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Aristotle's Advice for Salespeople Today


Twenty-four hundred years ago, Aristotle described the three elements needed to move an audience--logos, pathos, and ethos--the intellectual appeal, the emotional appeal, and the speaker’s character and charismatic appeal. These classifications are just as applicable for today’s salespeople as they were back then. In today’s marketplace, where little difference exists between products, Aristotle would advise salespeople to employ not only logos, but more importantly pathos and ethos to persuade today’s customer to buy.

Logos: The Intellectual Appeal
All competent salespeople can recite their products’ features, benefits, and specifications. Their companies have trained them on the business reasons to select their products, identified processes to educate customers, and established procedures to determine customers’ technical requirements.

Since most salespeople are well versed on the logic of selling, it doesn’t make sense to reiterate here what you already know. Instead, let’s emphasize some steps you can take to make an intellectual appeal more compelling.

  • Provide independent confirmation of your facts wherever possible.
  • Provide quotes from authorities (customers, analysts, and the press).
  • Quantify beneficial claims with specific numbers.
  • Use real-world examples, which are more powerful than hypothetical statements.
  • Arrange your arguments from strongest to weakest.
  • Keep it simple. Remember Occam’s razor: the simpler explanation is always preferred.
  • Be prepared for contradictory facts from other vendors and have factual responses ready.
  • Quantify results from adverse consequences (for example, loss of revenue due to equipment downtime).
  • Present the extremes to make the other options look worse than they really are.
  • Use alliteration--repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent words--so that concepts are more easily remembered (for example, durability, dependability, and adaptability).
  • Use the rule of three: whenever you make a claim, support it with three different facts.
  • Create your own euphemisms that reflect the importance of your product or a particular feature. For example, a rubber band could be called a “multipurpose business instrument.”
  • Understand that it is all right to draw big conclusions from small statistics. Sometimes the biggest points can be made from the smallest samples.
  • Brighten up the facts with interesting graphics that represent them pictorially.
  • Become a storyteller, not a human dictionary. Use metaphors to explain concepts. Instead of saying “A poll showed customers prefer us three to one,” say “Harris Poll surveyed four thousand buyers from across the country and found that three thousand, or 75 percent, thought our solution was far superior.”

Logical arguments alone, no matter how well you present them, will not change skeptics into believers. Finessing customers to change their opinions requires an emotional appeal to their human nature.

Pathos: The Emotional Appeal
Most salespeople equate the emotional appeal to pleading with customers for their business. However pathos is far more complex. It is creating a favorable disposition in potential customers through an emotional or psychological appeal while casting your competition in an unfavorable light.

The term “benefaction” refers to the psychological benefits that determine a person’s actions. Customers purchase products that increase their happiness, esteem, power, or wealth. They rationalize these psychological decisions they make with logic and facts. For example, a vice president of a manufacturing company may explain that he wants to buy a new conveyor system because it will save a million dollars a year when in reality, he is making the purchase to show the CEO that he is a prudent businessman and fiscally conservative. The desire to impress the CEO (the benefit) drives the conveyor system purchase (the action).

Four core psychological drives determine selection behavior. These four benefactions are physical well-being, pain avoidance, self-preservation, and self-gratification.

Physical well-being, the will to survive, is one of our strongest desires. It weighs heavily in the minds of both customers and competitors. Making customers feel their jobs are safe in your hands is a top priority. Ideally, you would like them to believe (whether it is true or not) that the competitive solutions are actually threats to their livelihood. Maneuvering the competitors into a life-threatening position in an account such that they are forced to make a direct attack on you will bolster your claims.

When something is hurting you badly, the desire to eliminate the source of pain can be all-consuming. Pain is one of the best purchase motivators because customers are forced to act quickly and decisively to eliminate it. Similarly, a salesperson who is being harangued by his boss about a longstanding account that won’t close is experiencing pain. You must exploit both of these pains, often by controlling the tempo of the sales cycle. Sometimes it makes sense to speed up the sales cycle, and at other times it is better to slow it down.

We naturally seek the approval of others. Self-preservation, the desire to be recognized for our unique talents while still belonging to a group, applies to customers and salespeople alike. Customers purchase items that they believe will enhance their stature and protect their group position. Salespeople want to be the pack leaders.

Everyone has a selfish ego, and self-gratification is our desire to put our own needs before everyone else’s. Customers will go to great lengths to purchase something that makes them feel better about themselves and superior to others. Egos drive the business world. Unfortunately, most salespeople are taught to sell solutions based upon customer pain when, in fact, ego and self-preservation are the real motivators behind large enterprise sales.

It’s not your product’s performance, ease of use, or efficiency that customers are in love with. It’s you. Therefore, your priorities should be to earn their love and trust by understanding their personal needs, desires, and fantasies. You must know if they are just trying to hold onto their job, prop up their importance, or bring about a long-awaited promotion.

Your grand strategy is to dehumanize the enemy by differentiating yourself personally. In other words, you want customers to view you as the only person who can address their personal needs, solve their business problems, and help them achieve their career hopes and life’s desires. You want them to sincerely believe that you are the only person who is truly acting in their best interests.

Ethos: Character and the Charismatic Appeal
The foundations of ethos are wisdom, virtue, and goodwill. When salespeople share their experience and opinions with customers, the wisdom of age and seniority are advantages. To show virtue, salespeople will follow customers’ explicit and implicit instructions on how they should behave during the sales cycle. As an act of goodwill, salespeople will donate their time and their company’s resources to an account, even though it is not fully known whether or not they are going to win.

All salespeople are trying to earn the customer’s trust. They’ll lend a sympathetic ear and try to become a trusted advisor. To prove they’re dependable, they follow through on their commitments. To show integrity, they will speak the truth. For example, a friend of mine who runs a landscape business was asked to provide an estimate for trimming trees at a business center. He provided the customer with a quote for twenty-eight trees. The customer called him and told him that there were thirty-four trees on the property. My friend responded that only twenty-eight needed trimming. The customer awarded him the business on the spot because all of the other quotes were for thirty-four trees.

Ethos is charisma as well as character. In the world of sales, being charismatic does not mean you must have the eloquence of Ronald Reagan or the magnetism of Bill Clinton. The salesperson’s definition of “charisma” is “transparency,” the ability to be exactly who you are and the propensity to be perfectly frank about it. In other words, what people see in you should be exactly what they get.

Twenty-four hundred years ago Aristotle wrote, “All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion, and desire.” Given the competitive nature of selling today, understanding the ancient wisdom of Aristotle is more relevant than ever. In fact, the only thing new is the history you don’t know.