November 30, 2023
How dog trainers can use the science of persuasion to grow their business

Have you ever wondered why some people just seem to have a gift for getting others to do what they’d like? They seem to have no trouble filling their classes, getting clients, or getting help and support when needed. How do they do it?

According to Robert B. Cialdini, they’re using the six shortcuts to persuasion. In his groundbreaking book ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,’ he takes a deep dive into how ordinary people can make small changes in their communications to help steer other’s behavior.

In the original book he cites the following as the keys to successful persuasion:

  • Reciprocity
  • Scarcity
  • Authority
  • Consistency
  • Liking
  • Consensus

Let’s take a look to see how they apply to dog trainers…

Reciprocity

Reciprocity is the act of exchanging gifts or advantages. It’s a principle that’s instilled deep in our psyches: if someone gives you something, especially if it’s personalized and unexpected, you’re obligated to ‘return the favor.’ 

Cialdini gives the example of waiters leaving either a small, unexpected gift, or maybe a mint, when delivering the bill.  This tiny act of apparent generosity increased tipping in the diners by between 3% – 23%, depending on how the waiter gives the gift.

Business owners use the same principle when offering freebies, or lead magnets, such as eBooks and email courses. As a dog trainer, you can try the same thing: offer something small but valuable (to your prospective client) on your website. 

Another way to do this is to offer a free class or a discount. The best way for this to work is by making the offer in the final two weeks of a block of classes: 

“I’m having such a great time with this class session. You know, I would love to see as many of you as possible continue for the next six weeks. If you sign up within the next two weeks, before this class ends, I’ll give you $10 off.”

If you don’t offer group classes, another technique is to offer a short, free consultation. Although ‘free consultation’ is usually a euphemism for ‘sales call’ it doesn’t have to be. There’s no reason you can’t talk to someone for 15 minutes and give them some very quick and easy tips to give them a quick win. Management methods are great for this! Make sure you point out during the call that your advice won’t change the underlying behavior – for that they need to hire you for training – but the free advice will give them a way to reduce the impact of the problem.

The final way you can use the principle of reciprocity is when you visit other businesses to build referral relationships. What can you give or share that they will find valuable or helpful? The obvious exchange is by referring people to them – if you let them know you were behind the referral! 

Other options could be free talks about dog behavior or training techniques, information about common behavior problems they’re likely to encounter, or even a box of chocolates so you stick out in their minds. Whatever it is, make sure you give it genuinely, not as a ‘bribe’ with an expectation of return.

Scarcity

This second principle is almost built into a dog trainer’s business model as standard. If you’re like most trainers, you’ll have small class sizes and limited hours in which you can take private training. It pays to ensure your marketing and website highlight that you have limited availability and you keep classes small to maintain the quality of your teaching.

If you do block courses, tell people that if they don’t sign up for your puppy course quickly, they will likely miss out – and their puppy may be too old to join the next block of classes. 

Or that you have a spot free next week for the initial 90 minutes consult but after that you can’t fit a 90-minute session in for the next three weeks (assuming that’s the truth, of course)! 

It’s also worth remembering that people often leave things right to the last minute if there’s a deadline. So, if you’re trying to fill a class and the last date to enroll is 5pm Wednesday this week, be sure to send that final “doors are closing!” email reminder at midday.

Authority

Here Cialdini draws on the fact that people are more likely to do as they’re asked if they think the person doing the asking is in a position of authority or has specialist knowledge. He says, “people will follow credible, knowledgeable experts.”

As a dog trainer, this means not hiding your expertise and qualifications! I know it’s rare for someone to explicitly ask to see your certificates or hear details of your experience but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

Make sure you list your qualifications/certifications and any other ‘authority signals’ clearly on your website. 

Have you been working with aggressive dogs for ten years? What about all those years you spent doing volunteer work in the local rescue or shelter? Or your vet tech background? 

Whatever it is that makes you an expert, be sure to have it called out on your website and in your marketing.

Another, less obvious, way to signal authority and expertise is to wear a uniform or shirt with your logo. Dress to impress with a smart but casual outfit that displays your professionalism.

Consistency

This one can be taken two ways: consistency of behavior and consistency of beliefs. What do I mean by that? Well, in his book, Cialdini gives the example of asking people to display a big, ugly sign about safe driving in their front yard. Not surprisingly, the take up rate for this ‘offer’ was small.  People generally didn’t want an eyesore in front of their house.

However, when people in a similar neighborhood were asked to display a small, discrete postcard about safe driving in their front window, many agreed. They were happy to be seen to be supporting such a worthy campaign at little cost or inconvenience to themselves. But here’s the kicker: two weeks later they were asked to display the big, ugly sign in the front yard.  This time, the number of people who agreed increased four times the number in the original neighborhood!

Why? Because people like to be consistent. If they agree about, and commit to, something once, they’re more likely to commit again. The people who agreed to the postcard saw themselves as ‘supporters of safe driving.’ To then not agree to displaying the bigger sign would have been inconsistent with how they’d previously behaved and how they now saw themselves. 

Cialdini’s takeaway from this was to “look for, and ask for, public commitments.”

So how can dog trainers tap into that? One way is to be consistent in your expectation of your students and provide opportunities for social validation of that behavior. For example, if you always set homework for your classes, make a point of asking people to demonstrate their progress – or discuss any problems they had while practicing at home – in each weekly class.

Another way to get buy-in is to ask clients how they feel about their dog and whether they agree that dogs deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. You can do this in any number of ways without being blunt about it. 

Once someone has agreed that yes, their dog is a loved member of their family and deserves to be treated accordingly, it’s much easier to convince them that punitive training methods are not the way forward. You’re basically getting them to think of themselves as benign, loving pet parents who do what’s best for their dogs rather than frustrated owners who just ‘want the problem fixed. Yesterday please…’

Liking

Our fifth principle of persuasion is liking — it states that we are more likely to be persuaded to do something if we like the person doing the persuading. Generally, we like people who:

  • are similar to us.
  • pay us compliments.
  • cooperate with us towards mutual goals.

Given what we know about marketing – that people are more likely to work with someone they like, know and trust – hopefully you have the ‘like’ factor already built into your website and messaging. 

Not sure? Check you have these things covered…

Your website ‘speaks’ to the client group you most want to work with. If that’s young families with children, have images of happy families relaxing and playing with their dog. If you have children yourself mention them (and how they relate to how you keep your own dogs) in your social media and blog posts. 

If you’d rather attract empty nesters, have images and copy that they can relate to and appreciate. Use images of the types of dogs your audience is likely to own, in the sorts of situations clients would like to find themselves in.

If you’re on a sales call and the prospective owner is telling you about a problem, one you’ve experienced for yourself, be sure to empathize and tell them you’ve walked in their shoes. 

Another simple thing to do is just be nice! It’s not hard to pay someone compliments when you’re a dog trainer. Even if a client’s dog is a total nightmare, most people think their dogs are cute, lovable, or outstandingly good looking. Find something to compliment – even if it’s only the dog’s persistence or burglar-deterring characteristics. Compliments are more effective if you give them early, before any business has been discussed.

Take a genuine interest and see if you can dig out some common ground. Maybe they support the same sports team you do, or have similar taste in books or films. There’s nothing wrong with talking about these aspects of your life to make it easier to build those connections. If you find a mutual interest or preference, don’t be afraid to talk about it. 

Again, try to build those connections before you start discussing the nitty gritty of working together.  Small talk can be surprisingly important when you first meet with someone.

And finally, draw attention to the ‘cooperation’ element of your working relationship. Make sure your website and social posts highlight the ‘we’ in how you work with clients. Phrases like: 

We’ll create a step-by-step plan to help you achieve your loose lead walking goals.” 

or 

Together, we’ll explore how to best help your puppy develop into a well-rounded adult who’s a joy to live with.”

These easy changes can really make a difference in how you and your business are perceived.

Consensus

Often people will do something because a whole bunch of other people have also done it – and agree it’s worth doing. 

We see this principle in action when motels put signs in rooms that say “75% of our guests reuse their towels, so please do so as well.” Surprisingly, these simple signs make a big difference to how many guests reuse their towels. People think “well, if everyone else does, I will too.”

When it comes to marketing, your testimonials work in a similar way.  They provide both social proof, that you’re not some fly-by-night chancer, and they encourage your website visitors to take the same action themselves – hire you. You can find out how to ask for testimonials without feeling icky here.

Another way to use this principle is during sales calls. Instead of just saying: 

“You need our Reactive Rover class.” 

Phrase it like this: 

“Most of our clients who have dogs that behave like <insert their dog’s name>, have found our Barky-lunge-y Fido classes super effective”.

This allows the owner to feel they’re not the only person who’s ever had this problem – and there’s a solution that those others found effective.

Bonus principle

The 6 principles above are all found in the original editions of Cialdini’s book, ‘Influence.’ If you’d like a more in-depth summary of the book, we love this short video that highlights the principles above:

But Caldini’s got a new, updated edition of the book, and in it he’s added a seventh principle: Unity.

He defines Unity as “being not just like us, but OF us.” In other words, people are inclined to say yes to someone they consider to be one of them – sharing an identity. 

He describes it as ‘We’ is the shared ‘me.’

And how can this help your business?

Well, one way to leverage ‘we’-ness in your business is by forming a community; an ‘entity’ to bring clients and staff together outside of normal classes.  If you’re feeling creative, you can even go as far as having a collective name for your ‘tribe.’  This is common online, but is even more effective in real life. 

Try holding social events, fun days, or practice competitions for your clients and staff so you can develop friendships and shared memories. 

It’s been shown that people who act together, come together – they naturally form groups. If you can, try to get your clients and staff to take active roles as helpers, mentors, or supporters within your business.  Consider joint goals you and your ‘team’ could attain together – fundraising for a local shelter or other charity perhaps? 

Aim for a feeling of collaboration within your group – ask for advice (not opinions or feedback). Your clients aren’t just dog owners, they have other skills, and will often feel valued if asked to share some of their knowledge. 

The more you can help ‘your people’ to feel included in something special, the more they will repay you in supporting your business. Why? Because they will feel part of your business.  

Given that you probably depend on feet-through-the-door numbers, it makes sense to foster a sense of being a community within your local community. 

You’ll find your word-of-mouth referrals will go up, and you’ll become well known within the local ‘dog people’ network.  Which means you’ll be top of mind next time someone asks, “where can I find a dog trainer?” at the local dog park — or even outside the school gates at pickup time. 

I hope these principles have sparked some ideas for how you can grow your business, without having to be ‘sales-y’ or pushy to get what you want. Be sure to let us know which one works best for you!

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