two_choices

In one sense, "or" is the word of ultimatums. "It's either this or that -- make your decision!" No, thanks. Talk about pressure.

But "or" is also the word of free choice. Human beings thrive when they're allowed to make their own decisions. In this respect, "or" is one of the loveliest words in the English language.

It goes without saying that salespeople should not give their prospects ultimatums. But this second use of "or" -- a way of presenting options -- can be extremely beneficial to sellers if used correctly.

For example, Colleen Francis, owner of Engage Selling Solutions, points out that "or" can drastically improve the odds of closing a deal.

"Most sellers make the mistake of presenting only one solution to meet the buyer's needs. In doing so, you ensure the client has a 50/50 chance of saying no," Francis writes in her book Nonstop Sales Boom. "The best sellers are always looking for opportunities to improve those odds. If you offer two or three options, you increase your odds of the prospect doing business with you."

So rather than handing one final proposal to a buyer, you might draft up two or three versions. This way, instead of asking if the terms are acceptable, you can ask if version A or version B or version C is their preferred choice. The odds of hearing some form of a "yes" are now in your favor.

In addition, adding options can actually prompt indecisive customers to make a choice. If a prospect is swaying between two alternatives, presenting a third can help them come to a consensus by highlighting the relative positives or negatives of the other two. By comparison, the third option might reaffirm that the first is the best way to go, or highlight that the second definitely won't work. Skeptical? This is a psychological phenomenon known as the "decoy effect" and its results have been scientifically proven.

However, before you go option-crazy, consider that the happiness people get from freedom of choice (and the utility of alternatives for the salesperson) has a tipping point. In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz argues that as the number of options increase, so does anxiety around making a decision. Therefore, after a selection is made, the opportunity cost of the options not chosen weighs on people and actually makes them less satisfied with their pick.

Furthermore, more choices can sometimes prevent a decision from being made at all. In the book, Schwartz recounts a study conducted by Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar, writing, "When researchers set up a display featuring a line of high-quality jams, customers who came by could taste samples, and they were given a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. In one condition of the study, six varieties of the jam were available for tasting. In another, 24 varieties were available. In either case, the entire set of 24 varieties was available for purchase.

"The large array of jams attracted more people to the table than the small array, though in both cases people tasted about the same number of jams on average. When it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. 30% of the people exposed to the small array of jams actually bought a jar; only 3% percent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so."

The lesson here is to use the power of "or" sparingly. Sellers should always present a few options to better their chances of receiving a signed contract, but resist venturing too far into the realm of choice. Best keep your negotiation to "X or Y or Z" instead of "A or B or C or D or E ..."

Verdict: Recommended. 

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Originally published Feb 11, 2015 9:30:00 AM, updated February 01 2017

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Persuasion in Sales