The Psychology of Sales and Burning Phones


Earlier this week, with tea in hand and radiator firmly on, I was engaged in the evening ritual of browsing through my social media feeds, looking through the day’s discussions from those nearest and dearest.

While perusing I came across a blog from a friend of mine that struck me as particularly relevant in technology today, following the announcement that Samsung has halted production and sale of its new flagship smartphone, the Galaxy Note 7.

My friend was discussing the psychology of sales, and the sub-conscious influences that act on us when deciding what we want to buy.

Robert Cialdini describes these principles elegantly in his book, Influence, in which he explains to his sales friends why some of their tactics aren’t working, and why some of their mistakes are; he shows how the psychology of sales relies heavily on shortcuts our brains have formed, to help us make decisions with the least processing effort possible.

There are two of these ‘shortcuts’ I thought applied rather fittingly to Samsung’s predicament.

The first, quite simply, has been reduced to ‘expensive = good’ – over time we have learned you have to pay for quality. Which, for the most part, works well when choosing personal items to buy, such as a new gadget — the more you pay, generally the more value you get from your item, like the latest features or connectivity.

This perception may no longer exist for Samsung – the expensive bell-and-whistle adorned new smartphone in your pocket hasn’t lived up to the promise made by the brand for a top-of-the-range device.

You’ll likely remember this next time you’re looking at the price tag on a new Samsung phone or contract, asking yourself, ‘is it worth it?’.

The second, possibly more powerful shortcut, is comparison. The best analogy for this concept, as Cialdini observes, is how the same bucket of lukewarm water feels hot to a cold hand, and cold to a hot one (possibly holding a Note 7?).

Samsung’s phones are spontaneously combusting, users are worried theirs could set their homes on fire at night, airlines won’t allow the devices to be switched on during flights, and even the replacement phones can’t help but blow smoke.

Meanwhile, iPhones have a new iOS, Google has released Pixel and Huawei is emerging as a major player.

Customers who now decide to switch to a rival manufacturer will feel the difference immediately, no speculation around safety, no negative press, and their trust in the brand hasn’t wavered.

The magnified difference coming straight from the furore of owning a Note 7, as the comparison principle explains, will lead users to perceive an experience with Samsung’s competitors in a much starker contrast, which, other than boosting the opinion of Apple of Google, badly dents the impression of Samsung as a brand.

So, is brand loyalty dead for Samsung? Probably not. They’ve let the golden rules of sales go up in flames, and will have to work hard to reverse betraying the customer’s in-built instincts.

But it’s not impossible, Samsung will need some strategic and straight-up honest crisis PR to win back some integrity, and maybe even some customers.