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Selling and the Art of Misdirection

Selling and the Art of Misdirection

There are two common myths surrounding salespeople, one held by the public, the other held by those within the profession itself. The first is harmless, because no one believes it anyway; the second is harmful, because many salespeople buy into it.

The first myth goes something like this: salespeople are slick as oil, smooth as sin and fast as a cardsharp. They talk rapid delivery, with one hand around your shoulders and the other in your pocket. The only sin they are not guilty of is boredom. And of course they can sell anything to anyone, even refrigerators to Eskimos… which we now know is definitely not true – I mean, Eskimos don’t have power points, do they?

Obviously this myth is just a myth, and everyone treats it as such. No harm done.

Now for the second myth, one that I consider quite sinister.

Consider for a moment any books you may have read about selling, or any seminars you may have attended. They all, without exception, promulgate the myth of the modern salesperson as hardworking, honest, a pillar of society who always has the customer’s best interests at heart. Of course he also believes in God, helps others, does good deeds, has outstanding family values and mows the lawn every second Sunday… in short, he is whiter-than-white, holier-than-thou, and purer than the Virgin Mary.

Well, I’ve been in sales for over forty years and I’ve yet to meet such a salesperson. I’ve met some of the best and you know what?… they are all flawed, some of them badly so.

OK, you say, the myth of the “honest salesperson” is just an ideal; something to live up to. Well, maybe; but that’s not how it is presented. Listen to the sales trainers. They will tell you, amongst other things, that the top salespeople don’t tell lies.

Absurd as it may sound, sales trainers and authors and a great many salespeople actually believe this. And it is absurd because everyone, from the Prime Minister (especially the Prime Minister) down tells lies. 94% of British women admit to lying (US Playboy, April, 2004, p31); the rest just told a lie. And sales trainers are cut from the same cloth; they tell lies whenever they tell us that good salespeople don’t tell lies.

Indeed sales trainers go considerably further, and state that no matter how bad things get these “good” salespeople just keep going, as enthusiastic as ever. You know… when the going gets tough, the tough get going, that sort of thing. Well, I don’t know where sales trainers get these ideas from. Perhaps they move in a more rarefied orbit than I do, because the salespeople I know are all too human; they can and do get discouraged; they can feel negative, just like everyone else.

Reading the books and listening to the seminars, one is tempted to think that salespeople jump out of bed first thing in the morning, eager to go off to work and help their clients. Well, that’s nice. But every once in a while, or more often, even the super salesperson has to drag herself out of bed, with the client’s bests interests the absolute furthest thing from her mind; the only “best interests” in her mind being her own. Welcome to the real world!

So let’s lay the cards on the table. No matter what books and seminars may tell you, all salespeople (and all of the rest of us) tell lies. Now that’s disgraceful, I know. But what is infinitely worse is when a salesperson (and anyone else) does lie, and then pretends he didn’t. In other words, when he goes out and lies – and oh! he will – he will then bend over backwards, twist sideways and turn himself inside out, to justify himself. And that’s the worst lie of all. That’s where the real damage is done – pretending or believing that one didn’t lie. This in the East is called delusion. In the West it is called a… well, we don’t really have a word for it. I guess we could call it telling lies about lies. I call it living a lie – as opposed to merely telling one. Whatever you want to call it, the pretense of not telling lies when in fact we do, is no way to excellence in selling, or anything else for that matter.


Because if you buy into that I-don’t-tell-lies set of morals, you find you have to justify yourself every time you do tell a lie. And that’s just dead weight. You are better off without it.

The old adage, know thyself, holds just as true in selling as it does in every other endeavor. It means to know yourself, lies, kinks and all. There is much talk in sales circles about knowing your client, and that’s all right, I suppose. At least it won’t get in the way. But you can dispense with that, because if you know yourself, you will know your client. Conversely, if you don’t know yourself, you will never know your client.

My first sales manager, a family man, a bishop in the Mormon Church, was as good a person as I could ever hope to meet. He was also the best salesman I have ever met. When he sold his wares, he presented them as an extraordinarily good deal. This was, without a doubt a lie. The package he sold was not a good deal. I know; I sold it too. It was overpriced, like so many door to door items, and the quality was just fair. Yet here he was, a great salesman who had won every award his company had ever offered, a man of virtue, a bishop no less, telling lies and misrepresenting his product. How could he justify that?

He couldn’t, and what made him a great human being, not just a great salesman, is that he didn’t even try! He confided in me on at least one occasion that he wasn’t doing anyone a favor by selling that product. He could of course have done what a lesser person would do, he could have twisted it around in some way (human ingenuity knows no bounds) and proved to himself and everyone else that he was actually helping his clients. But he wasn’t prepared to do that. He did what he did, and he lived with what he did, and in so doing he chucked off a great deal of dead weight, by not pretending to be something he wasn’t.

So the reality check is this: if you sell, you lie; if you live, you lie. Hey… don’t blame me; I didn’t make the rules.

But let’s get serious. Do you think for a moment that your prospects don’t lie to you? When they say, I’ll think about it, do you really think they will? When they say, I’ll get back to you, did they? When they say, I can’t afford it… well, we know about that one.

Prospects and customers will lie without hesitation, and the cleverer ones will try to trick you. One of my prospects liked the artwork I was selling so much that I was already salivating and spending the commission halfway through the presentation (always a danger sign). After some thought, she asked me what sort of deal I’d give her if she bought sixteen pictures. Sixteen pictures is a very good sale, so I could afford to offer her a better deal than usual, and still do very well. So I gave her a price and… you guessed it, she only bought one picture. But because she had tricked me into revealing my bottom line, she drove a mercilessly hard bargain.

Customers are smart. They’ll do whatever it takes to get the best deal. And they are assuming that you will too! This will vary a lot with the sort of selling you do, but as far as the customers are concerned, when you are in the thick and thin of it, the gloves are off. So why should you shackle yourself up and weigh yourself down with some sort of contrived morality that sales trainers and authors and others have foisted on you?

As for this idiot notion that you should have the customers’ best interests at heart…

Why, for Chrissakes?!

You are not your brother’s or sister’s keeper.

And even if you were, how in heaven’s name could you possibly know what is in your clients’ best interests? Truth be told (!), much of the time even the client doesn’t know what’s in his own best interests. So what chance have you got? The best you can do is to present your product the best way you know how and let the prospects make up their own mind. Once again, trying to work out what’s best for your client is just so much useless moralistic baggage – dead weight – that you can’t afford to carry around. If you want to get to the top you have to travel light.

Morals and ideals are OK, if that’s what you want, but the downside is that they are forever forcing you to justify your actions. You can’t afford that.

The trick is to free yourself up. Selling requires freedom – the freedom to observe what works and what doesn’t, and you can’t do that if you are tied up in all sorts of ideals and morals and rights and wrongs. The unfortunate thing about morals and ideals is that not everything fits nice and neat into moral codes of behavior, and then you find yourself twisting and squirming in an attempt to make them fit. That’s what weights you. Without a moral code, however, you are free to act instantaneously and spontaneously, without worrying about how you are going to justify it later. Paradoxically, if you can do that, you will soon see that most lies are simply unnecessary at best, and either counter-productive or a waste of energy at worst. They’ll hurt you more than the prospect. Once you realize that, you clean up your act real quick – but for practical rather than moral reasons.

But this still leaves some lies. They are unavoidable. I’m sorry! Every time you or any other salesperson, however ethical you or the other salesperson may be, put on a presentation it is a lie, because it inevitably presents the product in its best light. Faults are either glossed over, or omitted altogether. It’s what they call a lie of omission. Or, from another perspective, every time a girl puts on lipstick and makeup, she is telling a lie, presenting a face that is not her own. Another example: every time you apply for a job, are you going to tell the whole truth and nothing but? Of course not. Is that lying? Of course! When sales trainers put forward the myth that good salespeople always tell the truth and do what is best for their clients, they tell a lie. And worse, they cease to be sales teachers and become preachers. They should make up their minds which one they want to be.

Sales writers and trainers are entitled to their altruism and idealism and any other ism they care to indulge in, but to try to foist these onto others is at best unprofessional, at worst a betrayal of their calling. The “enthusiasm” of some of these trainers is such that they decidedly overstep their bounds. To target lying is one thing, but they go a lot further in their idealistic crusade. One popular author and speaker on selling feels that even “pitching and dealing” mar the pristine purity of the sales process: Let’s not make pitches… and don’t offer them deals, he says. Pitch and deal are verbal garbage… if you’ve a need to garbage-mouth your problems away, it won’t be easy to stop.

His solution: to offer your wonderful opportunity to people who want, need and can afford it.

Well, that’s real nice. I congratulate this trainer for living his life on such a high level. But some of the rest of us like to pitch and deal. Car salespeople, for example. Real estate salespeople, for example. Me, for example. When I sell artwork, I have to strike a deal. It doesn’t hurt anyone. I really would like to know what’s wrong with pitches and deals, other than that it hurts this particular trainer’s idea of how the world should be.

My point is this. When you enter the world of selling, be aware – beware – of sales books and seminars. They describe perfect salespeople, perfect products, and perfect prospects… none of which exist. There isn’t a product that doesn’t have drawbacks, there isn’t a salesperson who doesn’t have his off-days and miss sales that he should have got, and there aren’t too many prospects who always give you textbook answers.

In the world of sales trainers there is black and white, right and wrong. In the real world, there are shades of gray. Try it their way if you want. Try telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, and see where it gets you. Chances are you won’t be able to say a single thing, because anything you say dips, if ever so slightly, into a shade of gray. You will be too scared to utter a single word, for fear of transgressing some imaginary moral code.

If you are just starting off in selling (or in anything else for that matter), my recommendation is this: moralize all you want, but do it later. At first just get into it, do it, get a few sales under your belt. If your sales spiel has a few half-truths – and it will – don’t hang yourself up about them. In the beginning what you need is experience, lots of it. If you start out in selling by saying, I can’t do this, it’s a lie, I can’t do that, it’s a lie and so on, my suggestion is you go somewhere safe where the real world is not likely to intrude on your sensitivities – if you can find such a place! Just get started. Do what your sales manager tells you and you can sort out what’s right and what’s wrong later. But chances are you won’t have to. If you stay in the business long enough, things will sort themselves out quite adequately. Your clients soon let you know what they will and will not tolerate.

The bottom line is this: I don’t care what you do, and you shouldn’t either – as long as you are at ease with yourself! Buy into a moral code if you wish, but my experience is that moralistic people are rather uptight. Morals tend to put you under strain, you have to do right, you have to be right. And this has very real consequences, especially in the world of selling. If you bear in mind that a prospect buys you, before she buys your product, then how you come across is of primary importance. If you are not at ease with yourself, the prospect won’t be either. That translates into, she won’t buy! So work toward excellence, not according to some moral code, but according to the way things are. Be at ease with yourself, and the world of gray you operate in, and your prospect will also be at ease with you and will do her bestest to send the orders your way.

Ultimately the question of whether or not to tell lies to your prospects is moot. It’s not what you decide that counts; it is what you are. If you are true to yourself, and if you are at ease with yourself, then you are your own person. The prospect will pick this up and she will respect it. And she will buy. If however you buy into someone else’s set of morals then you are living a lie! and the prospect will pick this up, and you will not make the sale.

Anyway, having unloaded all that on you, I am now going out to make some sales calls. And I am going to smile, even if I don’t feel like smiling. Is that a lie, I wonder? Well, I don’t know and I don’t care. I am going to leave that “problem” to the moralists while I get on with living (and selling) because living (and selling) is the best teacher and it will very smartly pull me up when I get out of line.