Article No. 270
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.
In the Aid of Empathy
Researcher explores customer emotions as they make purchases.
What he learned will help salespeople be more empathetic.
Empathy is a terrific asset for salespeople. It helps them sense the needs of customers and helps customers gain trust and confidence in the salesperson. It’s something that sales managers try to train their people to do, and it’s something they look for when they hire new people.
Research that explores the inner thinking and feelings of customers in the process of making purchases is very helpful. It informs salespeople of customer qualities. It gives them things to look for.
Philip Trocchia, from the University of South Florida, recently did such research and found much that is useful.
Trocchia interviewed people about their car-buying experiences. Nearly everyone buys a car, and most people buy many cars over their lifetimes. These are vivid experiences, and people remember them. They remember what they felt, and they remember what they did. Trocchia believed that recalling these experiences would give him an insight into car buying, and he also believed he would gain an insight into the process of making purchases in general.
Trocchia began interviewing people, finding them at random in a nearby shopping mall, and he kept interviewing people until he stopped hearing anything new. He wasn’t interested in learning percentages, that is, the percentage of people who felt one way or another. He wanted to gain the full breadth of experiencing.
Here is the best of his findings:
Trocchia found that most customers care what the salesperson thinks of them. They care a lot. They want to sense that the salesperson likes them and respects them. Often, they care enough that they are willing to “cave in” to the offer the salesperson makes in order to avoid appearing cheap or mean spirited.
This strong desire helps explain why supportive and complimentary comments from salespeople are so often remembered and appreciated.
Customers want the salesperson to get a fair deal. They want their purchases to benefit the salesperson. For example, a salesperson who offered to give up his/her commission in order to make an item more affordable would not please most customers.
Customers feel obligated to give the salesperson a sale if this person has invested time in helping them. This is why hovering is such an objectionable practice. It creates an unwanted obligation to buy.
The presence of salespeople nearby as people shop exerts an unwanted pressure, and customers often feel a need to lie as a defense against it. For example, they often say they don’t really need a particular item, or that they can’t afford it, or that they’re “just looking,” when, in fact, they do need it, they can afford it, and they aren’t “just looking.” The “just looking” comment is supposed to lower the expectations of salespeople so they won’t hover and exert unwanted pressure.
If a purchase goes smoothly, then customers often feel they could have done better somewhere else. This is part of the well-known buyer’s regret salespeople are warned to avoid.
Customers often bring an audience. They come in pairs or small groups, and when this happens, they often follow scripts. One person may be the disinterested person who coaches the salesperson to cave in if he/she wants to close the sale. Another person may be the naysayer who finds fault with every choice.
The topic of scripts for customer audiences is a large one, and Trocchia did not explore it, but he did warn his readers from calling attention to it in actual sales situations. He gave the example reported by one person of a car-buying experience with a tag-along husband who found fault with every choice. The salesperson remarked humorously that he must be the “bad cop,” but his comment took the customers by surprise, and they walked out and never returned.
Customers often distrust salespeople. Customers know that salespeople are better at selling than they are at buying, and they fear that they will be victimized by a salesperson who will disregard their needs and convince them to buy a product they don’t need. However, when customers do come to trust a salesperson, it is because the salesperson has demonstrated great expertise in their product.
Professor Trocchia has given us a window into the thinking and feeling of the customers our salespeople encounter. We can use this knowledge to help our people gain the trust of customers and avoid driving them away. Thank you Professor Trocchia.
Reference: Trocchia, Philip J., Caving, Role Playing, and Staying Home: Shopper Coping Strategies in a Negotiated Pricing Environment. Psychology & Marketing, 21 (10), 823-853. www.businesspsych.org
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