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.

Tell Your Customers Why They Don’t Need You

You probably want your customers to trust you. And you probably tell them the truth about why they should buy from you.

You might think that’s enough for them to trust you, but of course it’s not. Oddly, what’s missing is telling them something about why they might not need you. Here’s why.

Consider these two sentences:

1. If you’re serious about wealth management, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.

2. If you distinctly need insurance coverage in addition to an investment product, then you should consider whole life insurance as part of your portfolio.

The first paragraph is a form of manipulative selling–like the assumptive close (“OK, shall we start on Monday or on Wednesday?”), or inducing a series of ‘yes’ answers (“Now, I assume you want your children to be taken care of, right?”).

Most people get annoyed when asked a question to which there’s only one reasonable answer. And most of us consider being asked that question a reason not to buy from the asker. So–don’t do that.

Instead, ask a question that allows reasonable people to answer differently.

Ask Questions that Allow Buyers to Self-Select

The second sentence is different. It provides information by distinguishing between people who might find value in the product and those who might not. Phrased that way, it not only educates the customer, it allows the customer to make a decision to opt-in or opt-out.

Most salespeople get nervous about questions that allow customers to opt out. Not, however, salespeople who understand the power of trust.

By giving a customer knowledge that permits opting out, a salesperson is putting him—or herself at risk. But without risk, there can be no trust—only control and the illusion of choice.

The reason trust works in sales is because human beings reciprocate when they are trusted. They appreciate being treated as adults, they appreciate not being manipulated and they appreciate being given choices that help them make intelligent decisions.

And they show their appreciation by buying, disproportionately, from those who treat them that way.

Let your customers know why they might not need you.

Closing the Book on Closing

Let’s pull out all the stops on this.

Aggressive, constant closing is just about the worst thing most salespeople can do. Closing kills more sales than it gets, and ruins future sales by squelching relationships. If you still have those old “50 Closing Strategies” books gathering dust, get rid of them. If you still believe in ABC—Always Be Closing—I want to convince you once and for all to stop it.

And sales managers, please read on: because at every quarter’s end, when you exhort the troops to bring the numbers in, all you’re doing is telling them to close. And you are constructing a circular firing squad when you do it.

I’ve had a few things to say about this in the past, not just about closing  but about the paradox of selling,  and about why so much in sales these days works to defeat trust, hence defeat sales.  As Yogi Berra said, you could look it up.

Don’t Take My Word that Closing is Bad: Take Konrath and Rackham’s

Jill Konrath  is a highly-respected author,  sales consultant, and blogger.  She’s even less ambiguous than I am: “I will never, ever train people on closing techniques if they sell to the corporate marketplace.

In Neil Rackham’s perennial best-seller SPIN Selling  , he describes results of research on closing for both low-priced and high-priced goods.

• For low-priced goods, training sellers in closing techniques resulted in slightly shorter sale times, and a slightly increased rate of sale (76% vs. 72%). Meaning—a slight improvement by increasing closing techniques.

• For higher-priced goods, training sellers in closing techniques also resulted in shorter sales transaction times—but it also resulted in less sales—33% vs. 42% before being trained in closing.  

In other words: closing may increase efficiency and slightly improve your results if you’re selling copy paper, and low cost add-on products (“you want fries with that” is actually a good use of closing: take note, McD’s countermen).

But if you’re selling any kind of professional services, or most anything over a few hundred dollars–the better you get at closing, the less you sell!  Oh well, at least you get shot down faster!

Rackham’s data was from a few decades ago.  Do you think closing techniques have gotten more effective, or less effective, in today’s times?  Yup, that’s right.

The Real Culprits: Sales Management and the Training Industry

Salespersons have their own battles to fight. But their job is made immeasurably harder by those who design the sales environments.

Ask yourself, which business strategy works better: one that is executed consistently over a long time period, or one that is given a new endpoint every few months? It’s the same with relationships—business or personal.

In personal relationships, we talk about people who are commitment-phobic, or about players—those looking only for one-night stands. In effect, those are what the quarterly insistence on cleaning up the numbers makes your salespeople.

Following is a quote from a sales training newsletter I received a week ago:

Charles, with only three days to go until the end of the month (and end of the first quarter), it is time to push hard to exceed budgets.

This month we focused on planning and preparation, but it is now tome [sic] for all your hard work to pay off. As it is time to close, we have put up a small selection of articles on our homepage to help you.

Members can log in and search for thousands more articles and resources, including over 40 more articles all on sales closing.

Presumably somebody buys this stuff. But let’s be clear about what it is: the intellectual version of crack. It urges you to give up on long-term plans and relationships, and subordinate them to the siren call of the “here-now.” Worse, it is entirely self-centered—urging the seller to bend the client, and particularly the client’s wallet, to the will of the seller.

Here’s how Neil Rackham puts it: “When salespeople are under pressure to produce short-term results and are being told to get the business this month by whatever means necessary, they pressure customers and this creates suspicion and mistrust.” 

Exactly. So if you’re a sales manager in a business that isn’t small-dollar and ancillary, and if you’re pushing your people to step up the closing at quarter’s end, then you are creating suspicion and mistrust. Which ruins sales in the medium and long term.

Who cuts off their nose to spite their face that way? Besides crack addicts, I mean?

Never mind. Just stop closing. In its place, substitute constant striving to improve results and relationships for your clients. If that feels too vague, then use Jill Konrath’s suggestion: focus on the Next Logical Step.

You’ll sell more. And sleep better too.

Does Closing Kill Sales?

Jill Konrath has a great little podcast titled Closing Can Kill Sales, at  

Right there, you may be tempted to say, ‘oh come on, that’s old hat.  Nobody does that anymore; it’s totally schlocky and manipulative and in (B2B, consulting, telecom—pick your choice) no one does that anymore.’

Well, just last week I came across a sophisticated B2B software/communications company, and guess what they wanted to know: how to close more sales.

They may not be thinking old-school “assumptive closes, constant closing,” or “you want more fries with that?”  But they are still focused, as a critical operational goal, on how to “close more sales.”  Plus ça change…

Jill is refreshingly direct.  Pure Midwest, corn-fed charm, you betcha; and she’s the real deal in person.  She came up the classic way, selling Xerox copiers.  She cut her teeth on the “ABC” rule—Always Be Closing.  But, like Huck Finn, she always felt badly about not being able to do it.

About closing, she is direct: “I hate it.  It always felt like a violation of the way people normally behave.  It’s about manipulative strategies to get people to say yes, and I just hated it.”

She sold a lot of copiers, though.  “One thing Xerox did teach us was to ask a lot of questions, and I was good at that.  I was really trying to find out the business case, and I didn’t know if it was there or not.  So I kept asking so I could find out, for myself.”

What does Jill say to people about closing?  “I say to them, never close; never be closing.  But always advance the sales process.  They need to know the next step, whatever it is, that’s true.  And eventually, you’ll hear a magic word—they start to say ‘we.’ Then, after a while, it’s ‘how do we buy this?”

There are others—Phil McGee is one, I hope we hear from him—who I think might say that’s exactly what ‘closing’ is supposed to mean—not manipulation, just relentlessly exploring questions. 

But Jill is no dummy either, and she’s quite insistent about ‘never close.’  Why the passion?

I think it’s because the word ‘closing’ is encrusted with nearly a century of subtext of control and manipulation.  It is too baked in for the niceties of alternate definitions to have an effect.

Take my B2B software example.  They don’t want old-school scripted trick lines; they think they’re too sophisticated for that.  But they’re kidding themselves.  Just as much as an old door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, they’re looking for a way to get a customer to do what they want them to do—namely buy their product.  They just want it done in a hip, 2009, Sales 2.0, CRM, modern kind of way.

Control and manipulation by any other name is still the same.

The real meaning of Jill’s dictum is deeper, I think.  It means, stop, stop stop trying to force your will on others.  Allow yourself to believe that if you really treat customers well and help them to make the best decision, you’ll get your fair share of that opportunity—and way, way more than that in the opportunities that follow.

For most of us, closing does kill sales.  Paradoxically the best way to sell is to Stop Trying to Sell, and Stop Trying to Close.  Just help your customer.     

Can You Tell the Truth About Being Self Interested?

The other day I was teaching a seminar, and someone phrased the following question:

I understand your point that, in sales, we should pay attention to the other person, focus on their needs, subordinate our own ego, and so on. But I have a hard time squaring that with honesty. After all, I’m in business to make money. They know that as well as I do. Isn’t it disingenuous—even dishonest—for me to pretend I’m totally focused on them, and not on myself?

That’s a very relevant issue to lots of people, and very well stated.

The answer in many ways boils down to one word—timeframe.

If I’m in a romantic relationship for sex, I’d better plan on some dinners, flowers, conversations and companionship on the way there. (And vice versa, by the way).

If I’m going to rely on friendships, then I’d better be prepared to invest in them over time.

If I want to have high energy and good health, then I’d better be prepared to forego the chocolate cake cravings from time to time, and to exercise sometimes when I don’t feel like it.

In other words, the desire for immediate gratification is often the enemy of longer-term happiness. Sad but true. In one study (maybe a reader can help me remember where/when), five year-olds were analyzed according to their ability to defer gratification (“one cookie now, or two in an hour”). Their subsequent lives were then traced over decades. Those kids who chose more later were notably happier, more successful, more stable later in life.

So it is in sales.

If I insist on closing every deal; if I insist on metricizing every little aspect of my sales process and tying rewards to each part; if I am constantly evaluating the discounted present value of the next ten minutes of conversation so as to decide whether to qualify or flush the prospect—then I am not a deferred-gratification salesperson, I am that greedy kid saying “me want cookie now!”

And people react to us accordingly. People who expect sex too early in relationships tend not to get it. People who never invest in their friends lose them. People who can’t resist the extra piece of cake get fat.

Back to my student.

The apparent conflict between self-interest and customer orientation evaporates if we look at the right timeframe. If all I can see at any point in a sales conversation is the likelihood of closing, then I am a “me want cookie now” kind of salesperson.

But if I’m willing to invest in the relationship—to let go the incessant attachment to outcome, to enjoy the ride as well as the destination, to qualify leads occasionally as opposed to constantly, to drive my reward from the total package rather than the quarterly pieces, to live in the relationship not the transaction—then things get better.  In fact, all things get a lot better.

It’s a bit of a paradox: the best short-term results do NOT come from trying to manage the short-term, but from managing in the long term. Your own best sales results come not from trying to sell the other guy, but from helping him get what he wants.

Your own self-interest is truly served by serving the other. And that’s the honest truth–about which you can be honest.

The contradiction is only in how you phrase the problem. Phrase it in the longer term.


Trust Based Selling in the Real World Case Study Number 42


When the Beatles sang that in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make, they could have been singing about software development consultant Andrés Taylor.

Andrés describes himself this way:

"I am Andrés Taylor. I’m one of the founders of blueplane, a consulting firm specializing in helping software teams produce better code more reliably. I write mostly about the soft arts of team work."

He wrote some nice things about my book Trust-Based Selling. But what really grabbed my attention was his story of a recent sale.

Andrés mainly a technology person—not a sales guy at all. So it was with great trepidation that he responded to a customer’s request for a reference by putting the customer in touch with a past customer.

He got the old customer to visit the new-customer on the new customer’s premises; they got on well, and eventually Andrés got the feeling that maybe he should just leave the room. And he did. Abandoned the customer in the middle of the sales call. Didn’t do a close. Didn’t ask for the sale. Just left him with an old customer.

And of course, a happy ending ensued.

Read the post itself, it’s worth the click-through.

Here’s my take on what he did right:

  1. His decision to allow other users in tapped one of the strongest sources of trust: testimonials from others.
  2. His decision to use old-client as a case example is part of selling by doing, not selling by telling: giving a practical demo.
  3. His decision to let the old client client speak for himself—to the extent of leaving the room—visibly demonstrated:
  • his detachment from trying to control;
  • the fact that he wasn’t trying to control old-client;
  • his confidence in old-client’s probable answer;
  • his confidence in his own services’ abilities to speak for themselves through others.


But what really tells me that Andrés “gets it” is this statement in his post:

“My very explicit goal for every meeting I have is to listen to what they say, and try to find something that is a problem for them. If I can, I try to share some experience or knowledge with the person, that might help them with whatever they are having a problem with.”

That’s Trust-Based Selling at work. Trusting that in the not-too-long run, doing right by your customers ends up doing well for yourself.

And that’s not a Beatle song, that’s a business model.

Well, maybe both.