The “unrelated message” and unseating incumbents– How do you change the game?

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adventurous spirit
Hotel Sidi Driss, the underground building in Matmata, Tunisia used to film Luke's home for the Star Wars movie (Wikipedia.) If you can capture into the "Adventurous Spirit" you can move people from working with incumbent vendors -- even if they are otherwise truly conservative in their attitudes.

There are a few basics in our industry, and one is that it is really hard for an outsider to unseat an incumbent, especially for long-term relationships and (in the US especially) for architectural and engineering government work because of Brooks Act rules. (Design professionals in Canada have been agitating for a Qualifications Based Selection (QBS) process rather than “low bid wins the job” for professional services, with mixed success.)

I’ve been reviewing an important interview between Matt Handal and persuasion guru Dr. Robert Cialdini for some answers, and learned some surprising things.

To start (as I’ve reported in the last two entries), Cialdini has gathered research indicating that seemingly unrelated previous impressions/messages have powerful impact on decision-making. So, if you are a furniture store and put soft clouds in the imagery rather than pennies, you’ll attract responses based on comfort rather than economy. And if you are a guy and someone asks you for directions to Valentine Street, and then you see an unrelated woman in trouble, you’ll much more likely come to her aid than if the same (previous) person asked you for directions to Martin Street.

Cialdini describes this previous effect in this way: “What happened just before the message? What were those clouds doing on the website? What’s the first thing I saw?”

When it comes to unseating incumbents, Handal suggests that the way to present the situation is to create a message outlining your strongest advantage and say:

“Armed with this new information, your decision to choose us is consistent with your previous decision to choose the incumbent.” You’ve got to provide some new information. Armed with this new information, their decision to choose us is just the same as it would have been earlier to choose this other firm.

Cialdini responds: “Yes, by saying that it’s consistent with your decision to make the right choice for you at any given time.”

He then continues with some additional incumbent unseating ideas:

Let me first reflect a little bit on that previous recommendation. I think what’s important in what you were saying is that you want to be sure not to say to a prospective customer, “You know, you were wrong to choose my competitor.” That’s going to produce a backlash.

Nobody wants to be told that they were foolish in the past. What you should say is, “I think what you were deciding at that point in the past was entirely consistent with what made sense then; but things have changed. There’s new research or there’s new information now.” That breaks the commitment and consistency principle. It breaks its hold over us by saying there’s something new now.

Then you can say, “You don’t have to stay with that choice. You can be consistent with the idea of being a good decision maker just as you were in the past.” That’s very similar to what you were saying, Matt.

But what else might we do? Well, one thing that research suggests is that, before people have to make a choice to move in a new direction, we can remind them of their adventurous sides. There was a study where people were asked to try a new product, a new soft drink, and to give their email address so that they could get information to try it. They were handed a flier that described the new product.

If at the top of the flier it said, “Do you consider yourself an adventurous person?” The success rate of getting this email address from potential customers went from 30% to 55%. Just by putting people in mind of their adventurous side before the request was made. That’s one thing that’s possible.

Another is, if you are sending people an email…you know how at the bottom of a lot of emails there are adages, sayings, or slogans that people put at the bottom of their message? I always read them.

If we are looking for change, there are certain slogans we should put at the bottom of our email before people click on our attachment that is proposing change for them. For example, I like this quote by L.P. Hartley a British novelist, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

Here’s another one. “When you are through changing, you are through,” by Bruce Burton. You can load these things into the information environment before people encounter your request for change. Now because that is focal…because that’s now high in consciousness…it becomes seen as more important and more causal.

So, if you want people to change and consider ideas from a new source, consider the “adventurous spirit” message, and possibly cite some of the quotes Cialdini provides here. You may be able to move mountains of inertia with a little brain food.

Tomorrow, I’ll wrap up this interview review with Handal and Cialdini’s discussions about ethics and how these persuasion techniques can be applied in a manner so you can sleep well at night even if you are not a psychopath.

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