Omne Trium Est Perfectum


“Every set of three is complete” (translation)

“When the facts change, I change my mind.” — John Keynes

Occasionally someone in a training class will ask me: “How many sales columns should I use on my presentation menu–three or four?”  I useed to answer “four” and explain my opinion.  I’d usually reference Sheena Iyengar’s “Jam Study” as support.  Her book The Art of Choosing  (pub. 2010) illustrates the tipping point at which the number of consumer choices help or harm sales.

If you were to ask me the same question today I’d give you a new answer: three.  I’d recommend that you pare your selling menu back to three columns, have three value building points for your company, three benefit statements for your products, three follow-up calls to customers, a three-ring phone policy, and three ways to pay for products.  I’d start looking for “three” opportunities wherever I could find them.   The facts have changed.

In 2014 two Stanford researchers, Suzanne Shu and Kurt Carlson, published a research paper entitled “When Three Charms but Four Alarms: Identifying the Optimal Number of Claims in Persuasion Settings.”  Here’s the link:

Four years after Iyengar’s work Shu and Carlson presented a slightly more refined conclusion by emphasizing that context–especially persuasive contexts–impact the number of choices that are optimal for consumer decisions.  Shu and Carlson argue that:

“in settings where consumers know that the message source has a persuasion motive, the optimal number of positive claims is three. More claims are better until the fourth claim, at which time consumers’ persuasion knowledge causes them to see all the claims with skepticism.”

Additional contextual considerations include price signals, message framing, message sequencing, and message content.  In other words there is a LOT that can be done to make a persuasive message that delivers a punch!

Nobody wants skeptical customers.  if a company is using a four product menu that is overloaded with benefits then their tactic may be inadvertently working against them:

“As such, there is tendency to want to present as many compelling claims as exist. However, there is a danger that at some level of claims consumer awareness of persuasive intent will convert into skepticism, causing the consumer to discount all the claims.  Motive is the key to leveraging “the charm of three.”  When a customer understands that the source of the interaction is persuasive then three is the perfect number.” 

The number of columns on a sales menu is just the beginning.  The research also pertains to product benefit claims.  Something as simple as a motor or a thermostat.  Salespeople tend to talk at length about these features (especially a thermostat, still basking in the fading glow of “shiny new toy syndrome”).  A salesperson can unknowingly sell him or herself out of a deal by over sharing.  According to Shu and Carlson:

“based on work showing that people can draw inference about an object after seeing three data points, we propose that consumers will see three positive claims as sufficient to draw an inference about a product or service. Since three claims is sufficient for this inference, additional claims will trigger skepticism and message coping processes that will undermine the entire message. In practical terms, this means that three positive claims will produce the most positive impression, and four positive claims will produce an impression that is less positive than the impression created by a three claim message.”

Additional claims generate a coping mechanism in the consumer’s mind resulting in skepticism and distaste.

1 is the loneliest number.  And 7 ate 9.  Then there’s 3.  3 is a whole number.  The biblical number (omniscience, omnipresent, omnipotent).  It is also an effective number in persuasive settings.  Three column menus.  Three benefit points for each product (or component if you want).  Three methods of payment.  Three follow-up calls.

As long as the context is persuasive then three claims are better than four.


2 responses

  1. Great read Matt. I have been blown away lately seeing some of our customers who have now started offering up to 5 different recommendations to their customers. Almost feels like an infomercial, throw enough out there and just hope something sticks. #Ruleof3

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