Grandma used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” We are much more willing to do something for someone we like. While that may be obvious, what is surprising is how powerful a part rapport can play in persuasion, especially when we don’t think about it. Companies such as Tupperware and Mary Kay are built on it; Joe Girard, the “world’s greatest car salesman” according to Guinness Book of World Records, became so by making friends with his customers, and then sending out monthly reminders that he liked them.
When we look at the research that has been done on likability, we’ll see that some other well-worn phrases don’t fare so well. We’ll look at seven factors that make us likeable and hence more persuasive.
I didn’t start my career wanting to be a salesperson, or to be in the business of persuasion at all. In fact, I wanted to have as little to do with selling as possible, so I got a degree in finance and went to work for a commercial bank in south Florida where I could happily crunch numbers without having to have much to do with people. At that time the banking industry was very heavily regulated, so we didn’t have to compete too hard for customers. In fact, we joked that banking was subject to the “3-6-2” rule—pay 3% on deposits, lend it out at 6%, and hit the golf course every day at 2.
In an unfortunate masterpiece of poor timing, I entered the industry just before Congress passed a whole new set of laws deregulating the financial industry, which soon forced clueless hotshots like myself to go out into the real world and try to bring in customers. I had to figure out how to sell, and quickly. I had no formal sales training and no way to differentiate my product (what’s more of a commodity than money?). But, because I like to eat and have a roof over my head, I went out and gave it a go. I’m sure I made every mistake in the book but gradually I got better at it, although with no method or systematic approach.
One day this all changed.
You’ve heard the trite old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” It applies to persuasion as well as teaching. When you provide external incentives to get someone to change their behavior, it’s like giving them a fish. It’s easy to get people to do things to gain rewards or avoid punishments, but the desired behavior only lasts as long as you have the ability to a) monitor the behavior and b) furnish the necessary reward or punishment. If you want to drive lasting behavior change, you’ve got to find ways to get people to do things for their own reasons, and the best way to do this is to use their sense of who they are to provide internal, long-lasting motivation.
I actually first learned this when I was 15, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was a member of the Jack Nelson Swim Club. Nelson had been an Olympic swimmer and Olympic coach, and was a legend in swimming circles. I wasn’t good enough to be coached directly by him, so when I was summoned to his office, I was terrified. I had been a smart-aleck and all-around pain in the rear to my coach and pretty much ignored his yelling and threats, but now I knew that I was in for it. I was already figuring out how I was going to tell my parents I had been thrown off the team.