You Like Me, You Really, Really Like Me
Kevin has just bought two boxes of fine Margaux. He rarely drinks wine—not even Bordeaux—but the sales assistant was so nice, not fake or pushy, just really likable. So he bought them.
Joe Girard is considered the most successful car salesman in the world. His tip for success: “There’s nothing more effective in selling anything than getting the customer to believe, really believe, that you like him and care about him.” Girard doesn’t just talk the talk: His secret weapon is sending a card to his customers each month. Just one sentence salutes them: “I like you.”
The liking bias is startlingly simple to understand and yet we continually fall prey to it. It means this: The more we like someone, the more inclined we are to buy from or help that person. Still, the question remains: What does “likable” even mean? According to research, we see people as pleasant, if (a) they are outwardly attractive, (b) they are similar to us in terms of origin, personality, or interests, and (c) they like us. Consequently, advertising is full of attractive people. Ugly people seem unfriendly and don’t even make it into the background (see A). In addition to engaging super-attractive types, advertising also employs “people like you and me” (see B)—those who are similar in appearance, accent, or background. In short, the more similar, the better. Mirroring is a standard technique in sales to get exactly this effect. Here, the salesperson tries to copy the gestures, language, and facial expressions of his prospective client. If the buyer speaks very slowly and quietly, often scratching his head, it makes sense for the seller to speak slowly and quietly, and to scratch his head now and then, too. That makes him likable in the eyes of the buyer, and thus a business deal is more likely. Finally, it’s not unheard of for advertisers to pay us compliments: How many times have you bought something “because you’re worth it”? Here factor C comes into play: We find people appealing if they like us. Compliments work wonders, even if they ring hollow as a drum.
So-called multilevel marketing (selling through personal networks) works solely because of the liking bias. Though there are excellent plastic containers in the supermarket for a quarter of the price, Tupperware generates annual revenues of $2 billion. Why? The friends who hold the Tupperware parties meet the second and third congeniality standard perfectly.
Aid agencies employ the liking bias to great effect. Their campaigns use beaming children or women almost exclusively. Never will you see a stone-faced, wounded guerrilla fighter staring at you from billboards—even though he also needs your support. Conservation organizations also carefully select who gets the starring role in their advertisements. Have you ever seen a World Wildlife Fund brochure filled with spiders, worms, algae, or bacteria? They are perhaps just as endangered as pandas, gorillas, koalas, and seals—and even more important for the ecosystem. But we feel nothing for them. The more human a creature acts, the more similar it is to us, the more we like it. The bone skipper fly is extinct? Too bad.
Politicians, too, are maestros of the liking bias. Depending on the makeup and interests of an audience, they emphasize different topics, such as residential area, social background, or economic issues. And they flatter us: Each potential voter is made to feel like an indispensable member of the team: “Your vote counts!” Of course your vote counts, but only by the tiniest of fractions, bordering on the irrelevant.
A friend who deals in oil pumps told me how he once closed an eight-figure deal for a pipeline in Russia. “Bribery?” I inquired. He shook his head. “We were chatting, and suddenly we got on to the topic of sailing. It turned out that both of us—the buyer and me—were die-hard 470 dinghy fans. From that moment on, he liked me; I was a friend. So the deal was sealed. Amiability works better than bribery.”
So, if you are a salesperson, make buyers think you like them, even if this means outright flattery. And if you are a consumer, always judge a product independent of who is selling it. Banish the salespeople from your mind or, rather, pretend you don’t like them.