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University of Minnesota

Primed to give?

January 23, 2009

Telemarketers talking on headsets.

University of Minnesota researchers have found that preliminary questions and conversation are effective at softening you up for a pitch.

U researchers found that preliminary questions and conversation can soften you up for a pitch

By Rick Moore

Salespeople and fund-raisers have been striving to get "a foot in the door" for decades. But recently a new strategy has entered the arena—the maddeningly false friendliness of the caller. And apparently, there's a method to the niceness. 

University of Minnesota researcher Kathleen Vohs—a marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management—and two co-authors have found that preliminary questions and conversation that may seem like polite chitchat are actually quite effective at softening you up for a pitch. And when they are accompanied with an appeal that includes certain cues, the strategy is likely to increase donations and sales. The new study appears in the Journal of Consumer Research. 

According to Vohs and her colleagues, it's all about "self-control resources." After answering a series of initial questions in experiments, the self-control of research participants declined, making them more vulnerable for a request for money. It's during a second stage that the actual donation or sales appeal is made, usually accompanied by a cue such as a compliment or a favor like a free gift.

"When people have already been stripped of the resources needed to resist temptations and then encounter these cues, it's like a one-two punch," Vohs says. "It's not just that the person gets depleted. They then have this cue... and they fall for it." 

In a mental state weakened by answering questions, we end up giving more, the authors explain. So when a telemarketer asks something as simple as, "How are you today?" consumers might keep their antennae up for what's coming next. 

"The initial act of answering seemingly harmless questions is enough to produce a state of mindlessness which increases the odds of complying with a larger target request," the authors note. Vohs does offer that not everyone makes an equally prime sales target, and "some people are more savvy than others," but says that anyone can run the risk of succumbing to a crafty pitch, especially if she or he feels an affinity for the pitcher. 

"If you really, really, really don't want to give them any money, you have to cut off the conversation immediately," she suggests, "otherwise you risk getting into this worn-down stage." 

Or, according to one wily consumer, turn the tables—engage the caller in so much answering chitchat they he or she has no enthusiasm left for the pitch.

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