Interview with author Steve Martin.

Steve J. Martin is the Director of Influence at Work (UK) and features regularly in the media and national press. His popular monthly column ‘Persuasion’ in British Airways in flight magazine Business Life is read by ¾ million people every month. He is also one of the business columnists for the UK’s Institute of Leadership and Management as well as co-author to the award winning and best-selling book, Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion.

We are bringing Steve to Edinburgh for an exclusive Benchmark Masterclass on 15th March at The George Hotel where he will discuss The Science of Persuasion. We caught up with Steve earlier this month to ask him about his views on Social Influence and find out a bit more about what’s in store.

BFB: Why do you think Social Influence is so important for today’s leaders?

SJM: Regardless of the size or type of their organisation leaders and managers have long wrestled with the challenge of influencing others. These influence challenges can be internal, for example persuading employees to support new initiatives and ways of working or external, such as attracting new customers and business partners. Of the numerous approaches identified and employed in order to influence others the most common tend to be based on interventions that are economic, regulatory or technological in nature.
Now I’m not saying that these interventions are ineffective. On the contrary often they can be highly efficient mechanisms for change. But they are not without their problems. One such problem is that they can often be very costly to implement. Another is that whilst changing processes, systems and policies can be relatively straight forward, a different set of tools is required when it comes to changing the behaviour of people who will be required to operate by these new processes, systems and policies.

The science of social influence provides us with these tools. There are two particular features of the social influence approach that make them especially important for today’s leaders. The first is that because they are evidence based. For over sixty years social scientists have been studying the factors that actually influence people to change so we can be confident that their effectiveness is proven. An additional benefit to employing social influence factors into change programmes is that they can be relatively inexpensive, sometimes even costless to employ. Given these austere times and a continued uncertain financial outlook this feature might be of particular relevance.

BFB: What led you to become involved with the world of Behavioural Economics and Social Influence?

SJM: I first heard of Dr. Robert Cialdini, a psychology professor from Arizona State University in the mid 1990’s. I was fascinated in his work measuring the factors that actually influenced people’s behaviours and caused them to change. A couple of years later a colleague and I left our jobs in the global healthcare company where we worked and set up a training company. We figured that incorporating insights from social influence into our training programmes and consultancy services made sense so we set up in business with Cialdini. Over the years Influence At Work (our company) has worked with companies and governments all over the world. In 2007 I wrote Yes! with Cialdini and Noah Goldstein (a colleague of ours from UCLA) and it became a big International Bestseller. The book really was a game changer for us.
BFB: A lot of what you talk about is incredibly practical. Can you give an example of it being implemented where the outcome was a great success?
SJM: Ask people what they think of estate agents and you’ll often receive responses that aren’t very complimentary. ‘Unresponsive’. ‘Lacking in credibility’. ‘Self-centred’. ‘They’re all the same’. ‘A necessary evil’. These are some of the descriptions documented in a report I was shown by a firm who contacted us a while back.

Like most agencies their products and services were pretty much the same as their competitors. Their fees were the same too so they couldn’t really differentiate on product or price. They knew that their best chance of differentiation was to be seen as the most knowledgeable and credibly agency. The challenge was in persuading new potential customers and clients that their firm was a credible one that employed knowledgeable experience people? It turns out we were able to identify an answer that was both simple to employ and hugely successful. It was also almost costless to employ.

One of the principles of social influence is authority. Put simply the persuasiveness of a message, proposal or recommendation can be enhanced if it comes from a legitimate source. One of things we noticed was that when customers telephoned in with enquiries about renting or selling properties they would speak to a receptionist who would then route the call through to the most appropriate colleague. We made one small addition to this interaction. Immediately before putting the call through to their colleague, the receptionist was asked to inform the potential customer of their colleague’s expertise and experience.

Customers interested in renting were told “I’ll connect you with Sandra who has over 15 years experience renting properties in this area”. Customers who wanted information about selling their property were put through to Peter. “He is our head of sales and has 20 years of experience selling properties.”

The impact of this expert introduction had an almost immediate effect. We measured a 20.1% rise in the number of subsequent face to face meetings and a 16% increase in the number of customers who appointed the agency to market their property. Just by this one small seemingly insignificant change.

BFB: Your message seems to translate well and is applicable across the board, for example you have worked with organisations from Downing Street to Doctor’s Surgeries and Multinational Corporations to Charities. Why is that and what are some of the quirky Social Influence studies that have been conducted?

SJM: We do get to work in some really interesting and perhaps surprising places. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that the influence process pretty much has an impact on everything we do. As a result in addition to the more traditional corporate clients and agencies we are working closely Government Departments such as the Behavioural Insight Team in the Cabinet Office identifying the messages that most influence people to make worthwhile behaviour changes such as improving their health and recycling more.

As far as the quirkier side of social influence – well there are dozens of examples but my favourites include the influence our name has over our decisions including sometime our choice of career (amazingly there are more Dentists called Dennis and Lawyers called Lawrence than by chance) and how the often unnoticed subtleties of the environment influence us. For example sales of French wine go up if a store plays French music and sales of German wine rise when they switch to German music!

But it is important to note that in addition to the oddities of human behaviour there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of ways that businesses can propose by a better understanding of this science. That will be our focus in March at the Benchmark for Business event.


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