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Increase Sales with the Reject-then-Retreat Technique

Aug 5, 2013

If you are looking for a way to increase sales for your website without spending the time or money to increase your site’s traffic, this post contains a powerful technique that can help.

In fact, improving your site’s conversion rate often has a better return on investment than increasing traffic. A better sales page that converts more visitors means that you improve your sales for every single visit to your page from that point forward, whereas a campaign to produce more referred and paid visitors has a fixed lifespan and requires a continuous investment of time and money to sustain.

The tactic is called the “Reject-then-Retreat” technique. It builds on two psychological principles and is highly effective in closing more customers.

The first psychological rule the technique is based on is called the “Contrast Principle,” which says that when you present people with two similar items, like prices, they will perceive an exaggerated difference in the second item they see. So if you showed someone a $500 watch and then a $300 watch, they would behave as if the watch cost even less than that. In this situation, the customer would behave as if they were initially shown a watch that only costs $250 or $200 because they were first shown a higher-priced watch, and by contrast (hence the term the contrast principle) the second watch seems like a better deal.

This principle is a double-edged sword though, because it also works in reverse. If you first show a $300 watch to a prospect and then try to upsell a $500 watch, the customer will behave as if the second watch cost $600 or $700! So unrelated to the reject-then-retreat technique, you should always make sure the first price your customers see is your highest.

The second principle that the reject-then-retreat technique is based on is the part of human nature that causes us to feel the need to reciprocate a favor. If someone does us a favor, we feel obligated to do one back for them. This seems to be part of a genetic human impulse that spans cultures and time periods, and the accepted explanation for it is that, in order to build a cooperative society, early humans needed to have a way to make it difficult to exploit someone who provides help to someone else.

If there were no human nature to reciprocate a favor, then everyone would approach their lives as if they shouldn’t help anyone else because it would carry a high risk of being taken advantage of. But by conditioning ourselves to feel obligated to repay a favor, people can be confident that if they help someone the other person will help in return later on. You can see how this is critical to building a society and economic system based on trading, because if every time you were making a deal with someone else you had to worry they wouldn’t follow through on their end of the agreement it would be a significant barrier to free trade.

So the principle of reciprocation says if someone else does us a favor, then we feel like we have to do one back for them. The interesting thing is that “favors” extend to making a concession in a request, which is the key of the reject-then-retreat technique.

Here’s How It Works:

The Reject-Then-Retreat Technique: In order to get someone to do what you want them to do, first ask them to do something even more demanding. If they do it that’s a bonus, but assuming they reject your initial request you then retreat and ask them to do what you originally were looking for them to do.

The reason this works is two fold and based on the psychological principles outlined above. First, after asking them for a large initial request, in context your second request will seem even smaller than it actually is by comparison because of the contrast principle. Second, because you made a concession to them by reducing what you ask for, their impulse toward reciprocation will make them feel they owe you a concession in return and they will usually give it to you by saying “yes”.

Here’s an example: Researchers did a study where they asked college students if they would volunteer one weekend to chaperone a field trip for a local juvenile delinquent center. Predictably, most of them declined. Then they asked a second group of students first if they would volunteer to mentor a group of local juvenile delinquents once a week for several years, and if they said no the researcher followed-up by asking if they would then at least be willing to volunteer to chaperone an upcoming field trip with them one weekend. Using the second series of questions, which follows the reject-then-retreat technique, tripled* the number of students who agreed to chaperone the field trip and got a majority of them to say yes!

You often see the reject-then-retreat technique in negotiations as well. For example, during a purchasing discussion, the buyer will lowball the seller with their initial quote by giving them a dramatically stingy offer. This is just a setup so that when the seller rejects it the buyer can come back with a better offer, one where they still get a discount, but to the seller it seems like a significantly improved deal because the first one was so unfavorable. The seller will be tempted to take the second offer both because compared to the first lowball offer it’s much better, and also because the buyer did them the “favor” of making the concession and raising their price so they feel obligated to return that favor with a concession of their own.

A final word of caution on the reject-then-retreat technique: Your initial, exaggerated offering must seem to be within the realm of possibility. If you present an initial position that is absurdly one-sided, you will be viewed as bargaining in bad faith and any attempt to retreat from your initial position will not be given consideration. The other side will just walk away from the table all together.

Determining your starting offer should use what Roger Dawson calls the “Maximum Plausible Position” in Secrets of Power Negotiating. He says that you should ask for as much as you can reasonably expect to get. You may have to do some research to figure out what this is compared to your competitors or the company’s other offers, but no matter how you determine it, beginning with your maximum plausible position will leave you with plenty of room to retreat from your initial offer and still give you a good chance of coming out ahead in the end!

So how can you implement this technique on your website? There are many ways, but here is one example that you can use as inspiration:

Start by listing an inflated price for your product or service on your landing page. Then create a pop-up window that displays when visitors try to leave your site without purchasing that offers them a “special discount” on your product or service, which is either your original price or an increase that is smaller than the initial price the visitor saw on the the landing page.

This follows the reject-then-retreat technique because visitors are first shown a larger price, which will make your second offer seem smaller by comparison, and it also offers a concession in the form of a price drop that will encourage the visitor to reciprocate with their own concession of making a purchase.

This situation has only upside for you. Either you start selling products at the new, higher price on your page, or you wind up with a boost in sales at your existing or slightly increased price!

If you have tried the reject-then-retreat technique let us know what you did and how well it worked in the comments!

1 Comment

  • Yes – this is brilliant and it works!
    It reminds me of a tactic we use called: Action Commitments

    That is, when someone asks you to do something, you ask them to do something easier..

    For instance, a prospect might say: “Give me a proposal” – to that I would reply: “OK – only after you share me on your analytics and answer these 5 questions…”

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