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Sales Psychology – Tapping the neuroscience of trust

Do you trust me?

Trust is everything. Entrepreneurs are merchants of trust. More than any other group, except perhaps therapists. So this topic is near and dear to my heart.

Entrepreneurs need trust like a fish needs water – in deal making, customer satisfaction, investment and more.

Cutting edge research has put a spotlight on trust and everything that matters in business.

For the first time ever, we can now reveal the precise factors that spark trust in human minds. The minds of our customers. Trust at a chemical level.

This may affect your marketing/capital-raising/sales strategy. Read on…  

Enter Paul Zak, neuro-economist and researcher, whom I was lucky to have lunch with last Saturday. Props to Nick Tarascio for making it happen.

Here’s what Fast Company had to say about the guy’s work:

In a series of studies spanning nine years, Zak has changed our understanding of human beings as economic animals. 

Oxytocin is the key. 

Known for years as the hormone forging the unshakable bond between mothers and their babies, oxytocin is now, thanks largely to Zak, recognized as the human stimulant of empathy, generosity, trust, and more. 

It is, Zak says, the “social glue” that adheres families, communities, and societies, and as such, acts as an “economic lubricant” that enables us to engage in all sorts of transactions. Zak is a walking advertisement for oxytocin; his vanity license plate reads OXYTOSN, and he hugs virtually everyone he meets. 

The hugging isn’t just a gimmick. I got the chance to listen to Zak speak at length on the subject and hugging, like social media interaction, is one of the simple actions that boosts oxytocin levels. And this guy has the lab results to back that up.

Zak’s research has proven that high oxytocin levels facilitate trust that not only bonds mating pairs, it also aids in commerce.

The implications for business are huge. At one end, Zak’s economic theories suggest that high oxytocin levels increase trust across large populations. His idea is that economic growth relies on overall levels of trustworthiness and that therefor the wealthiest nations consist of those with the highest oxytocin levels.

Love, it seems, creates wealth.

How to create neurological trust

What Zak’s research shows us is that human connection, as real and tactile as possible, boosts oxytocin levels. When your customer’s oxytocin levels are high, they’re more likely to trust you and buy your stuff. It’s simple.

The archetype of business success in the 20th century was the faceless corporate monolith – the aging, wheezing remains of which we still see today.

McDonalds, Microsoft, Walmart and all the big brands were founded on the principal of “as little humanity as possible”. Absolutely everything that couldn’t be totally automated was documented so rigidly that staff might as well be robots. Or at least idiots. Luckily for the captains of industry, idiots aren’t hard to find.

The emerging science around oxytocin indicates there is a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs.

By building businesses geared to increase the “human” component, we can make our customers feel more connected. Not less. Social Media and the internet let us scale this connection.

The more connected to our customers we are, the more oxytocin they produce. Customers  bathed in oxytocin spend generously and feel great about it.

As the blog reading, social media savvy entrepreneur that you probably are… you might think you have this principal locked down. You’re already doing this, right?

Are we? The de-humanizing habits of entrepreneurs are hard to break.

To humanize is to build a business around people. Why then do we work so hard to think up that perfect business name or logo? 

Would your face and name be more oxytocin inducing than yet another slick piece of graphic design?

Should The Shrink for Entrepreneurs be more “Peter Shallard” than anything else?

I’m sitting, writing this article in a Manhattan apartment. My shiny computer monitor has to be propped up on three copies of Michael Ellsberg’s “Education of a Millionaire”…. because it’s low angle was hurting my neck earlier. I had chicken wings and some mango for lunch and cleaned my entire apartment while thinking about how to write this article.

I’m a human. My name is Peter. Do you feel it?

Is that more real than whatever the spectacles-and-pen, golden wallpaper design of my site made you think?

As a writer, it’s easy for me to humanize. I just have to be real. Creating a human, oxytocin-a-licious connection is much more difficult for big businesses.

Customer service staff trained in “processes” become automatons. Ditto sales people following a script. We, the customers, have to feel like someone cares enough to connect.

“The personal touch” has a neurological reaction that is proven to make us open our wallets.

Entrepreneurs take heed. Account for oxytocin in your marketing plan!

Take a look at Paul Zak’s TED talk on Oxytocin, Trust and Morality… then let me know what you think in the comments below.


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  1. The question you raise about branding is interesting. To me, a brand reflects the person behind the business.

    Hi. I’m James… from Men with Pens.

    And if you walk over to Men with Pens, there are aspects of the design that convey who *I* am. Bold. A little in your face. Confident. Straightforward.

    Your design reflects you, Peter. Mysterious. Elegant. Knowledgeable. Intelligent.

    So brand, to me, *should* equal the person behind it and let that person’s being shine through.

    It’s a little difficult when you get a company as large as Apple, but didn’t Steve Jobs fit right into Apple’s business brand and personality?

    That said, you have a darlin’, charming face, boy-o, and it’s nice to see it splashed around. 😉

  2. When I started consulting twenty years ago I filled out a DBA and did business under a business name. I would send invoices out to my clients under that name, had business cards printed with the business name, all of that.

    The thing is, my customers (who were all small businesses) would write checks out in my name and never in the name of my business.

    So, I just went with the flow and renamed my business to my name. It was by my name, it seemed, that my customers knew, not by the name of my business.

    I’m not sure this relates directly to the article. Seems that it might and I thought I’d mention it.


    1. Right on Mike. I think as a consultant, people are far more likely to connect with the human you, versus some stuffy attempt at corporate branding. My experience is similar!

  3. Hi, I’m Conor. My dad is a very successful, wealthy business man and I spent the first 34 years of my life trying to be a success in his shadow. It was only recently that something changed me and I no longer seek that path.

    I think our exchanges of emails have gone a long way to build a sense of the human being behind the blog, the Shrink for Entrepreneurs… or importantly the sense that you and I have a connection slightly (not much, but slightly) beyond reader and blogger.

    Charles Green’s Trust equation is a powerful addition to this post. I wrote an answer on Quora that explains the Trust Equation:

    But, maybe more hugs are needed. Will work that into my sales pitch tomorrow 😉

  4. Peter, I already loved you for your 5-star enlightening articles.

    Now after reading the paragraph about your day, I love you even more… as well as all human beings (including myself) for being, well, human.

    It really is beautiful. To connect. To be vulnerable. To be comfortable in our own skin. Thank you for this article!


  5. Thanks for your thinking and Paul Zacs TED talk Peter really inspiring.

    I notice connections in my life are sparked by moments of empathy.
    An understanding of and the desire to connect to what others say or do. Caring enough to respond, reach out and contribute.
    Now I’ll be able to look at those as my oxytocin moments and truly value them.

    When reaching out to hug someone is done on a blog as an article by Peter Shallard –
    It might only look like words – but the oxytocin moments still happen.
    So thanks Peter.

    Of course we all relate to you as a measure of what matters in our own worlds. For me it’s that you are a bright articulate + clear thinking kiwi entrepreneur doing GREAT stuff so we all can shine – yes I’d like to see you wearing an all blacks jersey in your header but hey who’s going to know what that is in New York!!

    Now I feel like turning up the ipod as I head to work -It’ll be Depeche Mode cranking out – ‘your own personal Jesus- reach out and touch faith!’ just ’cause its a rocking tune – I’m not a Jesus freak.
    See sharing ad caring – the perfect mix !
    Yeah right!

  6. The big blue eyes, beard scruff, and hint of a grin on your About page are great for showing the person. You need both, I think, Person and Brand. Brand is “What I Do For You”, and Person is “Here’s Who I Am and What I Care About”.

    So I think you have the mix right to build trust. I am constantly rewriting “third person” bios for websites I build. They have to be written from “I”, and then I beg for a pic with a smile (and maybe a dog) instead of stuffy headshots.

    Any site for an entrepreneur (especially solopreneur) that tries to be all corporate misses out on the leverage that relationship can create. And it generally doesn’t work.

  7. Peter,
    Your article changed something in me as to the direction I’ve been going in with my articles. I’ve been trying so hard to be and sound professional that I’ve removed me from the equation. I was emulating the corporate voices I grew up with. Reading your article showed me what has been missing from my writtings.
    Thank you

  8. Condition I’ve ever seen in all the years of my practice.” I always had to be helped in and out of cars to go to the hospital, and did so in the last year and a half regularly sat in a wheelchair .. In the hospital, I had MRIs, CT scans, intestinal tubes, stomach probes: I’m hey-le-times turned inside out and examined .

  9. Meditation is the profound dwell in mind upon an idea or subject with the purpose to understand it completely and that in which you constantly think you will not only begin to understand completely but you will go more and more out matches because it will you identified and will finally become your whole being..

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