Business Psychology

Article No. 342
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Selling Skill-based Products

New research offers guidelines for sellers of skill-based products.

What do tennis rackets, iPods, cellos, and snow boards have in common? Answer: they all require learning to fully use and appreciate. In the trade, these are examples of skill-based products, and the people who sell them have some common experiences.

Consider, for example, customers with little or no experience with a product. Initially, they display a burst of enthusiasm, a confidence that they'll have a successful experience with the product. Tennis racket buyers may check the deadline to enter upcoming tournaments. Snow board purchasers may inquire about travel packages to nearby ski resorts. But for the people who sell skill-based products and encounter these overly confident customers, there's a worry. They know that very soon there will be a confidence crash. All it takes is a little experience with the product.

New owners of tennis rackets will soon hit lots of balls over the fence, and they'll have to search in neighboring fields to find them. New snow board owners will eat lots of snow as they find the snowy slopes rushing up to meet their faces. Sales people follow a rule: don't be there when the confidence crash hits. Confidence crashes are not good for sales.

Darron Billeter, a professor at Brigham Young University, is one of several researchers who study this problem, and some recent findings by some of these researchers have revealed an unsettling situation. For example, consumers spend an average of only 20 minutes trying to operate new electronics items before they give up. Fifty percent of all electronic items returned to stores because they are defective actually have nothing wrong with them. Twenty-two percent of the people who received a high-technology gift in the last year failed to learn how to use it. Eighty-five percent of all snow boards sit unused in closets because their owners give up and fail to learn to use them.

In a series of recent experiments, Billeter introduced his subjects to a new product that required learning and then carefully measured their changing attitudes as they engaged the product. He hoped to recreate the initial inflated confidence and the subsequent confidence crash, and he was successful, but he was most interested in measuring his subjects' attitudes about the learning task as it occurred. He found that the crash in confidence is unwarranted. People actually mastered the task much more quickly that they believed they would. Billeter calls the confidence crash a thinking bias.

Next, Billeter tried to eliminate the confidence crash by warning people that it was coming. That didn't work. Even though warned, people still exaggerated the difficulty they would have learning to use the product once they got started with it. Too soon, they were ready to give up.

Finally, Billeter explored an attitude that is most important to business owners: product valuation. After 20 minutes struggling with the new product, Billeter's subjects had drastically changed their attitudes about the value of the new product. Their judgments had significantly declined.

Billeter has some advice for us.

First, arranging a short trial with a skill-based product before a purchase decision will actually reduce the likelihood of a sale. Replace the short trial with a brief lesson. Teach customers to accomplish one useful thing with the product. Drill them until this single operation becomes simple and automatic. Make use of actions that are already familiar, actions that can be used for a new purpose. For example, teach customers to use a tennis racket to bounce a ball on the ground. When customers have learned and mastered one operation, it will be easier for them to imagine mastering others. Early success breeds confidence.

Second, cultivate patience. Sales people who are experts with a product suffer from a projection bias. They can't imagine being unskilled with the product. They forget the difficulty they had learning to use it, and they betray their impatience with subtle cues that leave customers feeling discouraged, stupid, and hopeless. None of these attitudes will help close a sale. Kindness, good instruction, and patience are imperative to sell skill-based products.

When you pause and consider the wide variety of products that fall into the category of skill-based, it's easy to recognize the contribution that Professor Billeter's research has made to our businesses. Thank you, Professor Billeter.

Reference: Billeter, Darron, Ajay Kalra, and George Loewenstein (2010) Underpredicting Learning after Initial Experience with a Product. Journal of Consumer Research, 37 (February), 723-736.

© Management Resources

See Also:

Selling With Stories
Unconscious Mind Sets
Effective Customer Service
How Long Should You Give Them?
The Language of Buyers

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