Blog 6: Understanding the Neuroscience of Sales


By Mark Erskine, Director & Owner of Seller Performance & LIFO Master Trainer & Coach

“If you have read a new business book, done executive training or attended a leadership summit recently, you have probably seen a slide, diagram or animation of the human brain.
Excitement about neuroscience is high. Where it intersects with leadership studies, it is lighting up the prefrontal cortex of coaches, marketers and executives” Financial Times, April 2015

As the Buying landscape changes sales people need new tools to gain that competitive edge. Understanding Neuroscience – the study of the brain and nervous system – is a vital ingredient in that journey.

Although we may like to consider ourselves and our customers intelligent rational and logical in reality most of our thoughts and feelings that exert an influence on us occur in the primitive unconscious areas of the brain – logic forms a small part of the decision making process. To tap into that we really do need to understand how the brain works:

Essentially there are three parts to the brain which have evolved over time:

  1. The Reptilian Brain – the oldest part – focuses on survival. It essentially acts as a gatekeeper – screening out anything that is irrelevant unless it is useful or valuable right now or if it relates to threat or danger
  2. The Emotional Brain – often referred to as the Mammalian brain. This is where emotions are generated. This part is again unconscious and reacts instinctively without thought in real time. It is sometimes called the truthful brain. It has a great impact on the third part of the brain – the Rational Brain – which is why emotional arousal dominates and controls thinking.
  3. The Rational Brain – the newest part of the brain made up of the cortex and neocortex –is the thinking and intellectual brain – analysing and interpreting data. There are key functions it manages: sensory information, integrating the signals into patterns, languages and images and making sense of data. It then creates plans and ideas and generates actions.

We have two hemispheres of the brain which interconnect with each other instantly. This led to the theory – now known to be a myth in many ways – that one half focuses on logic and the other on creativity. Professor Simon Barren Cohen does state however that “the right hemisphere is predominantly hard wired for empathy and the left for systemizing”.

Billions of neutrons are connected by bundles nerve cell fibres called the corpus callous transmitting information between them. Some research indicates the corpus callous is more developed in females with more neutrons connecting enabling them to process information between the hemispheres better.

The Pre-frontal cortex just behind the forehead the last part of the brain to evolve, is what gives us humans advantage over other species as it acts to restore balance in times of stress.

One other area of research discovered by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolati is that of mirror neurons. He discovered that when someone watches someone doing something they automatically simulate the physical and emotional action in the brain. If we can stimulate these they allow us to connect as humans – they can literally sit in our shoes and we theirs!

So what does this all mean in terms of selling? Professor Gerald Zaltman from Harvard sums it up perfectly:

“In reality our emotions are interwoven with reasoning processes. Although are brains have separate structures for processing emotions and logical reasoning, the two systems communicate with each other and jointly affect behaviour. Even more important, the emotional system – the older of the two in terms of evolution – typically exert the first force on our thinking and behaviour. Emotions are essential for and contribute to sound decision-making. Decision making hinges on simultaneous functioning of reason and emotion”

Everything you do in life is based on the brain’s determination to minimise danger or maximise reward – but the “away drive” is stronger and faster. The brain doesn’t just treat physical things as danger – loss or control, loss of approval or status, imposed change – all encourage people to avoid change. Conversely powerful motivations like approval, certainty, happiness and contentment are strong influencers.

Selling techniques like “solution” or “consultative” selling have become hugely popular over the past 25 years. This more consultative, collaborative style is thought to counter the stereotypical “pushy” sales sterotype. But this softer, style has, in my eyes, meant many sellers have lost their edge in appealing to a buyer’s emotions. People need to feel the implication and pain of not acting and the personal reward and emotional benefits of choosing a new product or service

Furthermore when sellers in days gone by, were used to selling, to what can be best described as “user buyers’ (those responsible for the use and supervision of your products and services) they would come across an even spread of preferred orientations. Now confronted with professional buyers – who will typically have logic, process and method and structure as a strong preference (Conserving orientation) – intuitively matching and mirroring behaviour won’t really cut the mustard!

Sellers need to do it far more consciously and learn specific rules of engagement to really connect – adapting their energy levels, body language , the words they use and their communication style. Then when they do get to face-to-face customer interaction, they can use emotional triggers to influence and persuade even the most hard-nosed procurement professionals. They are, after all, just human beings with the same brain functions and processes.

Coming up…

Tomorrow’s blog is all about ‘Understanding your own behavioural profile’ To view previous posts in this #Capitalise blog series click here. For any direct enquiries, contact

Sales Innovation Expo 2017. 28-29 March, Excel London. Seller Performance exhibiting and Mark Erskine guest speaking. Theatre 9, Tuesday 14:45, Wednesday 12:30. Free tickets still available.
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