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What Neuroimaging Tells Us about Trust and Pricing

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richardsonsalestrainingMarch 15, 2018Blog

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Dr. Angelika Dimoka wanted to know more about how the brain functions under trust and distrust. So, she designed a study and found a few willing participants to subject themselves to a brain scan. Their compensation: $35.

With MRI technology, she was able to see images of brain activity based on blood flow changes. One of her findings was that “the brain areas associated with trust and distrust adequately predict price premiums.” This has important implications for sales professionals because in an increasingly competitive marketplace, it’s become difficult to protect the full value of the sale. Customers, with greater access to information and buying options, are demanding lower prices. Meanwhile, as differentiation diminishes, sales professionals have few places to go. Too often, they reduce the scope of the sale to meet pricing demands, or they relinquish valuable terms. Fortunately, Dr. Dimoka’s work offers some interesting ways for sales professionals to overcome this challenge.

After exhaustively reviewing the scans, she learned that “the neural correlates of distrust are stronger predictors of price premiums than those of trust.” What does this mean? It tells us that distrust is, in fact, likely to have a bigger effect on price than trust.

Why is this?

The answer may be hidden in the fact that additional research shows that “distrust usually involves a strong emotional component while trust does not.” These strong emotions invigorate the customer to hold firm on their demands for a lower cost. In more extreme cases, it provokes them to walk away entirely. However, distrust is much more than the absence of trust. For sales professionals, avoiding the characteristic of distrust is just as important as fostering trust. Moreover, “low distrust is not the same as high trust,” because the two are such independent constructs.

The question remains: given the clarity of these findings, how can sales professionals avoid distrust to preserve the financial value of the sale? Here are a few ways to earn trust:

Foster a Relationship of Openness

In a piece published in The Journal of Consumer Research, Harvard Professor Leslie K. John and others found that using less formality in asking for sensitive information yielded better results. Sales professionals, therefore, should foster a relationship and openness rather than resort to formality that distances one another. This idea does not mean taking a casual approach to the sale. Sales professionals still need to execute plenty of preparation and follow through. Rather, the takeaway from this research is that there is value in developing a relationship with a customer to a point in which the conversation flows. Reaching this point requires the sales professional to gain more self-awareness. That is, they must observe their presence and understand not only how they appear to themselves, but how they appear to the customer.

Rise to the Status of an Adviser

Less than half of customers believe that sellers adequately address their problems, according to Gallup. Why? Too often, the sale is characteristic of a transaction and nothing more. Once completed, the relationship ends. Meanwhile, the original nature of the challenge changes; therefore, the solution must change. This trend underscores the need for longer-term solutions, which can only come from sales professionals who rise to the status of a trusted adviser. Customers develop trust when they see that the sales professional will remain a resource through implementation and beyond. Doing so means taking the time to understand impending industry challenges while keeping communication open with the customer. When the sales professional becomes a trusted adviser, the customer seeks their opinion and offers access to more senior-level decision makers. Value doesn’t just reside in the product; it resides in the relationship.

Demonstrate Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness becomes a competitive advantage when it’s applied to interactions with the customer. In these instances, the sales professional takes the time to understand customer needs. They do this by asking questions and truly listening to their answers. As a result, the relationship becomes less transactional and more collaborative. Taking this approach offers an advantage because so many other businesses have built their models around volume rather than value. Conscientious sales professionals uncover the customer’s conception of the problem. Buyers today are bombarded with opinions and options. There can be a multitude of ways to solve an issue, and navigating the best path is challenging. As a result, customers may misunderstand the nature of their needs. They misdiagnose the problem.

The strongest sellers take the time to determine if the customer has fallen into this trap. The intention is not to agree on all points; it is to understand all points. Sales professionals can overcome this inertia by eliciting feedback. Without this kind of exchange, it’s difficult to gauge how well the solution will fit the need. Purchasing decisions are inherently emotional. The customer has professional and financial stakes in play. A thorough sales professional understands these stakes and how they connect to the customer’s world. Therefore, they foster openness to keep the customer talking.


As Dr. Dimoka’s work shows, distrust is a powerful, emotional response that has an even bigger influence over price than trust. Therefore, sales professionals need to be cognisant of how to avoid missteps that may surface distrust. Doing so means encouraging openness in the relationship, earning the status of a trusted advisor, and taking a conscientious approach to every step in the selling process.

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