Do not make customers thinkOne thing we know about the former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is that he did not allow “his people” to think. They were extensively controlled – and still are with public wailing demanded by the military dictators. It shows that you can rule by fear. But it also shows that people can be manipulated.

Here in the free-thinking west, we detest control; we want to decide for ourselves what we want to do, how we want to do it and who we want to do it with…! Indeed, any attempt by western governments to manipulate us is met with protests, outpourings on Twitter and sometimes resignations by those “in power”. It shows that we don’t like being manipulated.

But between these two extremes, we are actually having our minds controlled in subtle ways – and actually we do like it. The reason is that our brains are geared up to doing things with the least amount of effort. If we can get some thinking done for us, our brains actually like it because it reduces mental effort – and that has an adaptive advantage in evolutionary terms because it ultimately aids survival. Anything that reduces effort, boosts survival potential.

Every day your brain is affected by people around you – and businesses who make a commercial gain from getting you to think the way they want you to. Indeed, if that were not the case there would be no such thing as the advertising industry. Equally, sales people could not persuade you to buy anything. It turns out that we are ultimately suggestible, even if we claim we are not.

But the principle of suggestibility means that you can sell more by helping your customers more. For instance, let’s imagine you want to find a new web hosting company. You could do the usual trawl of the web, comparing reviews, looking at pricing and figuring out what might work best in your situation. But what if it were the other way round? What if web hosting companies investigated what you were using and then offered you a solution which was a perfect fit for your needs? The chances are you would be more persuaded that what was on offer was better – even though it is probably no different to what you may have found if you had done the research.

What has happened in such a scenario is that the mental effort has been taken away from you and you become more suggestible as a result. Someone else has done the thinking on your behalf and the result is you become more persuaded by their offer.

It begs the question, how much thinking do you do on behalf of your customers? How much mental effort to you take on for them? The more you do, the more you will sell.

An interesting twist to this is revealed this week by IBM Research who give an example of the future of advertising, where we will subscribe to “thinking adverts” – services that take away the mental effort for us. The example given by IBM is a coffee shop – let’s call them Starbucks. You let them know your diary of events. In return, they do the “thinking” about those events for you. So, when you are due to meet a client and there is trouble on the motorway journey you are likely to face, Starbucks lets you and your client know about the trouble – and then offers an alternative meeting place, which is convenient for both of you and which also avoids the traffic chaos. My guess is the alternative will be a Starbucks store, of course.

But imagine the scenario without such help. You are stuck in traffic, your client is waiting for you, annoyed and twiddling thumbs. You arrive, hot and flustered and your first impression is weakened. Now imagine the alternative. Your client gets an email explaining the traffic situation and suggests you meet at the local Starbucks. You arrive on time. Your client is impressed.

According to IBM, such thinking adverts are not that far off into the future. But before they arrive, why not consider the principle on which they work? Do more thinking on behalf of your customers. They will become much more connected with you and much more easily persuadable. The result could be much higher sales too.

Of course, always allow them to believe they have done the thinking for themselves…after all, you don’t want them to accuse you of dictating to them. And even if they did you can bet there would be no wailing in the streets for you…!

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