The Psychology of Selling: The Power of Status

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Pitch Anything" by Oren Klaff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you ever been persuaded to buy or agree to something that you didn’t actually need or want? What do you think made you do it?

The psychology of selling is complex—it’s not exactly clear-cut what it is that spurred you to make the unintended purchase in the end. According to Oren Klaff, the author of Pitch Anything, oftentimes the purchase decision is made purely on the basis of the perceived status of the salesman. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the role of perceived status in the prospective buyer’s purchasing decision.

Status and Your Pitch

Your status is your value as a person in the eyes of others. It is how others measure your worth in terms of wealth, power, and popularity. It affects how people instinctively treat you, and it can make or break your pitch. 

No matter how elegant your logic, how solid your arguments, or how well-crafted your points, if you do not have high status, you will not command the attention and respect necessary to make your pitch heard. 

Let’s take a closer look at the psychology of selling and how the perceived status of the salesman influences the buyer’s decision.

Two Types of Status

There are two kinds of status.

  1. Global status is determined by your professional position, your wealth, and your reputation. It is your permanent status, and how you are perceived in society in general. There is nothing you can do to change your global status moment-to-moment. You can’t suddenly be a CEO when you walk into a meeting. 
  2. Situational status is your status during your current business or social encounter. Situational status is fluid: It can change from meeting to meeting. A person with lower global status can have higher situational status temporarily. A tennis pro has a lower global status than a brain surgeon, but during a tennis lesson, the tennis pro is the alpha, holding the dominant role: giving the commands, setting the tone, and driving the events of the meeting. The brain surgeon is in a reactive position—the position of the beta.

Status Matters

If you hold the higher status position, you’ll command attention effortlessly and will more easily get your pitch heard. You’ll find it easier to persuade others and drive them to a “yes.” 

  • You command attention even when not speaking.
  • Your statements and claims are regarded as true and are not challenged.
  • You set the emotional mood in the room.
  • You are trusted and followed without question.

In fact, in an illustration of the tendency of people to follow the lead of those they perceive as high-status, researchers have run studies in which a well-dressed man jaywalks across a busy street into traffic. Nearby pedestrians will very often follow, unthinkingly. They do not, however, follow a sloppily-dressed person in the same situation. They automatically trust the judgment of the person they perceive as high-status, but not the other person. 

Grabbing the position of higher status at your pitch starts by recognizing and avoiding “beta traps,” and continues by grabbing “local star power” by asserting your knowledge and skills. 

Beta Traps: Reinforcing Your Target’s Alpha Status

Your target’s higher status is reinforced with “beta traps”: business procedures and social rituals that confirm her status as alpha and yours as beta. Beta traps are small ways in which your target sets the rules of engagement for your presentation. There are three ways beta traps activate our croc brain to recognize her as the dominant force in the room:

  1. Beta traps control your actions. When we enter the lobby and are told to sign here, sit there, and wear this badge, our croc brains get the message: we are following the rules, not making them. Our croc brains know that the person who sets the rules is the one in command.
  2. Beta traps make you feel like an outsider. Sitting in a conference room as your audience trickles in, chatting and laughing with each other, arriving to watch you as if you were the entertainment for the afternoon, reinforces the idea that you are an outsider, not a member of the group. Our croc brains fear isolation: being an outsider makes us anxious and inferior. 
  3. Beta traps prime you to seek social acceptance. We are expected to engage in small talk and establish a rapport with our target. This makes us seem “nice” but lowers our status—nice, polite people are seen as needy and pliable. Our croc brains crave acceptance, and situations where small talk is expected make us feel obligated to win social approval.

Be aware of the beta traps you encounter, and avoid whichever you can. This is not to say you should enter a building and break all of their rules: not sign the log book and refuse to wait in the lobby. You want to appear professional, not difficult.

However, be aware of the beta traps you encounter so that you can sidestep them when possible. For example, maybe don’t sit in the lobby when they direct you to—stand, leaning against a wall instead.

However, don’t try to avoid the rules of their turf by meeting in an off-site space such as a coffee shop. If your target suggests this, avoid it if at all possible. In public spaces you are very visibly not in control. You’ll be pitching among eavesdropping strangers and will not be able to fend off interruptions like visitors stopping by to chat with your target. 

The same goes for trade shows and conventions. They are filled with distractions and noise. If you need to pitch to someone at one of these events, rent a conference room or borrow someone’s office.

The most important beta trap to avoid is engaging in small talk. Be professional at all times, but do not come across as overly friendly. 

Local Star Power: Capturing Situational Status

To capture the higher status position at your meeting, you will need to seize “local star power.” You can be the star of the show, for the duration of your meeting, by being more knowledgeable, competent, and skillful than the others in the room in some specific area. 

  1. From the moment you arrive, do nothing to unintentionally confirm your target’s higher status. 
  • Arrive on time for your meeting. If you are late, your status gets lowered—it’s hard to establish strong frames when you can’t play by the basic rules of business. 
  • Do not be visibly impressed by her global status (the trappings of her office, for example).
  • Politely ignore power rituals and beta traps. Remember—no small talk!
  1. As soon as you can, commit an act of defiance (a power frame disrupter, as discussed in Chapter 2). Deny your target of something, or defy her in some small way, putting you in control. 
  2. Immediately move the discussion into an area where you’re the domain expert: where your information and knowledge are superior to the others’. Then maintain your star power by keeping the discussion focused on areas where you have superior knowledge and information. By redirecting people to an area where you are in charge, you automatically elevate your status. Ignore any irrelevant threads of conversation that arise.
  3. Redistribute power: Once you have co-opted your target’s alpha status, give some of your power away to one of her underlings. Compliment someone or get him to agree with one of your statements, in a way that elevates him. In this way, you will recruit one of the others in the room to confirm your star power because you are putting them in a position they enjoy. As soon as one person joins your frame, others will follow.
  4. Make your customer make some statement that confirms your higher status. Do this playfully. It should be something that makes your target defend herself, even jokingly. For example, you could say, “Remind me again why I’m doing business with you?” or, “Have you ever done a deal this large?” This makes her justify herself to you, and even if it’s done in the context of a joke, by having her say it out loud, she is telling her own croc brain that it’s she who is chasing your business, not the other way around. 
  5. Finally, have fun with it. Act popular. Make it clear that you enjoy your work. People are naturally attracted to a person who enjoys what she does. If the group is attracted to you, you can build stronger frames and hold onto them longer.

As an example, we’ll examine how these techniques might let a waitress at a fancy restaurant seize the higher status position when a hedge fund manager brings her colleagues to that restaurant to dine. A hedge fund manager has a higher global status than a waitress. However, for the duration of the meal, it is quite possible for the waitress to position herself as the dominant player.

  • She might start by not acting obsequious or overly smiley as she greets the guests. She may also make the diners wait at their table for a while before coming out to take their orders, just as your target may make you wait in the lobby. (Step 1: do not confirm your target’s higher status.)
  • She might then ask the host to choose a wine for the table, but immediately, albeit politely, disagree, suggesting something more appropriate to complement the other diners’ meals better. (Step 2: Deny or defy in some small way.)
  • She will speak knowledgeably about the wines and the menu, and she will make a great show of the ritual of uncorking and decanting the wine. (Step 3: Focus on your areas of expertise; highlight your superior knowledge.)
  • When one of the diners comments on the wine, she will lavish praise on him for his clearly well-developed palette. She has now recruited one of the subordinates to confirm her position as the expert. (Step 4: Redistribute power.)
  • She can remind the host that she chose this restaurant because of its reputation for quality, and encourage her to confirm it. “Did you choose us because of our chef, or because we are known for outstanding service?” (Step 5: Make your customer confirm your high status.)
  • The whole time, of course, she will do this with wit and grace. (Step 6: Enjoy your work.)

A Final Word on Status: How Not to Capture Situational Status

You will not win the alpha position by using traditional salesperson techniques such as building rapport, pushing features and benefits, overcoming objections, and trial closing. Salespeople by default hold a lower status. Using these techniques will make your target associate you with the role of “typical salesperson,” which primes them to see you in an inferior position. Further, because these techniques have been used since the 1970s, they are extremely well-known. Your target will not only anticipate them, but she’ll also be prepared to block them and render them useless. 

The only way to make a sale is to put yourself in a position of high status. 

The Psychology of Selling: The Power of Status

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  • An approach to the art of pitching that appeals to prospects' primitive instincts
  • How to establish your frame as the dominant one
  • The four parts of a successful pitch

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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