Beware the Sixth Sense

Real estate agents often tell sellers to have bread baking when potential buyers come calling—the idea being that this “grandmother’s kitchen” smell makes “a house a home,” thereby stimulating fantasies of the picture perfect life you’ll have once you live there. Cinnabon and Subway do the same thing by leaving the doors of their business open and blasting fresh-baked bread smells into the street: they want their chain store to seem more like a neighborhood bakery just waiting to hand you your picture- perfect treat.

While many of us believe we are motivated solely by the price tag on our sandwich or sweater, we are, in fact, heavily influenced by all our senses. And while most of us have noticed the rock sound track playing in the store with the $150 T-shirts (thereby motivating us to believe the purchase of such a T-shirt will give us a rock star life) we pay less attention to the manipulation of our remaining senses: our sense of smell, our body temperature (hence the icy air blasted out onto sidewalks in the summer) and- finally, our little discussed “sixth sense”. No, I’m not talking about seeing dead people—I’m talking about our sense of shame.

Yes, shockingly enough we are often being manipulated by this infrequently discussed “sense.” What’s an example? Well, many high-end restaurants have a practice of decanting expensive bottles of wine at the table, despite the fact that the vast majority of high quality wine served in restaurants doesn’t need to be decanted. Why do they do it? It seems their research revealed that the a ritual/performance not only makes those paying the big bucks feel better about it, it makes those at nearby tables feel the, too, need to spend heavily to keep from looking like a schmuk in front of their date– their sense of shame has been activated.

Other industries in which I frequently see this sixth sense being activated are, sadl, the wedding and funeral industries. We all know people who judge the quality of the love between two partners by the size of the diamond in the band; less talked about is the choice made by funeral parlors to display only their least and most expensive coffins (there are more in the back, but they’re rarely on display) The idea, again, being that love is measured by the choice you make– after all, “everyone you know will be there.” (Should you think I’m being cynical, please note, when my father died we went ten rounds with our funeral director for refusing the $750 makeup charge—despite the fact that his casket was going to be closed.)

How do I recommend you handle a situation in which you sense shame-based selling is in play? By asking frankly, “How much does that cost?” when presented with the wine recommendation/the 4-ply cashmere sweater/the one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry. Though it seems counter-intuitive, it’s the ultimate power question as it shows you’re not intimidated by the ‘theatre’ of the moment – you’re in places like this every day, and you know how much things SHOULD cost, just not how much they cost in this establishment.

Do I recommend manipulating this sixth sense when you’re on the selling/producing side? I do not. We’ve all heard of ‘reverse psychology,” I’m into reversing shame: making every customer feel like a king no matter what they’re wearing, how much they’re spending, or how busy your business might be.

How do I recommend you ensure you aren’t consciously or unconsciously activating this sixth sense? Well, in an office/conference environment, you might look at the shape of your conference room table. One of the things President Lincoln did was to insist on a round table, thereby sending an unspoken message that he didn’t think he wasn’t necessarily the most important person in the room—and he certainly didn’t need to control the conversation.

In a sales environment, I recommend having scripts, tools, and routines in place to make each customer with whom sales staff comes in contact feel recognized, understood, and respected. For example, if a number of customers come in simultaneously, the script salespeople might use could be, “Sir, I apologize, but I just need to finish assisting this customer.  It looks like it will be another two minutes. If you’d like to have a seat over here while you wait, I’ll I’d be happy to help you in a moment.”

The tool in this situation would be the chair in which the customer could be seated while he or she waits, and the routine a way the sales person might summon back up if the client they’re with runs over two minutes.

Thinking through the scenarios that work toward equality and unfailing courtesy will go a long way toward ensuring you never lose a customer by making him or her feel less than a priority—and will likely win you many more as your customers move through the world talking about the service you provide.

Frances Cole Jones

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