Research confirms what you’ve probably suspected: buyers are deeply irrational beings.

A group of scientists from CalTech, Carnegie Mellon and MIT reviewed studies examining how people buy. Most economists—and many sales training programs—assume buyers make logical decisions about what they need and what’s in their best interests. Most buyers believe their decisions are the end result of a sensible, step-by-step process. But these neuro-economic studies reveal the automatic, unconscious process that’s really going on:

This research has profound implications for anyone involved in any way in sales. Traditional selling approaches focus on logic and reason: features, benefits and reasons to buy. But if you’re engaged with the customer at that level alone, you could be wasting your time: the real decision has already been made.

Understanding the Emotional Process

Some people shy away from emotional appeals when they’re selling, because they think it’s risky or unprofessional. But the emotions are there, whether or not you talk about them. If you don’t engage the customer’s heart as well as her head, you’re at a disadvantage.

Here’s how you can sell more effectively by appealing to a customer’s emotions, rather than sticking to the logical, reason-based sales approach:

1. Don’t Put Too Much Stock in Buyers’ “Official” Reasons for Buying or Not Buying

Listen to what your customers aren’t telling you. They’re not trying to mislead you; they simply don’t have access to their own unconscious decision-making process. You’ll gain much better insight by paying attention to unconscious cues, such as body language, volume and voice pitch, and words suggesting their emotional state.

By determining their hidden pain, you will find the real reason they are unsatisfied with their current situation and will be in a better position to offer an alternative. Acknowledge their frustrations and angers, and use them as a tool to develop a better relationship.

2. Understand the Emotional Component of Every Sale

Encourage the customer to express emotion. Listen until you understand. Then listen until the customer understands that you understand.

Research also shows that the more that’s at stake, the more these unconscious emotional forces come into play. People can be quite dispassionate when they’re making low-risk purchases. In such cases, a logical selling approach is more likely to work well. But when there’s a lot on the line—a lot of money, a promotion, a career, an entire business—emotional or even irrational considerations can overwhelm logic.

One way to help keep the buyer’s decision-making process on track is by “framing” the issue properly. Studies show that people will react very differently to a proposition when it’s presented as “insurance” rather than a “gamble.” That’s because the risk of loss is a much stronger motivator than the opportunity for gain.

3. Respect the Buyer’s Emotions

Keep in mind that the risk of loss is emotionally more powerful than the opportunity for gain. We drive even though it’s statistically safer to fly. We fear terrorists but not cholesterol, which kills far more people.

Buyers take a great risk when they let their guard down with you. Don’t judge. Address your buyers’ concerns even if you don’t agree with their logic (or lack thereof). Trying to sell before resolving their concerns may be premature and undermine their decision-making process.

Empathy is your most powerful selling tool. Get on the same emotional page as your customer. Your best chance to win the sale is by staying tuned to those buying emotions. Save the factual information for later—your customer will need it to justify why she picked your company over the three other vendors that had lower prices.

Let’s say you’re talking with a prospect: “So, you’re looking for a new supplier. Can you tell me why?”

Your prospect replies, “The company we currently order from has trouble shipping products on time.”

You empathize. “Shipping delays? Wow. That must be frustrating…”

Your prospect leans towards you, his voice rising. “You bet. Last time it happened it was my wedding anniversary; I was waiting for a shipment with my wife’s favorite natural beauty products. Instead of taking her out to dinner, I was stuck on the phone for half of the evening trying to fix the whole mess….”

Those emotions are driving this customer’s decision-making process, and you now have an opportunity to become a part of it. This isn’t about manipulation; it’s about old-fashioned, honest empathy. It requires putting yourself on the line, right along with your buyer.

4. Take Emotional Risks

If your customers are going to put themselves on the line, you’ve got to be willing to do so, too. When you’ve tapped into their emotions, you become part of their decision-making process. Let’s continue the conversation with that in mind:

“I appreciate you sharing your concerns with me. Believe me, I understand the importance of delivering on a promise. I can’t guarantee we’ll never make a mistake. But I am going to give you my work phone number, my cell number and my pager. If anyone has to miss their anniversary dinner because we made a mistake, it’ll be me, not you. That’s not a promise from my company—that’s from me.”

It’s crucial to connect emotionally with your customer; it’ll be easier to play ball if you’re both in the same stadium. Once you understand the neuro-economics guiding your customer’s thinking, you and your customer will both be on the winning team.

PAUL CHERRY is president of the sales and leadership
consulting firm Performance Based Results and the author

of Questions That Sell based on PBR’s latest research
on what salespeople need to ask in order to win.