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Building Vital Credibility with Prospects and Clients – Part One

Brian Williams

These days, credibility is often in short supply.  NBC’s Brian Williams’ standing with viewers took a big hit when it was revealed that, despite his earlier claim, the helicopter he was riding in didn’t take one from an RPG.  We have all become too accustomed to learning that something we’ve heard from someone we trusted just isn’t true.

Research by Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely found that many people are willing to fib for their own benefit– but just a little.  And when people we believe in tell us less than the whole truth, it’s not always an attempt to maliciously deceive.  An NBC staffer, responding to questions about Brian Williams, told The Washington Post, “He’s a

Warren Buffet 2great storyteller. But sometimes storytellers embellish.” But, as the Williams case illustrates, the habit of stretching the truth a bit too far can devastate your reputation. As legendary investor Warren Buffet put it,

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.

A good name as a trustworthy, expert professional is one of the most valuable assets you can have.

Years of research in persuasion psychology explained by eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson reveals that to effectively persuade others, you must be viewed as both expert in the subject and trustworthy.   Salespeople, attorneys and marketers may know their facts, but unless their audience trusts them they will have a hard time winning over clients, consumers or juries.Presenting

People hear so many stories about swindlers and their scams that a straight shooter who knows what they’re talking about is truly refreshing.  People seek to do business with someone like that.  How can professionals – salespeople, marketers, and attorneys whose professions are sometimes viewed skeptically by the public – build and keep vital good reputations? And how can they assure that clients, juries and audiences recognize them as the credible sources they are?

The most important factor

AvisSocrates said, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” So, when DDB copywriter Paula Green came up with the iconic “We Try Harder” tagline for Avis Rent-a-Car, the agency explained to Avis executives that they had to live up to what they were telling consumers.  Avis employees really had to try harder and give customers what they wanted. They did.  Advertising Age relates:

It was a huge success for Avis. In a matter of a single year, that campaign reversed the company’s fortunes, helping it to go from losing $3.2 million to turning a profit of $1.2 million for the first time in 13 years.


Although this campaign is often cited as an example of great advertising, it is also a case study in the benefits of making consumers a promise – and then keeping it.  Making exaggerated claims for products and services is common.  It can result in short-term success.  But there are few better ways to ruin your good name than promising things you do not deliver.

Should you ever lie to clients?

No.  True, lying can help you make a sale.  But once your customer realizes that you’ve lied you will lose credibility, and they’ll often tell others.  Even if lying works in the short run, once the lie is discovered your ability to persuade will nosedive.  And if the falsehood was about something significant, you will lose a customer and may well make a vocal enemy.

1896 Toyota CorollaDeceiving people may injure them.  Years ago, during my 25 year sales career, I went to a well-known dealer and found what I thought was a great deal on a new car.  Left over from the previous model year, it had less than 80 miles on the odometer.  The salesman offered me a full 1/3 off the sticker price.  When he told me the car was brand new and had only been used as a demo, I asked, “Why are you giving me so much money off?” “We have to clear the lot for a new shipment,” he explained, “the boss said to do whatever it takes to sell these cars now.”

I bought that car because it had a great reliability rating, a full warranty and a terrific price.  It sounded too good to be true.  It was.  The manufacturer was dumping them.  Its high crash-test rating turned out to be for frontal impacts only.  My new car lacked reinforced doors, which a new Federal law mandated.  And when a speeding full-size SUV broadsided me, I quickly learned the truth.

My 1986 CorollaI suffered 6 broken bones and a ruptured spleen.  I nearly died in the emergency room.  And none of it had to happen.  If the salesman had told me the truth I would not have bought that car.  But, because his candor would have built trust and credibility, I would likely have bought another, more expensive model from him.  My injuries have healed, but as research predicted, my feelings about that dealership have not.

I have told many people, including their competitor, about my bad experience.

Manufacturing Credibility

Scientific research shows that even someone who has lost the trust of their audience can regain it.  Studies also reveal how to effectively deal with weaknesses in your product or argument, tell the truth, and still make the sale.  Watch for Part Two of this series.

Larry Rondeau’s marketing campaigns have achieved ROI of 16.5 to 1. The psychology-based sales techniques he teaches have improved sales closing rates by as much as 83%.  If you’d like to discuss an opportunity in marketing, sales, training or copy/content writing please email him at






Will Anyone Believe What You Say?

Female Marketer-001You have an important message to deliver. Perhaps it’s warns of an imminent danger. Or it provides key support to injured plaintiff, a great cause or a high quality product. But no matter what you’re trying to communicate, the value of the message is just one part of the equation. When you’re trying to persuade others, the spokesperson’s acceptability to the audience can be even more important than the quality of the message. The greatest expert will not convince people if they do not recognize his expertise, or if they question his honesty or impartiality. Scientists have devoted years of research to the question of what makes any presentation more likely to persuade its audience. Here’s a little of what they learned.

The Image of Expertise

Male AttorneyEminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson wrote some twenty years ago, “Careful experiments have shown that a judge of the juvenile court is more likely than most other people to sway opinion about juvenile delinquency…and that a medical journal can sway opinions about whether or not antihistamines should be dispensed without a prescription.” So, science confirms what common sense tells us:  People are most likely to follow Virgil’s advice, “Believe an expert.” So, they look to an authority. Or at least someone they perceive to be one.

Sanka ad (cropped)Influence expert Dr. Robert Cialdini cites the case of Robert Young, the highly successful spokesman for Sanka Coffee in the 1970s and 80s. Young was no expert on coffee or caffeine. He was, though, a highly recognizable actor who played Dr. Marcus Welby in the then popular television series. Young was not a doctor, but fans thought of him as one. Sanka sales soared when their campaign featuring him began. People felt as if their doctor had told them to cut down on caffeine and gave them an acceptable way to do it.

What if you don’t have a real expert or someone who looks like one?

It’s easy to put together a credible campaign if you have a recognized authority on the subject at hand or at least someone who plays one on TV.  But often, marketers must work with much less. How can you increase your message’s believability? Psychological research highlights two ways.

Dr. Aronson and his coauthor write, “Several years ago, we and our colleague Judson Mills did a simple laboratory experiment demonstrating that a beautiful woman – simply because she was beautiful – could have a major impact of the opinions of an audience on a topic wholly irrelevant to her beauty.”

Mustang with modelDr. Cialdini provides an example from marketing research. “In one study, men who saw a new-car ad that included a seductive female model rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking, and better-designed than did men who viewed the same ad without the model. Yet when asked later, the men refused to believe that the presence of the young woman had influenced their judgments.”

Research shows that good looking people are seen as more talented, kind, honest and
intelligent.  Thus, if no expert spokesperson is available, an attractive one provides a good substitute. Some products or causes, though, don’t lend themselves to campaigns using great looking models as spokespeople. What then?

The magic bullet

Fox News chairman Roger Ailes once served as an advisor to the campaigns of Presidents Reagan and Bush. Note his comments on the characteristics of a great presenter:

If you could master one element of personal communications that is more powerful than anything we’ve discussed, it is the quality of being likeable. I call it the magic bullet, because if your audience likes you, they’ll forgive just about everything else you do wrong. If they don’t like you, you can hit every rule right on target and it doesn’t matter.

Research shows that Ailes is right. A spokesperson doesn’t have to be Albert Einstein, Brad PittJennifer Lopez or Brad Pitt to be effective. But they must be likeable. ‘All things being equal,’ states Dr. Cialdini, ‘people prefer to do business with someone they like. And when all things aren’t equal, they still want to work with someone they like.’

Credibility can be manufactured

MobsterA study done by Dr. Aronson and his colleagues Elaine Walster and Darcy Abrahams reveal a way to manufacture credibility. This experiment presented participants with a concocted newspaper article relating an interview with a fictitious mobster, Joe “the Shoulder” Napolitano. In the article perused by one group, Joe “the Shoulder” argues for stricter courts and more severe sentences for serious crimes. The other group read about an interview where Napolitano advocated for more lenient courts and penalties that were far less harsh.

Not surprising was the fact that those who read this fictitious criminal’s appeal for less prison time found it totally unconvincing. What was remarkable was that when he argued for stricter courts and tougher sentences, Joe “the Shoulder” was extremely effective. By advocating a position that is clearly against his own self-interest, Napolitano convinced readers that there must really be something to what he was saying. When a real-life criminal, Ted Bundy, admitted in a pre-execution interview that a boyhood addiction to crime novels and a teenage fascination with violent pornography led to his becoming “the only man in America with a PhD in serial murder,” it was easy to believe him.

Therefore, to increase your presentation’s chances with the public, hire an expert, an attractive model or highly likeable spokesperson. If none is available, methods like arguing against your own self-interest can increase your believability. Other ways exist as well. If you’d like to learn more about bolstering your chances of having audiences pay attention to your messages and act on them, please email me at