What Is The Low-Ball Technique And Does It Work?

Updated January 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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Often used to make the price of something seem less significant than its rewards, the low-ball technique is a staple of sales and business in general. It’s likely been around for nearly as long as humans have, but more recent techniques related to low-balling stem from research conducted in the past century. Understanding how and why low-balling works can help you implement it into your own life or spot it for what it is.

What Is The Low-Ball Technique?

The low-ball technique is a persuasive tactic that is frequently used, directly or indirectly, in selling a variety of products. Traditionally, the salesperson offers an item at a below market or average market price to the buyer. The buyer may agree to make a purchase or come close to committing to a sale. However, the seller will then increase the price without warning.

The low-ball technique may appear to be a "low tactic," but when done artfully it has been known to work in some markets. It typically is the most successful when the seller can carefully balance the objectives of (A), make the initial request attractive enough to get a "YES" from the client and (B) not making the second inflated price so over the top that the customer feels cheated out of a good deal.

However, companies can also use the low-ball technique in more subtle ways. It may be utilized to get a customer interested in a deal and then motivate them to simply accept that every good deal has a few tacked on fees. For example, a service provider may quote their services at $49.95 a month but then tack on service charges and miscellaneous fees. The buyer sees that the final price has increased but has tolerated it because the price differential was not great, and there was also a logical reason for the price increase.

A History Of Low-Balling In Sales

While it’s safe to assume that some version of the low-ball technique has been around for centuries, it was first officially demonstrated by Robert Cialdini in 1978. 

The psychology behind the low-ball quote is that of cognitive dissonance. If a person already wants to buy the product and is anticipating the future benefits of doing so, they probably won’t be motivated to back out of the deal, even if they aren’t thrilled about the price. 

This is the principle of cognitive dissonance at work, which refers to the mental discomfort of a person who struggles to understand two opposing and disharmonious elements. In an attempt to reckon with seemingly contradictory info, our minds tend to seek out an escape – be it an explanation, justification, etc. – to avoid the confusion. Therefore, in sales, giving the customer a reason to avoid that cognitive dissonance may prompt them to commit to a sale. This is an especially effective technique if the seller downplays the extra costs and highlights the benefits of the product.

Work done by Cialdini demonstrated that groups of people often respond to the low-balling technique if they want to avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes from backing out of a commitment they made. Simply Psychology discussed the Cialdini studies and the concept of commitment. During his research, Cialdini asked students if they would like to participate in an experiment that took place at seven A.M. Most subjects refused. However, in a subsequent study, another group was told of the experiment study without learning the time. When they did learn of the time later and were given the option to drop out, almost all the subjects came anyway –

a 95% attendance rate!

So, it's not just the advantage of receiving the benefits of the product that motivates a client to buy, even in inconvenient circumstances. In many cases, the desire to decrease cognitive dissonance can result from simply not wanting to go back on a deal the buyer already made. The customer likely doesn't want to break a commitment and will find it hard to say no after giving a resounding yes to the seller and themselves.

How To Make The Low-Ball Technique Work

If you're having difficulty understanding the technique or getting it to work on your customers, consider the following steps: 

  1. Make sure to make an attractive initial price and pitch for the product. You must be confident the buyer will go for this price.

  2. Get a commitment from the customer, verbally AND publicly in some way, such as a down payment or a contract.

  3. Change the agreement (always within the confines of the law) and then point out the benefits of the deal, the necessity of the price increase (as in, it's mostly out of your hands, or that you don't make much money from the deal anyway). Downplay the additional costs as something small the customer can afford with ease.

  4. Eliminate pressure or negative feelings. Always let them know it's their decision entirely.

Observing The Low-Ball Technique In Other Walks Of Life

Even outside the context of sales, you may occasionally notice people using a similar technique, otherwise known as "compliance." Even in interactions with family and friends, persuasive tactics are sometimes used; think of a child asking his parents for a new toy to avoid a tantrum at the store, a student wanting a better grade from his teacher, or any "favor" that suggests influencing an outcome later on.

Universally, low-balling typically has a negative connotation, since the seller or manipulative party seeks to guide the subject to a specific decision, and not necessarily an open-ended one based on what the subject wants. 

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Some have even wondered whether low-balling techniques are abusive forms of persuasion since they are often used to take advantage of a person who is not experienced in dealing with sales or a certain industry, like cars, or real estate. Manipulation of a person without that conscious recognition (as in, the person knows what's happening and accepts it) could be called unethical. However, it is rarely declared illegal.

The only exception might be in specific legal situations, such as lawyers that try to lowball jurors to get a favorable verdict. Typically, a judge will challenge and strike any comments from the record that suggest the lawyer is flattering the jury or trying to establish his authority over the jury.

While using techniques like the low-ball strategy may be primarily reserved for business transactions, it is common for people to be manipulated into making impulsive decisions. Companies rely on these so-called predatory strategies to make income, at the expense of the consumer. This can lead to a multitude of problems in person's family life, especially if it involves falling into debt, taking part in risky behaviors, or experiencing anxiety and depression.

No matter how the low-ball technique comes into your life, understanding how to make decisions in a way that makes sense for you can be a valuable skill. Resources like online therapy can give you a space to discuss your goals, your experiences, and your own psychology. Because you can connect with providers around the world from the comfort of your own home, finding someone who can help you achieve what you’re after has never been easier.

Being on either the giving or receiving end of behavior that involves the low-ball technique can be stressful, but online therapy is equipped to help. One study analyzing the impact of online therapy noted that it can reduce symptoms of mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. Even if you aren’t managing a mental illness, getting some insight and support from an outside source can boost your confidence and give you the tools you may need to thrive.

Takeaway

The low-ball technique is a strategy often used in sales to convince a customer to make a purchase or deal that is larger than they originally anticipated. It usually works because of our brain’s own tendency to try and avoid the discomfort created by cognitive dissonance; when we process contradictory info, we need a route that leads us to a resolution. The price of an item being higher than we want to pay in contrast with our desire to own it is exactly what this technique attempts to profit off of. When done right, low-balling can help drive sales, but it may or may not lead to positive results; a mental health professional can help you sort through the consequences regardless of what they may be.

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