Would you say your child’s education is important to you?
It seems like a harmless enough enquiry and, when asked, what parent would not instantly agree that their child’s education is a priority?
But when it comes to the sale of educational software, obvious questions like this can be significantly more dangerous than you’d think – corralling parents into a corner that is difficult to escape from. They are the foundation of an insidious in-home sales strategy one former sales person described as “a sheep paddock, where you would go around shutting the gates as you went through your routine. So that at the end, the only gate left open was to buy”.
Of course, it’s no surprise that sales people attempt to emotionally manipulate us into buying their products. It happens to millions of us every week. What is so disturbing about the phenomena of in-home sales of products like educational software is the slick and sophisticated way in which our buttons are pushed.
These companies play up to the contemporary angst that our children might turn out to be “average”, and our perceptions that the education system is inadequate, creating a “perfect storm” of parental anxiety. With the advent of the MySchool website, with its ability to pinpoint where schools may not be performing so well, and therefore where anxiety is most pronounced, these salespeople have found the perfect tool to target vulnerable parents.
In the case of educational software, the consumer “invites” the sales person into their home environment to provide what many consumers believe to be an accredited educational assessment. Because the process is called an assessment, rather than a sale, the normal defences consumers demonstrate when faced with a salesperson have been dispensed with, because the vulnerable consumer wants to believe that the service provider is a professional who is qualified to undertake the assessment. In some cases, trust is enhanced even more, because the program has been promoted in the school newsletter, and perhaps even recommended by the principal.
And despite our better judgment, when we invite a sales person into our home, we are psychologically committing to the type of transaction that will follow. When asked about the meaning of home, people say that the home represents warmth, belonging, control, and autonomy. So, to invite someone into your home requires a certain level of trust that is usually reserved for people in a personal relationship with you.
When factors such as anxiety, pressure, and stress are brought to bear on in-home sales, the consumer is likely to confound their feelings of the personal with the commercial.
The salesman becomes your “mate”, because they are going to help you to help your kids.
However, research with former sales people and consumers as part of a national research project investigating the psychology of in-home sales, revealed that the sales process is mostly about creating anxiety amongst parents and then making them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Well, not if they care about their children’s education anyway.
During this sales process, a number of key psychological and social processes – what marketers call social influence techniques – are employed to increase the likelihood that certain consumers will sign up for the educational software. One of these techniques is for the salesperson to conduct the “assessment” of the child’s educational progress, while another is to use metaphors and statistics to validate the legitimacy of the product they are offering.
But as one salesperson said, they were trained to make parents “feel the pain” of their child’s difficulties at school For parents who are anxious about their child’s success at school, aborting the transaction at any stage will mean huge psychological and social costs. The parent is not simply saying, “I am not interested,” and walking away as they might in a shop setting. They must ask someone whom they have invited into their home to leave, after asking for their help with a highly emotional “problem”. For many people, that’s a very difficult thing to do.
The educational packages sold by these companies range from $4000 to $8000. They include software with varying educational support extras, such as telephone or email tutoring assistance and are often sold with high-interest credit financing where parents can end up paying more than $10,000 for a fairly average educational software program. Parents are rarely told the full amount that they will pay.
But the issue is not whether the product being sold by in-home sales companies are good or bad educational tools. Nor am I questioning that some parents and children may benefit from educational software programs. It is the marriage of this highly contrived, high-pressure selling process to our very contemporary anxiety around education that should make the selling of these products in the home a concern to parents, educators, school councils, and policy makers.
This opinion piece was originally published at ABC The Drum - Unleashed on 18 March, 2010.
For a copy of the research report into the psychology of in-home sales, go to www.shuttingthegates.net