Transactional analysis is a theory about personality, personality development and communication. Its ideas were developed by Eric Berne in the 1950s, published in his Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (1951), then popularised through his later books, notably Games People Play, The Psychology of Human Relationships (1964) and What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1972), and those of his disciples eg Thomas Harris, I’m OK, you’re OK, (1976). Transactional analysis suggests models to observe and understand everyday communication. Its main ideas relate to ego states, transactions, games, strokes, drivers and life positions. I’ve found these very useful in analysing services sales and marketing.
An Ego state is a consistent pattern of feeling and experience, and normally associated with particular patterns of behaviour. The three ego states are Parent, Adult and Child:
- The Parent state may be Critical (should, ought, must, never) or Nurturing ‘there, there sweetie. Try again. It’s all right’
- The Adult state consists of organized, logical, problem solving ‘How, why, where, who, what’
- The Child state may be Natural and Spontaneous: " Wow, look at me”, or Adapted child : ‘If you say so…”
The Parent state is based on thoughts and feelings, derived from recordings in our brain, copied from parents or other authority figures that feature in our life. It includes warnings, punishments and rules, but also encouragement and loving nurture. It may emphasise what a person (ourselves or someone else) should do. The recordings are permanent – they cannot be erased.
Parent may be Nurturing or Critical Parent, with an emphasis on protecting and caring (for someone else or ourselves) or criticizing (again, someone else or ourselves). The Parent state is identified by gestures, posture and face expressions. “What a shame”, “Ridiculous”, “Unacceptable”, “Well done, young man” “How many times have I told you” – are verbal cues. Head shaking, pursed lips, furrowed brow, sighing, armed folded, or patting another person on the back are verbal cues. So, adults under the influence of “Parent” are judgmental, regulatory and conventional, or supportive and nurturing. The Parental state can be directed towards others, or inwards, putting ourselves down as a critical parent once did or encouraging as a nurturing Parent once did.
The Adult state consists of acquiring data through exploring and testing ideas. It is concerned with how things work, or how to achieve things. It is not emotional or need-driven, but reasoning and focused on problem solving. Adult includes many questions – for example, “Who?”, “How?”, “When?”
The Child state consists of feelings and emotional reactions permanently recorded from early years, in response to external events. A child may feel angry, hurt or confused. When praised, a child experiences are happy and positive. These recordings are triggered by events in adult lives. There are two types of Child ego state Adapted Child and Natural, with respectively an emphasis on compliance with authority or on free expression of feelings. The Child state makes people creative, emotional, insecure and seeking pleasure “I wish”. “I want”, “I don’t know”, “I don’t care”. Non-verbal behaviours include giggling, laughter, shoulder shrugging, whining voice.
Each ego state may be functional. Creative Child can be valuable in brainstorming situations. Rules of thumb from Parent can help where many unknowns would otherwise lead to progress stalling. However, Child and Parent can be very dysfunctional. The only state always desirable is Adult because it’s aware of the Parent, the Child and the situation.
The Adult determines what behaviour is appropriate. So, the lesson is not to stay in Adult state all the time, but to access the ‘adult ego’ and use it to understand the origins and nature of thoughts and feelings and to monitor discrepancies between the current situation and our reactions to it. All three states are equally valid and needed to enjoy a happy life. People exhibit all three, but one may dominate the other two. We can change how often one uses one ego state by developing another. Understanding ego states of oneself and others increases effectives of communication.
A transaction is a social interaction that can be verbal and non-verbal. The initiating message is called the stimulus and the reply is called the response. People communicate with others to meet their needs. The way we communicate depends on our ego states throughout the transaction.
Most organisations have a predominant ego state in their approach to marketing, sales and service, though the state may vary between the three functions. They may also have a secondary state, or two states in conflict. As we show later, an organisation’s approach to marketing and sales is strongly affected by this predominant ego state, particularly in the area of customer relationships.
Transactions may be complementary, crossed and ulterior. Complementary transactions are when a message gets the expected response from the other person. Communication proceeds smoothly as long as transactions are complementary. It occurs between two ‘ego states’ which reward one another. Though Adult-to-Adult transactions are most effective, communication and understanding can occur in Parent-to-Child, Parent-to-Parent, or in Child-to-Child complementary transactions.
In crossed transactions, a message sent or behaviour exhibited by one person’s ego state is reacted to by an incompatible, unexpected ego state on the part of the other person. Crossed transactions cause much interpersonal conflict. Communication may break down unless one or both individuals change ego state. Crossed transactions may cause hurt and frustration.
Ulterior transactions are when one or both parties are functioning in two ego states at the same time. These transactions are complex and subtle and may be damaging to interpersonal relations. A message will often be superficially adult to adult, with a hidden meaning of parent to child. The words send one message while the voice, gestures send another. There is a difference between what is said and what is meant. For business purposes, communication is most effective when transactions are complementary.
A Game is a pattern of transactions with a surface logic but hidden meaning and an attempt to draw in an unsuspected participant. The outcome of games is always a win-lose position, one party satisfies its interests at the expense of the other party. An outcome of a game is ‘bad feelings’. Eric Berne described over ninety games. Among the most common are the following:
- ‘If it weren’t for you, I could do . . . (or could have done …).’ This game is extremely common in familial relations – as when addressed by the son to his parents: ‘If you hadn’t forced me to go to boarding school, I could have been a concert pianist by now.’ At work, convention often prevents this game being played ‘live’, but it may well be rehearsed inwardly or to a colleague: ‘If the boss hadn’t had it in for me, I could have been running Area X by now.’
- ‘Why don’t you.. ?’; ‘Yes, but …’ as in ‘My job’s impossible; how can I deal with the bunch of bastards who are supposed to work for this agency and service twenty major clients as well?’ ‘Why don’t you hand over some of the clients to other people – Paula, for instance, or Miles? ‘Because the clients all want to have the Chief Executive service their account; if they don’t have me they’ll be off.’ ‘Well, you always say half of them are unprofitable – so hand those over. If they go, you’ve lost nothing.’ ‘Can’t do that – losing accounts is bad for staff morale’. ‘Isn’t having a Chief Executive who is too tired to do his job properly bad for staff morale?’ ‘Yes, but’ .
- Other games include ‘You got me into this’, ‘There I go again’ and ‘Why don’t you and he fight?’ Most games are dysfunctional.
Game playing is common in marketing. It is often the back-bone of marketing communications. Think of the number of adverts that communicate, at a subtle level, ‘If it wasn’t for the fact that you (consumer) are so…’stupid/unable to manage your own affairs/unable to plan for your future, feed your children properly……….we would not have to sell/supply our products in this way’.
Many sales processes have an underlying game of NIGYSOB (Now I’ve Got You, Son of A Bitch) or GOOTOT (Get Out of That One Then), in which the supplier aims to trap customers into a behavioural pattern that reinforces dependence on the supplier. This builds up resentment and negativity until another ‘rescuing’ supplier comes along. An example of this in financial services is the 0% balance transfer offer. The customer moves account and the cycle starts again.
The Drama Triangle (Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer) underpins many games and is another set of interactions evidenced in financial services marketing and sales. A customer builds up debt, becoming the victim. The supplier offers support and debt consolidation, becoming the rescuer. In the process the customer consolidates and treats themselves to a ‘car’. By increasing the loan at the supplier’s encouragement, customers feel that they have become the victim (driven by a Not OK Position), falls behind on repayments and blames the FS Company for bad advice ‘See What You’ve Made Me Do……..’.
All this may be the underlying game, which easily flips into ‘If it wasn’t for you doing this, I wouldn’t be in this mess.’ The supplier may now have first charge on the deeds of the house and it can become ‘NIGYSOB,’ ‘Now I’ve got you………..’. The Persecutor message, of which the customer many not be aware, is ‘I haven’t trusted you and have been watching you, hoping you would slip up and now you have.’
Stroking is any act of recognition, verbal or non-verbal, for another. People need affection, recognition and praise. Strokes may be positive, negative or mixed. Positive strokes feel good when they are received and contribute to a person’s sense of being OK. Negative strokes hurt emotionally and make us feel less OK about ourselves. Even negative strokes are regarded better than none at all. There is also a difference between conditional and unconditional strokes. Conditional strokes are offered to employees if they perform correctly. Unconditional strokes are presented without any connection to behaviour.
Social interaction can be viewed (from one aspect) as an economy of interactions. The value of each interaction can be measured in various ways. In business the value of interactions are measured in sales, units of sales, in a variety of marketing values (numbers of responses, levels of responses). In TA the unit can be described in terms of strokes. The question for sales and marketing is – what is the value of each stroke?
- In emails
- In texts
- In website visits
and how can their delivery be best managed.
One question is how much of a stroke is involved in each exchange, is it a positive or negative stroke?
It is reasonable to suggest that the greater the positive ‘stroke’, the greater the likelihood of further engagement in the sales process. People do seek negative strokes, and these are used in face-to-face selling e.g. the challenge ‘I’m not sure you could afford this one, the one your neighbour bought.’
You can model interactions in transactional analysis terms and assess the value in terms of strokes. In a very simple physical ‘stroking’ experiment, it has been shown that people tip more, and more frequently, if a waitress touches the customer in the process of order-taking and bill payment.
We all stroke our customers in marketing and selling to them, but we may not be aware how much is negative, how much positive and how much conditional. The balance between them influences how our customers feel about us in the long term, and whether we remain loyal. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that positive stroking requires delighting the customer. In fact, delighting the customer after a long period of disappointing them can be a negative stroke (why couldn’t you have been so good when I really needed you to be?).
Drivers: There are a number of common Parent messages – or ‘tapes’ – playing to us. These strongly influence – or drive – our thoughts, feelings and behaviour through our Adapted Child (AC).
The common drivers are:
- Be perfect: the driver leads the AC in us to be anxious about making mistakes, and we may become unnecessarily uncertain about committing ourselves to a decision
- Hurry up: the driver pushes the AC to do things quickly, and we may become needlessly anxious about delays
- Please others: the driver makes the AC anxious to please others people and may lead us to be too dependent on opinions of others
- Try hard: become too concerned with the striving at the expense of achievement
- Be strong: encourages the AC in us to control its emotions, and may lead us to deny our feelings, or to blame them on someone else
These drivers are often the hidden trigger points in advertising and marketing.
Each of us may show all five of these driver behaviours at some time or another, but most have one dominant driver, which has the greatest influence on their behaviour. Neutralizing a driver is a matter of establishing a positive message – one that contradicts the driver in the inner dialogue:
Driver Neutralising message
Be perfect You’re good enough as you are
Hurry up Take your time
Please others Please yourself
Try hard Do it
Be strong Be open and express your feelings
It is important to consider what messages we give our sales, marketing and service teams and of course our marketing communications agencies and other business partners who influence how our customers are managed (eg distributors) and compare it with the messages we give to customers – what are we saying and what are we trying to do?
With sales training, these messages are reinforced in learned behaviours – they become embedded in the day-to-day interactions with customers. Customers then reinforce these behaviours with their own interactions and so strengthen the cycle. What are the drivers that organisations are trying to build into their relationships with customers? How aware are organisations of the extent to which their customer management strategies are built on these ‘drivers’ and ‘games?’ In the games and drivers are not conscious, how can they be managed, controlled and developed?
There are four basic life positions – attitudes which people adopt and act out concerning their self-worth and the value of others:
- I’m OK, you’re OK – co-operate, share
- I’m OK, you’re not OK – compete, aggression
- I’m not OK, you’re not OK – avoid
- I’m not OK, you’re OK – submit to, concede
The first position, developed by a little baby in relation to its parents, is I’m OK, you’re OK. It expresses the baby’s dependence and helplessness compared to that of the parents. This position, according to Berne, in most cases develops into one of the other three life positions. The only truly positive position is that of ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ – I feel good about myself and my self-esteem is high, and I also respect and regard you (other people) highly.
The life position we take can have either positive or negative impact on our lives. The model is useful when handling difficult situations. – particularly those where a person has to come to terms with their own failure in some project or comes into conflict with another person. The natural tendency of many people is to transfer their bad feelings about the behaviour to the person himself. Your failure in a project can lead you to think ‘I’m not OK’. Someone else’s behaviour, at odds with yours, leads you to feel ‘He is not OK’. These feelings are not generally helpful in managing the situation.
Transactional analysis increases awareness both of the self and of others. It gives you a tool for influencing others. Activating their Child, you stimulate creativity and enthusiasm. Communicating on Adult-to-Adult level you can constructively deal with interpersonal conflict. Awareness of games that are played in organizations can help you achieve better work relationships.
These life positions are critical in customer management terms. An understanding of the stance a company takes towards its customers reveals much of how an organisation views itself, its products, its market position and its customers. Consider the winning financial services advert ‘For the Life You Don’t Yet Know’ supported with the song ‘There may be trouble ahead.’ The message here was a clear ‘You are Not OK’ – even if you thought you were.’ The humour in the advert disguised its chilling and unnerving message.
Applying the ideas to sales and marketing
I see two areas for applying the ideas, both of which suggest moving from a situation in which the supplier and the customer may perceive themselves as parent and/or child, with the risk of crossed transactions.
The first area is planning, the second area is in individual supplier-customer interactions. Both these areas are, however, a reflection of the same underlying phenomenon.
In marketing planning and in managing interactions between customers and suppliers, there is often the presumption that the marketer’s job is to “know better than the market”, and ‘tell it what to do, based on superior knowledge and judgement’. The supplier’s drive is to be perfect, in the sense of having the best marketing mix, and the customer’s drive is to be perfect, in the sense of getting the best deal or most appropriate offer. This leads to a situation in which customers are offered an inappropriate marketing mix – products, prices, channels etc. The supplier behaves as parent towards the child customers – “if you don’t buy this product, at this price, use this channel etc., you don’t deserve me as a supplier”.
However, the customer senses this, and takes a similar parent view – ‘because you haven’t understood me, I’m not going to let you sell to me’. This contrasts with the adult-adult complementary transaction approach, in which each side exchanges information about their needs and plans and over a period arrive at an arrangement which suits them both. They both become OK with respect to each other, and become better at meeting each other’s needs.
I believe that the customer relationship should be open and inclusive. The customer is invited and encouraged to participate fully in the marketing and sales relationship so as to build the relationship and shape the product. Even in ‘low-ticket’ one-off purchases the customer is invited to give feedback and engage – the relationship is such that a feedback channel is open. The transactions are not crossed nor are they ulterior and the goal is an I’m OK, You’re OK position. If this is not the case then this can be recognised and a decision taken with open eyes.
What are the broader implications? Organisations should analyse their definition of what a being a customer means. This means taking into account their transactional approach (life position, game position, rewards approach). For example, it is typical for an organisation to wield a ‘negative stroke’ when a customer explains that they are delaying a purchase. The customer may have been asked for a decision and if the answer is ‘postpone’, the organisation gives a Not OK stroke, leaving the customer confused and feeling bad – ‘you asked me for a decision, I gave you my decision and now you don’t value me.’
For example, bank customers’ inertia may be high and so negative stroke after negative stroke may not be enough for the customer to move the account. But these customers talk to their friends and engage in ‘poor me’ and ‘victim-like’ behaviour, ensuring that their friends will not transfer to that particular supplier. These customers are harder to engage in Adult to Adult planning with the supplier and typically use any initial ‘planning’ sessions to give vent to all their pent-up negative feelings about the treatment the supplier has given them. They need to be engaged in a dialogue over a period of time.
Analysis of the interactions between customer and supplier in different situations (eg successful sale, deferred decision, refusal) will produce data which will need to be analysed using different criteria and approaches which are sensitive to human behaviour and to attitudinal responses. Customers should be involved in this analysis. There should be greater depth in the search for meaning in the data.
Multichannel management will need to be replanned and designed, so both sides can sense and respond by the best channel(s) and combine channels to optimum effect to manage each stage of the journey. The customer will need to be included in this process and to shape this process with the supplier channels. This will need to be undertaken in a more flexible manner than usual. The customer relationship may require its greatest investment when the customer’s purchasing need is most sated and when many customers are looking for a positive stroke – rather than immediately pre-sale.
Data collection processes will need to be more sensitive, able to collect more ambiguous data. Customer management processes need to be capable of allowing staff to respond more sensitively during the process, and to be more inclusive with the customer. New questions will need to be asked. Those involved in the customer management process need to be competent to direct, manage, and deliver this new world for the customer.
Obviously, in a perfect world, adult would be matched with adult, but this is rare. However, all is not lost, and a company which discovers that it tries to be adult but in general is faced with parent or child customers can educate them as to the benefits of the adult state. However, this takes time and resources, so one of the analyses required relates to what it does take to improve matching and how long it will take. Both sides need time to learn, and of course the process of change is not riskless.
The transactional analysis approach has important implications for many topics in marketing, including:
- Customer journey and experience management, including the importance of understanding the perspective and perceptions of customers and customer-facing people
- Multi-channel customer management
- Customer data management
- Competitive advantage
These would need to be identified as part of an audit. Indeed, once the principles have been understood, a straightforward ego-state audit approach can be adopted, allowing a company to:
- Diagnose where it and its customers are
- Deciding where it wants to go
- Finding out how to get there
- Deciding how to pace it
- Implementing, monitoring and control
A critical part of this process is the auditing of customer-facing staff, first-line management and customers themselves, to identify how the relationship is being managed at the moment, and the potential for future change.