Sex, Lies and Sales

Most salespeople have a complicated relationship with the truth. It’s not hard to understand why, but most of us shy away from truth-telling. Too bad for us. It’s not only misguided—it actually doesn’t work. (And don’t worry, we’ll get to the sex part later).

Take James—a smart, personable man in his 40s. He approached me after a talk I gave and said:

I like all your stuff about how truth-telling increases trust and how that helps sales. But I just can’t do that. I changed industries just over a year ago and I’m competing against guys who have several decades in the business. If that gets out there, I’m dead meat. I just can’t afford to be that truthful.

I’m sympathetic to James. First of all, he’s far from wrong; many buyers place a premium on experience and he’ll lose at least some of those customers. Second, it’s very real. Salespeople operate in the ultimate meritocracy—you can run but you can’t hide from performance.

And yet: James is a liar.

Don’t get me wrong: he feels bad about it. He’s not proud of it. He wishes there were another way and he’ll wiggle quite a bit to avoid having to tell an overt lie.

But see, that wiggling is the lie itself. You’re kidding yourself if you think letting others mislead themselves is materially different from lying.

Lying Destroys Customer Centricity

Think about why James would lie. Think about why you lie. Almost always it’s to get something you don’t have, or to keep something you’ve got. Both of which, let’s face it, are entirely about you. It’s usually fear that leads us to lie—fear that we won’t get what we want if we don’t step in and give the scales a little help.

Companies and their salespeople love to say they are “customer-centric.” But you cannot claim to be customer-centric, and at the same time tell lies to enhance your own interests. And that’s not a question of logic, it’s a question of human behavior—people profoundly distrust those who mislead them.

Why Truth Is More Practical Than Lying

There’s one version of the truth and an infinite number of non-true versions of the same facts. Life is a lot simpler if you only have to remember one version of truth. No more keeping track of various stories, managing selective access to information, and keeping track of white lie cover stories. It all gets very simple when you make friends with the truth.

More importantly, people—including customers—are drawn to those who value truth-telling over snagging the sale. You can trust those people. You do not have to evaluate every statement they make. The natural human response, when we meet people like this, is to trust them. And trust is a powerful driver of buying behavior.

Forget ethics and morals—look at your own numbers. Do you make more sales, gain longer-term customers and more repeat business by:

a. Tweaking the facts to improve the odds in every sale, or by

b. Always telling the truth, believing that honesty will be more persuasive and will attract more future business.

There’s no question in my mind. The paradox of Trust-based Selling is that you best achieve your ends by helping others achieve theirs. Success is not a goal; it’s a byproduct.

To those who say:

“But Charlie, you don’t understand, the vast majority of salespeople out there don’t do that; they bend the truth and work for every transaction and would never give up an edge.”

I say:

You are right. I suspect the majority of salespeople have made themselves into fear-driven liars and have compromised their own success. But the majority is tragically mistaken. You have a chance to benefit comparatively by being a truth-teller. Have faith that customers vastly prefer honest salespeople and will vote with their wallets.

The really great salespeople—the minority—already know this. It’s the average and under-performing majority who don’t.

If you’re still wondering what this has to do with sex, think one-night stands vs. relationships. Lies work better with the first but they’re unsatisfying, more expensive and require endless new lead streams. You choose.