Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

NLP In Purchasing

Dr Richard Bolstad

The New Science Of Purchasing

The internet is not only influencing the world of retail purchasing; its structure is reflecting a huge change in the culture within which retailing occurs. Internet customers expect us to permit them to select and decide from the safety of their own home, rather than in direct discussion with our sales staff. In the same way, metaphorically, they pay less attention to our claims and more attention to their own outcomes. When other outlets are just a mouse click away, their loyalty cannot be so easily bought by bonus coupons. Chris Anderson is the editor of "Wired" internet sales magazine, and author of "The Long Tail", a book on the new niche markets. He says "In the bricks-and-mortar world, all customers experience the same store. In the online world, it's possible for each customer to experience a different store, uniquely customized to his or her profile and experiences. A store ordered on the fly to suit customers' preferences and guide them to what they want is a friendlier store." (Anderson, 2006, p 53).

In a sense, several new sciences have been brought to bear on this new purchasing environment. They reveal the high level of uncertainty and subtle human variability which retailers deal with when the customer rules. I am intentionally using the word "purchasing" rather than the word "sales" to emphasize the shift in focus.

Firstly, psychology is changing the computer science behind the internet is itself changing. Ironically, when people use machines, an understanding of human skills becomes even more important. A huge drive is underway to make machines seem more and more human; because people respond better to humans than to machines. This has shifted the focus of computer programmers back to the subtle details of interpersonal interaction. Interactive programs are now being taught "to recognize and align with their users' emotional states" (Daviss, 2005, p 42). For example, they feature images of people who adjust their facial expression to suit the words the user says, and who make reflective verbal acknowledgements, rather than just giving mechanical instructions. Stanford University computer scientist Clifford Nass explains "In anything you do and every decision you make, emotion plays a role. The human brain is so exquisitely attuned to emotion, so obsessed with it and so good at detecting it, that even the slightest markers of emotion can have an enormous impact on how the brain behaves."

Secondly, the new science of complex systems (called "chaotic systems") has revealed the turbulent world in which retail decisions occur. In studying the application of chaotic systems theory to business, John Legge (1990, p33-45) points out that salespeople often want to know what is the "correct" sales pitch for a particular market. They hope that a simple ABC rule can guide their decisions. In reality, the most successful sales pitch for a market often appeals to only 20% of customers in that market (but 20% is better than 19%). This is because the market is a chaotic (highly complex) system. It is not tidily organised into boxes but is more like a forest, a stream or any other complex natural phenomenon. One point for salespeople is that if you are wanting to enter that market, copying the most successful current sales pitch may be wasting your energy. It may be easier to find another sizeable group of customers (say 16%) who respond to a totally different pitch. By accepting that the market is more complex; that there is no "one right way", you open up more possibilities for success. Another feature of complex systems is their incredible sensitivity to tiny changes, such as those the computer programmers are studying by modelling human emotional responses.

Neuro Linguistic Programming is a field which combines elements of both systems theory and psychology. It studies how the highest achievers in any context are using their brains to get their remarkable results. This study has generated literally thousands of new understandings about the structure of success in fields as diverse as education, psychotherapy, sports, management, medicine and sales. For salespeople, there are three main areas of NLP research which I want to introduce here. The Bibliography at the end gives a range of choices for deeper reading about these, and you can find out about NLP trainings on my internet site at www.transformations.net.nz.

NLP In Sales 1: Creating a Powerful State-of-Mind

In a transcript of his training for salespeople, NLP co-developer Richard Bandler emphasizes what most of us know: the core sales skill is not "How do I sell this product to the customer?" but "How do I sell myself to myself?" He says "So, to begin with, there're some things that you need to do with yourself first. I mean if you wake up in the morning and go, "Oh no, not another day at work (grrr)", that's not going to work real well". We did an experiment in this furniture store in California. It's a big chain. They own furniture stores all over the place and I had some success in the furniture business teaching salesmen. We did an experiment; one day of training. And they have two stores, they had one on one side of the freeway and one on the other side of the freeway. We went in and trained the guys from one side of the freeway for one day. And for the next month they increased their close ratio between 10 and 50%. Just one day of training, by teaching them to do things like enjoy their work." (Bandler and La Valle, 1996, p 31, 45)

Feeling confident and just "enjoying the job" has a profound effect. Bruce McIntyre, manager of the highly successful New Zealand company Macpac Wilderness Equipment, was interviewed by NLP Master Practitioner Lawrence Green. McIntyre explained "Years ago I was scared shitless of visiting retailers and speaking to them on the phone. I used to hate sales trips. It takes huge courage to grow beyond the fears we are taught in our families, by politicians and all around us. But the fears are not real, it is just imagination. A lot of it has to do with becoming much more confident in being who I am." (Green and Campbell, 2004, p 99). In such situations, what NLP delivers is the "how to" that shows you how to run your brain so that the imagination of fear doesn't create problems. Rather than suffering for years to "grow beyond fears", it is possible to "reprogram the brain" in a few minutes! Sometimes the techniques can seem simplistic, but the NLP Practitioner has learned exactly where to make the mental shift to enable success.

Here's an example from the field of sports, from my work with top New Zealand triathlete Steve Gurney. Steve says "I'd like to share with you a small but extremely powerful story of how I used mental attitude through Neuro-Linguistic-Programming (NLP), to boost my performance in this year's Coast to Coast. It's a story about turning a negative into to a positive. Converting "worry" into a "challenge"! Instead of being scared of the competition I wanted to "relish in the challenge" I was worried about the mountain run. Despite being a handy runner and getting plenty of run training under my belt I'm not as fast over Goat Pass as Gelately. Historically, I would emerge from the mountain run with a deficit of 8 to 10 minutes on the leader. It then requires a mammoth effort for me to close this gap before the finish line: very stressful! (Of course I could run through the mountains faster than the leaders, but it is a matter of efficiency. I need to carefully pace myself to race at a speed that I can maintain for the entire 11 hours, not just a 3-hour mountain run. I could win the mountain run, but blow up before the race finish line)"

"I enlisted the help of my NLP guru, Richard Bolstad for some help with this one. To summarise, the solution lay in blowing apart my belief that I always trail the lead runners by 10 minutes. Bolstad powerfully pointed out to me that reality is whatever I imagined it to be, and in fact, with a little work I could alter my beliefs to be more powerful and positive. I visualised the lead runner to be "just around the corner" ahead of me, possibly even behind me, and not the dreaded 10 minutes that I was imagining. It worked a treat! I emerged from the run 1 minute ahead of Gelately!! My best mountain run to date!! The mechanism is one of positivity, fun and enjoyment. This releases endorphins and other natural "go-fast" chemicals that enhance focus, concentration and more efficient use of muscles and blood glycogen." (Gurney, 2003)

One of the NLP skills I'm using here with Steve is called reframing: a technique for seeing the situation in your mind as if through a different frame. There was a time when Avis Rental cars was the number two car hirer in the world. That's a problem isn't it? Not being number one. Well, it depends how you "frame" it. Here's what Avis did. They ran an ad campaign that said "Avis Rental cars: we're number two, so we try harder." Now they're number one, and the slogan just says "Avis: we try harder." Pepsi Cola was a latecomer to the world of carbonated drinks, and Coca Cola marketed itself as "Classic". Is being a newcomer a problem? Depends how you frame it. Pepsi nearly wiped Coca Cola out with the slogan "Pepsi: the choice of a new generation."

Another NLP skill I'm using in my work with Steve, in the example above, is what NLP calls anchoring. Anchoring is a way of associating a powerful positive feeling state with some gesture, mental image or word, and then being able to trigger the state whenever you want it just by using the gesture, word or image. Until you experience it, like Steve, its almost impossible to imagine just how effective this is. On the other hand, everyone has had the experience of hearing a song on the radio that they haven't heard for years and years, and as you listen, the whole feeling that you had all those years ago comes back... even the memories of the experience from years ago become more available! That's what NLP calls anchoring. The song becomes an "anchor" holding your brain at the state of mind where it was first set.

The transcript of Bandler's Sales training gives several examples of anchoring in action (Bandler and La Valle, 1996, p39). "Sit down with someone and ask them to just close their eyes for a minute. Now say to them "I want you to remember a time where you were excited". Or "a time where you felt invincible" or whatever it is. And let them remember it. And I want you to see if you can notice it on their face. Now when those things exude to the point where they are maximally expressed, at that point in time, I am going to make a little anchor. Touch them, or make a sound, a gesture, or a word. Now you have them think about something else. Now go back and fire off the anchor for the person. Notice the response come back." As he points out, this is not only a technique for getting yourself into the state of mind you want, it's also a sales pattern. "Now this is my basic sales program: Induce good feeling; attach it to product."

NLP In Sales 2: Rapport

Of course, once you yourself are in a resourceful state of mind, your next interest will be to make a connection with the person making a purchase, to tune into them, to get their perspective on what they want. What helps us do that most powerfully is an extraordinary inbuilt human skill called rapport. Only a decade ago, the NLP model of how to create instant rapport with any customer seemed just one theory. Now, we have the research to prove that it works.

In 1995 a remarkable type of brain cell was discovered by researchers working at the University of Palma in Italy (Rizzolatti et alia, 1996; Rizzolatti and Arbib, 1998). The cells, now called "mirror neurons", are found in a specific area of the brain which is also involved in the creation of speech. Although the cells are related to body movement, they seem to be activated by what we see and hear. When we see another person make a particular facial expression or hand gesture, the mirror neurons prompt us to copy it. When we hear another person's voice, the mirror neurons prompt us to copy the volume, tone and rhythm of that voice. Of course, we human beings can stop this. When a monkey observes another monkey (or even a human) making a body movement, the monkey's mirror neurons light up. As they do, the monkey appears to involuntarily copy the same movement it has observed visually - the source of the saying "monkey see, monkey do". When this area of the brain is damaged in a stroke, copying another's actions becomes almost impossible. This ability to copy a fellow creature's actions as they do them has obviously been very important in the development of monkey and human social intelligence. It enables us to understand what it feels like to be the person we are talking to. Mirror neurons respond to the facial expressions associated with emotions so well that they enable us to directly experience the emotions of those we observe, an experience called "rapport" in NLP.

William Condon has meticulously studied videotapes of conversations. He found that in a successful conversation, where agreement is reached, movements such as a smile or a head nod are involuntarily matched by the other person within 1/15 of a second. Within minutes of beginning the conversation, the volume, pitch and speech rate (number of sounds per minute) of the peoples voices match each other. This is correlated with a synchronising of the type and rate of breathing. Even general body posture is adjusted over the conversation so that the people appear to match or mirror each other (Condon 1982, p 53-76). As a person adjusts their facial expression, voice tonality and other nonverbal behaviour to match others' they actually show the same pattern of brain activity that the other person is using. (Hatfield et alia, 1994).

Of course, many successful salespeople have known this all along. Others have been struggling with the results of not knowing it. NLP trainer Genie Laborde worked with several large retail companies. She reported one shocked manager explaining "So that's why our department reports so many disgruntled responses from customers in the deep South. We thought Southerners were just difficult to deal with. The personnel in my department phone our customers all over the States to remind them to send in their payments. Our telephone personnel are from New York City. Southerners speak at vastly different rates from New Yorkers. Our policy is to be courteous, but we need to do more than that." (Laborde, 1987, p 31)

The most famous of all NLP rapport skills is the skill of matching the sensory system which the person is using to represent their thoughts in. NLP co-developer Richard Bandler talks about coaching a stereo and sound-system retailer who didn't understand that his own sensory "rep system" preference was auditory. He thought about the world in sounds, rather than in pictures or in body sensations. This, of course, helped him enjoy selling sound systems, but it didn't always make sense to his customers. Bandler explains "He could rattle off specifications and all kinds of things to the customers and they weren't listening to him. They would come in and say, "I want to look at some stereos." This guy would respond by saying something like "Well this one here has really good sound." Now because you have choices in your communication you can communicate the same idea in all rep systems. It's very possible to do that. Does this look interesting? Does it sound to you like something you would pursue further? Perhaps get a little bit more of a handle on it? Can you see how subtleties like this can have you enjoy the sweet smell of success?" (Bandler and La Valle, 1996, p 29-30)

NLP In Sales 3: Language Patterns

It's only once you have the confidence that anchoring and reframing provide, and the sense of trust that rapport gives you, that you can use fancy sales "language patterns" to full effect. Knowing all the linguistic sales techniques in the world doesn't help if you're nervous as you say them, or if the customer is already annoyed with you. To the extent that you feel confident and that your customers feel in rapport with you, a dramatic enhancement of purchasing decisions is possible when the salesperson can choose certain specific words and sentence structures.

The words we hear powerfully shape our inner experience, and thus our purchasing decisions. Lets say I want to encourage you to be inspired about your unique market position. Imagine that I ask you not to think of your primary competitors in retail and consider the benefits they provide, and not to get anxious about that. "Don't think of your competitors." is a language structure containing what NLP calls an "embedded suggestion" to "think of your competitors". That's a totally different experience compared to asking you to stop and now think of your own vision and consider the ways in which your own situation, and your own approach create unique opportunities for your success. This emphasises that our language always contains "language patterns". We cannot choose to create sentences free of suggestions. But we can choose to create sentences with the suggestions that we intend!

NLP researcher Donald Moine at the University of Oregon studied 45 minute long audiocassette recordings of insurance salespeople. His sample included top producers from their companies, as well as "average" producers of sales. The highly successful salespeople used some very specific patterns of language as they talked. These patterns were not memorised, but they were naturally occurring and very effective! For example, the highly successful salespeople were more likely to tell stories about other successful purchasing experiences. The patterns that Moine discovered are all listed in the NLP "Milton model", a compilation of influencing patterns identified early in NLP's history. They include, to give a few examples, what NLP calls:

- "Embedded suggestions", which subtly suggest an action or response without directly telling the other person what they "have to" do. The embedded suggestion is an encouraging phrase inside the obvious sentence. Richard Bandler gives several examples in his sales seminar book. "Now this is my basic sales program: Induce good feeling; attach it to product. Or very importantly, you can also induce it and attach it to yourself, because you are a part of this, especially if it is a service, because you, like me, want the best for yourself. You like me want the best for yourself. Now this is a language pattern and we are going to get into those. They're fun." (Bandler and La Valle, 1996, p 39-40) In his example here, "You like me" is a suggestion embedded in that sentence. Most sentences have embedded suggestions, remember. What NLP is demonstrating is just that you can choose which ones you want to include.

- "Pacing" followed by an "equivalent", in which the salesperson says, for example, "You're asking about getting the latest technology [keeping "pace" with what the person has already said] which means you'll find this new generation MP3 player really exciting [suggesting that what they are doing already is the "equivalent" of finding this new MP3 player exciting]."

- "Metaphors", or stories of similar satisfactory purchasing decisions, which enable the person to step into the experience and imagine what the purchase will give them.

- "Modal operators of possibility"; statements which presuppose that purchasing is possible, rather than either challenging/impossible, or, on the other hand, being imposed on the person without choice.

- "Conditional closes" where the salesperson says in effect "So if I can show you how to meet this condition [such as the ability to afford the purchase] then are you convinced that this is right for you?"

This powerfully suggestive language is part of the most successful salespeople's skill in enabling others to consider new possibilities and make decisions (Moines, 1981). By itself, it would give the salesperson just another set of "tricks". In the context of rapport, it enables the purchasing decision to be elegantly and seamlessly negotiated.

Different language patterns work with different customers, because language can be used to "pace" the customers own way of thinking about a purchase. Verbally, you can do exactly what the internet enables online customers to do to create a store which matches the customer's unique preferences. Here's an example: Some people make purchases by simply looking for something that meets their criteria and buying it. Let's take the other extreme. Some people find that they make purchases almost in desperation, after anguishing over whether this is the right decision or not until they can't bear it any longer. For the person who makes effective and quick decisions, a salesperson who goes through a slow and cautious sales "pitch" is just an annoyance. They just want to take the product to the counter and be told they made a great choice. For the person who usually anguishes even though the product meets their criteria, I can effectively pace their uncertainty by explaining, "Well, sometimes you're never going to be completely sure that this is right for you and it might be useful to just accept that and get it home and find out if this is right for you or not." Notice that I also include a useful embedded suggestion in the sentence: one that they would rebel against if I said it as a direct suggestion "Be completely sure that this is right for you".


Neuro Linguistic Programming is the study of how highly successful people get their results. It combines approaches from psychology, brain research and complex systems theory to provide a new way of assisting customers to make satisfying purchases. Three core examples of its use in the field of purchasing are:

1. Getting yourself into a confident and inspired state of mind, by reframing the meaning of the marketing situations you are in, and by anchoring you back into the most powerful states of mind you have ever experienced.

2. Creating rapport with your customers by matching subtle details of their body language and talking back to them in the language style (eg visual, auditory or kinesthetic) that best reflects or paces what they use.

3. Using sophisticated language patterns within the context of confident state and of rapport. These powerful language patterns are always present in language, and NLP enables you to use them consciously to enable both your customers and you to meet desirable outcomes. These patterns enable you to align every word you say with your customers' personal style of thinking, and to incorporate into your language powerful positive suggestions.


Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz