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How Advisors Can Use ‘Pre-Suasion’ Tactics to Gain Client Trust

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If there’s any truth to the rumors, self-described “Godfather of Influence” Robert Cialdini may have helped coach Hillary Clinton on how to debate Donald Trump Monday night.

Be that as it may, in his new book, “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade” (Simon & Schuster), the social psychologist provides plenty of techniques financial advisors can use to move clients to their way of thinking.  

In an interview with ThinkAdvisor three days before the debate, Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, jousts about his rumored work with the candidates for president. But he’s forthcoming regarding what FAs can learn from his potent techniques of influence and persuasion.

Famed behavioral finance economist Richard Thaler calls Cialdindi “the master of influence” by reason of his first book, “Influence,” written more than 30 years ago. The now-classic was  a New York Times bestseller that sold more than 3 million copies in 33 languages. It discloses six “weapons of influence” for ethically directing people into saying “yes” to a request, proposal or recommendation.

“Pre-Suasion’s” focus is how to pave the way by steering a person’s mindset into saying “yes” before delivering the strength of your message so they’ll be receptive to it.

Following are highlights from ThinkAdvisor’s interview with Cialdini.

ThinkAdvisor: Stories have been written that you’ve been helping to coach Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Any of that true? If you were to give either one advice for the debate, what would it be?

Robert Cialdini: I’m not going to be able to talk about that just yet. It’s my policy not to comment on political campaigns while a campaign is going on. The passions are so strong that I just don’t speak about them during the campaign.

TA: I wonder if Trump and/or Clinton have read your book, “Influence?”

Cialdini: I think they did.

TA: This election is pivoting on questions of truthfulness. Polls show that most people think neither Trump nor Clinton is trustworthy.

Cialdini: The research I’ve seen shows that, in general, the highest, most positively evaluated trait in people–more than intelligence–is trustworthiness. That certainly applies to our politicians.

TA: Establishing trust is critical for financial advisors too. Typically, trust must be earned. But you write of ways to establish trust instantly.

Cialdini: You do it by mentioning a weakness or being transparent about any conflicts that might apply. As soon as you do that, a wall of distrust comes down. Do it upfront. Don’t wait till the end [of a presentation].

TA: What’s a good example?

Cialdini: Warren Buffett uses this strategy in his Berkshire Hathaway shareholder reports. On the first page, he mentions something he did wrong the previous year. I own stock in the company, and when I read that, I think, “This guy is being straight with us.” Next he talks about the strengths of the previous year. [Thus], he’s arranged for me to believe this information more fully because it’s coming from a manifestly trustworthy source.

TA: What weakness might a financial advisor mention to a client?

Cialdini: Perhaps a drawback to a strategy they’re recommending, like lengthy time to accomplish a particular goal. Then they would say, “But here are the strengths to doing this.”

TA: You write that “successful openers pre-suasively channel attention only to those concepts that are associated favorably” with their goal. Please apply that to FAs.

Cialdini: Very often, we ask clients for their opinion about our blueprint for their wealth. That’s a mistake: When we ask for an opinion, people psychologically take a half-step back from us and go inside themselves. They separate from us. Instead, we should ask for their advice on our plan. That way, they take a half-step toward us.

TA: But won’t the client say, “Gosh, I don’t know. You’re the advisor.”

Cialdini: Yes. And maybe they’ll see themselves in a partnership with you. That’s what we want. We want them to put themselves in a togetherness; [a] collaborative frame of mind. Research shows that they’ll become more supportive of the plan before they encounter it because they feel more a part of it.

TA: You say that, more than being likable, people who sell need to show that they like the person they’re selling to.

Cialdini: The Number One rule of sales is to like the customer or client. As soon as people recognize that, they breathe with relief because they know they’ll be treated well inside a relationship where they’re liked–because we make sure we protect the flanks of people we like.

TA: The DOL fiduciary standard rule is set to be implemented next year. But hybrid advisors are able to recommend investments that are commissionable. How can “changing hats” when advising a client be handled in the most ethical way?

Cialdini: If they announce this fact first, the client will trust them to handle the issue properly because they’ll be seen as willing to describe it ahead of time. They’ve pre-suaded the client honestly by saying, “I’m going to be transparent with you: here’s the situation. I thought it fair to tell you.” That causes people to assign trust to that individual and remain willing to accept their recommendations for investments that are commissionable.

TA: By using pre-suasion, how could Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf have handled his bank’s recent scandal?

Cialdini: By doing something he didn’t do: acknowledge the mistake, take responsibility for it and say how they’re going to make up for it. That gives people confidence that things are going to be better going forward.

TA: In your first book, you discussed six behavioral principles of influence: reciprocation, Scarcity, Authority, Consistency, Liking and Consensus/Social Proof. In “Pre-Suasion,” you add a seventh: Unity.

Cialdini: It’s the idea that we share an identity with someone or that we’re being treated as if we share an identity with them. That causes us to feel a sense of trust.

TA: What’s an example?

Cialdini: Warren Buffett wrote a special shareholder letter on the 50th anniversary of controlling Berkshire Hathaway because investors were worried that it might [well] be time for them to sell their stock.

TA: What did the letter say?

Cialdini: [In essence] “I’m giving you my argument why Berkshire is likely to be profitable into the future. And I’ll tell you this in the way that I’d tell a family member.” A family member!  I thought, so as a shareholder, I’m now in the same category as Warren’s family for this information. I’ve never considered selling Berkshire stock since.

TA: Please discuss what you call “the privileged moment.”

Cialdini: It’s the moment when a recipient is particularly receptive to a message—that is, when we can create a state of mind in them that’s in tune with the message before they experience it. This step is critical for maximizing change.

TA: It involves what you call “pre-loading” a message with importance?

Cialdini: Right. As a pre-suasive communicator, you’re able to draw a person’s attention to a specific idea that will show up in your message later, at which point they’ll see it as more important.

TA: In your new book, you relate pre-suasion to the common occurrence of forgetting why we’ve walked into another room. Please explain.

Cialdini: Very often we’re focused on changes when we see a new stimulus array—in this case, the environment of a different room. That’s why we forget what we were focused on before. With pre-suasion, we can get people to focus on what we want them to by changing what we ask them to pay attention to just before we present our case. It becomes something the recipient prioritizes in the next set of information they encounter.

TA: Please explain your technique: To turn memory shifts into durable changes, it’s necessary to get commitment.

Cialdini: Financial advisors typically interview a client to identify their goals with wealth management. The advisor is always the one writing all this down. It’s a mistake. We need to give the clients a pen and paper and as they talk, ask them to write down those things. We know from behavioral science that people live up to what they write down. If, for instance, the client starts to drift away into some other set of goals, that’s a big problem. But if we have them write those goals down in the first place, they immediately become more loyal to their statements.

TA: Years ago you posed as a trainee to investigate sales techniques of a number of companies—called the science of “participant observation”—and were given smiling lessons. What was that all about?

Cialdini: The trainers would say, when you approach an individual, be sure there’s a smile on your face, and by virtue of the Rule of Reciprocation, you’ll get a smile back. Years later, an executive who advises public speakers told me: “You have a kind of wide mouth. As soon as you get up on stage, find a reason to smile broadly at your audience. Make the reason something in the group or a situation that would genuinely please you. That way, the smile is real.”  

TA: How does this play into the pre-suasion process?

Cialdini: You’ve got to channel people in the direction of something that will be beneficial for them before they’re [exposed to] the essence of your message.

TA: How did you come up with the concept of pre-suasion?

Cialdini: One day I answered my door, and there was a man asking for a donation to a charity that I’d never heard of—a children’s after-school education program. I gave him more money than I normally would despite the fact that he wasn’t carrying  credentials.

TA: Why did you do that?

Cialdini: He had his 7-year-old daughter with him, which put me in the mind of kids’ interests. So he brought my attention to children before he made the request for children. So when he made his case, children were high in my consciousness and important. That was the pre-suasive key.

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