Transparency and Selling

President Obama directly links transparency to economic performance.

In his inauguration address, he asserted “…those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Lately transparency has been in short supply.

Offices for sale. Ponzi schemes. The former mayor of Baltimore has just been indicted on charges that she accepted illegal gifts, including gift cards intended for the poor that she allegedly used instead for a holiday shopping spree.

Whether with respect to government, or to building client relationships, transparency is at the very root of trust.

That may seem obvious. Motherhood and apple pie. But for those of us with a career background in sales, transparency requires deprogramming. We were taught:

• Never share a weakness
• Never admit a competitor strength
• Never share cost information
• Always get as much margin as you can
• Don’t share information that could decrease your ability to close a sale

Oh yeah, and be customer focused.

What goes around comes around. In the long run, the truth inevitably bubbles to the top. You can get credit for saying it—or blame for resisting it.

As Charlie Green said in a HuffingtonPost piece, “If we see someone as being transparent, then nagging questions about motive disappear. We no longer speculate about, ‘What’s in it for him? What’s the hidden meaning? Why’d he say that? Is he lying?’ and so on. We accept the person at face value for what they say, even if—sometimes, particularly if—what they say reflects imperfection. That works in sales and in politics.” 

Yet, we’re trained to go in come back with information that will close the sale. Hunt it, kill it and bring it back to eat.

• What if, instead of dancing around an answer we don’t know, we just admit we don’t know?
• What if, instead of promising something we probably can’t deliver, we admit that and then tell them what we can do?
• What if, instead of offering “teaser” pricing and then covertly getting it on the back end, we share our cost structure?

These examples are counter-intuitive—downright treasonous in some circles.

Without the pretension, void of false promises and out on a limb – we are, admittedly exposed, naked and vulnerable.

But wouldn’t you rather buy from a seller who is willing to show you his cards, even if—perhaps because—you both know it might cost him the sale? That visceral reaction works in reverse when transparency dominates relationships (think Madoff, Blagojevich).

Transparency creates a powerful pull toward you. It also, by the way, lets you sleep easier.

What Con Men Can Teach Us About Trust

Regular Trust Matters readers know I speak positively about trust. But there is no trust without risk. Trust can be misplaced, or abused. Bad consequences ensue.

Thanks to prodding from regular reader Martin Dalgleish, I think it’s time to explore the dark side of trust. Trust can be violated at a personal level; at an institutional and societal level; and, of particular interest to this blog, in the realms of advice-giving and sales.

Let’s start with the personal level in this post.

“Clark Rockefeller” was in the news this summer for kidnapping his own daughter. Turns out his real name wasn’t Rockefeller. In fact, very little that people thought about him turned out to be real.

Rockefeller is one version of a con man. The Boston Globe’s does a nice job of explaining how it is that he fooled so many people—two wives, the social elites of Greenwich and San Marino, California, brokerage firms—into believing that he was a wealthy heir of the Rockefeller fortune.

But how?

From the article:

We size up someone’s trustworthiness within milliseconds of meeting them…it’s the first thing we decide about a person, and once decided, we do all kind of elaborate gymnastics to believe in people….As in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously.

Yet human society would not exist without trust…The art of the con is based on a variation of this idea: that trust is more reflexive than skepticism. Once people form an initial impression of someone or something, they seem to have a hard time convincing themselves that what they once believed is actually untrue.

More bad news: research suggests our “trust" is based on things like cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc.

You can fake trust. It’s not easy, but it can be done. There are plenty of slicksters slinging get-rich-quick schemes—the same names appear in boiler-room stock sales, then in death annuities, then in condos, then in no-doc loans. These con men are talented cynics.

Hollywood romanticizes the con man in movies like The Sting and Paper Moon; like the whore with a heart of gold (Pretty Woman), it’s a Hollywood fairytale feel-good staple.

The feel-good myth here is that once we uncover everyone’s true motives, the con will be revealed. It was either a real con by a black-hat Evil One; or a pseudo-con by the true white hat who is simply avenging a deeper wrong (Batman, Zorro). Motives determine all in this fairy-tale view of trust.

But here it gets tricky. In truth, the best con cons the con artist as well as the mark.

Most actors try to find a part of themselves that can relate to their character—then act from that deeply-felt affinity. Most salespeople are good at believing in what they’re selling. Most demagogues are true believers.

What we learn from the movies—and from politics, and religion—is that revealing true motives will reveal the con. Ah, so sorry, not true. The best con incorporates sincerity.

A fool who believes he can trust a sincere con is simply a misguided fool. Sincerity may be a necessary condition for trusting someone; it surely is not a sufficient condition. Worse yet, it’s not even a high hurdle to overcome. It ain’t that hard to believe.

The best way to be trusted is still to be trustworthy. And if you’re looking to trust, be careful of using sincerity as a shortcut. As George Burns once said, “The most important thing in life is sincerity; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” And the easiest way to fake sincerity is to simply believe your own con.

(Any political parallels the reader chooses to draw are entirely the reader’s own responsibility).

Lessons in Sales from John McCain

As far as I know, John McCain has never sold for a living. Though you could argue that insofar as he’s a politician, he’s never done anything else.

Whether or not you believe all politicians are salespeople, some do it differently than others. McCain “sells” in a particular way.

It’s an approach to selling that most salespeople instinctively avoid, but that many of the best salespeople have learned to seek. It’s an approach Hillary Clinton is belatedly coming to recognize.

It’s simple: be transparent.

As Howard Kurtz writes in Accessibility Opens Doors to McCain in the Washington Post,

Reporters rarely quote his aides because the man himself is available to react to just about everything. And that "infinite" access, says Boston Globe correspondent Sasha Issenberg, helps the Arizona senator.

"He’s pretty good road-trip company," Issenberg says. "The guy stays up on sports, movies and what’s in the news. I’ve had the ability to have extensive conversations with him — often Socratic dialogues — about the issues. He’s a richer candidate in stories written about him than other candidates are in stories written about them."

How candidates treat reporters shouldn’t matter in the coverage, but it does.

William Kristol, writing an ope-ed for the NY Times called Thoroughly Unmodern McCain, makes a similar point:

John McCain is a not-so-modern type. One might call him a neo-Victorian — rigid, self-righteous and moralizing, but (or rather and) manly, courageous and principled.
Maybe a dose of this type of neo-Victorianism is what the 21st century needs. A fair number of Republican and independent voters seem to think so, if one can infer as much from their support of McCain at the polls. But, amazingly, a neo-Victorian straightforwardness might also turn out to be strategically smart.

McCain has been the only Republican candidate who hasn’t tried to out-think the process. Perhaps out of sheer necessity, after his campaign imploded last summer, he simply picked himself up and made his case to the voters in the various states.

Meanwhile, the other G.O.P. candidates are creatures of our modern age of analysis and meta-analysis, and their campaigns have sometimes been too clever by half.

There’s a reason transparency works: and a lesson for those would would fake it.

The reason transparency works is it reveals motives. Unlike appeals to qualifications, credentials, experience, testimonials, track records and competence—transparency speaks to intent.

If we see someone as being transparent, then nagging questions about motive disappear. We no longer speculate about what’s in it for him, what’s the hidden meaning, why’d he say that, is he lying, and so on. We accept the person at face value for what they say, even if—sometimes, particularly if—what they say reflects imperfection. That works in sales, and in politics.

And here’s the lesson for those would would fake transparency: you had better be really, really good at it, because, if you are caught faking transparency—all bets are off. There’s virtually no recovery from being found out intentionally lying about being truthful.

The best way to be transparent about your motives? To be sure your motives are clean in the first place. We don’t like someone who’s being transparent in order to gain something (like the Presidency). We want transparency as an end in itself—a principle, a value, not a means to end.

Here’s how it’s done, from Kristol again:

There was a serious moment when BBC correspondent Justin Webb asked why McCain kept bringing up global warming — not a popular cause with many Republicans, particularly in Michigan, where resistance to fuel-efficiency standards is strong.

"You’ve got to do what you know is right," McCain replied.

"You could lose as a result," Webb said.

"There’s a lot worse things than losing in life," the former POW said.

Transparency sells. The “trick” to using it is to live your life in a way you don’t mind being exposed.

Then just be who you are.