Why Should Sellers Bother Generating Preference?

If you and your buyer have entered into the Bottom of the Predictive Sales Funnel™, that means that you have already established yourself as a think-partner, and you’ve created urgency around their problem area.

At this stage, the buyer may be actually asking you to help.

It feels like your work here is basically done.

That sentiment—although not uncommon—is far from the total truth. In fact, at the Bottom of the Predictive Sales Funnel™, we as the sales force have to generate preference. If we don’t, we may have just sealed a deal for our competitor.

Real World Example

On ABC’s popular television show Shark Tank, entrepreneurs and inventors pitch their ideas to investors. On one particular episode, a contestant pitched the idea of a computer camera blocker, Eyebloc.

The seller follows all the guidelines in the first two stages of the Predictive Sales Funnel™: he first cultivates likeability. You can see in the video that he makes the Sharks laugh several times, and they even say, “I like this guy!” Then, he earns their trust. He presents the problem that people—the average consumer—is constantly being watched through the camera in their personal computer. He anticipates their doubts by asking one of the investors, “You’re in IT security, (can you) vouch for this?” Which he does.

At this stage—after establishing trust and credibility—the seller moves into developing urgency. We see this happen in the investors, the sharks, when they all look around, nervous, wondering what they’ve done in front of their computer screens that they did not anticipate anyone was watching. The seller jokes, “Who here has been naked in front of their computer screen?” which makes the Sharks laugh, but also develops their urgency.

You can actually hear the Sharks ask the IT security guy, “Robert, how big a problem is this?” “Yeah, is that true?”

At this stage, CJ and the sharks have entered into the Bottom of the Predictive Sales Funnel ™. Here is where CJ, the entrepreneur, should generate his preference. Yet when the investors see his product, they are all underwhelmed. They suggest other, inexpensive remedies to the Eyebloc, such as the post-it note, a piece of gum, a bandaid, anything….

This is where Generating Preference becomes crucial in landing a sale: CJ made the sale, but he didn’t sell his product. I would be willing to bet that hundreds of people, after watching that Shark Tank episode, block the camera on the top of their computer screen with something.

But it’s probably not blocked with the Eyebloc. Or at least, not based on that pitch.

So How Do We Generate Preference?

Program on Persuasion’s corporate sales training has identified two emotions that you can use to distinguish your company, your products, and you from your competitors. We use Congruency and Differentiation to Generate Preference.


Defined simply, Congruency is the quality of being consistent with beliefs, values, and commitments. When buyers take a stand on an issue, it is futile to argue against it. Instead, we should try to discover what your buyer will stand with, and align with that.

One of the most powerful experiments showing the congruency of personal commitments was performed by persuasion professor, Dr. Robert Cialdini.

In one neighborhood, the residents were offered to host a 6’x8’ billboard for $100 per month. 1% of them agreed.

In a different neighborhood, residents were asked to place a postcard version of the billboard in their front window for $10 a month. Several months later, in the same neighborhood, people who had agreed to display the postcard version were offered to display the same 6’x8’ billboard for exactly the same deal. 25% agreed.

The point is it is easier to make a bigger commitment toward something if they have first made a smaller commitment.

To get larger commitments, ask for small commitments first.

To reference the Shark Tank episode again in reference to the unaccessed opportunities: do you remember how much money the entrepreneur asked for?

A lot. $50,000.

If, instead, he had asked for a smaller investment, a larger one may have been in his business future. After all, if you remember, the seller had developed a sense of urgency in all of the investors.

Social Congruency, or Peer Pressure

One type of congruency is Social Congruency. You probably know it as Peer Pressure. When your prospects hear of other people like them conforming to expectations, they are more likely to conform, too. The more similar to them the person giving the testimonial is to the new audience, the more persuasive the message becomes. It’s a form of authorization, a validation for an action they may not otherwise take.

When you use testimonials, use one from the client who is most like the prospect you are trying to persuade.

Remember in Shark Tank, the seller had the opportunity to get Robert (the national security Shark) on board first, to start up the social congruency, but that investor opted out. One of the other investors even said aloud about the other prospect, “Robert is one of the top ten cyber-crime experts in the world. If he’s not in, there’s no way I’m even gonna think about it.”


Science has shown that we respond to the relative difference of our options rather than the objective value of them.

For example, when Williams Sonoma first introduced a home “bread bakery” machine for $275, most consumers were not interested.  Flustered by poor sales, the manufacturer of the bread machine brought in a marketing research firm, which suggested the introduction of an additional model of the bread maker, one that was not only larger but priced about 50% more than the initial machine.

Sales rose for the smaller bread bakery. Now consumers had two models of bread makers from which to choose.  Since one was clearly larger and much more expensive than the other, people didn’t have to know much about bread makers to choose the smaller, less expensive version.

Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist, conducted a similar experiment regarding irrelevant alternatives in magazine subscriptions. The subscription cards usually provide options somewhat like the following:

  • Internet-only subscription: $59
  • Print-only subscription: $125
  • Print and internet subscription: $125

You may notice that for print and internet, the price does not change from just that of the print-only subscription. Because of that, out of a sample of 100 MIT MBAs, 16 students opted for the internet-only subscription, zero students opted for the print-only subscription, and 84 students opted for print and internet both.

It would seem logical that if the least desirable option was removed, the results would stay the same. Instead, they were reversed. 68 students opted for internet-only subscriptions, and 32 students chose the print and internet option.

Although no one bought the middle option (print-only subscription), we have to offer it. The publishers and marketers know this. It’s the differentiation that makes the valuable option seem valuable. As sellers, we have to know how to set up our offer so that it seems valuable by comparison.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska.