How to Overcome Sales Manipulation and Sell Without Deceit

For a profit-oriented mind, any tactic or technique that leads to a sale is justifiable, as long as it’s not downright illegal. Who cares if you persuade or manipulate when your prospects are free to decline? Well, they do.

The ‘enforced blessing’ sales method has not aged well and neither has the slick salesman that uses it. Better forget the old “always be closing” mantra because millennials will soon be the top-spending generation in most Western countries. They prefer businesses with ethical standards , brands that meet them on eye level.

Generally, they are both more sceptical and more demanding of businesses’ motivations than their predecessors. According to Deloitte, 54 percent of them believe businesses to “ have no ambition beyond wanting to make money .”

In such an environment, coming across as a manipulative seller can be costly. We drew a line between good and bad influence, so you can create happy customers whom you can always look in the eye.

Why good intent is not enough

Any sales pitch to an irresolute prospect is at its core an act of influence; and every act of influence can be categorized as either persuasion or manipulation .

If you’ve confronted manipulative sales people before, you’ll know that many will react by pointing to the “ invisibly thin line between persuasion and manipulation ” and the general lack of delimiting definitions. Which essentially means, “ Moral what? Hey, I closed that deal!

Or otherwise, in a well-meaning attempt to differentiate, sellers focus completely on intent. Their hypothesis: “ Whether I’m persuading or manipulating depends on my believe whether the prospect wants or needs my product. If I think she does, my intentions are good. I can’t possibly be manipulating.

According to this view, even slight deviations from the truth would be acceptable in the pitch. As long as you believe the prospect needs or wants the product, they’d be better off with it and nothing else matters.

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This approach is a promising starting point to stay morally afloat. But it premises that both prospect and seller know what’s best for the prospect. What if she doesn’t? What if she mentions that she really likes a certain car’s panoramic sliding roof but that where she lives it’s raining basically every day?

Convincing her to go for this extra feature then is in your prospect’s best interest, you know she wants it and would add momentary value. But it’s also not in her best interest because you know she won’t be able to use it most of the time.

In this scenario your best intentions can’t guarantee that you are acting in your prospect’s best interest. So, are you persuading or manipulating?

Inevitably, intent doesn’t suffice because anytime you’d get a rather undecided prospect, you’d be gambling on her to later feel that she's made the right decision. If your product doesn't suit her and she feels the buy was a mistake, she'll likely judge your sales efforts in retrospect – and question your intentions.

The role of objective and subjective need

One way to solve the above dilemma is by comparing the prospect’s objective and subjective need for the product because we view the former as valid and the latter as rather invalid.

Most of us would claim to be rational consumers that only buy things to satisfy an objective need. In order to do so, the product should enhance our lives by solving an issue that the majority of people would sympathize with, even if they don’t face the same issue themselves.

But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we all buy out of vanity, possessiveness, boredom, pleasure, or appetite now and then. We view these motivations as subjective needs and we usually reject them since they contradict our self-concept as mindful, independent consumers.

KitKat “Have a break” advertising poster from the late 1950s

So, we seek ways to reinterpret them as rational. You didn’t buy the chocolate bar because you couldn’t resist. You bought it because you had an intense day at work and decided that you have earned the endorphins that’ll be released when eating chocolate. Right?

Nestlé has turned our long-standing neglect of the craving for sweet stuff into a chocolate bar that comes with a built-in excuse, the classic “Have a break” slogan .

Presuming above basic assumptions, you can expect any prospect to seek objective reasons and try to evade unwanted motivations for making a purchase. If she communicates some of the usually rejected motivations as her reasons to buy, you can be sure she regards them as valid. Thus, we can deduce three principles:

  1. Answering to objective needs makes your prospect feel being served in their best interest → persuasion
  2. Playing into their unwanted subjective needs makes your prospect feel betrayed → manipulation
  3. Targeting subjective needs that the prospect owns up to makes them feel being served in their best interest → persuasion

As products become more and more complex and differences between vendors become harder to detect, it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which objective and subjective needs balance each other out. For example:

  • the best product is also the ugliest one
  • the only product with the desired feature set has the worst longevity
  • the best-value product is the most unsustainable

To steer clear of manipulation here, the best option is to gather information until you can clearly identify what reasons to buy seem valid for your prospect and which she feels uncomfortable giving in to. If there is a trade-off, make sure it’s visible to her, then be attentive to her signals to find out which motivation prevails.

Identifying manipulation based on scenarios

As we saw above, how your sales approach is judged highly depends on situationally changing variables on your prospect’s side. Such variables are mostly informational, like problem awareness, knowledge of a product’s market value, etc.

Let’s take a bird’s eye view on some of the most common sales scenarios. This allows you to distinguish persuasive and manipulative sales techniques based on the information available to your prospect:

  • Making the prospect aware of an issue she previously didn’t think was one and presenting an effective solution. → persuasion
  • Addressing a prospect’s issue by presenting a more effective but different fix than she’s had in mind. → persuasion
  • Making the prospect believe there’s an issue worth fixing (through your product) when it doesn’t affect her. → manipulation
  • Presenting your product as a solution for an issue it can’t solve. → manipulation
  • Presenting your product as a permanent solution when it’s only temporary. → manipulation
  • Stating scarcity of a product that solves the prospect’s issue if you know about competitors with similarly effective fixes. → manipulation

Looking at these situations one by one, we can deduce two general rules:

  1. Any sales action that harms your prospect’s chances to pursue the maximum added value available for what she is willing to pay and any action that actively impairs her freedom of choice, is manipulation.
  2. Any sales action that aims at what the prospect truly cares for and feels comfortable using as a basis for her buying decision, is persuasion.

In a similar approach tailored to technological products like apps, Nir Eyal came up with the so-called “Manipulation Matrix” in his article “The Morality of Manipulation” .

Nir Eyal’s Manipulation Matrix

It puts high emphasis on the presumption that app creators/vendors should themselves be the ideal customer of their own app. Consequently, the sellers’ honest opinion of the product should act as a yardstick to assess whether it’s useful for customers, too.

Nir Eyal distinguishes four types of sellers:

  • Facilitator: sells a product that materially improves the user’s life and the seller would use too. → persuasion
  • Peddler: sells a product tricking herself into believing that it improves the user’s life but when pressed wouldn’t find valuable enough to use herself. → accidental manipulation
  • Entertainer: sells product that is fun to use but doesn’t materially improve the user’s life. → persuasion if prospect knows that
  • Dealer: sells product that she believes does not improve the user’s life and would not use herself. → manipulation

Even if you are not in tech, chances are you’re selling types of products that you are also interested in as a consumer. If this is the case, the Manipulation Matrix is a simple and helpful asset.

Why your prospect’s best interest is your best interest

While it’s important that your customers don’t hold grudges after they’ve made business with you, there are more reasons to focus on adding value for your prospects.

First of all, it increases the chances that they become customers to begin with. One principle to keep in mind here is that we almost never buy something we don’t inherently desire on some level.

Here’s the reality: it’s almost impossible to make someone want something they don’t already desire.

Josh Kaufman, The Personal MBA

Then, today’s consumers have high standards in product and service quality, and a huge selection of vendors to choose from. They will (re)buy from those with the best overall experience, this includes candor and transparency.

Prospects that sense that you have to stretch the truth to spice up an offer or are impatient for the transaction to happen, won’t be fully satisfied with their experience. Focus your energy and resources on prospects for whom you can actually add value on all levels. You will sell to others, too, but at a much higher cost.

Finally, any vendor selling his product for anything other than its actual strengths devalues that product, himself as a salesperson, and his business. If you can’t trust what your product has to offer, who should?

Ethical selling techniques

Following the principles drawn from my previous points, these hands-on techniques empower you to persuade without deceit.

Education-based selling. This technique is intended to make prospects more independent, confident customers by informing them generally about the type of product and more specifically about the exact product you offer.

For instance, a $100 handmade shoe made from well-chosen materials can look exactly like its $40 fast fashion twin. If they can’t tell the difference, any prospect will go with the cheaper version.

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Now take a prospect that you informed about what a durable and comfortable shoe is made of and introduced to the advanced manufacturing techniques you applied. She will be able to recognize the superior quality of your product as well as the consequential benefits and high price. Also, she’ll have built trust in you, thanks to your transparency.

Value-based selling. This approach is the antithesis to randomly bragging about your product’s features. Instead of boasting, you uncover and reinforce the reasons why a specific product is valuable to your prospect by asking questions and listening carefully.

This works best for products that demand higher effort until the prospect can fully enjoy the benefit or come with a high trade-off to be overcome by the prospect. This includes anything very expensive (financial effort), but also new laptops (setup), complex software (onboarding), or even bike saddles .

The company Brooks offers extremely durable, high-end bike saddles, but they require a painful 1,000 kilometres break-in period supplemented with regular leather care until they reach their famous comfort level. Along with the price tag, one can imagine how it puts off many potential customers.

If you as a vendor, however, reach a prospect in search of a saddle that will last the next decade(s), you can emphasize the 30,000 or so miles of steady comfort and the loads of money saved for new saddles in the long run. Compared to that, both the relatively high price and the initial hardship will seem negligible.

Risk adoption. At times, some of a product’s downsides scare off your prospect although they are irrelevant for their intended application of it. A way to remove such uncertainty is taking responsibility for the product to work the way that your prospect hopes and expects it to work. Assure that you’ll make up for unkept promises with a customer-friendly return policy.

Treat your customers how you would like to be treated

Of course, your business needs to make money. Of course, your customers should know what they want and are responsible for their purchases. But the future of selling lies not in forcing the deal no matter what. It lies in creating trust and deepening customer relationships, in adding value.

Follow the principle to always act in your customer’s and in your business’ best interest. Make it your mission to find the sweet spot where both intersect and do so with candor. You’ll build a reputation of selling well - in every sense.

For more in-depth selling advice, also read our previous posts: