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Sales, Lies and Manipulation

| James Riley |

When I am in the middle of buying something, sometimes I back up and look at the experience from an existential perspective. I enjoy looking at the process that is taking place to see how the different parties are interacting and their overall posture in the exchange. While there are exceptions, I have been disappointed to see how often the process involves lies and manipulation just to get the sale. It sometimes leaves me wondering if there is such a thing as ethical sales. Then, however, I remember good sales…ones where both parties were looking out for each other and were collectively trying to create a positive outcome for each party.

I was reminded of the negative side of this on a recent trip abroad. While trying to buy some souvenirs to take home, I visited several shops that all had, essentially, the same stuff. The first shopkeeper was amazingly friendly. He brought me in and had a very methodical sales process that kept me in the store for a while. He even showed me some things that, according to him, only he and his family could hand make themselves. I just about believed that until I went into the next store and the next store where they had the same exact thing. The story was consistent, that it was handmade, but it varied as to who made it. Each store had its own gimmick and shtick but each one left me with a sense that they weren’t really being honest with me and were willing to say about anything they believed would get me to make a purchase…they just wanted to get into my wallet.

In the souvenir instance, I was most definitely being lied to. The other interesting part is that those lies were being used to manipulate me into thinking that I was accomplishing my goal of getting something unique but the manipulation was based on deceptive purposes that sought to defraud me by causing me to believe a falsehood. However, I believe that the shopkeepers were acting ethically, just not according to the ethics I expected. It seems to me that they genuinely believed that the most valuable thing to sell a tourist was a good story and experience…even if it is a lie. To a person that believes that, telling me a false story about how a souvenir was made or where it came from is consistent with their ethic…I just may not agree with that ethic. With that said, I think we would all agree that, in general, it is expected or desired that people are honest and their statements are accurate and truthful…to that extent, many sales interactions lack this “universal” ethic.

Before we go further, let’s define that most, if not all, interactions are, essentially, sales interactions. The currency and other dynamics will most definitely change but a sale is being made in all interactions. This is important because it broadens our perspective on when a “sale” is occurring and when and why lies and manipulation may or may not be at play. This could easily lead one to despair that all interactions are destined to degrade into lies and deceit but I believe that it can be quite different.

So, can you even have sales without lies and manipulation? I believe that you can and should have it without lies but manipulation seems to be a bit of an interesting thing.

Lies are a pretty easy thing to define. A lie is commonly defined as a false statement or representation with a deliberate intent to deceive. While politicians like to play with the meaning of this word, I believe the key here is the “deliberate intent to deceive”. Generally, I think that we expect and desire that sales do not include lies.

When it comes to manipulation, I think the story changes a little bit. There is, of course, less ethical manipulation where you use lies to manipulate a person to do something that profits you but not them. However, I believe that there are also very good kinds of manipulation.

Have you ever been looking at something and are trying to help someone else see what you are seeing? When you point your finger at the target, give them visual cues to find it, move them to have a better angle or just point their head at it, you are, essentially, manipulating their perspective so they can see the thing. In leadership, we, often, do the same thing. We know where someone wants to go and we know where we need them to go. As we coach them along the way, sometimes, it is necessary to manipulate their perspective.

One example of manipulating a person’s perspective comes from an internal, true, story we have about an expensive hammer. A while back, one of our engineers was onsite with a client and found that he needed a hammer for something but forgot to bring his toolbag and the client did not have one. The client was directly across the street from a Home Depot but, not wanting to waste money, he drove an hour back to his house to get his toolbag and returned to the client with his trusty hammer…after 2 hours of extra driving. As we debriefed on the scenario, I appreciated what he was trying to accomplish but I also wanted him to have a bit of a bigger picture perspective on costs. As such, as we talked, I needed to manipulate his perspective to help him see the costs that were incurred in the travel compared to the costs that would have been incurred had he gone across the street to Home Depot to buy a hammer. Today, this is a story we tell all new team members when we are training them on managing costs from a big picture perspective.

The key, I believe, to ethical manipulation is that the parties are in agreement that manipulation needs to occur, the manipulation is intended to be beneficial and, to varying degrees, there is agreement on how much manipulation needs to occur. When I go to my chiropractor, I agree that my spine needs to be manipulated into alignment. When I seek to learn a new subject, I agree that my perspective may need to be manipulated in order to learn the new subject. In both of these examples, often, I know that I need manipulation but I may not know exactly what that entails. In the case of the chiropractor, I may not need to know everything that goes into my manipulation. In both cases, both the chiropractor and the teacher educate me on the elements that I need to know.

So, how does this tie back to sales? For us, as we engage in sales conversations with people, we start by asking a lot of questions. Sometimes, this shows us that the prospect has a very solid grasp on what they need and all we need to do is to say, “yes, we can do that” or “you are on a great path, keep doing what you are doing.” However, usually, we find that the prospect either knows they are lacking some knowledge or doesn’t know what they don’t know…that is usually why we are talking. In these cases, we see our job as consultants. Along with asking a lot of questions, we counsel the prospect on what we see, how that integrates with what they want, ideas we have for things they may not be considering and what solutions are available. As we go through providing this counsel, we are, essentially, ethically manipulating the situation to create a synthesis between what the prospect wants, what they need and what is possible. From our perspective, this is ethical as it is driven by the key in the paragraph above…the parties are in agreement on what is being done.

For us, we find that this process creates a trust relationship where both parties are able to trust that the other genuinely understands them and is genuinely looking out for their best interest. In this kind of relationship, manipulation is a welcome thing as we understand that manipulation is done for everyone’s benefit, in order to create alignment.

Transactional sales typically don’t justify the more drawn out conversations but I believe that the principles remain the same. As an example, ethical manipulation could occur as the sales floor person advises you to consider another shirt that matches the kind of shirt you want but might provide you with some other benefit as well. I have had transactional sales events where I genuinely felt that the manipulation I was receiving was ethical and sound. In those cases, when possible, I tend to go back to that person the next time I need to perform that kind of transaction…this can begin to transition transactional sales into more of a relationship-based sales model, benefiting both parties.

What do you think? Can sales be done without lies? Is there a place for ethical manipulation? We’d love to talk with you more to learn about what you think about sales and, maybe, if we might be able to build a mutually beneficial relationship. If you’d like to connect with us, click HERE to contact us.