"Which is a more powerful motivator, fear or greed?" I once asked a psychologist over sushi.

"Picture this," he replied. "A cockroach meanders its way over the floor, slowly hunting this way and that for something tasty. You walk in and stomp your foot once. It scuttles off at many times the speed it had been looking for food."

He made his point: A whiff of fear creates a far stronger call to action than the potential for reward. This is the kind of insight that sales teams everywhere know, love, and use to push our buttons.

How are people selling to you?

To push your own sales force into overdrive, pay attention to the way people are selling to you. Every day, we are exposed to hundreds of advertisements. That's hundreds of free, daily lessons on what works, what doesn't, and why. Use that data to your advantage. It's as easy as walking into a shopping mall: "Would you like a spritz of perfume?"

We don't even process the vast majority of the advertisements we see every day. It's not just images, delivery, or timing that help content stick. Memorable messaging taps into a few major underlying motivators.

  1. Fear is often the most powerful. "This will save your life!" they tell us, "You need it!" Everything from cars to cholesterol screenings to mouthwash has been marketed this way.
  2. Greed is a close second. Cue endless subway ads for the New York lottery and scratch-off games. Their motto? "Hey, you never know." Your chances of winning? Smaller than your chances of being struck by lightning. Their profits? Three billion.
  3. Guilt gets to all of us. "Buy this bottled water--we're eco-friendly with less plastic." Or, "Use this app. It will save you time and you can get home to your family."
  4. Exclusivity taps into the urge to gain social capital and the approval (or envy) of others. The message: With this, you're in an elite group, one of the special few. One example is the luxury watch ad showing father-son portraits and the slogan, "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation." Instant heirloom, natch.

Does your service make you a huckster or a helper?

Of course, applying any of these strategies in the extreme can mean crossing the line from marketing to overly manipulative. The chemistry major in me can only chuckle when cosmetologists tout "science" to sell their product. Halt aging immediately with this magical cream? Oh, sure. Of course.

Solving a problem or point of pain is one thing. Playing off fear is another. Are you giving people a way to solve a problem, or just tapping into an insecurity? Mission-driven companies seek to solve problems, not create them. Make sure you tap into a way to motivate and solve your clients' issues.