Connecting intuition and sales: “I just went with my gut.”

I heard this all summer long.  Time and again I’ve asked homeowners how and why they made a decision to buy something from a salesperson (or why they didn’t).  In nearly every case the answer came down to “the gut.”  People said: “I just felt the best about the salesperson” or “We really connected” or “I liked what he was saying…”  Totally irrational right?  But rationally irrational in such a consistent manner that I started asking “How soon did you know that this salesperson was the right one for you?”  And again the answers were very similar.  People said “Pretty much right away” or “I knew from the phone call” or “After we sat down and talked…”  Rationally irrational.  I expected a far more plotted, methodical answer but that’s not what I received.  Customers were making these decisions on a gut level, on an instinctual level.  And they felt great about it.

I’m sure you know what I mean.  You meet someone for the first time and you feel immediately at ease around them.  Your gut tells you that they’re “good people.”  Or you walk down a dark street alone and the hair stands up on the back of your neck.  Valid or not, you feel panicky, insecure, and you walk home a little faster.  Or, in the case of my observations, a customer meets a salesperson for the very first time and decides to give her thousands of dollars based on a hidden set of intuitive values.  

Turns out there’s nothing magical about intuition.  We all have it—buried away in the ancient pathways of our brains–and in certain situations our intuition is highly reliable.  

First, intuition exists in our unconscious mind and along neural pathways that, over time, become grouped together via experience association.  In other words, our unconscious minds recognize patterns of experience and begin grouping them together without our active awareness–it simply happens automatically.  Over time these pathways become consistently reinforced and filled with similar experience stimulation.  As noted in a paper entitled “The Neural Basis for Combinatorial Coding in Cortical Population Response” (The Journal of Neuroscience; various authors) our “behaviors occur in response to individual stimuli and often are evoked by changes in sensory input that occur in very short time scales.”  In plainer terms, an intuitive response to a situation immediately connects the external stimuli to the internal neuron patterns that have grouped together over time.  The response happens instantaneously and the brain responds by drawing on collected experiences along unconscious neural pathways.  And we respond accordingly.  Intuition is hard wired in to ourselves.  We trust it because we instinctively recognize its familiarity in our lives.

Second, intuition draws on “chunks” of stored information.  Psychologists use the term “chunking” to define the way that, over the years, our unconscious pathways store and organize information for future use.  Psychologist Carlin Flora writes “think of intuition as an unconscious associative process.”  A blind date is a perfect example.  You meet someone for the very first time in person.  At the moment of the meeting your intuitive senses kick in to high gear and “chunks” of stored memory and experience immediately begin guiding your reaction to the stranger.  Perhaps you’ve dated someone like this in the past.  Perhaps the stranger reminds you of an incredible friendship.  Or, unfortunately, they remind you of a time when you were burnt, deceived, disappointed.  All of this–an incredible web of “chunked” information–causes a physical response.  They call it “cold feet” or “butterflies in the stomach” for a reason.

Third, intuition is massively influential for decisions that do not have a strictly rational outcome.  For example, intuition is a horrible way to make stock purchases because stock purchases have a clearly rational outcome: To make more money on the investment.  It’s black and white.  On the other hand, intuition is highly influential (and accurate) in terms of making decisions with irrational or qualitative outcomes.  “Comfort” is qualitative.  People buy comfort.  “Security” “Peace-of-Mind” “Responsibility” and on and on.  So it begins to make much more sense that a homeowner investing in an HVAC system says “I just felt the best about this or that” because the end result is essentially qualitative.  There may never be a truly quantitative analysis of the return on investment or total cost of ownership.  But there will be an unconscious determination as to whether the customer will feel “comfortable” with the salesperson, the company, the outcome.

Finally, intuitive judgement is in many ways connected to the hidden hierarchy of needs that most of us share.  Some call it Maslow’s Hierarchy: basic survival, security, social belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization.  As our experiences continue to collect over time we unconsciously assign them to specific levels in this hierarchy.  As everyday folks our actions are motivated by these needs.  As consumers, our unconscious decisions are equally connected.  My decision to buy a brand new car (horrible investment) connects to my need for social belonging or self-esteem.  A customer’s decision to invest in an expensive home improvement project crosses many lines: security, belonging, self-esteem.  Without rationalizing it customers “chunk” information, utilize it for a “gut” impressions, rely on it to assist in qualitative decision making, and assign the decision to one of five human needs.  All within seconds.  

I’d love to pull all of this together and say “Here’s what a salesperson (or any of us) needs to do to connect with strangers on an intuitive level.  But given the body of research available to us I think it’s fair to draw the following conclusions:

We all want to feel appreciated

We all want to feel safe

We all want to feel valued and respected

We all want to feel trusted and be with trustworthy people

We run towards positives and run away from negatives

We want to feel as significant and unique 

Salespeople who want to accelerate trust, who want to capture the customer’s heart and make an intuitive connection need to evaluate their physical, verbal, and non-verbal tactics with the absolute certainty that everything they do is being unconsciously evaluated against a lifetime of stored experiences and impressions–both positive and negative.  

Creative, talented salespeople recognize that aligning their tactics along positive pathways just somehow “works” for them…rationally irrational again.

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