Because multiple options are better than just one – Product Management Series

In my last article on defining and evaluating Influence Skills of product managers  (reminder – Influence Skills was rated as the most important quality in a survey) I mentioned the book Influence by Robert Cialdini. The book, in my opinion, is about influence tactics and not about building a longer lasting working relation based on trust and mutual value in a multi-encounter environment.

The book does present many tactics you can put to use when you are trying to break in or get what you want in some zero-sum games. In my opinion it does not help build an end to end process for win-win in outcomes in situations where you meet the same people over and over.

For instance using asking for a small act and then relying on escalation of commitment to get more and more of what you want does not sound to me like a mutual value-creation and fair value-share arrangement. As I wrote before, Influence is based on trust, mutual value-add and effective communication.

But that is just that, my opinion.

There are two invaluable tactics from the book that I recommend you use without compromising on mutual value and trust.

Because, Because, Because

The Influence book tells us about the effect of using the word ‘because’ in asking for an action from anyone. When asking for a favor/task  from others, a Harvard study found, you will have greater success if you explain the reason for your ask,

People simply like to have reasons for what they do.

For example,

“would you help me get the SKUs created in two weeks because of product launch”

In fact the study went a step further and tested just the use of the word ‘because’ even with illogical reasons and found that it had better effect than giving reason without using ‘because’.

Like saying

“would you help me get the SKUs created in two weeks because I am in a hurry”

I am not going to make a recommendation that you use ‘because’ with illogical reasons but stop with their primary finding about people like to have reasons for what they do and give a valid reason after ‘because’.  In fact this fits perfectly with my recommendation about showing mutual value and effective communication. Using ‘because’  helps us get the value message across effectively.

Options over Ultimatum

The second tactic that helps is giving your peers/customers/bosses multiple options and asking them to pick one over presenting them a single option and making it a ultimatum. Presenting multiple options changes the decision from saying yes or not to a single option to picking the best among the multiple options you present.

Here is a real life case study from the world of politics,

The WSJ article on  President Obama won the Health Care vote describes how he changed the conversation:

Mr. Obama’s most effective move may have been calling for a bipartisan summit on health care, shifting the conversation away from Democratic paralysis. Aides knew there was little chance they would reach a bipartisan agreement, but it forced Republicans to put ideas on the table, framing the choice as between two sets of ideas, rather than simply a referendum on one.

 It is easier for the people you work with to compare the merits of different options vs. deciding merits of picking or not picking the only available path you present.

I recommend you go one step further and present three options and invariably you will get the middle option.

Present multiple options because it turns a yes or no decision into informed choice among multiple options based on relative value.

Influence Skills – The Most Important Quality in a Product Manager -Product Management Series

Last time I wrote about the top 5 qualities to look for in hiring a product manager for your organization- enterprise or startup. The rankings are based on a survey of practitioners and recruiters, posed as a resource allocation question. The beauty of that question type is it requires them to make trade-offs, take a pick among many qualities when only limited points are available and also state how important each quality is relative to others.  Here is the quick summary of the rankings

  1. Influence Skills
  2. Strategic Thinking
  3. Hustle – Getting things done
  4. Analytical Skills
  5. Attention to Details

In this article let me discuss influence skills and how you can evaluate that in the people you are hiring for a product manager position.

First what influence is not.

It is not a parlor game, not charm effect, not magnetic personality, not salesmanship, not smooth talking, not big presence, not about greasing wheels etc.  Influence is not a one sided winner takes all zero-sum game and definitely not a single encounter game.

You may have read the book Influence by Bob Cialdini. It is a good book but it is a set of tactics that can come in handy but not foundation of Influence. For instance, you may ease into a new working relation if you were to show them your connection to them but not succeed repeatedly if you ignore the three main skills I list below.

Consider this for a moment – in any organization, why should anyone drop what they are doing and add your ask and prioritize it ahead of others? And do it not just once but over and over in multiple encounters? How does your ask align with their priorities and incentives? Why should they trust you?

You will recognize that strong influence skill starts with trust. If you are applying parlor games to get what you want you sure will win once but it is a multiple encounter game. Only if trust exist can you even communicate effectively the common value proposition and get them to see their share of the value created.

Influence is about showing others the mutual value  if they were to work with you and deliver what you are asking for. You have to show them how big the pie is without them, how big it will grow with them being part of the effort and most importantly what is their share of the bigger pie.

What is implied here is how effectively you can communicate that value and getting them to see for themselves. It is also important that you communicate their value realization after their task is completed –

  • show them mutual value,
  • work with them to realize it,
  • show them again what you two accomplished.

Evaluating Influence Skills

When evaluating influence skills you need to explore their understanding of what influence means. Anything that signals their view of this as one-sided game is a red flag. For instance if they use negative words to describe others they influenced that is an indication of seeing this as zero-sum game.

I would recommend starting the conversation not as a quiz but as a story telling session, asking them to pick a recent engagement and explain how they met a business objective working across boundaries and with multiple teams.

Here are things to evaluate in their story

  1. How big the impact was for the business? This needs no further explanation.
  2. Length of engagement – you do not want to hear a minor one-act play where they used tricks from Cialdini’s book to get someone to say yes. You want to hear a longer engagement based on trust and mutual value
  3. How detailed the story is  – after they start with a summary of Situation-Action-Result? One way to weed out canned stories is to dig deeper for details by asking, “How are he players?”, “What are their priorities?”, “What exactly was their push-back?”, “What exactly did you say to them?”

From the story you are looking to evaluate if their understanding of influence comes through, they show trust as key factor and see the need for effective communication.

Anything less, you know where they stand among the pool of candidates you have.

Does Presence of Customer Reviews Drive Down Product Returns?

Does presence of customer reviews and the number of reviews drive down returns by customers?

According to Internet Retailer (thanks to Gerardo for the link), that is the case. The article says, reviews has helped Petco considerably

Petco’s approach to gaining more customer reviews has paid off. On average, products with reviews have a 20.4% lower return rate than products without reviews. The return rate continues to decline as a product gains more reviews. Products with more than 50 reviews have a 65% lower return rate than products with no reviews.

Since returns eat into profits, reducing returns goes directly to the bottom line – there is no question here. But can presence of reviews drive down returns? Is there a direct causal relation or is this just incidental correlation.

Commitment and Consistency Bias: If the  case of customers who took the time to write reviews I can see that their return rate will be much lower than the return rates among those who did not write one. This is the Commitment and Consistency bias (the book Influence by Robert Cialdini has very good discussion of these biases). When the customer “commits” by writing how good they feel about the product their internal system compels them to act consistently to their previous commitment. So they keep the product.

Reason doesn’t matter: This does not mater whether or not customers wrote the review because of their LOVE for the product or because they were paid in coupons or raffles. This does not apply to negative reviews, but according to one research, most reviews are positive reviews and there is generally high product ratings. On the other hand we could argue that those who returned the products are more likely to write a negative review.

Conformity Bias: Commitment and consistency bias alone cannot explain the drop in returns because this is still a small number of reviews compared to products sold. But another cognitive bias that could be at play is conformity bias. When customers make the purchase based on many reviews by “customers just like them”, they tend to confirm to those peer reviewers. This will compel them to “like” the product and keep it – all those positive reviews cannot all be wrong, if I do not like the product it must be me.  Again, Cialdini has chapters describing Conformity bias in his book.

Cognitive Dissonance: Intertwined with conformity bias is our need to assuage cognitive dissonance. People who buy a product by doing the research, reading multiple reviews and evaluating options believe they made a rational decision of buying the best possible product. But after buying the product if it turns out that it did not live up to their expectation they  suffer cognitive dissonance – a gulf between how their feelings before and after the purchase. Customers overcome that by convincing themselves that they like the product.

On top of these cognitive biases, it is possible that there exists another common variable that both drives up number of reviews and drive down returns – for example the product experience matches its promise.

There is one way to answer many of these questions and to find out whether or not number of reviews drive down returns. It requires doing two sample test, showing some of the customers the review,  suppressing it for others and tracking the respective return rates. If the return rates are statistically significant then we can declare presence of reviews drives down product returns.

Next step, if we do the experiments by showing different number of reviews we can even find the linear causal relation between number of reviews and returns.

We are increasing prices because …

[tweetmeme source=”pricingright”] I saw a notice posted on the external doors of an ice rink that said,

Please close the doors behind you otherwise the rink will fog up

I did not stand around to measure how many followed the advice and whether this number was better than what it would have been if the sign had simply asked “Please close the door behind you”.  But other people have done such studies.

In the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials) author Robert B. Cialdini narrates the work done by Harvard Social Psychologist Ellen Langer on the power of the word “because”.

People simply like to have reasons for what they do.

It does not matter how relevant or meaningful the reason is. The word “because” made the difference in people accepting your request. This isn’t to say that giving reasons for requests works universally but  it does help to reduce resistance.

Take the case of price increases. When a marketer pushes through price increases without extending any reason customers resist those increases and perceive the price increase as unfair. But if the price increase were justified with a reason, a greater number of customers will accept it. In their paper titled, Perceptions of Price Fairness, researchers Gielissen, Dutilh,and Graafland  validated the hypothesis that price increases justified with cost arguments were perceived to be fair by customers.

Ellen Langer’s and Cialdini’s work point to another possible reason for customer acceptance of higher prices – it is not the justification itself but the mere presence of one.  This opens up opportunities for both B2C and B2B marketers to re-price their offering or capture greater value without turning away customers – just give a reason.

We see that in the earnings results of CPG brands that used commodity price increase in 2008 to push through their price increases.

Another case is for two-part pricing – asking customers to pay an upfront fee and then a per unit price.  Examples are mobile phone activation fee or registration fee charged by services. These upfront fees are nothing but pure profit for the marketer and find customer acceptance when justified with reasons, however trivial, like  processing fee or registration fee.  For B2B case, a marketer can charge additional upfront price with reasons like customizations or order processing.

Just give a reason! – “We are increasing prices otherwise we will go out of business”

I should note that this is a pricing tactic and not a strategy – if your strategy is wrong, any number of fine tuning tactics, even with reasons, are not going to help.

Footnote: It is a good idea to A/B test your reasons even though Cialdini and Langer say the specific reason is immaterial.

Fox Tale Soup

There is a children’s book called “Fox Tale Soup“. This is the old story of Stone Soup retold with Fox and farm animals. If you have not read the original I recommend reading this version.

The clever Fox is a great influencer. He starts out by asking for food but was denied any help by the farm animals. After being rejected for his initial request the fox starts with a trivial request,

“just some water please, after all I got the stone to make stone soup”

One of the animals yield and bring water. Of course, if only there was some seasoning, some potato, some rutabaga, …

The fox slowly builds on his seemingly trivial request for water to get to all the ingredients for the soup. The farm animals one after the other ends up bringing salt, potato, rutabaga etc. There are multiple influence principles at play here.

The fox started with an outrageous request, asking for food. Since he was a total stranger the animals so the animals were right in rejecting his request.

Then he followed up with a trivial request, water, which is available in plenty. This is  anchoring.

Once the animal agreed and brought water, there eas no turning back. They ended up giving the rest of the ingredients because of the power of commitment and the inherent need in us to act consistent to our past actions (consistency principle).

There was also consensus effect. Since other animals were helping the fox, any animal that had any misgivings about not helping the fox were nudged by the actions of others and were convinced to help.

That is the power of persuasion.

If you want the psychology behind this you should also read, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

Other book I recommend is Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler.

If you feel like you are being nudged it is not you it is the Government

TIME magazine reports on the use of Behavioral Economics and its methods in the President Obama’s campaign and now in the Government.

In fact, Obama is betting his presidency on our ability to change our behavior. His top priorities — the economy, health care and energy — all depend on it. We need to spend more money now to avert a short-term depression, then save more money later to secure our long-term economic future.  …

Basically, we need to make better choices — about mortgages and credit cards, insurance and retirement plans — so we won’t need bailouts down the road.

Books you might find intersting to read:

  1. Predictably Irrational
  2. Nudge
  3. Influence – Psychology of Persuasion