Five Psychological Principles Everyone Should Know and Use.
By Jim Houran
Monday, 17th August 2009
Hospitality is about a 'customer-centric' mindset: Five, easy-to-learn principles can help professionals to live this mindset.

The examples here focus on sales, but these principles are useful for working with anyone personally and professionally.

The overarching idea is simple -- you can relate and work with people well if you know them well.  Everyone with whom you interrelate on a regular basis, from coworkers to customers, is psychologically "hardwired" in a highly similar fashion. This hardwiring means that people analyze and use certain types of information in very predictable ways.

My career in psychology spans twenty years of research and applied practice over and above ten years of formal education and training. I used this background and expertise to select five psychological principles to help service-hospitality professionals understand the "every day," predictable elements in people.

Armed with this knowledge, you will know and work with others personally and professionally much more effectively.

Principle #1: The magical number "5" (plus or minus two)

As imaginative and innovative as humans are, we cannot constructively handle or process more than about five pieces of information at any given time. This is one reason why telephone numbers in the US have no more than seven digits and why excessive multi-tasking is actually ineffective.

The principle in practice: For best results in most situations, present material or information in chunks if your aim is comprehension, retention and impact. Therefore, keep your sales points or list of differentiators (on paper or in-person) ideally limited to three (but not more than five) bullet points.

Not only is it easier for someone to understand and remember three points; it will be easier for you too. Also keep this principle in mind when communicating with people in general. For example, organizing long e-mail messages into three smaller paragraphs is more reader-friendly and impactful than presenting a single lengthy paragraph.

Principle #2: "Similarity" is a bridge builder

Most people are familiar with the common but competing expressions: "opposites attract" and "birds of a feather flock together." You need elements of both sameness and difference in romantic relationships, but platonic and business relationships are more favorably influenced by similarity between people. People prefer those who are most like them. Consider this domino effect:

Similarity = familiarity = comfort = trust = strong relationship = credibility and influence = sales

The principle in practice: You can insert yourself anywhere in this chain to start developing stronger leads and closing more sales. Simple tactics include making "small talk" or using selective self-disclosure with customers ("I see your company is based in Atlanta; my sister lives in Atlanta and loves it") or strategically agreeing with important points a potential customer makes ("I agree that the delivery time of our reports in the past was not optimal, however…").

Principle #3: What's "beautiful" must be "good"

Studies consistently demonstrate that perceived beauty or appearance does matter and that people intuitively equate beauty with concepts like good-better, smart-successful and important-valuable. This bias is so strong that people who are perceived as attractive (physically and interpersonally) are treated better than others in a myriad of situations.

There are numerous evolutionary and psychological advantages to the attractiveness bias that is hard-wired in virtually everyone, but the important points are (1) customers do judge books by their covers and (2) salespeople can use these powerful biases in ethical ways to bolster the perception of themselves and their services to clients.

The principle in practice: It is an understatement to say that you should look and sound your best at all times. Everything from your email signature and reports to your professional appearance and telephone etiquette should convey professionalism and even a warm and attractive personality.

For example, some people include a professional headshot at the end of certain hard copy communications (especially sales materials), while others may dress in a way that makes them feel confident and attractive while making telephone calls.

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Principle #4: "Big Five" model of personality

It is tempting to think that everyone is absolutely unique. This is true for fingerprints and other bio-data, but our "psychological DNA" may be another story. The International Programs Center at the U.S. Census Bureau puts the total population of the world at approximately 6.5 billion people, yet it may surprise you that social scientists assert that all of those individuals' personalities can be described in terms of just five, common traits that are easily remembered by the acronymn OCEAN:

Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (moodiness)

The principle in practice: The way that people express themselves is related to their personality make up. Often one of these five traits will be dominant in a specific person, and by listening to themes in their speech and mannerisms one can understand that dominant personality and respond to it. In other words, information will be better understood and received by a client when information is messaged in a way consistent to the client's dominant "personality." For example:

Client Expressions and Ways to Adapt Marketing Messages

Openness: People like this are eager to learn more and ask many questions. Their motivation is often to seek stimulation and to learn things in general. Therefore, in response one should emphasize a company's new, novel or innovative approach, as well as leading-edge and proprietary information that gives a competitive edge.

Conscientiousness: People like this are very cautious, deliberate in word and deed, pragmatic, non-committal and sometimes downright skeptical. Their motivation is often to understand details and practical application of products and services. Therefore, in response one should emphasize detail in reports and presentations and explain how that detail derives from careful and time-tested principles for gaining information. Also, be sure to be precise in your language – do not come across vague or waffling.

Extraversion: People like this make small talk and are very friendly. Their motivation is relationship-building. Therefore, in response one should emphasize the ongoing relationship the company has with client's company, e.g., past projects your company has done for the company or drop names of past representatives at the company with whom you have had contact. Success stories and short, snappy testimonials are also a big hit with these people -- these types of content provide compelling stories about collaboration and partnership.

Agreeableness: People like this are good listeners, respectful, polite and amenable to your suggestions. Their motivation here is to avoid conflict and to please others. Therefore, in response one should emphasize the powerful reputation your company has in the market, as well as mention how much you enjoy talking with this person and how you want to continue the discussion. You must act fast with highly agreeable people, because their views can easily change over time as they attempt to please the person of authority at the moment.

Neuroticism (moodiness): People like this are quick talkers and thinkers, who can come across as domineering, passionate, driven and narcissistic. Their motivation is to control circumstances, establish authority and assert his/her own expertise. Therefore, in response one should emphasize the reputation and high standards of the client's company and how your firm complements that brand and fits in with the innovative agenda or plans set by client.

Principle #5: Theory of reasoned action

Comedians routinely joke that men are over-analytical and women are over-emotional, but the truth is closer to the middle. All human beings are inherently emotional and intellectual creatures. We actually make conscious decisions (voting, product choices) based on Behavioral Intentions. Intentions derive from two main drivers: Attitudes and Subjective Norms.

Attitude is defined as the individual's positive or negative feelings about performing a behavior. It is determined through an assessment of one's beliefs regarding the consequences arising from a behavior and an evaluation of the desirability of these consequences. Subjective norms are defined as an individual's perception of whether people important to the individual think the behavior should be performed. However, the value of any outside opinion is weighted by the extent to which the individual feels motivated to comply with that outside opinion.

In other words, Attitude-oriented people make decisions based on their own set of values and criteria, whereas Subjective Norms-oriented people given stronger weight to the attitude of certain others. Needless to say, these two characterizations are not mutually exclusive as most people fall somewhere in the middle and they pay attention to Attitudinal and Subjective Norms alike, albeit to different degrees.

The principle in practice: People weigh both Attitudes and Subjective Norms when making decisions, but they may not always be weighted equally in every scenario. Once you gauge a person's "points of strongest influence" on a given issue then you can target your messaging to appeal to those influences and impact the person's behavioral intentions (similar to the above example of adapting messaging to a client's personality).

For instance, you can tell if a decision-maker's process is skewed towards a certain point of influence by initially asking questions like, "How did you come to contact our company?" Someone with strong Attitudes will have found you through personal market research or was pleased with your past performance, while someone with strong Social Norms will have asked colleagues for a referral or have responded well to the part of your marketing materials that lists influential companies as current clients.

Sample Messaging to a Client's Specific Focus:

  • Clients skewed towards Attitudes: e.g., "I can see that you are seeking a firm that can deliver a detailed report under a deadline. We have the resources to meet your criteria."
  • Clients skewed towards Subjective Norms: e.g., "We are the market leader, because top brands in the industry like XX, YY and ZZ consistently retain us due to our expertise and high quality of services."
In Summary...

There are many other "every day" psychological tactics that are useful for one's personal and professional development, but the five principles above are especially effective for understanding and communicating with others in both personal and professional situations. Contact me to learn more about how my team can teach your organization to apply these and other principles in strategic ways to boost your talent and performance management.

James Houran holds a Ph.D. in Psychology and is President of 2020 Assessment™. He is an 18-year veteran in research and assessment on peak performance and online testing. His award-winning work has been profiled by a myriad of media outlets and programs including the Discovery Channel, A&E, BBC, CNN, NBC's Today Show, Wilson Quarterly, USA Today, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Court TV, Forbes.com and Rolling Stone.

For information on the Best Practice 2020 Assessment™ system and industry analytics, contact: James Houran, Ph.D. jhouran@2020skills.com 

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