Social proof: proceed with caution and contrast

Q: When is a social proof point not a social proof point?

A: When it’s a “poof” point…as in “poof” your deal disappeared!

I recently spoke with a company called that recorded 48,000 B2B sales calls on Web conferencing platforms. Every call in the sales process was transcribed and analyzed with artificial intelligence. Next, some wicked-smart data scientists identified the use of “social proof” techniques such as telling customer stories, name dropping customers and other efforts to increase credibility by talking about current customers.

Their findings completely defy conventional wisdom and confound the advice of nearly every so-called sales training expert. According to this research, sellers who use social proof in their sales calls have a 22 percent lower close rate vs. those who don’t use social proof techniques (see the chart).

Social proof as a way to make your prospects comfortable with your claims has been an absolute truth in sales since 1984 and Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence.” Cialdini said when a person is in a situation where they are unsure of the correct way to behave, they will often look to others for clues concerning the correct behavior. Social influence is “when we conform because we believe that others’ interpretation of an ambiguous situation is more accurate than ours and will help us choose an appropriate course of action.”

Breaking through prospect denial

One of the big problems with social proof points is that they typically assume too much. They are most often applied to prove your solution claims and validate your value propositions. You flash your logo slide during the presentation and essentially say, “Surely, these Fortune 500 brands can’t be wrong!”

However, 60 to 80 percent of the prospects you are speaking with aren’t ready to hear that yet. That’s how many qualified deals end up in no decision on average each year. In fact, most of your prospects are actively resisting your message. They are in denial that they have a problem big enough to get them to change to a new solution or new vendor.

When a prospect is in denial, your normal proof point approaches won’t work. The prospect that is in denial doesn’t care whether you can prove your claims. So what? She doesn’t believe that she has a problem in the first place.

So, how do you deal with the difficult problem of denial using social proof? You tell customer stories. But, not just any customer stories, which are often just data dumps about results. Those stories engage in rational arguments, but denial isn’t overcome by logic.

Learning about social proof from AA

Sometimes you need to look beyond the obvious to find solutions to thorny problems such as this. One place you
might look for how to use social proof to overcome denial is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which solves a problem that almost no one is willing to admit to.

AA teaches that when someone is in denial, like your prospect, you can’t win them over with facts. You can’t convince them with data like, “You are an alcoholic; you match the profile.” Every time you try that the person says, “That’s not me. I don’t have a problem.” Which is essentially
the reaction — spoken, or worse yet, unspoken — your prospects have when you use social proof the wrong way.

So, how does AA solve the denial problem? With stories told by its members. Specifically, the stories that AA uses are its members’ “before” stories — what their lives were like before they came to AA and how they came to realize they are alcoholics.

They start out with people saying, “I didn’t think I had a problem…” They continue by describing their life, what they did, how it felt and what was going on around them before realizing they had a problem. Through the telling of these stories, people who are in denial start to see themselves and begin to admit they have a problem.

If AA used social proof points like you do with customers, its members would lead off by saying — “AA saved my life!” But the person in denial would be saying, “That’s great for you, but what does that have to do with me?”

Unfortunately, your prospects think the same thing when they hear your social proof points presented in the way you typically dole them out.

The power of self-persuasion

You need to tell the story of your customers before they implemented your solution. It’s through this before story that your prospect who is in denial will start to see his own story and his own company’s story. It’s not the frontal assault of name dropping, logo sliding or data dumping that overcomes denial. It’s the power of a story that never triggers denial barriers in the first place.

A well-told proof story sucks your prospect in. She finds herself living in this other customer’s story. She has an emotional response to the challenges this other customer faced and how this other customer solved the problems. And, you invoke the most powerful form of persuasion known to humankind — self-persuasion. You transfer the ownership to your prospect, and she convinces herself that you can help her too.

The true value of your social proof lives in the contrast between the before and after of your customer stories.  

Tim Riesterer is chief strategy officer at Corporate Visions, a sales training and marketing consultant.

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