There’s a species of firefly (Photuris) that appears to be a remarkably successful persuader. By copying a unique blinking routine that other species use to signal to potential mates that they are ready to breed it is able to attract other fireflies. However, far from flying into love’s embrace the unsuspecting fireflies find themselves in immediate peril as they realise that their most feared enemy has in fact played a rather deadly trick on them.
The persuasion technique being used here is called mimicry. A mimic’s strategy is to deliberately arrange to appear similar to another organism or its surroundings in order to either defend itself or, in the case of the Photuris firefly, to attack. There’s no doubt that mimicry can be a pretty effective strategy in the animal kingdom. But surely such an approach wouldn’t work in the business world – after all, humans are much more sophisticated aren’t they?
In a surprising series of studies, persuasion researchers found that waiters and waitresses who mimic their customers by doing nothing more than repeating back their customer’s order using exactly the same words are not only more liked, but actually receive bigger tips from their customers too. In one study, waiters employing this strategy increased their tips by a massive 70 percent. A pretty impressive return considering that all they did was to listen to their customers and repeat back their words.
So what makes mimicry such an effective persuasive tool? Psychologists believe that one reason is that it is likely to increase one person’s sense of closeness and understanding with another. Anyone who has ever had the experience of hearing a half hearted “OK”, or worse still, no acknowledgement at all after giving their restaurant order, will understand this. A similar example occurs when, after giving someone your phone number, they repeat it back to you in a way that’s different to how you remember it. Suddenly your phone number doesn’t sound like yours and frustration and a distancing with that person might occur.
The mimicry studies suggest that, when meeting people for the first time, you can develop good relationships in a quicker time by repeating back selectively the same words that they use. In fact, evidence suggests that such a strategy should be effective regardless of the situation or the communication. As a result it makes sense to investigate the words and values that prospects use on their literature and websites so that you can use these same words and phrases in your written proposals and e-mail campaigns.
The same should be true in customer service settings – even when customers are calling to complain. By using the mimicry strategy wisely you can send an immediate message that you have heard and understand the situation which could make the resulting interaction less painful perhaps even pleasant. As a result, customers might not only be persuaded to become more loyal to you they may well inform others about the positive experience with your company too.
Steve Martin is co-author (along with Dr. Noah Goldstein and Dr. Robert Cialdini) of the New York Times bestseller Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive (Free Press). Take the free Yes! Test at www.influenceatwork.com to see how persuasive you are.