Books: Quiver of tricks for winning customers

Familiar and new tales on the art of persuasion are sharpened for business relevance. Octavius Black salutes a punchy read.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion; NJ Goldstein, S Martin and RB Cialdini; Profile Books £8.99.

You should read this book. You should read it because you'll enjoy it; because it's perfectly pitched for smart businesspeople; because it's easy to dip into while waiting for a colleague or a plane; and because if you don't, someone else is going to get one over on you. Perhaps they already have.

If you are now feeling more inclined to read Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion, that's because I've used a few of the techniques described in this charmingly practical book.

When you stay in a hotel for more than one night, do you re-use your towel? If so, you are in the majority. What the authors of this book set out to discover was how to persuade even more people to re-use their towels - by changing a few words on the sign in the bathroom.

The experiment involved three signs. The first was like the ones you will have seen, extolling the virtues of preserving the environment. The second honestly explained that most guests re-use their towel at least once. The third stated that most people who had previously stayed in that particular room had re-used their towels.

The results were unequivocal. The second sign boosted re-use of towels by a mighty 26%. Even more remarkable, the third sign, which referred to the people who had previously used that room, increased re-use by a whopping 33%.

This is a piece of genuinely new research. Equally, the authors have brought to life plenty of other examples of robust research. For instance, reducing choice can increase sales. When 24 different kinds of jam were on display, only 3% of potential customers bought a pot. When the range was reduced to six kinds, 30% bought one.

Matching your customers can boost sales. When a waiter repeats a customer's order, rather than simply saying 'yes' and writing it down, their tip increases by 70%.

Say you'll do it and you are much more likely to. When citizens were asked before an election if they would vote, 100% said they would. They didn't, but turnout among those asked about their intentions increased to 86%, compared with 62% for those who weren't asked.

Make it sound scarce and demand will soar. Changing the message on an infomercial from 'operators are waiting, please call now' to 'if operators are busy, please call back' transformed sales. TV viewers were left with the image of phones ringing off the hook and dialled straight away, not wanting to be left out.

The centrepiece of each chapter is research from a proper academic study or well-known business case, but this is no science book.

There are plenty of references to contemporary events: Sex and the City; The Office; the wedding of Prince Charles to Camilla Parker Bowles; the wife who sold her DJ husband's Lotus Esprit on eBay for 50p when she heard him flirting on the radio with a model - all make an appearance. The trusty greats get plenty of airtime too, from Benjamin Franklin to Henry J Heinz.

The lessons for business may seem obvious, but they are rarely put into practice. Perhaps that is why the authors end each short chapter with suggestions on how to apply the findings to business.

For those who've read around the subject, especially Cialdini's book, the classic, Influence: The psychology of persuasion, there will be much that is familiar: Stanley Milgram and the experiment with people looking up into the sky, groupthink and the Challenger/Apollo13 disasters, and Dennis Regan's demonstration of the power a free Coke has on raffle-ticket sales.

Still, there is something satisfying in the familiar; and the punchy, eager prose keeps things ticking along when it might be tempting to ask the intern for a precis.

Don't miss out.

Octavius Black is co-author of The Mind Gym: Wake your mind up.

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