That jacket makes you look 20 pounds lighter!” “This car is the best one on the lot.” “This house needs no work at all.”
Sales pitches such as those can be heard every day. However, such ploys likely do little to clinch a sale — and may, in fact, cost the insurance industry dearly.
According to Peter Darke, an assistant professor in the department of marketing at Florida State University’s FSU College of Business, the proliferation of sales pitches create negative perceptions among shoppers. “Consumers today look at everything with a skeptical eye,” he said. “Before they even set foot in a store, they already are inclined to mistrust the use of flattery by salespeople, as well as claims made in ads they’ve seen in the media.”
With colleagues Darren Dahl of the University of British Columbia and Kelley Main of York University, Darke co-wrote “Deliberative and Automatic Bases of Suspicion: Empirical Evidence of the Sinister Attribution Error,” which examines the reactions of consumers to flattery from store clerks. The paper, recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (www.leaonline.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1207/s15327663jcp1701_9), explores whether consumers decide a salesperson is untrustworthy through a deliberate or an automatic decision-making process.
“Consistently, the study participants said that even when it was obvious the compliment didn’t serve any underlying sales motive, they still didn’t trust what the sales clerk had to say,” Darke said of his study. Such suspicion of others’ motives is typical in a society that is absolutely drowning in marketing campaigns and sales pitches.
“Generally speaking, it has become the consumer’s default position to react negatively to what is perceived as an attempt to manipulate him or her,” Darke added. “Even when there isn’t an obvious motive for a salesperson’s flattery, such as generating a sale, we are programmed to assume the worst.”
Darke’s experiment dealt with consumers buying sunglasses at a sales kiosk. What if insurance sales transactions had been studied? Would researchers have heard, “This policy covers everything; don’t worry;” or “you can’t beat this company’s claims service?”
Probably not. Sure there are some fraudsters in insurance, just as there are in any field. But for the most part, insurance sale professionals take their responsibilities seriously and face serious penalties should they be caught lying or exaggerating.
Yet that doesn’t mean insurance pros aren’t affected by what goes on in the sunglass shop. All sales pros are tainted when store clerks or others make exaggerated sales pitches. Lying about insurance policy terms may have bigger implications than pushing the envelope in a shoe sale, but both are wrong. Moreover, a pervasive environment of poor communications could deter customers from listening to any advice from their insurance agents, resulting in lost sales.
In a separate study, Darke showed how deceptive advertisements can have the effect of making consumers cynical about all advertising — not just the ones making false claims. So while the adage goes, “talk is cheap,” given today’s skeptical climate, the insurance industry might be better served by following another commonly heard phrase — the one that says “actions speak louder than words.”