Build Your Brand with Likability, Not Expertise

Austin L. Church
December 8, 2015
Share this post

Back in April 2009, my boss shed tears as he laid me off from my copywriting job. Being pushed out of the 9-to-5 nest into the new world of freelancing made me self-conscious about how green I was. All I had to go on was likability.Why would anyone hire a guy with only six months of marketing experience?Over the months that followed, I beefed up on my knowledge. In meetings with prospective clients, I talked too much. I tried to win their confidence by proving how much I knew: "The number-one ranked result for any given Google search gets 44% of the clicks."My stats were accurate, but my assumptions about why people hire creatives were wrong.The majority of business owners and executives don't pore over resumes, populate Excel spreadsheets with numbers, and crunch data to reach an ironclad determination. No, most people hire with their gut.

Most people hire for likability.

“Gut” is that funny visceral word we use to talk about a motley troupe of thoughts, feelings, and impressions, both conscious and subconscious. We’re like porcupines. Instead of quills, we have antennae, receiving signals from other people. We’re parsing physical appearance, attire, body language, demeanor, personality, and tone of voice.


Photo Credit: Ben Rosett via

Half the time, we don’t even realize we’re sorting and filing all that input and using it to form opinions. A “snap judgment” is more than a quick decision. Your subconscious mind, or gut, which is vast and sophisticated and powerful, calls your rational mind into the room at the tail end of a complex cooking and distilling process, and saying, “Okay, put this experience in this little blue bottle and put a label on it.”Our cultural wisdoms that point at this process suggest that our subconscious is often more perceptive than our rational minds:

  • You’ve got to go with your gut.
  • Trust your gut.
  • Listen to your gut.

(Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink for some fascinating anecdotes about this subconscious-conscious interplay.)Most people make snap judgments when interviewing candidates for a job or project. They hire with their gut.So despite my fumbled attempts to position myself as an expert, I landed gigs. People could see I was trying to be helpful. They said they appreciated my passion.

We don't like cognitive dissonance.

And at parties and events, acquaintances would make enthusiastic introductions: “Oh, Austin is an excellent writer. You should hire him!”How odd. I was certain that these people hadn’t seen any of my copywriting or marketing work. Why would they recommend me so emphatically?Here is what I pieced together: To like a person and at the same time believe that person is incompetent causes cognitive dissonance. Human beings don't like cognitive dissonance. We avoid it. We trust our gut and hire based on the warm, convivial glow that follows a pleasant conversation.Let’s say you have lunch on a Monday with an attorney you met through a mutual friend. You both enjoy long-distance running, and you knew some of the same people at Wake Forest. He’s got a well-tuned sense of humor, and you leave the restaurant with a smile on your face. It’s always nice to make a new friend.That afternoon, you mention the lunch to your mentor, and he recommends that you not hire your new friend. He explains that a couple of his other mentees hired that attorney and found him to be disorganized, unresponsive, and forgetful. Do you feel that dissonance now?

Be likable.

The warmth and glow from positive interactions from meals, drinks, and laughs suspends our critical faculty, at least temporarily. Though first impressions fade, and our opinions and affinities can change, we can’t help but believe at the outset that people we like do high-quality work.This snap judgment isn’t the final product of a rational process. It is rather a bottle of feelings and vague impressions that our subconscious hands to our conscious minds.Most people hire with their gut.Therein lies an opportunity for inexperienced and seasoned creatives alike.Only six months of marketing experience? Fine. Be likable.Brand new to freelancing and trying to build a client base? Fine. Be likable.Are you doing what you know is world-class work with the awards and internet fame to prove it?Fantastic. Be likable. Be easier to work with than all of your talented colleagues. People will naturally assume you’re an expert, and you’ll never give them a chance to think otherwise.Just remember to be likable and be the expert second.

You know this happens.

Some of you might be thinking, “But I’ve worked hard to build a reputation. I don’t have to convince anyone of anything. They come to me already believing I’m an expert.”The Likability vs. Expertise question relates to positioning and branding, not your aptitude or skill level or development as a professional. It’s a matter of emphasis, not mastery.Of course, most people want the very best services that they can afford. But whether they know it or not, they hire for likability first and talent second.If you go into a conversation thinking you need to live up to your own reputation, you may make the mistake of explaining how you deliver value. You’ll warm up to talking about award-winning web development, internet marketing, and e-commerce initiatives. Thirty minutes later, you have convinced the prospect that so-and-so was right about you: you're really good and you do indeed deliver incredible value at the price.By contrast, the recent college grad shouldn’t have a chance, right?All too aware that the ink hasn’t dried on her diploma, Ms. Fancypants Upstart asks questions, listens humbly, and takes extensive notes. Toward the end of that conversation, she and your prospect discover that they both love CrossFit.Yep, you just lost that contract.Why? The client walked away feeling heard. For forty-five minutes he got to talk about his daughter who is at a reading level several grades ahead, his golf handicap, and his Harley-Davidson. That made him feel particularly fine. He couldn’t help but project that glow onto Ms. Fancypants Upstart. He really liked her! She asked great questions and wrote everything down. She’ll do a great job.You know this happens. You’ve done it yourself. You decide you like people you know very little about. Why? They listened well.Most people hire with their gut.

Shut up and listen.

We flap our jaws because we’re nervous or because we’re trying to impress.Even if you do have a red cape and save business owners from the burning buildings of their own ineptitude, talking about yourself for thirty minutes can come across as tacky, at best, and self-centered, at worst. You may firehose them with technical jargon and other esoteric information that they find confusing, boring, or irrelevant. Worst of all, they may start thinking you’re a pompous a.We don’t find that desire to impress attractive in romantic relationships, so why would we find it winsome when money is involved? Treat conversations with clients like candlelit dinners. Shut up and listen, and you’ll come out ahead.

How much do you care?

Believe it or not, most people aren't interested in how much you know. They’re interested in how much you care. Be easy to talk to and work with, not a know-it-all.You may be the best thing since pull-up diapers, but if you aren't the sort of person that your prospects want to invite to a dinner party, then the prospect will quickly forget your qualifications.Can you contribute to the sudden disappearance of their problems? Can you orchestrate a desirable outcome?Men, in particular, like to claim to make decisions based on the information at hand—that is, facts. But how many men will buy an ugly car for the sake of its high safety rating and excellent fuel efficiency? Not many. Most men see a car, admire its lines, salivate over its stereo system, and then go looking for consumer reports and reviews to justify the emotional decision that they already planned to make. Your most desirable prospects, whether male or female, are human beings. They excel at all sorts of baffling behaviors.Be interested, not interesting. Stop trying to sell yourself and start asking questions.

Surprise! You don’t have to be the best.

You don't have to be the best if you're easy to work with.Hear me on this: I'm not suggesting that you manipulate anyone or try to pass yourself off as an expert by being funny or agreeable. But I am suggesting that if you don't spend most of your time in meetings asking questions, listening, and taking notes, then you're likely missing out on sales.I assume that you will be proactive about expanding your knowledge and expertise and improving your skills.I also assume that after the prospect awards you the contract, you will deliver top-notch products and services and give him no reason to doubt your expertise.Lead with likability. Follow with expertise.Have I now beaten the dead horse to death? Good.

7 Tips for Selling with Likability

Let’s close with some practical tips:

  1. Be on time. And offer a sincere apology if you’re late for the meeting and phone call.
  2. Pay. Buy lunch, coffee, or drinks for your prospect. Generosity is winsome.
  3. Don't start with business. Start the conversation with questions unrelated to business: “Tell me about your family.” “How do you know [mutual acquaintance or friend]?” “What do weekends look like for you?” “What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?”
  4. Ask open-ended questions. “What do you like about what you do?” “What’s your biggest challenge right now?” “What would you like to see happen?” “Tell me about your business.” “What are you excited about right now?” “What’s the ideal outcome for this project?”
  5. Take notes. People can’t help but feel like what they’re saying is valuable if you’re writing it down.
  6. Close with an act of helpfulness. “I’d love to introduce you to so-and-so. Keep an eye out for that email.” “I’ll share the link to a blog post that will help explain responsive websites.” “What’s your mailing address? I’m going to send you that book I mentioned.”
  7. Keep the ball in your court. By not adding something to your prospects' to-do list, you’re already making it easy to work with you. “I’ll follow up with you on Monday, and we can discuss next steps.” “Let me review my notes from our meeting, organize my thoughts, and send you my recommendations. Is Tuesday okay?” “Is it okay if I touch base with you next Wednesday, once you’ve thought more about the budget?”

Business is a lot like middle school. We like to be around and do business with people we like. Emphasize likability in your branding and positioning and watch what happens.+++Did you learn anything? Be sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter so that I can deliver new business-y insights straight to your inbox.