Angie, a freelance nutritionist, once came to me for advice on developing a relationship with the owner of a gaming company she’d met recently. Her goal was to eventually win the contract to plan the catered lunches that the company provided for all its employees. Trouble was, she hadn’t been able to break through and open up anything more than a social relationship with the owner. I explained to her that in situations like that, I’d had a lot of success with a powerful psychological effect known as the consistency principle.
The consistency principle comes from research done back in the ’60s that revealed our built-in need to be consistent over time in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Basically, the principle shows that once we make a decision or a statement of belief we try to remain true to that belief in the future.
That happens because we all tend to have a healthy image of ourselves built up from the things we say and do. We also place a lot of value on maintaining that positive self-image. It’s like we create the best possible story about ourselves, and then try to behave in ways that are consistent with that story. Over the years various people and organizations have put this truth to work.
For example, lots of fundraisers use the power of consistency by including questionnaires in their appeals. When someone answers the questionnaire they end up making statements about their beliefs—which creates a self-image that they’ll want to maintain going forward. The need to act consistently means they’ll find it harder to say no to an appeal based on those beliefs. In short, they’re more likely to make a donation if they’ve previously stated they believe in the importance of the cause.
Some salespeople apply the principle by asking the prospect to take a small action. When a client makes a commitment, even if small, down the road they’ll try to act in ways that are consistent with that commitment. For example, if you want a prospect to say yes to a big project—like a year-long coaching program for example—you might want to start by suggesting a small action, like one consulting session to sort out a single issue.
Making it work
Angie, who agreed the consistency principle could probably help her move things forward with the gaming company, decided to combine the fundraiser and the salesperson approaches. First, she sat down with the business owner and asked him to complete a survey on executive attitudes around nutrition and health. In his responses he stated that he agreed with the statement “Diet is important to job performance,” and also with the statement, “I don’t always have time to eat well.” Expressing those attitudes created an anchor—a self-image that was in-line with what Angie had to offer. Angie then offered to plan the owner’s lunches for the next two weeks as a test.
Because the lunch test was a small offer consistent with the owner’s stated beliefs, he easily agreed. And once the test was over, he also easily agreed to make another consistent commitment—this time a much larger one—to Angie’s proposal to provide a similar service company-wide.
Most prospects are defensive when we approach them about our services. Instead of asking someone to commit to a large decision right out of the gate, you can open them up gradually by encouraging them to state their beliefs and/or make a small commitment. Then, if those beliefs or small steps are in line with how you can help them, you’ll find a much smoother path to building a long-term relationship with them.