Flattery will get you everything

By Elaine Chan & Jaideep Sengupta

We all know why salespeople freely compliment shoppers. If the sales assistant gives convincing, flattering comments, such as “Wow, that dress looks gorgeous on you – it suits your figure perfectly!”, it typically encourages the customer to buy the dress and may even persuade them to return to the store in the future.

Flattery is one of the oldest and most effective forms of persuasion, which is why marketers and salespeople often rely on it.

A community manager for a supermarket compliments home cooks on their cooking skills when they post their creations on social networks – subconsciously encouraging them to shop in the store. A waiter might flatter diners’ meal choices at a high-class restaurant in the hope of encouraging them to pair their meals with expensive wine. Flattery works, time and again, but we wanted to understand the effect flattery has on those who overhear others receiving praise, and the feelings that are induced.

Thoughts of envy

Surprisingly, in a simulated retail setting the positive effects of flattery on purchase intent was found to extend to customers who did not directly receive any compliments.

In a laboratory-based study at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 209 female students were asked to imagine overhearing flattering comments made by a sales assistant in a clothing store and were then asked to complete a brief questionnaire. What we found was quite unexpected – simply imagining overhearing someone else being complimented triggered the observers to compare themselves with the recipient of these compliments, which subsequently led to feelings of envy towards the recipient, frustration at not having been similarly complimented and, as a consequence, resulted in dislike for both the salesperson and the recipient. Studies then revealed that such negative reactions were only at the subconscious and implicit level. At the explicit level, observers tended to form positive evaluations towards the salesperson and the recipient, owing to the sincerity behind the compliments. Hence, although observers of in-store flattery form positive explicit reactions from overhearing a sincere flattery, they also simultaneously hold negative implicit reactions arising from their feeling of envy.

These two different evaluations towards the salesperson were revealed through the use of different methods. In order to tap into the subconscious level, participants were asked to report
their implicit evaluations under time pressure. On the other hand, participants who reported their
explicit evaluations were given as much time as they needed to answer.

We also found that, although an observer’s automatic implicit reaction towards the salesperson is negative, this can still lead to an increased intention to buy. It seems that when shoppers feel envy they want to buy something to overcome their jealous feelings and show the world that they are just as worthy.

So, on hearing a salesperson compliment another shopper on their fashion sense an observer may be goaded into making a purchase. When this happens, the salesperson’s compliments have influenced two customers at once – even though the recipients and observers of flattery have formed different attitudes towards the salesperson.

While most shoppers will be well aware of the tactics employed by sales assistants to make a sale, they are unlikely to realise that overheard interactions can also have an influence on their intention to purchase. Retail stores could use this research to ensure that salespeople not only praise potential customers but ensure that this praise is overheard by other shoppers.


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Authors: Elaine Chan & Jaideep Sengupta
Date: 15 May 2017

About the Authors

Dr. Elaine Chan is a Fellow of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight and an Associate Professor
of Marketing and International Business at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological

Dr. Jaideep Sengupta is a Fellow of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight, a Chinese Estates
Professor of Business and Chair Professor of Marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science
and Technology.