Salesmen and Criminals

When I was 17 I signed up to my first ever phone contract. I was spending way too much money on top-up cards from newsagents and I thought a contract would be a good way to help reduce my costs.

I went into an Orange store where I was approached by a salesman. He asked me a few questions about what I wanted and then told me that the company were giving away a free Xbox 360 on selected contracts.

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BING!! My eyes lit up!

He asked me if any of my friends had Xbox 360s (which many at the time had) and then told me about how I could play online with them. He also informed me of the extensive range of games that were available and described some other impressive features of the console.

It wasn’t until I was fully drawn into the idea of having a free Xbox that he began to mention anything about the prices of Orange’s phone contracts. He told me that I could only get an Xbox on a £40 a month contract that lasted for a minimum of 18 months. By that time I was so entranced by the idea of playing FIFA 07 against people on the other side of the globe that there was no doubt in my mind regarding what decision I should make.

In the end, I spent a ridiculous amount of money and when I got home I began to seriously regret my decision.

Now I would like you to picture another scenario…

A woman is sitting by the window in a café, reading her book. A passer-by stops outside where she is sitting and knocks on the window. The passer-by mimes that he would like to know the time and the lady looks at her watch so she cburglar-thumb8724036an tell him.

As she is doing this a different person in the café walks past her, steals her bag (which is resting on the floor by her seat) and proceeds to leave. The woman has no idea she has been the victim of a robbery until she herself is about to leave.

Is there something similar about these two stories?

Yes there is – both the salesman and the thief took away their target’s attention in order to get what they wanted.

The salesman diverted my attention away from selecting a sensible phone contract by discussing something he could almost guarantee a 17 year-old boy would be interested in. Using exactly the same principle, the thief diverted the attention of the lady in the café away from caring about her bag by giving her something different, and perhaps a little surprising, to concentrate on.

This is known as the distraction principle and works on the theory that “while you are distracted by what retains your interest, hustlers can do anything to you and you won’t notice” (Stajano and Wilson, 2009).

As you can probably tell from the use of the word ‘hustlers’ the distraction principle is used mainly in relation to crime. However I would argue that there are many examples where this principle is used in the world of business.

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Does this mean salespeople are criminals?

No, certainly not.

The Orange salesman didn’t rob from me; in fact he helped me get a nice shiny new Xbox. But he did make me spend a hell of a lot more money that I wanted to.

The 18-month contract cost me £720 in total. This figure is a great deal higher that I would have ideally like to have spent which, in retrospect, would have been around £20 a month (£360 in total). At the time I made this decision an Xbox was worth £249.99 so even if you extract the value of the Xbox, I spent £470.01 on the phone contract. This amount is still much more than what I would have initially wanted to spend; demonstrating how incredibly effective the Xbox promotion was.

Does the distraction principle work everywhere?

At the time of writing there is actually very limited research looking into the distraction principle’s role in business. However, it is clear that it is being used.

As Stajano and Wilson (2009) showed, the distraction principle relies on drawing the customer’s attention away from what they are trying to steal (or in this case, sell). This sounds like it goes against the nature of marketing because marketers are always looking for ways to make people focus on their brands and products (Jansson-Boyd, 2010). Despite this, there are many examples where the distraction principle is being used. Take a look at the video below for instance:

This advert is probably very relevant to many of the people who will see it. In addition, the advert’s friendly tone and helpful nature may make QuickQuid seem like an incredibly good option. However, if you look at the small print at 26 seconds in you will see that the representative APR for a QuickQuid loan is 1734%. This means that people will have an astonishingly large amount to pay back, even if they take out just a small loan. So perhaps QuickQuid is not such a good option after all?

I would argue that the distraction principle works best when it is used in a one-to-one situation by a salesperson. This is because it enables the salesperson to use a distraction to fully engage the customer to the point where they are almost certainly going to make a purchase. This puts the salesperson is a position of power because they can then decide when to inform the customer of what they are really trying to sell. A good example of this is a car salesperson who lures a customer in with a low base charge but then hits them with the delivery charge once they have already committed.

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How can the distraction principle be avoided?

Well I know nothing about how to prevent crime, so I’m not even going to attempt to give any suggestions about that.

In regards to avoiding the distraction principle in a business context, the main thing is to remember that this principle exists. I got caught out in the phone shop because I wasn’t expecting any tricks. I entered the store to buy a phone so the prospect of getting a ‘free’ Xbox was a shock and therefore incredibly exciting. This is exactly what happened to the lady in the café; people don’t often tap on windows to get the time so there was no way she would have been expecting it.

Just by knowing that salespeople will attempt to use this technique makes you slightly more resilient to it. If I had known that the salesman was going to distract me from buying a sensible contract with a fancy deal then I easily could have chosen to avoid it and stayed focused on the task in hand.

So what does this all mean?

It means that salespeople and criminals often use similar tricks to get what they want. Obviously, they are both operating on opposite sides of the law, but the underlying principle remains the same.

The distraction principle is commonly found in sales because salespeople are often fighting for commission. This means that salespeople are likely to use every trick available to them to make a sale. You can’t blame them for this and also can’t really expect them to stop.

However, wouldn’t it be nice to see some transparent salesman techniques as well? For example, the Orange salesman could have worked with me to discover what my budget was and then found me a suitable package, rather than immediately trying to sell me the most expensive contract. True, this probably wont make the company as much money but it would reduce the feeling of regret that I had when I got home. This strategy could even help to generate more repetitive purchasing behaviour.

In summary, my advice is to just simply remember that the distraction principle exists, especially when you are being given your next salespitch. Otherwise you could end up like the boss in this video…

Finally, (just in case you’re interested) the Xbox 360 in question now sits under my TV collecting dust. I never play games on it because it turns out I’m absolutely rubbish. So I just stick to playing football outdoors instead!

As always, I would be delighted to hear your thoughts. Perhaps you have some advice to overcome the distraction principle? Or maybe you think it is a clever technique salespeople are entitled to use? Either way any feedback is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for reading.

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About Think Outside The Cliché

I write blogs that try to encourage people to think differently about their purchasing behaviour. I also write blogs that attempt to show companies that there are often other unconventional ways to conduct business. Whether you are a consumer or a business person there will be definitely be something interesting in my blogs for you. I hope you enjoy them and please remember I always, always appreciate constructive feedback.

8 responses to “Salesmen and Criminals”

  1. scienceandspending says :

    Mentioning perks before prices is certainly a good way to clinch a deal. Reminds me of a time when I ordered what I thought was a free book and an extra for £1.99. They came as expected, but what I didn’t realise was that I had signed myself up for a book club that would cost me £14.99 a month! After emailing the company to withdraw, I was told that I was obliged to stick with the programme for a year before I could opt out. Needless to say I was livid, particularly as I hadn’t seen anything that indicated I was signing up to such a service in the first place. In the end they gave in and gave me a full refund, but what about the people who wouldn’t see their complaint through? Like QuickQuid, they were probably hoping to catch people who didn’t notice what they were signing up for and then feel locked in until they had paid the full amount. Temporal discounting might play a role in consumers’ decision making as having money in the short term is weighted heavier than having to pay it back in the future. You have to wonder how ethical these tactics are, clearly not everyone who signs up for these loans understand how much they are going to be paying back. In my opinion these companies need to be banned. Failing that, they should be held to a much higher level of accountability than they are now.

    • thinkoutsidethecliche says :

      Thanks for your comment.

      Your book club story is an excellent example of the distraction principle being used and I’m really glad you managed to get your money back.

      Like you, I question the ethics of these tactics. I also wonder how many people who fall for the distraction principle actually use the company that used it again. For example, I imagine that you won’t be using the book provider from your story again in a hurry.

      I’m not sure if I agree that these companies should be banned, but I do believe they should be more honest. The solution to the distraction principle is to research exactly what you want to buy before you enter the shop. However, there are some people who don’t have the opportunity to do this (for example, many elderly people do not have access to a computer). I strongly believe that these people shouldn’t be taken to the cleaners simply because they didn’t know about the distraction principle – the salesperson should only try and sell them what they actually need.

  2. consumerscientist says :

    I see where you are coming from. In my previous sales role, (not mentioning companies) I was actively encouraged to gloss over weak points in the product we were selling, if the customer wanted specific information that would damage the chances of a sales, we were told to skim over the topic, is this miss-selling? I’m not sure? Unless you are actually lyeing, any tactic to gain a sale is acceptable in my opinion. Slightly controversial perhaps, but maybe we should learn to do our research better.

  3. greenConsuming says :

    This sales man did his job quite well: he assured a 40£ monthly contract for 18 months, not bad, that is a 720£ income for the company. In my opinion, trying to persuade a 17 years old guy to sign on a contract for that amount and length using a console as an incentive might not be the most ethical way to do it. But, nevertheless, I don’t think the sales man was distracting you with another issue. I think you were completely aware that you would had to pay this money monthly, however he was just adding another value to the contract, and making it more attractive than just paying and receiving communication services for 18 months.

  4. theconsumerbeat says :

    I think the distraction principle probably applies during sales. Especially for products where you have to buy supplementary products. The best example I can think of for this is the sale of Laptops. Shops make little margin on the sale of the laptop itself. There are often sold at or below cost price. Its the extras were they make their huge margin. So, while you’re worrying about the RAM on your laptop, the 80 quid anti-virus sits in your shopping basket already. Not to mention the 3 year extended warranty that they make about 100% profit on.

    Furthermore, salesmen use these ad-ons as another distracting method – I’ll throw in half-price three year warranty and a free laptop case if you buy this (more expensive) model.
    Unfortunately, with the average salesman, its all about hitting your targets, otherwise, their job is in jeopardy. They are not going to stop with their tricks, so consumers need to be extra conscious when dealing with them.

  5. wangxuanjun says :

    A very real blog. Distraction principle is a normal promotion used by salesmen. When I bought Nike shoes in UK at first time, they recommended such things like shoes protector and sponge. At first I didn’t understand, after I got home I found that spent much more money, actually I just need a pair of shoes.
    I met the same thing when I was buying a computer. The salesmen recommended the laptop bag, Microsoft Office which worth 100 pounds. At last, I refuse those thing.
    As a consumer, I think that we should figure out what is useful and what do we need. If we have our strong mind, the distraction principle will be useless.

  6. brandforlife says :

    Bundling is a really effective tactic to make consumer buy more than they need. Amazon often do this when you buy a book and they show you two other books which you could buy with it which are “frequently bought together” and they give you a price for all 3.
    Often when you’re online shopping you’ll be offered additional items which compliment your order which you weren’t initially looking for but make logical sense. This is particularly true when trying to book a holiday. I’m a budget traveller so I really only look for 1) the flight 2) the hotel. But this can often take a huge amount of time and effort when searching separately, so you are offered a package deal.These ‘package deals’ can come with travel insurance, airport transfers, luggage allowance, car hire, flexible cancellation options, late check-outs, all-inclusive meals… You want a relaxing holiday so you’ll often choose to spoil yourself but most of these options are expensive when they’re part of a deal and can usually be found cheaper elsewhere! The word “deal” always tricks me though!

  7. amp101 says :

    Another thing I find annoying with sales is add ons. I mean we still are in the middle of people getting refunded the money they spent of payment protection insurance. When you go to buy something expensive these days they always come with warranties, all with small prints that basically make them useless! The problem is education, people just don’t know what they need and because we only get a phone contract every year or two, we aren’t experts we trust in the salesman who’s only goals are to make commission and please his boss!

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