Persuade Me | The Pervasive Influence of Persuasive Technology

If you’ve ever been to a market or even a mall, you’ll probably find someone standing outside the door waiting to either give you or show you a sample of what is on offer. Their goal: to entice you to walk in. That, however, was only the beginning. Once you do walk in, someone–usually a salesperson–will try to persuade you to buy something.

In this context, we may think the power of persuasion requires us to possess the ability to convince people to buy something, but it’s more than that. Persuasion, rather, is an active attempt by a person or an enterprise to influence another person’s attitudes, beliefs and emotions–especially those associated with an issue, a product, a person, a concept or an attitude.

In today’s marketplace, it is better not to resort to aggression or hostility to influence someone’s decision. Consumers find ‘hard selling’ very off putting. It puts them in a state of discomfort and they will try or attempt to get away from you as soon as humanly possible.

Persuasion, therefore, is getting a person to a state where they feel completely at ease around so that they will pay attention to what you’re saying as well as trust you enough to allow you to guide them towards making a decision.

As online shopping becomes the norm, the salesperson will not automatically die. I have never been a fan of doomsday predictions. Rather, the role of the salesperson is becoming increasingly digitalised and anonymised. While customers can usually perform most transactions these days their own and with the help of community reviews, the increasing amount of information that a customer has to sieve through to arrive at a decision is growing at an exponential rate.

If you do decide to call the customer hotline or open a chat, someone is usually available to talk you through it. But with online shopping, a lot of times even that step is entirely erased. Retail stores may, over time, become more like showrooms–a place to test and try.

The pervasiveness of of persuasive technology–Amazon’s one-click shopping, Facebook and Instagram’s newsfeed and the countless other mobile apps we use day in and day out–are now being used to influence buyer behaviour all the time and all day long. While in the past, it was some sort of secret that this was taking place, these days, consumers are all too aware that it is happening… And they don’t like it.

Persuasive technology, which is often utilised when buying on apps or on websites, integrates traditional modes of persuasion into technology. They do this by using information, incentives, and sometimes even coercion—with the capabilities of devices–to both influence and monitor customer behaviour.

An app that you downloaded for free starts to offer you purchases at some point. We’ve all been there. Persuasive technology can be found in virtually all apps, where behaviour-oriented design persuades us to buy certain items and services by taking into account what we’ve been doing while we were using it for free.

Many of the new apps that try to influence user behaviour are health-oriented apps. They incentivise weight loss, help to manage addictions and other mental health issues, influence our sleep patterns as well as promote environmental awareness regarding energy conservation. While the technology is not ‘new’, persuasive technology is becoming increasingly pervasive and profitable, inviting a deeper look into its long-term potential.

Service Design

When it comes to the way these services are designed, the industry players find themselves grappling with the conundrum of who they are truly designing for: their own clients (who pay their bills) or the customers of their clients (who pay the bills of their clients).

The end customer is usually, and if not most certainly should be, the ultimate goal or target. The end customer–and not the client–is the true customer. To effectively persuade them, we need to factor in their different needs and desires as well as their motivations and aspirations.

From a sales perspective, the conundrum arises when our clients and their interests differ from the needs of the end customer. Viability is an important factor. All businesses need to be able to support themselves financially and actually profit from what it is offering in the marketplace. When dealing with a B2B transaction, a business cannot simply try to serve the end customer when it is neither feasible or viable to offer those products and those services.

Generally, when a sales portal is well thought out and designed, the experience throughout the consumer journey will leave an impression of some sort. It is said that it is very human for us to remember the experience and how we felt. A good experience that imprints a lasting impression and often ends up being shared with those close to us.

Our memories, however, are generally short-lived and making a good impression can work well in a retail environment where the transaction and the relationship is short-lived. But when we service clients that we hope to keep and retain for the long-haul, there needs to be a lot more focus on long-term care and the continued sustainability of the sale.

If, say, you were in the business of renting out a serviced office, then the long-term and changing needs of the client must be considered. The transaction does not end and the relationship does not end simply because of a successful sale. It also becomes harder to create and sustain an endless stream of ‘wow’ moments as the focus needs to shift to creating the fundamentals of a strong and integrated community.

The list goes on and it leads to the age-old dilemma of who should we truly design for and whose interests do we really serve? And how long can we, as a business, feasibly serve this person or group of people?

For those who say that there is still no consensus and speaking with different people will only return different answers, I say that the solution is not that difficult. If we’re finding it hard to strike balance, it is because we haven’t actually been trying to achieve it.

What is the end goal of your client’s customer? It’s probably very different to the goal that your client has, right? How is this unforeseeable?

For instance, I’m in the publishing business. Authors generally want to:

  1. Write a bestseller
  2. Position themselves as an authority on a topic or discipline
  3. Leave behind a legacy
  4. Practise and hone their craft

They may have all four of these goals or only one of them. Readers, on the other hand, want to be entertained, own a reference book or dive into/study about a new topic or a topic that they’re already interested in. Authors, and the author’s team, will usually invest a lot of time creating their product–i.e. their books. Readers, on the other hand, will probably spend a few hours, months or weeks with the author’s work. If it is part of the school curriculum, then probably a lot more.

The key then is to uncover our client’s true purpose and end goal and discover what they consider ‘success’. Similar to the goal of the end customer, success can be either tangible or intangible.

In recent years, the field of customer service has become less about the salesperson at the door and more about the the power of persuasive design and how a good understanding of buyer psychology can add value to all the stakeholders involved.

Empathy is not a new human trait so it cannot solve our new problems. The best salespeople, even the ones that stood at the door and ushered you in, would try to understand or prototype you based on what you were wearing, who you were with and whether or not you were going to buy by eavesdropping on your conservation or discerning your feelings based on your body language.

Oh, I have lost track of the number of times where I’ve overheard disagreements among my customers regarding how much they were going to spend or not spend on a particular item. On the flip side, I have also assured customers buying expensive gifts that if your significant other (or any special person) did not like the gift for some reason, they can get a refund or do an exchange–within two weeks, that is.

By doing so, not only was I able to gain an understanding of the end customer, but I was also able to gleam that even the end customer was not the end user. The person who paid and purchased the item or the service was buying it for someone else, anyway. And this happens all the time. So the bottomline is that we can try to persuade and influence, but at the end of the day, the financial decision-maker and the end user can turn out to be entirely different people.

With so much ambiguity inherent in the buying and selling process, everyone is essentially a middleman. We have influence, sure, but we also have imperfect knowledge regarding the dynamics and flow going on between all the various parties involved. I’ve found, over my years as a teacher or salesperson, that there is only one way to create trust–and that is to recommend the course of action that is best for them–as well as to show them all the other available options. Then you do have to leave it up to the client to make the decision.

Clients and customers usually make decisions based on their chief or primary priority. This may be conscious or unconscious, tangible or intangible. Similarly, businesses have to be able to create and offer products and services based on what is viable and feasible at that particular point in time.

The best way to start or create any relationship is to understand whether or not you are able to persuade someone to do something they actually want.

Walk into any store and you’ll notice so many items on display that if you were anything like me (which I doubt that you are) I will probably ask the salesperson to give me sometime alone. I may not be ready to talk when I first walk in, but at the same time, if no one greeted me, I may conclude that they’re not interested in my business.

The best possible customer journey cannot be about crafting meaningful and memorable experiences. We buy things everyday and almost all the time. Human memory is fickle and lousy. The best possible customer journey is where someone actually successfully persuades you. Persuades you to do what?

That depends… What did you feel the need to be persuaded about when you first walked in? And when you left, were you persuaded? Oh and by the way, how did you feel two weeks after? I wouldn’t be surprised if you had already forgotten…

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