The AIDA Model Flaw

I may step on a few toes with this article, as many salespeople swear by the AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) technique. I’m just not one of them.

But if you’ll just stay with me for a few minutes, I think it will be worth your time. The opinions in this article are my own, based upon empirical observation and experiences in selling and working with salespeople in the real world.

The AIDA Funnel Technique was originated in 1898 by the American advertising and sales pioneer, E. St. Elmo Lewis, with his “Hierarchy of Effects Model.”

Lewis developed this as a practical sales tool based on customer studies in an attempt to explain the mechanisms of personal selling.

He held that the most successful salespeople followed a categorized, four layer process using the four cognitive phases that buyers follow when accepting a new idea or purchasing a new product.

The four steps of his AIDA Funnel technique are:

  1. Awareness of the existence of a product or service;
  2. Interest in paying attention to the product’s benefits;
  3. Desire for the product.
  4. Action toward satisfying the demand

Lewis held that the fourth stage or mental state, action (purchasing) was a natural result of moving through the first three stages.

For example:

  1. Are you talking to me? (awareness)
  2. Why are you talking to me? (interest)
  3. Good idea, but do I really need it? (desire)
  4. What will I have to do to get it? (action)

His model is based on the assumption that external stimuli from the sales representative is the determining factor by which people become motivated to act in purchasing anything.

This theory became accepted in consumer behavior research as the hierarchy of effects model. It was also widely used by sales managers as the backbone for structuring administration and management of sales activity and results.

Now while sales managers may have welcomed it, customers didn’t necessarily share this viewpoint.

This model takes the view that the salesperson rather than the buyer has the most control in the interaction; an assumption refuted by later research. Also the model tended to be applied too rigidly, not allowing the flexibility necessary to handle the surprises and unpredicted changes common in any sale.

The problem was that it demanded that the customer fit the sales method rather than allowing the salesperson to adapt and adjust to fit the needs of the customer.

A short story will illustrate.

Years ago, I worked with a salesman who had been trained in the AIDA funnel technique and he followed it religiously, to his and the customers detriment.

Using this method as a strict template, he talked in disproportionate ratio to listening, apparently in an attempt to keep the prospect moving through the funnel without objection.

This was problematic because after directing the prospect through the four steps – only to discover that the customer was not ready to move into action – he would resort to forcing the close, even demanding action from the customer.

Of course, to no one’s surprise, this only created more resistance, requiring even more force to seal the deal.

Sometimes it even worked, but the customers never forgot how it made them feel and certainly weren’t anxious to repeat the experience.

The sober fact is this: while he was definitely passionate about his method, the results just weren’t there. Why? Because the customer can still think for himself.

Now I admit that the work of Lewis and the AIDA funnel method is commendable as a starting point in selling and examining the mechanics of selling, but something was overlooked in the process.

What is missing is the human element.

It may have looked good on paper, but it mostly failed in practice.


Because all selling is based on the human activity of exchanging products and services for mutual benefit.

To assume you can leave the customer out of the equation and still believe there will be a mutual benefit is unsound thinking. It exposes an incomplete understanding of the way people work in the real world.

In fact, this method violates at least three of the natural laws of selling:

1. All selling is based on mutual agreement.

2. It’s always about the people.

3. Agreement cannot be forced.

The primary requisite for success in selling is this:

To understand selling you first understand people.

You cannot separate these two elements and hope to achieve consistent results. They are opposite sides of the same coin. Any attempt to quantize the human activity of selling to make it fit into a schematic with little boxes and connected lines will ultimately fail.

As much as some self-proclaimed experts would like to think otherwise, people are not trained animals or animated robots. People can and do act and react in some very unpredictable ways that may not align with your techniques, methods and tactics, no matter how well thought out.

You have to adjust your methods to the customer, not force them to fit into yours.

Only by realizing that you’re dealing with another live human being, with their own feelings, desires, problems, fears, needs and wants, will you have any chance whatsoever of forming a relationship with that customer or prospect.

And until you can do that, you will make only “accidental sales”, meaning one in which another salesperson, at some earlier time, did the work to create a relationship with the person and interest them in the product. And now you are receiving the benefit of that work.

The AIDA funnel method is however crudely workable, as it does outline some of the general levels that customers move through in the purchasing process. But it largely omits the most important factor: the people.

But until those levels from awareness to action are aligned with the natural laws of selling, common to all people, this method is no better than any other odd-ball technique or tactic.

You’re always far better off looking to the basic underlying laws of selling to build your career on, as these are laws will never let you down.

daniel w. jacobs
(c) 2012-2030, all rights reserved



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