How to Influence Buying Decisions Without Being Shady

Aug 13, 2021

Facts don’t influence customer buying decisions. So, what does?

I interviewed Seth Godin twice on the Everyone Hates Marketers podcast: once in 2017 and once three years later after the release of his book This Is Marketing.

Seth Godin on how not to influence customer buying decisions

My very first question was about Ron Johnson (the inventor of the Apple Store and Steve Jobs’ protege) who joined JCPenney and proceeded to kill the company.

I’m going to let Seth tell the story:

"JCPenney was one of the original discounters. The guy who started it, his name was actually Penney, his middle name was Cash.

Their whole model was you could get pretty decent stuff for much less money. They differentiated themselves from companies like Sears by constantly having coupons, percentage sales, saving sales, and clearance sales. Shopping at JCPenney was more like a sport.

Ron Johnson comes in and gets rid of all the discounts.

He said, ‘This is disrespectful. We're going to give you the dignity of knowing that when you shop at JCPenney, the price is the price. You don't have to worry that the price is going to be cheaper tomorrow. I'm treating you with respect.’

Within a year, he had destroyed the entire chain, and it will never recover. People stopped shopping at JCPenney.

Their stock went to almost as low as it can go. In the middle of the retail apocalypse, to lose that much momentum all at once, it's over.

The typical JCPenney shopper has a household income of $20,000 to $50,000, at the bottom end of the American household income scale. We know that these are not people who are showing up at the Metropolitan Museum Gala. They are scraping by.

But!, and it's a big but, shopping at JCPenney represented a chance to beat the system, to put in the thing you have time, to get the thing you don't have, which is status.

If you won, you would get something that was in short supply in your life was that feeling of superiority over the system."

Ron Johnson made a big mistake in trying to influence customer buying decisions

Retail superstar Ron Johnson made two fundamental mistakes:

Mistake #1: He assumed JCPenney’s customers were shopping there for the same reasons they were shopping at Apple.

Mistake #2: He thought he could influence the buying decisions of his millions of customers by changing their minds.

Big mistakes.


You've probably faced this problem before when it comes to influencing customer buying decisions

You’re under pressure to sell something, but you’re faced with objections from folks who don’t believe it’s going to help them.

They may have preconceived notions, they may be using something else they’re happy with, or they may just not care enough to do anything about it.

If only they understood what you could do for them!

If only they knew what they’re missing out on!

If only you could change their minds!

Why changing people’s minds is NOT an effective approach to influencing customer buying decisions

What do we naturally do in this situation?

We channel our inner Ron Johnson.

We present beautifully designed 130-page sales decks. We share spreadsheets full of data with 15 different tabs. We run marketing campaigns to convince them our product is far superior and they should try it instead of whatever else they’re using.

But it doesn’t seem to work.

So we grow even more frustrated.

How are we supposed to stand out if no one seems to get it?

Enter confirmation bias, the invisible force that makes it almost impossible to change people’s minds.

Confirmation bias must be considered when influencing customer buying decisions


I’m going to let Richard Shotton, a behavioral psychologist and author of The Choice Factory, define it further:

"It's the idea that people are very good at maintaining their existing point of view.

If you dislike a brand and hear a message from them, your brain can generate counter-argument after counter-argument, which maintains its existing point of view. It just doesn't agree with the new information."

Even worse, the more you confront someone else's point of view, the more likely they are to feel threatened because they feel you’re trying to take away their choices and free will (that psychological phenomenon is called reactance).

You can’t change people’s minds with data (at least not in the short-term).

So, what can you do?

You can encourage people to persuade themselves.

How to influence customer buying decisions: Encourage them to change their own minds

Step 1: Channel your inner Seth Godin to identify what your customers believe.

What’s their worldview? What’s the game they’re playing when they’re buying from you? What do they want the most? What do they fear the most? Talk to your customer-facing staff, run customer interviews yourself, use your intuition… Do whatever it takes to avoid making the same mistake as Ron Johnson.

Step 2: Attract people who already believe what you believe.

We are so desperate to sell to as many people as possible that we forget a crucial point: there are some people out there who already want to play your game. JCPenney could have spent most of its efforts to attract more Americans who wanted to beat the system. My sole focus with Everyone Hates Marketers is to find people who are already sick of marketing bullshit.

Step 3: Reach folks who are ambivalent.

They don't necessarily believe what you believe, but they also don't disagree with it. For example, a CMO who wants to grow its customer base by 20% in 6 months might be open to multiple ways to get there.

  • Find common ground by leading with empathy. Start with what they want. The pain they want to solve, the objective they want to reach, and find a way to fit what you sell into their self-story. 

  • Give them a choice. Don’t try to pigeonhole them. Thanks to the Internet, we can educate ourselves without getting in touch with a salesperson. Invest in content marketing and get out of the way.

  • Let them create their own options. Build tools and processes that help your ideal customers make informed decisions on their own (such as quizzes, questionnaires, or audits).

  • Use social proof. Sharing other people’s stories can help encourage folks who are ambivalent about taking a leap of faith and trying something new by, for example, allowing early adopters to share their perspective with the early majority.

  • Help them micro-commit. This is also known as the foot-in-the-door principle. Here’s a rather gruesome but powerful example to illustrate this concept, from the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini:

Robert Cialdini on how to influence decisions

Step 4: Reach the detractors in moments of distraction.

This tactic won’t yield results in the next few months, but if you have the resources to play the long game, it might be a powerful way to grow your market share. Use the power of subtle cues to win the hearts and minds of your harshest critics.

When British Airways were struggling with their brand image, the marketing department invested in TV ad campaigns featuring classical music that people traditionally associate with luxury. Have a listen:

British Airways plays the long-game to influence customer buying decisions

To summarize

  • Desperately trying to convince people to change their worldview with facts and figures does not work and might even backfire.

  • Let people self-persuade. Think of yourself as the catalyst, not the persuader.

  • Focus on people who already believe what you believe.

  • Help those who are conflicted by leading with empathy and social proof to make their own informed decision.

  • Ignore the detractors unless you have virtually unlimited resources at your disposal.

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