How to Effectively Influence Customers When Logic Fails

Reason and facts aren’t always the best ways to reach customers and mold their perception of your business. Sometimes you have to find ways to tap into the subconscious things that affect decision-making.

How to Effectively Influence Customers When Logic Fails

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We’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on decision-making. It turns out that logic and facts aren’t always the best ways to influence your customers, boost sales and shape customer perception of your business and the experience you provide.

As Rory Sutherland points out in Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life, sometimes you have to ditch logic and use a little bit of alchemy (aka mind magic). 

Here are four alchemy lessons you can apply to your business today:

No. 1: When communicating with your customers, context and quality of information determines experience and perception.

Let’s say two of your technicians have unforeseen issues at their first service calls of the day and they’re going to be late to their next jobs. There’s no way to avoid upsetting their next customers, is there? After all, they were told the technician would be there at a certain time and the company isn't going to live up to that promise. 

Now, let’s say that one customer receives this text: 

We apologize, but we’re running a bit behind.

And the other receives this one: 

We apologize, but the problem we’re currently working on is taking us a little longer than we planned for. We’ve assessed the situation and will be wrapped up and at the job site in 40 minutes. If the new appointment time doesn’t work for you, please give us a call. Otherwise, we’ll see you shortly. :) Thanks for your patience and understanding! We hate being late!

Both texts are sharing the same bad news: Your technician is running late. You would expect each customer to be equally frustrated and disappointed, regardless of which text he or she received, right?

But here’s the thing: The context you provide and the quality of the information around the facts can greatly influence your customers’ perception and experience of those facts. 

The customer receiving the first text has no control over the situation anymore. Will you be 15 minutes late? Two hours late? Will you end up canceling the appointment altogether? They’re at your mercy, totally helpless and lacking information, which is why they’ll have a totally different experience than the customer receiving the second text.

The recipient of the second text may be disappointed, but they won’t feel powerless. They’re not just waiting around, stewing and feeling disrespected. They know exactly when you’ll arrive and what they need to do if that arrival time doesn’t work for them. They also know why you’re running late and that it’s not just how you do business. 

Both customers are dealing with the same reality, but the context is different. The first is powerless, the second is in control of the situation. 

To quote Sutherland, “That loss of power and control can create far stronger feelings of annoyance than the loss of punctuality.”

Of course, the customer receiving that first text doesn’t know that. They’re not thinking, I’m unhappy because inadequate information has left me powerless. Instead, they’re thinking, I’m angry that my technician is running late. But if you know that, you can use that knowledge to ensure your customers get the context and info they need to maintain their sense of power and control. 

It’s the same with Uber and Lyft. The real revolution is not the way these companies do things — they’re still only taxi services that require people to wait for a ride. The difference is in the quality of information and control they give to the customer. When you can see where your taxi is, it makes waiting less frustrating — even if you’re waiting just as long as you would with a traditional taxi. 

Context creates two totally different experiences of the same facts. Remember this when you’re communicating with your customers. Give them the info and context they need to feel in control of the situation, even when you’ve got bad news to share. 

No. 2: Visible extra effort goes a long way with customers.

Have you ever wondered why a simple visual change in a product — a change that has no real impact on its effectiveness — can boost sales? Like adding a stripe to toothpaste or separating the soap in a dishwashing packet into three separate colors? The answer is that visible extra effort impresses us. It just does. 

How can you use that to your benefit as the owner of a portable restroom company?  

Maybe you offer all the same services as your top competitors. Maybe you even use the same tools and products to get the job done. Ask yourself what you can do to show that you put forth a little extra effort. Whatever the answer is, even if it seems silly (like adding a sparkly stripe to toothpaste surely did at first), give it a try.

No. 3: The way you present pricing can influence your customers’ buying decisions.

One of the biggest pains for sanitation service businesses is that customers will often go with the lowest price, even if it’s not the best choice. Is there anything you can do to fight that? Use a little alchemy. 

In pricing and decision-making, there’s something known as the “decoy effect.” Essentially, it’s when you add a decoy or dummy option to your pricing to influence your customer’s decision.

An easy and common example of this alchemy at work is with a magazine subscription. Let’s say you want people to opt for the online and print option, which is $125, rather than the cheaper online-only subscription. 

If readers were presented with only these two options, more than half of the people would choose the lower-priced, online-only subscription. But if you added in a dummy option (print only) at the same price as the print and online option ($125), most people would choose the higher-cost combo. What you’ve done is change the context and make it a no-brainer decision: Why wouldn’t they get print and online option if it’s the same price as print only?

Sutherland points out that “the peculiarities of human decision-making seem to apply to all levels” of pricing and decisions, even buying a house. So don’t think it won’t work for your business.

Look at your pricing models and how you present options to your customers. Is there a decoy option you could add that would make opting for the higher-priced option a no-brainer? Try adding one and see how it affects your sales.

No. 4: If you want to change people’s behavior, you have to understand their real “why.” (And they usually don’t know what that is.)

We all want to believe we make decisions rationally, but the truth is that we don’t. We don’t even really know why we make the decisions we make. Unconscious motivations and feelings influence us, which is why appealing to logic when selling ideas, products and services is typically a waste of time. 

To once again quote Sutherland, “If you want to change people’s behavior, listening to their rational explanation for their behavior may be misleading because it isn’t ‘the real why.’ This means that attempting to change behavior through rational argument may be ineffective, and even counterproductive. … Understanding the unconscious obstacle to a new behavior and then removing it, or else creating a new context for a decision, will generally work much more effectively.”

When you’re listening to your customers or reading through reviews, look deeper. Look beyond what they’re saying and at what feelings may be beneath. If you find the real why, you can craft your selling strategies and even your marketing to be much more effective. 

Bottom line? When the data lets you down, think outside of the box and look for ways to use alchemy to win customers and make your business stand out. 

About the Authors

Carter Harkins and Taylor Hill are the co-founders of Spark Marketer, a Nashville, Tennessee-based digital marketing company that works primarily with service businesses. They're also co-creators of the award-winning app Closing Commander, which helps contractors close more estimates effortlessly, and co-authors of the book, Blue Collar Proud: 10 Principles for Building a Kickass Business You Love. Both regularly speak at service industry trade shows and conferences across the nation. Visit,, or


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