Whether you are in professional services or trying to get internal clients to adopt an idea and use your expertise you can benefit from understanding how people make decisions about using experts. Most clients are becoming more demanding and have even higher expectations. They also want something that is tailored, cost effective and adds commercial value. For this you need to demonstrate you have technical expertise, experience of solving their type of issues but also to understand the context of their business, their challenges and goals and most importantly the client themselves.
Understanding how to connect with clients and the real basis on which the client will decide to use your services is how you win the business. This article looks at how clients decide on advisors through the lens of neuroscience, the science of how the brain works. The first part discusses how you connect with clients based on understanding the brain. The second part describes how clients make decisions and what that means for presenting your expertise.
What are your underlying assumptions about your clients? We have created Success Profiles for firms who are providing high end goods and services. One factor we always find is that clients are NEVER sold to. The role of the person getting the business is to understand the client, their needs, some of which the client may not even recognise themselves, and to make the client feel that they and their team can solve the issue and contribute to the client’s personal success.
Your goal must be to make the client look good whilst solving their issues. Just solving the issues is not enough. This approach requires a different set of beliefs than selling to the client or delivering some expertise you believe they need. The person who just delivers the expertise, no matter how superior it is to the competition will not win the business. Think about this. The quality of the relationships you build is your competitive advantage: you can’t outsource a relationship, nor can you copy it very easily and once established it is very hard for a competitor to take it away.
Our Success Profile found the best believed in forming a deep trusting relationship; one based on understanding what would make the client successful, even when that meant persuading them they were wrong. It also meant walking away from business at times, challenging the client, going beyond standard practice and understanding the emotional as well as the rational basis on which clients made decisions.
Whether we like it or not every interaction between you and the client is also an interaction between two brains! Understanding how the brain responds can go a long way to understanding how your client or potential client is making decisions. Let me clarify here. Your client is NOT their brain. They may have a common biological response to stimuli – how you present your expertise – but they can also override that response. However, understanding the initial brain reactions and managing how you trigger them, is a good first step in helping clients to make the decision to work with you.
There is a myriad of things we can cover about clients and their brain but let’s narrow it down, in the interests of clarity, to two areas. How clients’ brains want to connect and how they decide who to work with.
Think about a situation when someone has tried to sell you something. You know the scenario. The hearty smile, over familiar language and posture; a request to use your first name before you have even shaken hands. What’s your reaction? Probably, to get out of the situation, right? This is the threat response in the brain in action. Unconsciously it is signalling this person may not be trustworthy and telling you to remove yourself. Now I know you are much subtler than that but note all this reaction is unconscious and emotional. Not logical and rationally. The rational brain hardly gets activated, at least in the first few minutes. Survival required the emotional brain to react quickly and it still does even in times of social threat not just physical threat. As soon as you start your pitch ( whether formal or informal) the challenge is to ensure the emotional brain has already decided you are friend not foe so the rational brain can process the data and evaluate what you are saying.
The amygdala is responsible for signalling the ‘fight or flight’ response. Technically this is triggered by a release of chemicals and if you would like more details read our article ‘Cat or Lion mode’. To survive early mammalian brains had to develop a system that gave them an early warning of danger. The amygdala is the portion of the brain that says ‘safe or not safe’. Within seconds of meeting a person the amygdala sends a steam of messages of ‘like’, ‘no like’ or ‘not sure yet, proceed with caution’. Usually, these more basic messages operate below conscious awareness and simply show themselves as a ‘feeling’ of trust or distrust of the person they are meeting. That’s you at a client meeting!
When communicating with a potential client you need to send positive or neutral signals to their amygdala – their security guard if you like, so the unconscious sense is ‘this person is safe’, and even better, ‘This person is safe and I like them’. These messages allow you to influence their rational prefrontal cortex the second part of the brain where decisions are made.
Evolutionary data suggests that we are shaped by social interactions and suffer when social bonds are threatened or broken. Our wellbeing depends on connections with others. This is a primary need in the brain. Social relationships are a need at the same level as water, food and shelter. Human babies are unable to survive without social connection. If a person is rejected from the group they cannot thrive. Our brain developed to connect with others and this motivates us to work together, collaborate with others and feel motivated to help others. We experience a sense of reward from social interaction.
In pursuit of connection the brain has developed the ability to understand what another person is thinking; their goals and motivation, to be able to some extent, predict another’s behaviour. To be able to read another’s mind if you like. This is crucial to get your expertise used. We employ this ability all the time. For example, we make assumptions from circumstances, gender and appearance. This gives us the ability to cooperate. This is not part of our general ability to think and analyse. A completely different part of the brain is used for understanding others.
The region of the brain is called ‘medial prefrontal cortex’. It sits between your eyes. This region is active when you are reflecting or thinking about your own behaviour. If you think about your favourite sweater, or an important memory, or reflect on your personality; ‘Am I any good at business development?’ You are likely to be using this area of the brain.
It is also the area that enables you to be influenced by others. It activates when you are connecting with the client and attempting to influence them. The more active the medial prefrontal region is when you are trying to persuade the client to work with your firm; the more likely they are to do it. Matt Lieberman a neuroscientist from UCLA says rather than being a hermetically sealed vault that separates us from others, our mind is more of a ‘Trojan horse’, letting in the beliefs of others without us realising the extent we are being influenced. This helps to ensure that we have the same kind of beliefs and values as people around us, thus helping to create social harmony. This is one area of the brain crucial to connecting with your client.
This network for ‘mind reading’ goes quiet when doing cognitive thinking and when you are focused on thinking about yourself or another person, the opposite happens and the cognitive circuitry goes quiet. As soon as the cognitive thinking or task is done this social network, also called the default or mentalizing system is activated. These two work a bit like a see saw, one active, the other quiet. The mentalizing system comes on like a reflex whenever we are not doing a task or analytical thinking. If we are warned about the need to be thinking about the motivation of others, that is you are primed, you will be more likely to notice and understand other people’s thoughts and motivations. The more this network is activated when you are reading, hearing about an idea or issue or learning things the more you are likely to pass on the information to others.
One way to think about this practically is that your potential client can’t be thinking about and assessing your technical expertise and thinking about whether they would be happy working with you at the same time. But they will also quickly think about the social aspects whenever they are not thinking about the technical. They can’t do both at the same time. So, in an interaction with a potential client, you don’t want them exclusively focused on your PowerPoint pack about your expertise. You want them engaging with how working with you will make them feel, how their stakeholders will feel about you and your team and how they can describe the benefits of working with you. If you only focus on strategy, logistics and expertise and miss the personal engagement you are not activating all the relevant parts of the brain.
One issue here is that most companies value and talk about the economic and strategic aspects of business. This pushes you to focus on your expertise over the understanding of the client. Just roughly add up how many training hours you have spent on expertise over client understanding? What is the number? Five times more, ten? Obviously, some of this will depend on the stage of your career. You must have a base of expertise. But you must also be able to engage with and understand the client or that expertise is worthless when seeking new business.
Some neuroscientists describe relaxing the emotional brain. This is rather simplistic but basically you want to reduce or even eliminate the threat response and to be ‘friend’ rather than ‘foe’ thus giving you a chance to activate the reward response. You do that by establishing rapport. Establishing that you are like them or if different not in a threatening way but in a way that will make them successful. This approach creates a sense of reward when being around you and positive emotions in the limbic brain. These are important as the rational brain will look for evidence to corroborate these positive emotions. It is not an unbiased, logical arbitrator we sometime describe it to be.
Psychology has for many years emphasised the importance of not just the words but also the body language and tone of voice that goes with communication. People watch and make judgements on what is real, what is important and what is for show. This is intuitive but research from Sandy Pentland at MIT can verify and even put numbers on these factors. He has found that we act on and are influenced by the ‘honest signals’ people send. That is the unconscious and non-verbal language including tone and energy. He measures these signals using an electronic badge.
Pentland says honest signals impact the success of individuals and teams and can account for as much as 50% of the performance of a group. He has also researched people giving pitches and could predict, based on body language, tone and energy who would win the business with 87% accuracy. The most successful are:
+ Influence: the extent to which people speak in a similar pattern
+ Mimicry: the reflexive copying of body language and gestures
+ Activity: increased activity levels normally indicate interest and excitement
+ Consistency: consistent emphasis and timing is a signal of mental focus, while greater variability may signal an openness to influence from others
Pentland has found that people can be trained to modify honest signals to put in more energy or to communicate more effectively with their non-verbal signals.
Daniel Kahneman wrote in, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” that people have two thought systems: a fast, instinctive and emotional brain; System 1. And a slower, more deliberative and more logical brain; System 2 Kahneman found that because the more cautious and analytical System 2 is lazy and tires easily; we often accept the quick and dirty assessments of the intuitive and largely unconscious System 1. “Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is often where decisions are made” he says. This instinctive and emotional part of the brain often overpowers our rational logical decision making which is designed to make slower decisions with data and analysis; this is the part of the brain you typically address in client presentations but it’s actually system 1 which will make the decision.
Decision-making and emotions are physically linked in the brain: Some networks in the limbic system are devoted to processing emotion, while corresponding regions in the cortex integrate emotional information with what we know about the world. So the body and emotions provide cues and clues to decisions that we want to make. This is totally independent of the ability to analysis data. In neuroscienctist Antonio Damasio’s view, emotion and feeling are not in opposition to reason but provide essential support to the reasoning process. We’re trained to regard emotions as irrational impulses that are likely to lead us astray. When we describe someone as ‘emotional’, it’s usually a criticism that suggests that they lack good judgment. And the most logical and intelligent figures in popular culture are those who exert the greatest control over their emotions – or who seem to feel no emotions at all.
However, the brain has evolved to work as a whole, integrating both its analytical and emotional capacities. To be successful you need to ‘talk’ to both systems. For example, by reducing the sense of threat and increasing the sense of reward. We call this the CORE model and you can read more in the link.
Imagine you are giving a presentation to a prospective client. To manage the client’s sense of certainty it’s important to think about how the presentation material links to existing business knowledge or activity thus reducing the threat of uncertainty (Certainty). Give him/her some choice so they feel they have control over the decision (Options). Point out how adopting the idea will enhance his/her future success and you should avoid threatening their reputation by suggesting that current work methods which they are associated with, are not working (Reputation). Finally, the project must be positioned fairly in the culture of the business (Equity).
Sometimes it is not possible to create a sense of reward so it is important to also think about the specific person to be influenced. What might trigger their sense of threat and which of the elements above are most important to them in the situation?
“Most of our judgments and actions are appropriate most of the time,” Daniel Kahneman wrote. But our fast, intuitive System 1 often jumps to conclusions or takes shortcuts that the more rational System 2 doesn’t question. This can lead to biases such as framing, anchoring and an inclination toward optimism that prompts us to underestimate risks of a proposal. These biases play a part in decision-making. David Rock suggests that loss aversion, minimizing uncertainty, and emotional reactions to proposals are common. He points out, “These three groups of biases steer people toward minimizing danger even when there isn’t any; to make choices based on a feeling of certainty, even when there isn’t any; and to like an idea or not, even when there isn’t any actual data.”
This means clients think they are making rational decisions but aren’t. Biases such as loss aversion spring from past experiences or memories that are often unconscious. When they distort a client’s decision-making, they need to be examined on a conscious level to rid them of their power. Raising these potential issues as part of your presentation or discussion brings them to consciousness without embarrassing the client.
Stress reduces clear thinking. The challenge for an advisor is to bring the clients’ rational, conscious and emotional unconscious minds into alignment. So it’s vital to recognise their feelings, concerns and fears and create a safe zone in which to consider the options.
People’s unconscious feelings may result in observable body language that shows they are ‘of two minds’. When messages from the two parts of the decision-making system are contradictory, you need to help create a resolution that integrates them. Anxiety disrupts this process by prompting the amygdala to flood our brain and body with the stress hormone cortisol, putting the prefrontal cortex out of commission. Providing the most stress-free environment in your client meetings is therefore important
Really understand needs: Probe for clients’ real needs and goals; don’t just cater to their expressed wants. When you understand, and share your clients’ goals, you will perceive their challenges more robustly, have natural compassion for their experiences and be more motivated to help them. All of which will show itself in your ‘honest signals’. Then they will be more likely to open their real thoughts and feelings to you.
Build rapport: make this an immediate priority. If you can begin this before you even meet through a phone call or even an email that establishes your interest in the potential client all the better.
Address contradictions: If there are contradictions and confusions in the client, you as the advisor can be tempted to provide a rational answer. This may not help. You need to give the client time to reflect. David Creswell found that people made much better decisions about complex issues even when they had just a few minutes to reflect. Engineer down time; like a break for a coffee or a comfort break and avoid going into a ‘rational’ rather than and ‘emotional’ pitch. If you over emphasise the rational reasons for working with you, you may get yes with no commitment
Manage your state of mind. It is hard to concentrate on the client and your own signals at the same time. Your brain just can’t manage that many things at once. The best way to ensure you project honest signals is to manage your state before you walk into the room. Get curious about the client, not just their business but them personally. If you are feeling nervous boost your confidence with some power poses. Amy Cuddy gives a good demonstration of this and the science behind the method.
Make the environment match the relationship: Foster a climate of safety and empathy. The most effective way is to cultivate a warm, safe, empathic relationship. You also want to provide a situation where the client is physically relaxed and comfortable. Think about the environment where the meeting will take place. Does it welcome the client, or is it chilly and intimidating? You want the office to seem inviting, uncluttered and comfortable, a place where they don’t feel rushed.
Reframe the issue: Neuroscience has found that labelling and reappraising emotions allows you to see things in a context that may work better in the future. Think about how you can help the client reappraise their issue as a step to success or to take distance from it to be able to see more possibilities. Using powerful questions is one way to achieve this. Another technique is to help the client have a picture of the future where they have solved the issue successfully. Asking questions about what this will look and feel like will put the client into that future state and help them both see possibilities and feel good.
Stories: Telling stories to ourselves and to prospective clients is a powerful way to talk to both brain systems at once. You can read more about how the brain responds to stories in our article. Listening to your client’s ‘story’ about their issue and the way they make sense of the experience is an important part of deepening your connection with them. Your ‘pitch’ should help them reframe their story in a way that is less emotionally triggering.