The psychology of selling


When it comes to your customers, the cold hard truth is that as soon as you think you’ve got them figured out, they’ll surprise you and keep surprising you until you’ve dwindled your marketing budget down to nothing –– leaving you standing with a heavy box of unsold products and an empty pocket. 

With that said, while I would never trust a marketer or a salesman who claims they possess some magical marketing formula, I do believe there are small commonalities we can find in human behavior that can give us a deeper look into why they buy what they buy.

In this article, The psychology of selling, I hope to offer some insight into the mind of the customer, so that as you craft your marketing plans and strategies you can be cognizant of what goes on inside the minds of the folks you’re marketing to.

Please know that I am by no means claiming to be an expert on this topic, but am just sharing lessons I have learned from reading plenty of old school advertising books and of course running my small copywriting shop, Honey Copy. Without further ado, let’s have a quick chat about the psychology of selling.

People buy when something hurts or when they want to feel good.

At the most basic level, it’s important to understand that most people buy for one of two reason –– they buy to move closer to pleasure or to move further away from pain

We will use wine and a bad hangover as an example.

Let’s say you just found out you got a $10,000 promotion for being a stellar employee. You’re so happy you want to shout but you don’t want to scare any of your colleagues in the office. So, instead, you call your wife at lunch to tell her… and she screams for you.

On the way home from work you stop by the liquor store to pick up a couple bottles of wine to celebrate with your beloved. Instead of buying the $20 bottle of wine, which is probably the logical decision, you buy the $100 bottle because you think the higher price indicates that it tastes better…  and why not? You just got a promotion.

That night the two of you have a blast –– grilling out, drinking, having sex and drinking some more.

In the morning when you wake up, you have one hell of a headache after a night of one too many glasses of wine. You look to see if there is any Advil in the house. There’s not. So, you run to the closest gas station and willingly pay a significant up-charge on a very small bottle of Advil to make the pounding headache go away.

In this short story, you paid for two very different things for two very different reasons.

For one, you paid a bunch of money for wine, to bring you and your wife closer to pleasure.

And, two, you paid for an overpriced bottle of Advil to bring you and your wife further away from pain.

Nearly every purchase we make as people can fall into one (or in some rare cases both) of these two categories.

$100 bottle of wine? Pleasure.

$10 bottle of Advil? Pain.

Mercedes Benz? Pleasure.

Car seat for your kid in the Mercedes Benz? Pain.

Vacation? Pleasure.

Rogaine? Pain. 

If you’re reading this article you’re pretty damn smart so I don’t feel obligated to go into too much more detail, but I will end this first section covering the psychology of selling with the following piece of advice.

People buy to move closer to pleasure or further from pain (or in some rare instances both) –– so when marketing your product or service be very aware of why your customer is buying what you’re selling.

Now, people are obviously complicated beasts with big beautiful brains, so the psychology of selling must go much deeper than strictly pain and pleasure… let’s talk about how emotion plays a role in buying behavior.

People make emotional buying decisions.

In this section we are going to discuss emotion and how it plays a major role in people’s buying decisions. While technology and data offer plenty of opportunity for marketers, they are causing many to forget they are marketing to humans (not robots).

And, unlike robots, humans are emotional beings that make emotionally-charged buying decisions, especially when the product or service they’re buying falls under the “pleasure” category that we discussed above.

People don’t buy a cherry red Maserati because it’s the logical thing to do –– they buy it because it’s makes them feel something.

The same can be said for a $10,000 speaker system or a $500 pair of Denim Jeans or a $300 plate of caviar or a $1,000/night stay at a luxurious resort.

These decisions aren’t logical, they’re emotionally driven.

So, when selling a product that is pleasurable to your customer, be sure to consider triggering their emotions. Make them feel something.

If you’re looking for some tactical ways to trigger emotions in your customers via email, sales pages or anything else that involves the written word, I recently wrote an article called 100 of the most powerful words in marketing, it offers specific words that evoke these types of emotions.

Also, for more strategies and tactics, here soon I will start sending out emails on this type of stuff to Sticky Notes, my email list. Please, feel free to join!

Now… where were we?

People justify their purchases with logic.

In the previous section we discussed that when people make purchases to move them closer to pleasure they will make their buying decisions based off emotion.

Well, there is an interesting concept to add to this.

When Mark goes out and makes the emotionally charged decision of spending $60,000 on a brand new Maserati, sooner or later he will have to answer the question, “Mark, why the hell did you spend a small fortune on a cherry red Maserati?”

This is where the concept of logic enters into the picture. Generally speaking, while people make emotional buying decisions, they will justify their purchases with logic.

If Mark was giving an honest answer to this question, he would say…

“Well Dave, I bought the cherry red Maserati because I’m going through sort of a weird mid-life crisis having just turned 50… and it makes me feel younger and is an example to my friends and family that I’ve officially made it. And, also, I have always wanted a cherry red sports car.” 

But, instead, Mark’s answer would look something more like…

“Great question Dave, this year’s model offers great gas mileage. And, not to mention, it has been relentlessly crash tested and is super safe for the kiddos. Plus, I wanted something nicer than my last vehicle to pick up clients. You know, I want to leave a good impression on them.”

While both Mark and Dave know that Mark’s answer is complete and utter horse shit, this type of logical way of justifying an emotionally fueled buying decision has become the norm.

So, what does this mean for you as a marketer? While you should market your product to your customers by evoking their emotions, you should give them strong and sturdy facts and studies that help them justify their purchase(s) to their friends and family.

People buy because other people buy.

In school we were lectured to about the power of peer pressure in regards to sex, drugs and alcohol (which as we grew older we realized wasn’t all that bad).

But, perhaps, what we should have been taught was not to give into peer-pressure when it came to buying things likes homes, cars and new kitchen cabinets.

As both a marketer and a customer, I would argue that peer pressure is at its strongest when it comes to buying –– which leads us to our next point in regards to the psychology of selling –– people buy because other people buy. 

How many times have you seen a pair of shoes on the feet of one of your friends and have been tempted to go out and buy the same pair (in a different color of course)? If you’re being honest, at least once or twice or thrice.

There is a reason products “trend” on Amazon, they become increasingly popular as more people use them, wear them and show them off.

In social psychology there is a concept called “herd mentality” which essentially means that humans can be influenced by their peers to adopt certain emotionally charged behaviors (sometimes extremely irrational behaviors). While herd mentality can be dangerous and has certainly been the cause of many violent acts that have taken place around the world, it can also be used for good.

For example, thousands of people donating to a single cause is a case where herd mentality has been used for the greater good. Does anybody remember the Ice Bucket ChallengeThat ended up raising $115 million for A.L.S.

As the movement became more popular and the challenges went viral, I imagine people started nominating themselves for the Ice Bucket Challenge.

In addition to the social pressures we feel and perhaps a primal instinct to follow the pack, there is also a very logical reason as to why customers like to see that others are using a product –– trust.

While salesman can be seen as greasy and unethical, friends are viewed as trustworthy. So, if Barbara’s friend recommends she try the new restaurant in town, she has established a level of trust Barbara now associates with [fill in the blank restaurant].

And, what’s very interesting about this concept of trust is that 84% of online shoppers are now trusting product reviews as much as recommendations from their actual friends. So, this behavior has stayed true even in a world where there is less face-to-face interaction in regards to buying.

So, what does all this mean? As a marketer, be very aware of what your customer’s are saying both online and offline about your product or service. Not to mention, create products or services that are easily-shareable to strengthen their chances of going viral.

It’s not enough anymore to simply create something that solves a need, it has to be pretty and experiential too.

Connecting the dots of the psychology of selling to craft stronger more powerful marketing campaigns.

I know we’ve covered a ton of ground today, so I want to take a moment and sum up how you can use the psychology of selling to craft stronger more powerful marketing campaigns that ultimately drive more sales. Here’s everything we just covered in easy tactical steps you can begin applying immediately.

1. Does your product or service move your customer closer to pleasure or further from pain (or both)? Begin asking your customer what pain(s) your product solves or what pleasure(s) it brings them closer to.

2. What emotions can you evoke in your customers to get them to take interest in your product or service? Once you’ve defined whether or not your product moves your customer closer to pleasure or further from pain, you can now determine what emotions you need to evoke to get them to take interest and hopefully, action. Ask your customers how they feel when they use your product. Pay extra close attention to the words and emotions they describe. Recycle their words and feelings and enhance them in your marketing messaging.

3. How do your customers justify their purchase(s) to their friends and family members? Once you’ve got the emotions covered, it’s now time to appeal to human logic. You need to find out the logic behind buying whatever you’re selling. I would start by asking your customers the following question –– our product is kind of expensive, why did you spend your hard earned money on it? Their answer(s) will be heavily factual. They won’t say “because I love it and it makes me feel good”. They’ll be more likely to say something like “because it had features A, B and C and because it solved this specific problem.” Yes, this question will be a bit abrasive, but it is important. It puts the customer in the hot seat much in the same way if they were asked by a friend or family member. Once you’ve established the logical reasons for buying your product or service, this should also be included in your marketing messaging.

4. How can you add an experiential or noteworthy element to your product or service? How can you make it shareable? In closing, I think it is imperative that you spend a lot of time on making whatever you’re selling pretty. Lululemon doesn’t sell workout clothes, they sell beautiful design. People ask question when they see their friends wearing Lululemon. If you need to paint whatever you’re selling purple to be different, paint it purple. In a world where we are constantly inundated with thing after thing after thing… it’s important to give our customers something audacious, loud, revolutionary, etc. If you can get one person’s attention, that person’s attention can get other people’s attention. Make your product or service contagious. 

Alright, I’m worn out and that’s all I’ve got for now. As you probably know, there are countless other things I could say when it comes to the psychology of selling. If you like this post, please let me know! I may end up writing a short little eBook on a related topic.

Also, if you’re picking up what I’m putting down, you might enjoy reading more here.

Happy marketing, friends.


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