Customer Engagement: How Marketing and Sales Can
Use Psychology to Drive Engagement
July 16, 2013 by Scott Albro Leave a Comment
One of the most profound changes in sales and marketing in recent years is the idea that companies
should focus on engaging customers more than selling products. A big part of the customer engagement
movement involves using various communication techniques to create a meaningful relationship where
the customer values you and your company, independent of what you’re selling.
There’s been some analysis on a handful of techniques that can drive engagement. Popular examples
include social media, storytelling, and content marketing. But most of this analysis has focused on tactical
execution, as opposed to how knowing what the customer really wants (read: the customer’s psychology)
can help you drive engagement.
Robin Dreeke has written a book called It’s Not All About Me. It’s a primer on how to use ten different
communication skills to build rapport with people. Dreeke is the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis
Program and his recommendations are based on a good understanding of evolutionary and social
psychology, as well as years of experience in the field.
Everyone in sales and marketing should read this book. That’s because Dreeke’s ten tips are easy to use
and extremely effective at driving customer engagement. For sales people, these tips can improve the
effectiveness of something as simple as the voicemails you leave for prospects to something as complex
as the presentations you give to executive decision-makers. For marketers, these communication
techniques can improve the effectiveness of everything from corporate positioning to copywriting.
1. Make sure the customer knows you won’t take too
One of Dreeke’s strongest recommendations is to use time to put the customer at ease. It’s an effective
tactic for building customer engagement given how busy people are and the risk they perceive when you
threaten to take too much of their time. This is especially true when people feel like a company or another
person is trying to market or sell something to them.
“The first step in the process of developing great rapport and having great conversations is letting the
other person know that there is an end in sight, and it is really close.”
For marketing, this means making ads, content, and other communication tools easy to consume. Recent
research into the types of content and media that customers like to consume supports this point. It shows
that people are attracted to content that is easy to consume more than they value the substance of the
content itself. It’s why the best copywriters in the world write the least amount of copy.
For sales, this technique can be used to put the customer at ease during phone calls and in-person
meetings. At a high level, using time constraints shows that you will be easy to do business with. At the
start of a meeting or conversation, sales people should articulate how long the meeting will last, an
objective for the meeting, and a clear agenda that shows the customer that you will stay within the time
limit. It’s also important to get to your key points quickly and communicate in an efficient manner (idle chit
chat and socializing can be an effective sales technique, but within limits).
2. Show how accommodating you are via non-verbal cues
A lot of research has been done about the importance of physical attributes and cues when it comes to
effective communication. Evolutionary psychology teaches us that most people assess a stranger to see
if they’re a threat. So the basic idea here is to look non-threatening. Body posture, facial cues like smiling,
and the handshake are all important non-verbal communication techniques.
“An accommodating handshake is one that matches the strength of the other, and also takes more of a
palm up angle.”
These non-verbal cues are obviously critical to sales people and most good sales people already know
the benefits of a smile and a good handshake. More advanced non-verbal cues involve tilting your chin
down slightly to look less threatening and angling your body slightly away from the customer. Marketing
can also use non-verbal cues to build customer engagement. For example, when choosing images for
landing pages or ad creative, try to visual cues that create trust. For a more complete analysis of this,
see How Images Drive Conversions.
3. Slow down the rate at which you present information
Dreeke presents this technique in a very speech-centric manner. Speaking slowly and pausing to allow
customers to catch up to what you’re saying is certainly important, but there are other forms of
communication, such as the amount of information we include on a presentation slide, where this
technique can pay dividends as well.
“Whenever I have a conversation that I believe is important for me to be credible in my content, I
purposely slow down the delivery and take pauses for people to absorb the content.”
This tip can help sales and marketing build engagement with customers. For sales, it’s important to
remember that buyers are unlikely to remember more than three things from any conversation you have
with them. Emphasizing those three key points in a slow and deliberate manner and pausing to make the
buyer understands these points is critical.
For marketing, communicating slowly also involves presenting information in a way that highlights the key
points you want the customer to retain. Think of great ad or landing page copy. Limiting the amount of
copy and structuring the presentation of that content so that it’s easy to digest is one of the most
important things you can do.
4. Ask the customer how you can help them and then do it
Did you know that customers are biologically conditioned to accept our requests to help? That’s why one
of the most effective ways to engage a customer is to ask a simple, but powerful question: what can I help
“As human beings, we are biologically conditioned to accommodate requests for assistance. The
compulsion is based upon the fact that our ancient ancestors knew that if they did not provide assistance
when asked, the assistance would not be granted to them if requested at a later date.”
Several years ago, I non-famously said that “Always Be Helping” was the new “Always be Closing” (see
our post on Always Be Helping for more context). The idea is that in a world where the buyer is in charge,
marketing and sales needs to help the customer before they can close the customer. It’s another way of
saying that marketing and sales must engage the customer. The best way to do this is to simply ask how
you can help the customer in an altruistic manner and then do it.
5. Put the customer’s wants, needs, and perceptions
ahead of your own
In this day and age, you would think that every sales and marketing professional would understand how
important it is to suspend their ego and make the customer the priority. In practice, very few people do
this, but according to Dreeke it’s one of the most important things we can do to engage the customer.
“Suspending your ego is nothing more complex than putting other individuals’ wants, needs, and
perceptions of reality ahead of your own. Most times, when two individuals engage in a conversation,
each patiently waits for the other person to be done with whatever story he or she is telling. Then, the
other person tells his or her own story, usually on a related topic and often times in an attempt to have a
better and more interesting story.”
Marketing can put this technique to work by developing buyer personas to understand what the
customer’s wants, needs, and perceptions are. Personas force the organization to really think about who
the customer is and what they want. They also serve as a useful tool for training and educating the sales
and marketing organization about the needs of the customer.
This technique can also make specific sales and marketing tactics more effective. For example, sales
people should ask the customer to tell their “story” first. It not only makes the customer feel important and
valued; it allows you to tailor what you communicate to the customer later on.
6. Validate the customer by listening and affirming what
The simple act of listening to the customer can create engagement because is validates what the
customer is saying. You can take validation a step further by affirming what the customer is saying. This
technique also helps us understand what the customer wants.
“True validation coupled with ego suspension means that you have no story to offer, that you are there
simply to hear theirs.”
Sales people can put this technique into practice by making sure that they listen to the buyer during
conversations. Far too often, sales people believe that the most important part of their job is to talk. Good
sales people flip this and engage in “active” listening, making sure that they truly understand the
customer’s priorities and affirming many of the customers ideas.
Marketing can also create customer engagement by listening. With the day-today demands of digital
marketing, many marketers have neglected what research can tell them about their customers.
Conducting what we call “lean” market research is a great way to not only gather valuable insights, but
also to build customer engagement. To learn more about how to do this, see our recent post on Lean
7. Ask the customer follow up questions in the form why,
how, and when
Asking people to explain what they’re saying by asking follow up questions is a great way to engage
them. Questions such as “tell me why that’s important to you” go a long way towards making the
customer feel valued. Of course, in a sales context, the answers to these questions can also provide
really useful information.
“Once the individual being targeted in the conversation supplies more words and thoughts, a great
conversationalist will utilize the content given and continue to ask open ended questions about the same
content. The entire time, the individual being targeted is the one supplying the content of the
Dreeke doesn’t mention that these questions are great qualifying questions that can help you understand
the customer’s intent to purchase your product or service, but they are. Just remember not to ask these
questions as if they are qualifiers. Try to ask them because you are genuinely interested in the answers.
You should also try to ask them as a natural part of the conversation.
8. Start the conversation by giving a little information that’s
relevant to the customer
Many times, the customer isn’t willing to start the conversation with marketing or sales. In situations like
these, you’ll need to provide some information about yourself, your company, and your product to get
started. Dreeke calls this a quid pro quo. You give the customer something so that they’ll give you
something in return.
“In my experiences, there are really only two types of situations where I have utilized quid pro quo. The
first and more common of the instances is when you attempt to converse with someone who is either
very introverted, guarded, or both. The second instance is when the person you are conversing with
suddenly becomes very aware about how much they have been speaking, and they suddenly feel
awkward. In both instances, giving a little information about you will help alleviate some of the issues.”
The best way for sales and marketing to use this technique is to share information about yourself, your
company, or product using the voice of other customers. Use language such as, “some of my other
customers faced this same issue and here’s how they handled it…” You’re sharing information in a way
that is highly relevant to the buyer and will get the buyer to start sharing information with you.
9. Use gift giving as a way to build customer engagement
According to Dreeke, gift giving is one of the cornerstones of building rapport with people. Remember
that, when building rapport, the vast majority of gifts that you give will be non-material. It’s easy to give
customers gifts, particularly in this day when the gift of information can be so valuable to a customer and
so easy to deliver.
“Great rapport builders and conversationalists use this desire proactively during every conversation.
This technique, coupled with ego suspension, are the cornerstones for building great relationships. This
is also the easiest technique to utilize, because gifts come in many forms, from non-material
compliments, to tangible material gifts.”
The number of gifts that sales and marketing can offer a customer is truly astounding. Some of these gifts
take traditional forms like pricing discounts, but increasingly these gifts are taking the form of information
that helps customers. In B2B marketing, content marketing is all the rage. Good content marketing is
essentially about providing a gift to a customer in the form of information that helps the buyer do their job
10. Manage the customer’s expectations proactively
Good sales people know that managing the customer’s expectations is an effective sales technique. It’s
no surprise that Dreeke recommends this as an effective rapport-building technique. But for Dreeke, it’s
not just about managing the customer’s expectations of what the product or service will do; it’s about
managing their expectations for the conversation itself.
“The individuals in life that are able to either mask their agenda or shift the agenda to something
altruistic will have great success at building rapport.”
Sales and marketing should proactively manage the customer’s expectations around the sales and
marketing process itself. One good way to do this is to articulate your expectations for a conversation or
meeting with a customer and see fi the customer agrees with you. This can be done when setting the
agenda for the meeting.
What do you think of Dreeke’s techniques? Have you used any of them engage customers and have they
been effective? Let us know in the comments below.
About the author: Scott Albro is the CEO and founder of TOPO. TOPO is a research, advisory, and
consulting firm that believes in a really simple, but powerful idea – that all revenue can be distilled down
to a series of conversions. By connecting everything we do back to this core idea, we help sales and
marketing organizations exceed their revenue targets. You can connect with Scott on Twitter.
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