Mr. Startup Salesrep, the herd mentality is killing you!

“If everyone jumped off a bridge would you do that too?”

I heard this one too many times as a kid. I know the answer is supposed to be “no”. That’s what my parents and teachers and $6/hr babysitter would train me to say in this situation. But even as I think about it now… I think the answer is yes.

I mean, if I’m at a bridge where literally everyone I can see is running onto the bridge and jumping off of it, I’ve got to believe something is going on.

  1. There’s a mass disaster and group consensus is the best jumped-off-a-bridgechance at survival is under that bridge
  2. There’s something awesome under that bridge that is worth jumping for
  3. This is a really rad cliff dive and the thing to do at this place

I hate to say this publicly. I know I’m supposed to be my own person, but when forced with this decision, my answer wouldn’t be a quick no. To be honest, I’d probably jump.

Even more honestly, I’ve jumped off of bridges in this situation :- /


Ah! The Herd Mentality

Look, I’m pretty susceptible to peer pressure. I mean, I live in the sales world after-all. But I don’t think I’m alone here. In fact, believing that “everyone’s doing it” is one of man’s most common subconscious factors in decision making. And it can often be a hindrance if you’re trying to sell into a new market.

One of my favorite books is Influence, by Robert Cialdini. Cialdini is a social scientist that cuts to the core of why people do the things they do. One experiment discussed in his book is Cialdini’s offer to help a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. The business wanted to encourage guests to re-use their towels. Re-washing hundreds of towels each new day proved an economic and environmental burden. To affect guests’ behavior, Robert’s team randomly assigned four messaging tests to hotel guests. He tracked the effectiveness of each:

Message 1:  asks guests to reuse their towels “for the the good of the environment”.

Message 2: asks guests to “cooperate with the hotel, becoming a partner in this environmentally conscious cause.” This was 12% less effective than message 1.

Message 3: Claimed “the majority of guests in the hotel reused their towels at least once during their stay”, which was 18% more effective than message 1.

Message 4: “…a majority of people in this room have reused their towel”

Which message do you think was the most effective? The 4th message saw a 33% increase in responsive behavior compared with the Message 1.

Cialdini ran plenty of other experiments in the book. One experiment tracks energy usage in people’s homes after four cautionary messages are delivered to the homeowners. Another looks for the best way to ask national forest hikers stop stealing pieces of their trail. Over and over again the answer was clear: people respond to messages suggesting “everyone else is doing it.”

“How their peers behave is a leading indicator to what we think we should be doing.”


The reason? Humans respond to the social norms. How their peers behave is a leading indicator to what we think we should be doing. Cialdini claims this to be a primitive instinct. “On some base level, it’s survival recognition: these are the people who are most like me—we share the same circumstances,” said Cialdini. He sees the power of this impulse less as peer pressure and more as peer information.

Cialdini adds, “Birds flock together in very neat patterns, fish school, cattle herd, social insects swarm together. So this is something that doesn’t require a lot of cognitive capacity in order to trigger the conformity. All you need to do is to see what those around you, like you, are doing. And it’s a good shortcut to deciding what you should do in a situation.”


Nobody gets fired for choosing IBM (except the startup sales rep)

There’s an old saying that “Nobody gets fired for choosing IBM”. In short, the “safe choice” is the product that everyone else has. So as a startup salesman trying to disrupt that incumbent, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Speaking simply, in sales you typically have 3 different types of prospects 15% are early adopters, ~70% are the average, and another 15% are the laggards, those least likely to adopt a new product/idea.

Adoption Curve

For those selling startup products this can be a challenge. Likely, you’re selling some revolutionary product that’s disrupting the way regular X works. Your product may be more efficient, more effective, even remarkably cheaper than your competitors. But, no one’s ever heard of it. We, at Foursquare, have a great brand name, that most people recognize. We still run into major problems here.

The first 15% early adopters can often be easy targets. They’re likely excited by and interested by trying new things. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their boss / board / team is as excited. Even for the early adopter, buying a new product is often an uphill battle. Which, they’re happy to help in, but don’t always win.

For everyone else, there might be some sex appeal when it comes to trying a new product. But when push comes to shove, it’s often not worth the hassle. “I don’t want to be the guinea pig. Let me see it working and then come talk to me.”

The inertia required to uproot an old incumbent in favor of a new fangled product is large. Most people in this world report to a boss. And so, your buyer likely doesn’t “live and die” by the company’s success. They don’t stay up at night thinking about ACME’s marketing challenges. Most employees simply want to keep their job, look good to the boss and maybe get a pat-on-the-back every so often. For those people, the risk of choosing an unknown company is great.

Let’s look at the challenges ahead of someone who would like to chose an unknown product, over an incumbent contender. For example, at Foursquare we’re selling advertising. We know our solution is a game changer. Here’s what a marketer we’re speaking with is up against if they chose our new, revolutionary solution over what they’re currently buying. To get Foursquare approved, the buyer needs to:

  • Know why it’s better than what they’re currently using. 
  • Understand what the drawbacks of switching might be, and why the pros outweigh the cons.
  • Learn new reporting, logging, dashboards etc. etc.
  • Then, he’s going to need to train the rest of his team, his boss, and anyone else involved on the new process
  • Ensure the new product satisfies legal, financial and other company stakeholders
  • Pitch this internally to anywhere from 3-10 people and make sure they understand all of the above information.

Then, if you chose the unknown startup over the obvious incumbent and it goes poorly you’re a real fool, AND you had to do extra work to get it there. That’s pretty tough.

But let’s look at the bright side, if Mr. marketer chooses the new flashy startup and it goes well, he’s a hero right!? Usually, not. That’s his job, an employee’s supposed to pick things that work. Good job! Now, if you chose the well known solution and it fails, well that’s the logical choice that’s what everyone’s using, sure it has it’s limitations, but can’t blame you. As the old saying goes, no one ever gets fired for choosing IBM.

Wow, why ever chose something new?


Use the force, Luke

So, we know that this force is out there. As a startup salesman we can either a) admit that this job is too hard and go get a job at IBM or b) use this force in our favor. A little jiu-jitsu if you will.

We know that it’s much easier for people to make the decision that everyone else is making. So appeal to that sense. Rather than spending so much time pushing how revolutionary your product is, and all the technical differences from the old guard, spend some time talking about the success stories.

And it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Knowing, up-front, the tendency to chose the path others are choosing is subsciously working in each decision maker, do  your best to give clients the security of safety in numbers. Using simple phrases like, “brands like yours often prefer,” “Typically what we do at this point” etc, helps your customer to feel like you’ve been there before.

At my previous company we used location signals to leverage. We built into our CRM a list of all of the businesses in a 5 mile radius that were using our product. So our reps had the intel to drop in names when necessary.

It’s important to know who your buyer is and what their motivations are, but if there’s a chance they fall into the majority or laggard category, it’s helpful to keep the Herd Mentality in the back of your mind, and deliver some comfort.

Often times, recognizing the forces against you, understanding them, and harnessing can turn even the biggest obstacles into your largest ally.  

And mom, just kidding about that jumping off the bridge stuff ;-)