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Getting Personal

By: John Salustri

Knowing your client means knowing their needs. Personalize your sales pitches to get your deal over the plate

Talk about applying behavioral science to improve your sales pitches, and the eyes of experienced brokers may start to glaze over. But as wonky as it sounds, what we’re really talking about here is how people behave and, by extension, how they respond to certain triggers. And that’s right in the wheelhouse of brokers, both experienced and novice.

“People hear behavioral science, and they think of lab coats and test tubes,” says Nancy Harhut, chief creative officer at HBT Marketing in Boston, Mass. “But if we can use our understanding of how people behave to nudge them in a certain direction, why wouldn't we use that?”

Harhut, who last year authored Using Behavioral Science in Marketing (Kogan Page, publisher), would tell skeptical brokers to give some of the techniques a try. “All of us in business, whether young or old, have a tendency to rely on decision making shortcuts,” says Harhut. “We’re hardwired that way to conserve mental energy.” Tapping into those mental shortcuts can increase the likelihood that “people will do what you want them to do.”

But isn’t that mere manipulation? “You say manipulation. I say motivation,” Harhut explains. “It would be manipulation if you weren’t telling the truth.”

And what are those personalized mental shortcuts? Speaking generally (since personalization is well, highly personalized), she counts five that we will explore:

  1. Be Very “You” Focused
  2. Trigger Autonomy Bias
  3. Add an Element of Scarcity
  4. Introduce an Authority
  5. Present Both Rational and Emotional Justifications.


Not “you” as in yourself. In fact that’s exactly what you want to avoid. “You” as in the unique person or company you are conversing with. In other words, ensure your communications are connecting with your target audience and making them feel like you are speaking directly to them, personally. For example, your message shouldn’t be about what you think your company can offer them, but instead about identifying and understanding what they need, and then ultimately how you can help.

For John Culbertson, SIOR, managing partner of Cardinal Real Estate Partners in Charlotte, N.C., an important distinction first needs to be made. “You don't make pitches to get business,” he explains. “You ask great questions to show interest and build trust. Then you can make an informed pitch.”

And what sort of questions would those be?

“Let’s say you as a potential client are looking back over the past three years,” says Culbertson. “What happened in that time to make you feel good about your progress?” Making the conversation about them rather than about you (Harhut’s #1 tool) engages them, he says; it gets them to talk and provides insights to their needs, their successes, and their worries.

If they don’t answer such questions, “I’m done,” he says. “They didn’t answer because they don’t see us meeting two or three years from now.” If it’s a positive conversation, however, it could last two or three hours, after which Culbertson will draft a letter, enumerating the points brought up in the chat, and propose solutions–the pitch. It also sends a subtle message. The letter shows that you were listening. “And if they know you were listening, you’re more apt to gain their trust,” which is at a premium, he says, in the often-suspect commercial brokerage field.

You don't make pitches to get business. You ask great questions to show interest and build trust. Then you can make an informed pitch.

But, as Shanghai-based Bjarne Bauer, SIOR, suggests, tread lightly here. “Often, less is more,” says the managing partner at NAI Sofia Group. “Identify one major pain point this client is focusing on.” Throwing a lot of benefits, advantages, or concerns into the mix can often be a distraction, he states.

Bauer tells of a client who was “very afraid” of transactional delays due to the penalties involved. “In each meeting, the client wanted to be reassured that avoiding these penalties was our top priority, and he didn’t want to hear about any other advantages. Of course, we made sure the deal was also financially attractive, but we didn’t distract him from his main concern.” As stated above, demonstrating your understanding of the things that matter most “creates trust and gives the client a feeling of safety in what they perceive as a lot of unknowns.”


When communicating, use language that triggers a desired behavior and reinforces how the client wants to be seen. “We’re talking about our deep-seated desire to exercise some sort of control,” explains Harhut. “Any way a broker can make the client feel they’re in control is a win.”

This could be as easy as providing a couple of choices for the client to select, (both of which are choices you’d be happy for them to choose) allowing them to feel in control and not forced. Also giving a choice, such as this location or that, “can nearly quadruple the possibility that people will make a buying decision, based on research from Tulane University.”


Tap into fear and loss aversion. People are afraid to lose and likely to avoid pain. Harhut explains that understanding people’s motivations can have measurable effects. For instance, she cites research from trailblazing psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, revealing that “People are twice as motivated to avoid the pain of loss than to achieve the pleasure of gain. It circles back to the idea of scarcity.”

Many people are motivated by something that’s hard to get or a deal that won’t be around much longer. This also applies to research data. If we share intel “that our customer feels isn’t widely available, it gives them the feeling of inside information,” says Harhut.


“Ever since we were young, we’ve been taught to recognize authority,” says Harhut.” Needless to say, in this business, the broker is the expert. Referrals and expert opinions carry a lot of weight in this digital age of readily available information.

Knowing what makes your client tick is obviously key, made more so by the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the disruption, Culbertson would have put the success rate of his approach near to 100%. “Things have changed,” he says. “It’s harder post-COVID to develop relationships with people. How do you do that when they don’t want to be with you?”

He references a 2020 Harvard Business Review article that tracked that isolationist shift, reporting that 50% of B2B buyers are holding their water on going forward with deals. It’s a state of affairs that remains today, especially given the current interest-rate environment.

The article also prescribed workarounds. “Engaging with prospects’ social posts, writing handwritten letters and giving strategic, genuine gifts within your company’s ethical guidelines are all smart tactics for staying top of mind,” author Jeff Winters writes. In fact, Cardinal stays close to their clients with such devices as newsletters and even books, “providing as much free information as possible.” Even with post-COVID hesitations, he estimates only one in 10 prospects will fail to answer his pre-pitch questions.

Disruptions such as those brought about by a global pandemic are one reason that behavioral science–whatever you want to call it, or not call it–can boost your success rate. “We always try to improve on all aspects of our outreach,” says Bauer, including better data, better communication, better research. Not shying away from the wonky sound of science, he notes that “Using data, a scientific approach and new digital tools to even better understand a client’s situation certainly does benefit the overall success rate.”


“Of course, real estate is mostly about square feet and pricing,” Harhut notes, “but it’s also about the satisfaction of a major transactional win, or simply looking good for the boss. Don’t forget the emotional side of the equation.”

When communicating, remember to consider how the target audience will feel, and what emotional goal you are trying to achieve (whether that be trust, respect, appreciation, concern, etc.)

So, does the concept of behavioral science in your day-to-day activities make you yawn? No matter what you call it, there’s always room to learn, in the words of Harhut, to enhance your success rate. “The brokers who are achieving success know how to make a perfect pitch.”



Media Contact
Alexis Fermanis SIOR Director of Communications
John Salustri
John Salustri
Salustri Content Solutions

John Salustri is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions. Contact him at jsal.scs@gmail.com.