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Zoë Chance is an assistant professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management, and is widely known for her popular MBA elective, Mastering Influence and Persuasion. She is also a featured speaker at this year’s upcoming WOBI World Business Forum in New York.

The two-day November event, brings together thousands of business leaders to be inspired by some of the world’s most renowned speakers from business and beyond. Cognito is proud to be the PR Agency of Record for the event.

I recently sat down with Zoë to discuss customer behavior and methods of influence at various points along the customer journey—something that Cognito helps our clients understand and master.

The biggest takeaways from my conversation with Zoë are:

  1. The timing on when to influence is just as important as how.
  2. You need to look at the individual, but also the environment around the individual, in order to successfully exert influence.
  3. You need to first understand what influences you in order to influence others.

Here’s our conversation.

What actually inspired you to go on that journey that led you to where you are today?

Zoë: Before academia, I worked in marketing and sales, and I was working as a brand manager for Barbie. I was really frustrated and wanted to learn to help people make better decisions, so I went to Harvard to study marketing and behavioral economics. In the course of my PhD research, I realized I it was naïve to imagine anyone can change how people make decisions—but that if we can understand how they make decisions then we can have a better hope of influencing them.

When I came to teach at Yale School of Management, I developed a course that brought together my research on behavioral economics, and my experience in marketing, sales, and negotiations, and public speaking. The class was called Mastering Influence and Persuasion, and it was for MBA students and also for executives from all over the world. It went really well except for one thing: the standard influence techniques I was teaching. Like scarcity, social proof, and commitment and consistency.

Students and executives would tell me, “We can't use those influence techniques on the people that we most need to influence.” Arm's-length transactional tactics may work sometimes with customers, but not with our colleagues, and not with our kin.

That's what set me off on this journey of trying to figure out how we can influence those we respect and care about—which means influencing in ways we’d want to be influenced ourselves. And of course, customers prefer more respectful influence strategies too.

What was something you learned from your Barbie days?

Zoë: It was Barbie who helped me start to understand that ease influences behavior even more than desire. Ease is probably the biggest influence of all.

When you ask a seven-year-old girl, “Who’s Barbie and what does she do?” she’ll tell you Barbie’s a model and she wears cool clothes. So, we designed and sold Barbie outfits. But it turned out that’s not how these girls really play with Barbie, even if they want to.

It’s just too hard to get Barbie’s clothes on. So, once you get them off, she ends up naked. And if you want to change her look, you cut off Barbie’s hair because that’s easier than dealing with her clothes.

The Barbie example is a small one, but if you look at almost any firm that has disrupted not just its competitors but its entire industry, it’s likely they were innovating on the dimension of ease. What are the key moments and key decisions, and how do you make those easier?

What advice do you have for marketers to help us better identify those moments and influence those moments?

Zoë: People are busy, and their attention is so scattered. So how can you stop wasting marketing dollars on messages that never even get seen or read or opened? Behavioral economists ask, what are people already paying attention to?

The Yale Center for Customer Insights did some work with a large media company. They have a paywall subscription service where you can read a certain number of articles free every month, and then when you try to read another one, you get blocked. They told us a huge number of people were hitting the paywall in the morning, but then weren't buying the subscription.

The problem was that in the morning, people are in a rush to head off to work or get kids ready for school. Their attention is elsewhere, and they won’t spend time entering credit card information and all that.

When this company paused the paywall in the morning and kept it for the afternoon, subscriptions increased a tremendous amount because people who were checking the news in the afternoon were looking for a break from work. When you hit the paywall, you see the subscription process as a productive distraction, “Oh, well, now I have to enter my credit card information so I can download this really important article.”

In a way, although you can't control that person's perception, you're actually manipulating the environment around them in order to set them up or match what you're trying to achieve with what they're trying to achieve. Can that ever go too far?

Zoë: Much of the time I'm on a soapbox trying to persuade brands to make it as easy as possible to do business with people. Make it as easy as possible to take the next step, wherever you are on the customer journey. Amazon has done phenomenally well with this, but in one situation, they made it too easy.

Do you remember the Dash button? A physical button programmed to order one specific product, and you put it somewhere in your house? It seemed like a good idea, but it hasn't panned out that well. And one problem was the buttons made it too easy to order products. Even small children could do it—and they did.

If you were able to give someone a challenge or an assignment that would get them to really start to appreciate some of your teachings and learnings, what might that ask be?

Zoë: It would be the challenge I start my MBA class with. It's a 48-hour challenge. In the first 24 hours you say “no” to every request. In the second 24 hours, you say “yes, and—" agreeing to others’ requests and adding your own request of something that would make you happy.

This challenge reveals a lot about your own habits that's gone under the radar. For many, many, many of us it's much harder to say no than we realize. We have beliefs that other people won't like us if we say no, or we'll ruin the relationship or something. As a result, we end up getting so much of our time and attention sucked away by being unwilling to say no. But practice shows you that other people are okay with you declining respectfully. Learning to say no can be transformative.

The “yes, and” piece helps us practice imagining how could the world be even better. What does that look like? And people are surprised to discover we can actually improve our relationships and deepen our relationships by asking people for other things. If we tell ourselves asking is always selfish, then we're shutting down a lot of possibilities. That’s the 48-hour challenge.

I love that. It kind of brings back that principle you spoke about earlier. In our quest to influence others we have to first learn about self.

Zoë: Exactly.