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Letting Buyers Sell Themselves

Customers want the opportunity to convince themselves that new products are indispensable.
October 1, 2003

I hate being sold. New-product propagandists annoy me. Innovation entrepreneurs oozing charisma over their brilliant ideas also fail to persuade. As the poet observed, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In other words, while I’m happy to change my mind, I’d really rather change it myself.

That do-it-yourself attitude is at the stubborn heart of a major marketing dilemma for innovators. Persuading potential customers that your innovation is indispensable is one thing; getting them to persuade themselves of that fact is quite another. This is a critical distinction. Some potential customers desperately want or need to be convinced. In the larger marketplace of novelty and innovation, however, many people prefer the opportunity to convince themselves.

Expanding the question from “How do we persuade people?” to “How do we persuade people to persuade themselves?” poses provocative design choices for innovators. Companies spend appalling amounts of money designing models, prototypes, or simulations that amplify the persuasiveness of their salespeople. But that’s a profoundly different task than devising media and methods that empower people to persuade themselves. Precisely because innovators offer the different and the new, they should appreciate that their customers might want to choose how they will be persuaded.

Consider the awkward conversations surrounding retirement planning. Many people are understandably reluctant to discuss the subject for fear of exposing their ignorance or out of concern that they’ll be pitched a plethora of “retirement products” from a financial planner working on commission.

Of course, financial-service firms arm their retirement advisors with the latest data and the most sophisticated spreadsheets in an effort to persuade customers to revise their retirement portfolios. Might financial-service firms with innovative offerings be smarter to send those customers very simple spreadsheets that let them see what their retirement income might look like at different savings rates, inflation rates, rates of investment return, and rates of expenditure? These spreadsheets wouldn’t be about persuading people to buy; they’d be about giving people the opportunity to play with the possibilities and probabilities for their financial futures. They’d be media for “autopersuasion”-tools with which people could convince themselves that they needed to learn or do more.

The challenge for innovators is to get potential customers to taste, sample, and play with technologies that reduce their natural-or acquired-resistance to innovation. Let’s build on that retirement-planning example. The future is never a simple extrapolation of the present; a truly forward-looking simulation would offer some sort of “Monte Carlo” capacity to survey probabilistic scenarios so people could see how minor shifts in the environment might lead to vastly disparate retirement holdings.

How do you design financial simulations so their users are naturally prompted to test-drive their assumptions using Monte Carlo-like techniques? More provocatively, how does a spreadsheet or any other innovation get you to explore it without human intervention, and without forcing users to read pages of esoteric documentation? What a terrific question for Microsoft’s Excel group.

In fact, the Wall Street whizzes who develop and sell complex derivatives and “synthetic securities” have already confronted similar design issues. Years ago, these groups treated their “analysis/test” tools as proprietary and wouldn’t share them with anyone. Today, however, they give their testing algorithms and analytics to customers. That way, the customers can literally see for themselves how the derivatives and securities they’re being asked to purchase will perform under a variety of financial circumstances. As persuasive as the derivatives sales folk may be, the derivatives innovators fully understand that their customers need to be able to convince themselves.

The autopersuasion algorithm is also emerging in the hugely capital-intensive automobile and aerospace markets. Big suppliers now send Boeing, Toyota, and Ford design software and simulations that let them dynamically examine the features of proposed subsystem innovations before they’re built. Autopersuasion becomes as much a vehicle for risk reduction as a sales tool, and it creates conversations and collaborations between customer and vendor that could never take place otherwise.

As consumers of innovation become ever more sophisticated, the demand for the innovative autopersuasive approach is sure to rise. You’re welcome to disagree with this perspective, of course. But please don’t try to convince me I’m wrong; give me something to convince myself you’re right.

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