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  • Writer's pictureRamsay

How to Use the “Door-in-the-Face” Technique to Sell More [Research Summary]

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

We're all about using science to improve our marketing. Have you heard of the "Door-in-the-face" technique? It's a psychological strategy you can use to improve your marketing and increase sales.

Yellow and green door in the face technique for business
Use the door-in-the-face technique to improve your marketing and sales.

The “door-in-the-face” technique comes from, you guessed it, door-to-door salespeople. The idea is that you offer a customer something that you know that they will not accept and then they slam “the door in your face”. Then, you offer them something else, perhaps a lower price or better deal. The technique makes them more likely to accept the second thing than if you had asked for it right from the start.

Let me give you an example.

Some of the original research on this phenomenon was conducted by Cialdini and his colleagues. They went to a university and approached random students to ask if they would be willing to spend two hours accompanying delinquent teens to a zoo. Not a great deal right? Most of the university students said no — only 17% said that they would.

Next, the researchers approached students to ask them if they would be willing to spend two years acting as a personal counselor for delinquent teens. Unsurprisingly, no one agreed. But after each of the university students refused, the researchers then asked them if they would be willing to spend two hours accompanying delinquent teens to the zoo (the same request as before). Now 51% said that they would.

Asking for the unreasonable thing increased agreement for the more reasonable thing — from 17% to 51%.

The lesson is that by asking for something huge first — and getting a “door in the face”— people are more likely to agree to something smaller. If the researchers asked directly for students to help out at the zoo, only 17% agree. But the number jumps up significantly if they first ask something unreasonable first.

Why Does It Work?

The reason it works is that we have a strong norm for reciprocity embedded in our society. When someone does something for us, we feel like we should do something back for them. When someone gives us a gift, we feel like we should give one back. When we do a favor for someone, they feel like they should do one for us.

In one study, a sociology researcher, Phillip Kunz, sent out almost 600 Christmas cards to complete strangers. The cards were all handwritten and included a photo of him and his family. He received almost 200 cards in return.

Why would 200 strangers send a Christmas card to a complete stranger? The norm of reciprocity. They felt like they should return the gesture that he had done for them.

Reciprocity helps us form stable groups and build trust. Some argue that it’s foundational to our ability to have a functioning society. It’s also, apparently, universal — virtually all human cultures have a norm to reciprocate.

We Also Reciprocate Concessions

Okay great, but what is being reciprocated in the study about spending time with delinquents at the zoo?

Concessions. After the student says no to the offer to work with delinquent teens for two years, the researchers give a concession and offer the two-hour zoo trip instead. Since the researchers gave a concession, the student feels like they must give a concession as well. They said no to the two-year counseling offer, but they will make a concession to say yes to the zoo trip.

The researchers elicit a concession in the university students by offering one themselves.

Here’s another example. Researchers offer children to do a 20 problem assignment. Only 35% agree to do it. To other children, researchers offer a 100-problem assignment. When the children refuse, the researchers make a concession and offer the 20-problem assignment. Now 90% of the children agree to it.

The effect is huge and can be seen in a ton of applications.

Business Applications

So how can it be used in business and marketing? It is best applied in situations where you are directly interacting with a potential client and where there is some room for negotiation. Here are some ideas for how you can use it in your business.

Soliciting donations.

Do you work for a charity? One study found that this technique can be effective in soliciting monetary donations for charity.

  • First, ask for much more than you really want — say, $100.

  • Then, if they refuse, ask for $5.

Another study found that it is effective in increasing blood donations. First, researchers asked potential donors to donate blood every two months for three years. No one agreed. Then ask for the donation of one pint of blood. 84% agreed. This was significantly higher than the 43% that agreed when asked for one pint directly.

  • First, ask for a much higher donation commitment than you really want — say, regular blood donations over a period of years.

  • Then, if they refuse, ask for a one-time donation.

Increasing sales.

One study looked at using the technique in retail. The researchers were selling cheese to people walking past a hut in the Austrian Alps. They found that when they requested a sale for two pounds of cheese at eight euros, and then lowered it to one pound of cheese at four euros, they got up to 40% more sales than when they asked directly for selling the one pound of cheese.

A similar approach could use this in telemarketing, real-estate negotiations, and car sales purchases.

  • First, pitch a sales agreement that you know your customer probably cannot accept.

  • Then, lower the request to your real goal price.

You should see more sales than if you ask for the lower request directly.

Getting a meeting or sales call.

Having trouble getting a meeting or phone call with a potential client? Try this.

  • Ask for a two-hour meeting. Most people will refuse this.

  • Then ask for a 30-minute meeting. You’ll be more likely to receive this than if you had asked for it directly at first.


Are you negotiating your salary? Perhaps you want a 5% raise this year.

  • Ask first for a 20% raise. You’ll probably be refused.

  • Then ask for the 5% raise.

Or, perhaps you’re negotiating the price for a product or service.

  • Offer a much higher price than your real goal.

  • Then offer a second offer similar to your goal.

Market research.

Are you trying to get someone to fill out a market research survey?

  • Ask potential participants to fill out a 100-question survey.

  • When they refuse, ask them to fill out a two-question survey.

The Fundamental Principles

Basically, to use the door-in-the-face technique, you have to create these conditions:

  1. A big first request. It should be big enough that it will probably be refused, but not so big that your customer will resent you or be put off engaging with you.

  2. An opportunity to compromise by accepting a second, smaller request.

  3. The second request should be related to the first request and come from the same person.

How else can you use this? Feel free to share your ideas about how you can use this in your business.


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