Most of the strategies related to sales and buyer psychology come from Robert Cialdini's work. Sales professionals are likely to use the reciprocity principle, social proof, and the other principles of sales psychology you find in Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
I was lucky enough to speak at an event with Robert Cialdini in South Africa. We shared a four-hour train ride to the airport, and he was kind enough to answer my questions. If you haven't read Influence, buy and read it as part of your professional development. The strategies are worth studying.
Great salespeople read, study, and practice what they learn in sales books. Outstanding sales reps read, study, and practice what they learn in sales books and psychology books. The books that helped me the most allowed me to see something that is invisible. Let's call this human psychology. These topics are not about limited time offers, free samples, or case studies. Instead, they reveal the underpinnings of purchasing decisions and how people buy.
Seeing What Others Miss
In a book titled Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Value, Leadership, and Change by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, you will find a structure of human development first suggested by Clare Graves. Graves was a peer of Abraham Maslow, who pioneered the theory of self-actualization, which is illustrated by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When Maslow couldn’t teach his classes, Graves would fill in. As part of Graves’ work, he tested people over many years, tracking how they progressed or whether their development had arrested, causing them to get stuck at a certain level. In Graves' theory, there are nine levels of development, and everyone is somewhere in that structure.
Beck and Cowan traveled to South Africa to help end apartheid using Graves’ theories. They taught leaders to look at a person’s level of development instead of their skin color in order to jumpstart initiatives ranging from social responsibility to marketing. I have spent years studying and being tutored by Ken Wilber, who has also been deeply influenced by Graves’ work and happens to be the most cited American philosopher in academia. This has helped me understand human psychology on a deeper level and find a natural application to sales.
It takes time to learn to recognize Graves’ levels of development, but doing so will help give you access to a person’s values, allowing you to build a much higher level of rapport by seeing something that is invisible to others. If you want a competitive advantage, a better understanding of humans and how to communicate with them effectively gives you an edge. The nine levels are outlined below.
This level is basic survival. You need food, water, shelter, warmth, sex, and safety. You are unlikely to find any decision-maker in B2B sales at this stage. I grew up in an environment where there were people at this level, and I noticed that people with nothing to lose were often reckless and violent.
At this level of human development, people believe they are surrounded by magic spirits, curses, and spells. Superstitions reign. You and I passed through this stage when we were two or three years old. You will not run into any decision-makers at this stage, either. Unfortunately, you will find decision-makers whose psychological development is problematic.
This stage of development causes people to discover that they are distinct from their tribe. You likely recognized your individual power and became egocentric and impulsive. Most people in this stage are in a rebellious period.
Sales psychology application: You may have worked for a leader who was at this level of development and noticed that they believed that might makes right. If you have ever sold to a person at this stage, you would also have picked up on this. Signs that a client is at this level often emerge soon after you win their business, as you discover that what you believed was a dream client turns out to be a nightmare.
As you mature, you recognize that life has meaning and purpose. Life’s outcomes seem to come from an all-powerful other or some mysterious force of orders. At this level, people recognize right and wrong. They align with the order’s code in order to reap the benefits, and they know that those who break the code are punished.
Sales psychology application: If you can recall a stakeholder who was unable to change because they believed there was only one right way and any other way is wrong, you were dealing with someone at the blue level.
This level of human development emerged during the Enlightenment. This is the psychological development when you and I left the herd and recognized that the world is rational, and ruled by natural laws. We also become achievement oriented and materialistic. There is a pecking order at this level. Winners gain status over losers. You can think of this stage as the environment in Atlas Shrugged or the movie Wall Street. Many, maybe most of the decision-makers, especially C-level leaders, are following psychological principles that define this stage of development.
Sales psychology application: When you see decision-makers trying to improve their results, climb the hierarchy, and collect the rewards of success, it is because they are at the orange level of development. These stockholders will find you valuable if you can help them with the results they need.
If you want to know why buyers insist on consensus, ESG (environmental, social, and governance) initiatives, and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) assurances, it is because they are at the green level and moving toward greater empathy and compassion. You might believe this to be political, and in some ways it is. But the overall evolution of human development has been moving in this direction since the 1960s.
Sales psychology application: You are already likely seeing more leaders at the green level. With a little practice and awareness, you will easily notice conflicts between green and orange, green and blue, and green and red. You will also notice that some companies and their leaders want to understand your company's values, a sign that they are at the green level.
Look for the Levels
Understanding your buyers’ levels of psychological development can help you to better understand the motivations that drive their decision-making process. By recognizing the differences between the various levels of development, you can adjust your sales approach to better meet the needs of the buyer and create a more successful sales experience. Being aware of the different levels of development and how they affect decision-making will allow you to develop a sales strategy tailored to the individual buyer and will help you to build trust and establish credibility with them.
But before you practice finding other people’s levels, do a self-evaluation. The easiest way to see another's psychology is to first identify your own.