Halo or horns? What do people that meet you see?

Brian Williams, PhD

If someone's first experience with you is positive and they see you in a good light, it’s hard to subsequently darken their perception of you. Sadly, the reverse is true too. What can you do to make sure people that meet you see a halo and not horns?


According to Malcolm Gladwell’s research, we form opinions of other people within the first two seconds of meeting them. Whenever we encounter a new person or situation, we attempt to make sense of things very quickly, often resulting in a cognitive bias – an error in thinking that occurs when we attempt to simplify information processing.  

The Halo Effect

One important cognitive bias that sales people should be aware of is something called the “halo effect.” The halo effect is when our impression of some good qualities of a person influences how we feel and think about their overall character. The Economist defines it as “the phenomenon whereby we assume that because people are good at doing A they will be good at doing B, C and D (or the reverse—because they are bad at doing A they will be bad at doing B, C and D).” Essentially, your impression of a person (e.g., "They are nice") impacts your evaluations of that person's other traits and abilities (e.g., "They are also smart").

My favorite scene from the 2011 movie Moneyball does a great job demonstrating the halo effect in a real world situation. In this scene, Oakland As manager, played by Brad Pitt, and his talent scouts are discussing team prospects. These veteran baseball experts are gathered to select players that can produce runs, yet much of their discussion is focused on subjective aspects of the players that have nothing to do with athleticism. One of the scouts presents his pick by describing him as having a strong jaw. Another scout explains that he doesn’t like a player because “he’s got an ugly girlfriend… and an ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”

 

Why is the Halo Effect important?

Now that you are aware of the halo effect, let’s talk about how it can help you in your selling efforts.

Psychology research on the halo effect suggests that it is highly influenced by first impressions. If your first experience with someone is positive and you see them in a good light, it's hard to subsequently darken your perception of them. The well-told adage that you only get one chance to make a first impression seems to be true.  

Making a good first impression 

That puts the burden on you to make those first few seconds of an interaction with a prospect really count. Here are four tips that should help:  

1. Dress to impress

This point may seem obvious, yet we come across a lot of people in the professional world that mess this up. Like it or not, people make snap judgments based on your clothes, watch, jewelry, briefcase, makeup, etc. Make sure you are creating a set of visual signals that are most likely to brand you as the kind of person your clients would want to do business with.

2. Get healthy

Your energy level is dependent upon your overall level of health. If you tire easily, you probably look tired too, especially under the stress of an initial meeting. And if you look tired, other people may think that you can’t get the job done. Invest in your health – eat healthy and exercise – so that you are healthy enough to look alert, capable, and interested.

3. Exude natural (not fake) confidence

There are a thousand “techniques” and “tips” on ways to build and demonstrate confidence. We personally find most of them to have the reverse effect – the last thing you want to question and test before you meet someone new is your own self-assurance. 

The best advice for exuding natural confidence is to stop worrying about your confidence or lack of it altogether. It’s natural to be concerned about your own anxieties in new social situations, especially when you are facing a new business opportunity. We all are. But, the key to overcoming this is to stop self-obsessing and instead pay attention to the people you are interacting with.

Shift your focus to others and you’ll be empathetic and more socially competent. Realize that you are there to help your prospect. Your good ideas, and your company’s solutions, may just be the cure for their problems. Stop seeing yourself as “selling” something and see yourself as offering ideas. You need to prepare well ahead of time to succeed in this. Learn everything you can about the prospect and brainstorm all the possible ways you can help them before you walk into the meeting. 

4. Show passion

Sometimes I catch myself getting fascinated by Discovery Channel-esque shows about pawn shops and storage units – things I have no interest in. I’ve come to realize that much of the magic behind this captivating television lies in the characters’ passion about whatever it is they are doing or talking about. I’ve never cared much for fishing, yet I have a really hard time changing the channel when I see fishing enthusiast Robson Green talk about fly-fishing.

 

Extreme Fishing with Robson Green

Extreme Fishing with Robson Green

 

Passion is contagious and hard to ignore. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s absolutely true. Next time you are about to start talking in front of a prospect try to show that you are passionate. Reflect on the things that you really like about your job, your product, your prospect, or even things completely unrelated to the meeting and find a way to channel that energy as you connect with your audience. If you can do that, your prospects will surely catch a glow of your halo.

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Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.