inaction.

3) The Halo Effect

What it is: If the buyer has a positive impression of the rep, he’s much likelier to have a positive impression of the rep’s product and company. The opposite is true as well: A poor opinion of the rep makes him think poorly of the product and company.

How to use it: A salesperson might have an amazing product at an competitive price point -- but unless she’s likeable, her prospects probably won’t think much of what she’s offering.

Reps should strive to create genuine connections with every buyer, which usually requires doing research, understanding their persona, and taking an “Always Be Helping” approach.

4) Optimism Bias

What it is: We’re wired to believe the future will be better than the past or present.

How to use it: The optimism bias can both help and hurt salespeople. On one hand, helping prospects envision a better future can be highly effective. On the other, prospects are often irrationally optimistic -- even if they’re in pain right now, they might expect the situation to resolve itself (or at least stay the same).

To make sure buyers are optimistic about the right things, salespeople should describe two scenarios. The first should describe life with their product, while the second should describe life without it. This thought exercise will help prospects overcome any unrealistic beliefs.

It’s also important for reps to manage their prospects’ expectations around when they’ll see results. Some products don’t begin paying for themselves for months or even years down the line -- which can make buyers disappointed and frustrated if they’re expecting immediate gains. Prospects may also expect the hard work to be done once they’ve finished the buying process. But for products with complex or lengthy implementations, there’s far more to be done. Salespeople can make sure buyers aren’t wearing blinders by clearly and accurately explaining what will happen after they sign the agreement.

5) Hyperbolic Discounting

What it is: People would rather receive a smaller reward now than a bigger one down the line. In other words, they’re more likely to choose a $5 gift card now than a $10 one in a month.

How to use it: Salespeople should highlight the immediate benefits of their product as much as possible. How will their prospects’ lives immediately be changed for the better? Once buyers are picturing those near-future changes, they’ll be more compelled to buy.

Hyperbolic discounting also comes in handy during the negotiation process. Reps can decrease sticker shock by offering delayed payment terms. To prospects, putting down $3,000 in three months feels less risky than spending the same amount now.

The same rationale applies to monthly versus yearly contracts. It’s cheaper for prospects to pay $3,000 upfront than $300 every month, but feeling like they’re spending less in the moment can sway them to commit.

6) Sunk Cost Fallacy

What it is: Once someone has invested time, energy, or money into an activity or decision, they’re irrationally committed to finishing it.

How to use it: To increase their buyer’s commitment, salespeople should ask for a series of small commitments.

To give you an idea, here’s a sample sequence:

  1. Before the first meeting: Send preliminary questions for the prospect to review
  2. Before the second meeting: Email some relevant materials and ask the prospect to look them over
  3. After the second meeting: Ask the prospect to complete a small task, like moving data into the free version of your software product or completing an audit of their current process that relates to your product.

By gradually upping their prospect’s commitment, reps will make buying seem like a foregone conclusion.

7) Ambiguity Bias

What it is: People are more likely to choose options with known probabilities of success than those with unknown or unclear outcomes.

How to use it: Prospects are often hesitant to take a chance on a new product, even if they’re unsatisfied with their current tool or seller. Reps can put their minds at ease with case studies, testimonials, third-party reviews, and relevant stats. The more data prospects have, the less guesswork they need to do.

Introducing buyers to current customer references can effectively quell their fears as well -- but because this process is time-consuming for both prospects and clients, it should only be used at the end of the sales process as a last resort.

The ambiguity bias also comes into play when a rep’s prospect is new to their position. People who have recently transitioned roles are even more hesitant to make big, potentially risky decisions. To motivate these prospects, salespeople should emphasize the danger of sticking with the status quo.

Salespeople who ignore emotion’s role in the sales process harm their chances of success. To effectively show prospects the value of the product, it’s crucial to move their minds and their hearts.

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