June 3, 2008

Universal Principle of Influence #3: Authority

Believe one who has proved it. Believe an expert. --- Virgil, Roman poet (70 BC - 19 BC)

Professor Robert Cialdini identified six universal principles of influence: Reciprocity, Scarcity, Authority, Consistency, Consensus and Liking. This time, we're looking at #3: Authority.

We want to follow the advice of a legitimate authority. In Malcolm Gladwell's terminology, a maven. An expert provides a fast track to decisions requiring specialized knowledge.

Our clients need to see us a credible and trustworthy. There's a difference between being an authority (the meaning here) and in a position of authority (like police officer Cartman).

Establishing Expertise
Experts require credibility and trustworthiness. That's not enough. We also need to bring our expertise to the consciousness of our clients before making recommendations. But how? Tooting our own horn is not effective.
Surprisingly often, people mistakenly assume that others recognize and appreciate their experience --- Robert Cialdini
You can have someone else endorse you (see How Would You Sell Soap?). You can describe how you solved a similar problem for someone else. You can briefly mention your background and experience near the beginning of the meeting. You can mention your online presence, if you have one.

Boosting Your Credibility
Before delivering the strongest feature, mention a weakness. Here are three examples
  • AVIS: We're #2, but we try harder
  • L'Oreal: We're expensive, but you're worth it
  • Warren Buffet: We lost you $3.77 billion în 2001, but since inception, we've had a return of 23% per year
This is why it works:

The mentioning the small weakness focuses the client on the strength, which receives a disproportionate level of attention and credibility.

Contrast Buffett with Bill Ford who said a couple of years ago: I feel good about our plan, but we have a long way to go.

The Ideal Weakness
A good weakness is one the client already knows but doesn't expect you to mention. Here are examples
  • competitors sell similar or the same products
  • your firm isn't the biggest
  • you are new to the firm

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