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Selling to a know-it-all: the challenge of dealing with earned dogmatism

Some people believe they're experts when they're not, when life experiences re-enforce a sense of expertise that doesn't really exist. But expertise comes with a dark side: earned closed-mindedness. Experts are expected to know their stuff, so self-perceived experts may embrace that identity and refuse to change their minds. Profile your target consumers psychologically. Figure out who has a false sense of expertise regarding your offering. Then, de-prioritize them.

Last week, I introduced you to Ryan. Part fictional, but largely based on a real person, Ryan seems stubborn in refusing to purchase a gym membership when the gym seems like the best thing for him. As it turns out, Ryan isn’t closed-minded; he’s just experienced. He knows what a gym membership is all about, and he knows it’s not for him.

This week, I’m introducing you to Jake. His preferences aren’t stable because they haven’t even been formed yet. But you can’t tell Jake that. Jake knows everything.

Jake’s the guy who, if you’re talking about the opioid crisis, has the perfect solution. If immigration policy is the subject of conversation, he knows what policy is best. If you’re deciding where to grab Mexican food for dinner, Jake’s the guy who will tell you that there’s no better place than his favorite spot. Hands down. Nope… he won’t go anywhere else.

Jake’s an expert, at least he sees himself that way, and no doubt his life experiences have reinforced this. But Jake hasn’t done the work needed to become an expert. Maybe his parents praised his every word. Maybe he’s too afraid of failure to admit he’s wrong. I’m not going to psychoanalyze Jake. Jake isn’t even real. He’s an ideal type, an extreme version of a personality trait many consumers possess in smaller, yet significant, doses. I’m talking about Jake because he probably won’t try a new app, buy a new brand of sparkling beverage, or try a new way of hiring a handyman. His preferences are set and stable.

And yet every day, businesses try to convince versions of Jake to try their product or service.

They may don’t know what they’re up against. Or maybe they do.

Jake is closed-minded, and it’s his self-perception of expertise that makes him so. Research in social psychology calls this earned dogmatism. Simply put, if you’ve been reinforced as an expert, and believe you’re an expert, even if you’re not, you’re going to act like an expert – which means you probably aren’t going change your mind much. Experts have socially earned the permission to have stable preferences. This isn’t a psychological flaw as much as a socially-generated phenomenon: being open-minded isn’t something society expects experts to do. In fact, when an expert admittedly changes their mind, they do so at the expense of their credibility. So when someone believes they possess a certain level of expertise on a matter, they’re going to stick to their guns to save face.

If a significant proportion of your consumer target believes they know it all, when they may not, you could have a unique challenge. For example, research I’ve done in legal tech indicates that about 20% of legal consumers believe that, with time alone, they could learn everything a lawyer knows. Forty percent of people with legal issues start by researching the issue online themselves rather than reaching out to a real expert. I’ve talked to many lawyers who’ve told me stories about clients who try to school them on the law – even though the lawyer is the one with the JD. These folks are hard to convince.

Start-ups face similar problems; their major competitors aren’t other companies as much as consumer opinions. Marketers struggle with consumer closed-mindedness all the time. The right positioning, the right messaging… it’s all about broadening horizons and making people see things in a different light.

So how do you handle consumers who think they know so much that you can’t change their minds? The best way to go is to identify and de-prioritize them. This isn’t to say you should reject their business. Just make sure you’re going after the right people.

Psychological profiling of your consumer target is essential for identifying challenges and opportunities for your business. If you’re not profiling your potential consumers through consumer research, you may be missing something. And while profiling your consumers, if you’re not exploring their self-perceptions of expertise, you could be targeting people who may never be open to what you’re offering.

Earned dogmatism isn’t the only source of closed-mindedness, but it’s one we need to pay close attention to. The bigger picture is this: knowing how stable consumer preferences are in your addressable market is key. How many people in your market are like Ryan – earned experts in a with firmly established and unchanging preferences? And how many are like Jake – not real experts, but folks who convincingly play them on TV – to where you can’t get them to try anything new? Identifying these two types of consumers – and working around them – can save you headache.

But don’t just take it from me. I’ve done the work to be an expert, but I don’t want to be dogmatic. If you think I’m wrong, shoot me an email!


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