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Ethics and Morality

Why People Buy

Psychology, ethics and sales – how they work together.

Source: Photo: iStock

Psychology, Ethics & Influence:

Fundamentally, the concept of business has remained constant for thousands of years. Firms produce goods and services to turn a profit. It sounds simple enough. However, one of the challenges businesses have faced since the beginning of time is how to ethically influence the buyer to purchase their goods and services.

Ultimately, the goal is to get a consumer to buy something that they need but don’t have, or to get rid of something they have, but don’t need or want.

What is the best way to do this?

Guest blogger, Dr. Ari Zelmanow tells us how.

The Decision to Buy:

A morally responsible businessperson wants to solve a problem for their customers. In other words, they don't lie, cheat, or otherwise deceive their customers to get them to buy something that they know doesn't work. Not only are the tactics of the “snake oil salesman” who sold “patent medicines” that promised to cure a wide variety of ailments, but didn’t actually cure anything, illegal – they are reprehensible.

Customers trust businesses to give them good information to make an informed buying decision. This information can be delivered in a number of ways. It can be delivered through copy, social interactions, video, advertisements, or a myriad of other delivery methods.

Regardless of the delivery method, the buying decision is the result of both how well information was transferred from the business to the buyer, and the believability of the information. If a company does a poor job of educating a customer about the reasons they should purchase a specific item, the customer simply won’t purchase the item.

Consumer Psychology – The Learning Pathway:

Simply stated, a buying decision is the result of a consumer learning pathway where the consumer must learn about a product or service and relate it to their specific situation to make a favorable buying decision.

The learning pathway for the consumer can be reflected through three learning domains: cognitive, constructivist, and experiential. Cognitive learning is characterized by reading, writing, discussions, watching videos, etc. In essence, cognitive learning is the intake and assimilation of new information.

Once the information is cognitively learned, the consumer must apply it to their personal set of circumstances or constructivist learning. The consumer then begins experimenting with the knowledge, represented by experiential learning. Experiential learning is basically experimenting with something and developing ways to integrate usage into daily life.

In addition to the learning pathway, there are varying buyer readiness “temperatures” for your customers. The temperature of the customer dictates the optimal way that information should be delivered. There are three basic temperatures: cold, warm and hot.

Turning Up The Heat:

If you are a virtuous businessperson, and truly believe your product or service solves a problem for your customers, it is your ethical responsibility to get it in their hands. Sometimes, the only way to do that is to turn up the “temperature” on your sales funnel (i.e. from cold to warm; or warm to hot).

Each learning domain – e.g. cognitive, constructivist, experiential – corresponds to a level of buyer readiness: cold, warm, or hot. It comes down to a psychology of engagement, from passive listening to actively wanting - from cold to hot.

“Cold” customers are not aware they have a problem, and therefore probably haven’t familiarized themselves with your product or service. If they do have knowledge of your product or service, they haven't considered using it (because they don't think they need it).

Logically, a cold customer has a lower readiness to buy. This customer is going to require a larger amount of education and information to turn up the purchasing temperature and drive them to a favorable buying decision.

For example, a consumer who is "cold" requires a larger amount of of cognitive information, like reading, advertisements, testimonials and social support, videos, etc., to educate them about their “problem” and the proposed solution. It is this time that a consumer must not only learn about the product or service, but that the product or service can work for them.

When done correctly, the education of the cold customer should ultimately shift the temperature to warm. He or she is more engaged.

“Warm” customers are aware they have a problem. They know about your offering as a potential solution and need to overcome some internal objections to buying.

Objections are any barrier that a customer places in their way that prevents them from buying, like price, concern that the product or service will not work for them, timing, etc.

In addition, a warm customer needs constructivist support, i.e. things that make the product or service personally meaningful. This can be as simple as helping the consumer envisions a future where their problem has been solved with the proposed product or service. Testimonials or social proof can help with this.

Once a consumer believes that a product can help them – they actually see themselves in the future without the problem – the temperature gets turned up again.

“Hot” customers are those who know they have a burning problem (pun intended) and are ready to buy.

The Hot Consumer:

A "hot" consumer only needs information that allows them an experiential opportunity to "try" or "experiment" with the product. Sometimes, this is as easy as getting the product in the hands of the consumer. Automobile dealerships allow customers to take cars home. Software and application companies give users free trials. Stores have “sample” items on the shelves for people to play with.

By allowing the consumer the opportunity to try the product out, the companies are reducing the perceived risk associated with user experience. In addition, there is evidence that physically holding products can create a sense of psychological ownership, making people more likely to purchase.

It is important to note that traversing the temperature pathway can occur either slowly or quickly. Regardless, the goal is to change the temperature and get the cold prospect to a hot buyer.

The Psychology of Readiness:

With this information, businesses are armed with a powerful roadmap that can be used to change buyer readiness. For example, a business only needs to figure out their potential buyers’ readiness and align a learning strategy to educate their customers to a warmer temperature.

For example, if a business is sending out letters to cold prospects, they must educate the consumer about the product or service and educate the consumer about the problem they are facing. This will begin to warm the prospect up.

Once the prospect is warm, the business should send out additional letters (or follow-up contact) to make the product or service more personally meaningful. This might be a testimonial from another person. This should warm up the buyer again.

Finally, the buyer will be hot. All that they would need is the ability to try or use the product.

Consider a different example where a buyer goes to Amazon to buy a new widget. They already know they want the widget so they are coming into the equation warm.

When you go to Amazon, do you check the customer reviews? If you don’t, you are in an extreme minority. A vast majority of consumers place a lot of weight on reviews. These reviews help drive a warm customer to a hot buyer.

If the buyer feels safe and the Amazon advertisement overcomes any objections they have, their temperature will change, they will become hot and will click the “buy” button. This can happen in a matter of minutes.

Conclusion – Cold Prospects Become Hot Buyers:

There is one final example from a popular television show, Shark Tank. For those you haven’t seen the show, entrepreneurs “pitch” their ideas to a group of savvy investors in an attempt to get an investment in their product or service.

  • Consider the following example. Observe the psychological shift from disinterest to interest, from interest to need, from cold to hot.

Imagine sitting at home on a Friday night with your wife (or husband) and kids, watching television. Shark Tank comes on and you see an entrepreneur pitching a new cleaning product that is non-toxic and safe for your kids and pets.

You have been using store bought products for a while. As the pitch goes on, the entrepreneur explains, in a very compelling manner that the products you are using are toxic and harmful for your family.

Prior to this point, you were a cold prospect. You had no idea that you had a problem – i.e. using cleaning products that could be harmful to your family or pets.

This cognitive education not only informed you of the problem, but also provided you the solution. As the pitch continues, you start to actually value how the product can fit into your life.

It becomes personally meaningful, through constructivist learning because the issues that are presented are important to you. After all, who doesn’t want to do everything they can to protect their family and pets?

Finally, you get on the Internet, find the products, see that they offer a risk-free guarantee, and make the purchase. You decide that it really “costs you nothing” to experiment with the product. The experiential learning will tell if you if the product actually fits into your lifestyle.

Getting buyers to move through a sales funnel doesn’t have to be rocket science. It is simply a matter of aligning the right message to the right temperature.

Getting products and services into the hands of the people they can help is the morally responsible thing to do. Knowing buyer readiness and the pathways to change it can ethically influence buyer behavior.

In the end, isn't that the ultimate goal?


Dr. Ari Zelmanow, the professor in The Professor of Persuasion, is a behavioral marketing consultant and copywriter, helping businesses and entrepreneurs improve business results by leveraging the power of emotion and psychological triggers.

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