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How to Use Social Proof to Win Over Risk-Averse Bosses

Posted by Alex Chamberlain

Alex Chamberlain is a writer for ERA Environmental Management Solutions.

This article is part 4 of our 5-part "Pitch Perfect Technique" series on the psychology of getting executive buy in for your EH&S projects. If you missed any part of the series, you can  click these links to read part one, part two, or part three. 

environmental social proofThroughout the last few weeks we've been discussing our "Pitch Perfect" Technique for getting your environmental management project approved and supported by your organization's executives. The technique harnesses the six psychologist-support principles of influence to make your EH&S pitches more persuasive.

Previous articles in this series have covered:

  1. The science behind the Pitch Perfect Technique and why it works
  2. Using the Bottom Line to boost your Reciprocity and Likability factors
  3. How Decision Making and Data Management make you an Authority

In part four of this series we’ll introduce the last step in the Pitch Perfect Technique and show you how using it can change the minds of even the most risk-averse executives.

In fact, we believe getting this step right is a make-or-break moment for any project pitch. If you’re missing out on this step, convincing your boss will get exponentially harder.

Introducing Step 3 of our Pitch Perfect Technique…

Step Three: Crowd Out Resistance with Proven Case Studies

Even the most daring executives dislike the risks of funneling profits into an unproven project or idea. As we mentioned in the first part of this series, executives are prone to saying “no” much more than “yes”, because saying yes means inviting in risk and putting their own success on the line.

Convincing an executive to say yes requires minimizing their perception of the risks and focus on the rewards. In most cases, executives are looking for some kind of guarantee that they aren’t wasting their time or misplacing their trust.

The most compelling way of creating a sense of security and mitigated-risk is to present case studies and testimonials from other businesses that have experienced a similar problem and gotten good results from a solution identical or similar to yours.

Since it’s always the riskiest position to be the first business to try something, demonstrating to your boss that your project is founded on proven experiences that has data to back them up is a smart move for overcoming fear of risk and resistance to change.

In fact, even if your project is the first in the world to attempt something, you can rely on case studies that are related to your topic. For example, the first business ever to install solar panels would have been able to use case studies from laboratory testing of solar panels and from aother businesses that turned to any other type of alternative green energy.

While these case studies would not be an exact 1:1 match, they would help establish that there is a proven business case for the project. They would provide some form of social proof.

The Psychology Behind Why Case Studies Work

Social proof is one of the six principles of influence, and it can make or break a pitch. If there’s no social proof supporting your idea, then you will have only your likeability and authority to work with. Social proof is how you multiply your influence – instead of just having your own word carrying the burden of proof, you will be able to tap into the influence of others.

Think of it this way: for each third party you use as a case study or to provide a testimonial, you will bring in their own weight on each of the six principles of influence. A case study can carry a certain authority and be more likeable than others (meaning it’s more similar to your own business). By using social proof, you can multiply your influence in these two areas beyond the limits of your own individual authority and likeability.

Find other business that are similar to your own either in business model, the problem they faced, or the solution they used (the more similar they are in each case, the stronger your social proof will be), and present them as case studies as part of your pitch.

Don’t overwhelm your executives with case studies. The point is to show them that the benefits have been shown to outweigh the risks. Like with your own internal data, there’s no need to delve deeply into the details – a simple chart or strong sentence testimonial will do the trick.

In some cases, you can even show just the logos of other businesses that had good results using your solution on a slide that says “all these businesses used Solution X and had a solid ROI”. This tactic works well if you’re trying to get your business on track with a EH&S trend that many other have adopted or if the executives are concerned your idea is just for a niche market.

Showing that a large number of other businesses have adopted a similar solution is a small but effective way of demonstrating consensus.

One tactic we always use it to provide your executives with some crisp and strong statements about the solution that really speak to your business’ particular pain points. For example, if your business struggles with paying noncompliance fines, a testimonial about how your case study eliminated all compliance fines will definitely capture your boss’s attention (especially if you’ve done your job properly and outlined how your Bottom Line will improve).

Another effective strategy is to pinpoint industry trends that you want to join in on. For example, EH&S studies that get published every year or so can be gold mines of industry trend information that can be used to create compelling arguments using social proof.

For example, a March 2012 Aberdeen study found that 91% of executives agree that EH&S data should be easily available to decision makers – this statistic can easily be integrated into the pitch for a project that improves EHS data management since it provides your boss with social proof from a group of familiar peers.

Making the Most of Your Case Studies and Testimonials

A few guidelines to use when including testimonials and case studies in your pitch (which you should):

  • The more similar to your own situation they are, the more influence they will have.
  • The best source to get quotes and testimonials is from your solution provider. The best ones will come with many references that they are able to share with you, both to prove their own value and to help you make your own case.
  • Don’t be afraid to highlight case studies from your direct competitors. The need to keep up with the competition and not get left behind can be a powerful motivator (this also harnesses the power of scarcity – more on that in a moment).
  • Testimonials should only be a few (1-3) sentences long. Feel free to edit them down to just the most pressing points. Just don’t alter the message of the original quote.
  • Keep case studies short in your pitch or otherwise they’ll overwhelm your project. It’s better to present brief summaries that fit on a single slide and have a longer version available if anyone asks to read it later.

Some EH&S managers are afraid to look at case studies from direct competitors because they are afraid of getting bogged down in business politics and possibly offending an executive. While you should always be careful not to imply that your business is inferior to competitors or that management would be making a mistake by not supporting your idea, shining a spotlight on industry trends that include your competitors can be a good method of applying the scarcity factor.

There is only so much room in the market, which means that your business’s position in the food chain is based on scarce resources. If your competitors have the leg up in the market because of an EHS project they have undertaken, your executives have a valid reason to act.

The secret when using this type of scarcity is not to turn your presentation into a high pressure sell. Executives will increase their resistance if they feel like they’re being told what to do. The best approach is to supply the case study as one of many case studies and present it as a piece of business intelligence that the executives might care to know about. Be sure to avoid office politics or placing blame in any way.

Case studies and testimonials can be used at varying points in your pitch. When it comes to justifying why you want to implement a new program, you might show that there’s an industry trend taking place along with your Bottom Line explanation about why a change is needed. When presenting your solution, you might show the logos of others who have taken the same path. When you begin to close the deal by showing how great the project’s ROI is, you can share one or two testimonials that emphasize the ROI that others have experienced.

Use Supporting Opinions From Within Your Company

You are more likely to have more success in getting buy-in for your idea if you have other key players in the business on your side. Having a manager from another department supporting your idea is another powerful form of social proof.

When you were looking at the ROI and Bottom Line impact of your project for Step One of the Pitch Perfect Technique, you probably came across some areas that could have a positive impact for other departments.

Now is the time to get those potential beneficiaries on your side. Explain how your project will make them more profitable and their lives easier, and ask for their help in getting the project approved. In most cases, this just means asking them to let you refer to them as a supporter during your pitch.

Just as you may choose to include a list of case studies or testimonials in your pitch, you might want to include a list of every department that will see some form of benefit.

Not only will this build more social proof into your pitch, it will increase the breadth of the ROI (Return On Investment) you can present to your boss (which you first developed in Step One of the Pitch Perfect Technique.

Remember, the more authority the more useful their voice will be as social proof. There’s no point in getting a low-level employee’s name attached to a project.

However, if you can convince a VP of sustainability or Public Relations to back your idea, it will be significantly stronger. It is definitely worth the work to get an authoritative figure on board before you pitch it to the top rung of the corporate ladder.

It might happen while you are trying to get authoritative internal voices to back you up that you mutually decide it would be better for the more authoritative person to pitch the idea to executives, or for you to pitch the project together. It will all depend on the balance of authority and expertise.

Pitching with someone is also a powerful tactic, because their own interest watching you take your turn pitching will subconsciously signal the rest of your audience to pay closer attention. Or, if one of you has more authority in the financial side of things, that person could make a stronger case for the ROI at the close while you demonstrate why your idea is needed.

There’s nothing wrong with these types of scenarios, since your end goal should be to get the project approved, not just to be 100% in charge of every aspect of the project. Compromise might just be the tool that makes your project a reality.

In the Next Part of the Series…

Now that you have all the steps of the Pitch Perfect Technique under your belt and are as prepared as you can possibly be, we’ll share with you the most important things to keep in mind during your actual pitch and explain the psychology of your audience so that you know exactly how to best influence them.

To make sure you don’t miss out on the important last part of this series, remember to subscribe using the link below.

Click here to subscribe to this series

 

ERA Environmental Alex

About the Author: Alex Chamberlain is a writer and blogger who regularly contributes to ERA Environmental Management Solutions' blog. You can find Alex on Google+LinkedIn & ERA's Environmental Compliance Blog

Topics: Environmental Compliance & Data Management, Emissions Management

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