Tag Archives: marketing_ethics

Do Salespeople Lie More Than Other Professionals?


Compared to other professions, are salespeople disproportionately prone to lying? To reveal the answer, I searched online for most dishonest professions, and was rewarded with several surveys. One study conducted in 2014 listed the top 10 least honest (the number following indicates the percentage of survey respondents who believed the profession trustworthy):

Lobbyists – 6%
Members of Congress – 8%
Car salespeople – 9%
State office holders – 14%
Advertising practitioners – 14%
TV reporters – 20%
Lawyers – 20%
Newspaper reporters – 21%
Business executives – 22%
Local office holders – 23%

Go us! Of the top 10 most dishonest professions, biz-developers hold only three slots – lobbyists, car salespeople, and advertising practitioners. Still, as marketing/sales professionals, we’re over-the-top touchy about our honesty image.

Earlier this month, a writer on LinkedIn asked whether it’s acceptable for salespeople to lie. He felt that lying seems the new normal in selling, and he invited others to weigh in. Some opinions were as malleable as a steel girder:

  • “My answer is short and simple – no.”
  • “A person is either honest or a liar. The Truth is not conditional. Half-truths are lies.”
  • “Never acceptable. Persuasion is a positively reinforced message through fact and data driven decisions.”
  • “just don’t do it.”

These thoughts outline an archetype: the impeccably honest salesperson who never lies, never distorts, and never withholds facts and information. Unfortunately, that archetype represents an impossibly high bar. Try any of them out on a newbie rep. Chances are, he or she will flunk day one on the job. Same for days two and three – assuming they get that far. And experienced reps will just roll their eyes. “Get a grip, pal!”

“Just don’t do it.” If only things were that simple. For hundreds of years, the meaning of honesty has been debated by legal scholars, judged in courts, and mulled by philosophers. Honesty is difficult to define. One reason we often pad the word with adjectives: pure honesty, partial honesty, brutal honesty, radical honesty, morally honest, and mostly honest. The same for truth and lies. Few would argue that white lies aren’t acceptable, or that honest facts aren’t used for fabricating illusion.

One person’s bald-faced lie is someone else’s minor distortion. Should things be any different in selling? Is there something magical or different about sales that invites draconian edicts like these? Emphatically, no. Lying appears the “new normal” in selling because by these standards, lying is . . . pretty normal. And it’s hardly new.

The advocates of “no lying” need to abandon their idealized interpretations of truth purity because they are divorced from selling reality. A major reason is that the default rhetoric of marketing and sales tends toward certainty – especially for describing outcomes and results. We favor concrete terms like definitely, will, guaranteed, and proven. No rep wins the boss’s approval by adopting mealier – but more honest – terms like probably, possibly, could, and might. I challenge anyone to find a Chief Sales Officer willing to trade off persuasive power for a sworn commitment to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“Never acceptable.” If marketers followed pure honesty to the letter, the first thing on the chopping block would be storytelling. I have yet to read one sales story that hasn’t been factually creative, at best. The second thing to go would be “case studies,” since they are never as objective as the name implies.

Admonishing salespeople to “never lie,” only creates dissonance and goal conflict. Managers manufacture failure by insisting their reps behave “100% honestly,” while holding a hatchet over their necks as motivation to achieve goal. Inevitably, the rep must choose. And sadly, saying “I got fired for doing the right thing for my customer” doesn’t merit an invitation for a second job interview. Sales Culture Training 101: “No matter what, make quota.” Message, received.

That’s not the only problem. When “never lie” absolutism exists, ethical risks lurk nearby. Absolutism crushes debate and discussion. And when it comes to honesty and ethical behavior toward customers, nuanced conversations are sorely needed. The problem with these LinkedIn comments is that there’s no room for interpretation.

At its most atavistic, selling is persuasion. And persuasion requires distortion. Distortion of fact, distortion of meaning, distortion of reality and urgency. Over beer, we can hold a simpatico conversation to parse the differences between distortion and lies. We can exchange information about what we allow ourselves to do and say when representing our companies, and the honesty lines we refuse to cross. We can talk about the influence of David Hume and Diogenes. One thing is certain: neither our honesty interpretations nor our ethical boundaries will be identical.

According to these absolutists, distortion and lying are equivalent. My recommendation: don’t follow their advice. If you want your customer to take action – say, for example, to buy from you and not from your competitor – you must make sure they believe that it’s fully in their interest to do so, and that ordering now is a priority. You can’t do that without tweaking reality to promote your point of view.

For salespeople, balancing honesty and persuasion means walking a hair-thin line. Same for ego and empathy. All are needed for success, but they collide and clunk against one another. “It’s a miracle anyone can do this job,” Philip Broughton wrote in his book, The Art of the Sale. No joke.

I am not a proponent of lying as a sales tactic. I am not advocating deceit and misrepresentation as a business practice. And I am not saying that anything goes as long as it results in revenue. Far from it. I am saying that marketers and salespeople should strive for honesty and high ethical standards in their professional conduct. I am also saying that to be effective, salespeople need a rational basis for ethical consideration, and “never lie” undermines that goal. We need salespeople who are strong critical thinkers, not sycophantic believers.

A personal confession: I have made sales lies. Repeatedly. Here are three:

1. “I can’t offer you a lower price.” Lie. Prices are quite easy for vendors to massage, and rarely – if ever – is it impossible to offer a lower price, as “can’t” connotes. Customers know it. Everyone knows it.

What’s more truthful? How about, 1) “it’s not convenient for me reduce my price,” or 2) “if I allow you to buy at the lower price, my profit margins will erode, and our CFO will get angry with me,” or 3) “I get higher commission selling at list price, and I need the income this quarter.”

2. “Buying my company’s product is the best use of your resources right now.” Lie. I’ve never been 100% sure when using superlatives, yet I still use them. Besides, with this lie, I have rarely had full visibility into every project a company is considering anyway. So I’m not being fully honest when making the claim.

What’s more truthful? 1) “based on my analysis of the numbers you provided me, you should probably meet your expected financial return,” 2) “My competitor’s product does pretty much the same thing, so you can’t go wrong choosing either one of us,” 3) “I understand why you want to implement my proposal now, but based on what I have seen, you’d be much better off solving [name of project that my company doesn’t provide a product for].”

3. “Our machines have highest performance rating in the industry.” Lie, by omission. But still a lie. Is highest performance rating based on MTBF (mean time between failures)? Longevity of components? Quality of output? All of these? And where was the benchmarking performed? – In house? Through an objective third-party? And there’s that superlative problem again: highest.

What’s more truthful? 1) “We have the highest performance rating in one category.” 2) “We performed the benchmarking in-house.” 3) “Our in-house test results always look better than what you will achieve in the field.”

I harbor no remorse for committing any of these. But if you’re into “never lie,” try some of the more truthful statements with your customers, and let me know the results.

I want to head off a concern right now. You might already be thinking, “These are trivial lies. They are not the kind that get anyone into trouble.” Fair point. But then I’d urge you to identify what type of lies really get your dander up. Lies like telling customers, “We have offices in 28 states,” when those “offices” are actually indirect employees working virtually from their homes? Or, my favorite, “Our software has over 48 installs,” when two-thirds of them are dormant beta accounts that have made no commitment to purchase? Smile, wink. These statements are kinda, sorta true, and because of that, they stink around the edges. I don’t like them. Mostly, I get annoyed with the CMO’s explanation, which often begins, “Well, technically . . .”

Maybe we need a new taxonomy for marketing lies. Here’s what I propose:

Class I lies: run-of-the-mill marketing fluff, flamboyant writing, and expected braggadocio. The claims prospects are already jaded to. “Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” Or “We’re the industry leader!” There’s really no foul for broadcasting any of this stuff. If any prospect bases a purchase decision solely on such claims, well, shame on them.

Class II lies: deeper, more egregious transgressions. Stuff that generates fines, lawsuits, and bitterly negative Yelp reviews. Example: “Our brain games help users achieve full potential in every aspect of life,” which got Lumosity fined by the FTC. The FTC asserted there was no scientific proof to substantiate that claim, along with others Lumosity made.

Class III lies: I call these BHAL’s (Big Hairy Audacious Lies), because of their potential to directly and significantly influence a customer’s buying decision. Lies that obscure the true cost of procurement or operations. Lies that patently overstate the capability of a product, or promise a result that can never be delivered. The Fyre Festival debacle resulted from a series of Class III lies.

If your business objective is to instill ethics and integrity in your biz-dev organization, don’t fret over Class I lies. Just keep your eye on them to make sure they don’t become more serious. Propagating Class II and Class III lies, on the other hand, substantially increase business and stakeholder risks, and they must be carefully managed. Here are some important practices:

  1. Recognize that honesty and truth are subject to interpretation, and there’s often ambiguity in selling situations.
  2. Model ethical, honest behavior from the top echelons of the company. Executives who are not vocal proponents, or who are not rigorous about their own honest conduct cannot expect any different from employees.
  3. Encourage internal discussions among staff about what they encounter in sales and marketing situations, and how they make choices.
  4. Offer guidelines to staff when rules don’t fit. Avoid vague requests like “don’t be too salesy,” or “don’t over-promise.” Instead, ask your staff to think about what’s ethical in selling, and to always consider, “what is the right thing to do?”
  5. Don’t penalize honesty by creating conflict. It happens more than companies realize. If Wells Fargo taught us anything, it’s that a salesperson should never have to decide between being honest with customers, or keeping his or her job.
  6. Provide clarity for what’s restricted by documenting them in writing, and reviewing them routinely with your staff. The Class III lies that significantly influence customer decisions, that directly contradict product specifications or contract terms, that inflate or falsify an employee’s credentials. The restrictions should also include what can – and cannot – be said about competitors, performance benchmarking data, pricing commitments, and other financial disclosures.

P. T. Barnum, one of the greatest salespeople who ever lived, was adamantly against fraudulent selling, but he recognized the subtle nuances about honesty and lying:

“An honest man who arrests public attention will be called a “humbug,”‘ but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a ‘humbug.’ He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an [outrageous] manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.”

As Broughton observed, “There is evidently a line here somewhere between humbug and deception, between Barnumesque hype and outright lies, between reading your customers to give them what they need and exploiting their weakness to your own advantage.”

I hope the “never lie” proponents figure that out.

“Science” Sells. But Is It Science?

Goodbye cold rain and snow, hello warm weather! With spring approaching, people will slowly emerge from their winter domiciles, and mosey into the great outdoors. The season gives us new opportunities to walk, hike, bike, picnic, fish, and play golf. But for most, one unpleasant inevitability accompanies these active pleasures: itchy mosquito bites.

Walmart offers salvation in a product you can buy online, the Viatek Mosquito Shield Band. A box of ten will set you back 20 bucks, less one copper penny. And here’s the pitch:

“Enjoy your time outdoors more this summer with the Viatek BUGBANDS10 Bug Repellant Band. It has been scientifically proven to keep annoying bugs, such as mosquitoes, ticks, flies and gnats, away. The Viatek mosquito shield band is ideal for use when you want to entertain guests in your back yard. The item is 100 percent natural and lasts up to 120 hours. All you have to do is put it on your wrist, ankle, bag or stroller to keep the bugs away. The band continues to work for up to five days even when it gets wet. It can also help protect your family from lime disease and other health concerns that result from getting bit by insects.”


Before you shell out for your supply, you should know something about the scientifically-proven part: it’s pure hokum. Never mind that Walmart misspelled Lyme. The manufacturer, Viatek, “said that their wristbands would protect you from mosquito bites, but their claims weren’t backed up by scientific evidence,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Those claims violate the law and a 2003 FTC order against the defendants.”

In the suit that the FTC brought against Viatek, the agency alleged that the “defendants do not possess, and did not possess at the time they made the representations, competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate the claims they made in advertisements.” The case is pending a court ruling. No scientific evidence? But Viatek said scientifically proven! So did Walmart! And 75% percent of the people who spoke up online at Walmart said they would recommend this product to a friend. Maybe all of this is getting too . . . unscientific. Hmmmm. I’m glad the nannies at the FTC have my back.

“Brain training” services have also raised hackles for gratuitously invoking science in their product promotions and advertising. Lumosity, a service that has over 50 million subscribers – about the same number as Netflix – uses the tagline, “Challenge memory and attention with scientific brain games.” The company’s 46-second promotional video, accessible on its homepage, mentions science three times. Competitors such as Cogmed, and BrainHQ have taken similar approaches, mixing shovelfuls of science gravitas into their online content.

But it seems that not everyone cozies to the industry’s marketing schtick. An article in Scientific American (Brain Training Doesn’t Make You Smarter, December 2, 2014) gave a scathing rebuke to their methods. “Cogmed claims to be ‘a computer-based solution for attention problems caused by poor working memory,’ and BrainHQ will help you ‘make the most of your unique brain.’ The promise of all of these products, implied or explicit, is that brain training can make you smarter—and make your life better.”

The article referenced a press release from The Stanford University Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development:

“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products. In the brain-game market, however, advertisements also assure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are ‘designed by neuroscientists’ at top universities and research centers. These claims are reinforced through paid advertising and distributed by trusted news sources.”

The formal statement from these two organizations was signed by seventy of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, and included this paragraph:

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do . . . The strong consensus of this group is that the scientific literature does not support claims that the use of software-based ‘brain games’ alters neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease.”

The statement further explains that although some brain training companies “present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of scientific studies pertinent to cognitive training . . . the cited research is [often] only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.”

Society needs more highly-principled scientists to rat out similar cases of misleading product marketing hype. Beyond bug bands and brain games, many industries misuse science as a selling tool. In hawking their products and services, vendors exploit its persuasive power, and capitalize on its insidious ability to help them shortcut any obligation to offer deeper explanations.

“Backed by science,” “based on science,” “supported by scientific evidence,” and “scientifically proven.” It’s embedded in much of the media that comes our way. Science this and science that, breathlessly delivered to inboxes through email marketing blasts, RSS, and Tweeted from Twitter. Hard-hitting hype from the social media content team! We can’t get enough science. Just added to the mix: data science, and data scientists. We’ve become jaded. Little wonder that people regularly punt their rights to being skeptical. “Why bother? Everybody shouts this stuff.”

For me, all of this science lingo once conjured benign and reassuring images. Smart, slightly geeky-looking people wearing glasses, dressed in pristine starched white lab coats, holding clipboards or tablet computers. Brows furrowed in deep thought, they tirelessly ponder mind-numbing tables of numbers, while asking penetrating questions, and extracting clarity from the inscrutable. All for the purpose of bringing us a step closer to the truth.

But today, when I hear science juxtaposed to a product category, name or brand, I’m just as likely to envision a slickly-dressed huckster with a bank account, wearing an expensive watch and Gucci shoes. A modern-day “Doctor” John R. Brinkley, whose self-promoted quack science in the early 1900’s for restoring male virility was eventually exposed by the dogged Morris Fishbein of the American Medical Association. But not before Brinkley became very, very wealthy through his cleverly-marketed services. “Sales is all about giving customers what they want!” Yes . . . but . . . well, gosh. It’s easy to stray off the ethical road when you’re making a beeline toward Positive Cash Flow City.

“Well, I’m not a scientist.” – Florida governor Rick Scott

What makes the widespread use of science messages in advertising and promotion perplexing is that in America, views on science are decidedly mixed. Governor Scott just banned using the words global warming and climate change in any official state communication. Hard to imagine anything more anti-science, except banning science textbooks from Florida’s classrooms. “Maybe that’s coming! . . .” Worried sarcasm, coming from the office right next door.

Elsewhere, in 2013, residents of the City of Portland, Oregon, nixed adding fluoride to the local drinking water. And a 2014 Pew Research Survey showed a sizable gap between the views held by scientists and those held by US adults on several key issues. For example, 88% of scientists believe that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, compared to 37% of US adults. And 98% of scientists believe that humans and other living things have evolved over time, compared to 65% of US adults. (Yes, I typed the latter percentage correctly.) Clearly, not everyone trusts scientists, or what they say.

On the other hand, many people, including me, hold an abiding appreciation for science. “Science appeals to our rational brain,” wrote Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post (Why Americans are So Dubious about Science, February 15, 2015). This should give marketers pause. Science messaging might turn a prospective customer on, or send him or her running hysterically in the opposite direction.

Either way, we’re plagued with enough science naiveté to fill a room, which makes conditions ripe for fakery and truth-stretching. In a book review of Vitamania (The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2015), Trevor Butterworth wrote, “They are avatars of vitality, better taken than understood.” He was referring to vitamins, herbal remedies, and other dietary supplements, but his comment speaks to the problems that emanate from science hype. Fortunately, organizations have been established in response to the profound need for better public education. Sense about Science was among the best I found. “We are a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion.” A great resource – if you have a computer and a web connection. (The last I checked, 60% of the world’s population do not.)

Science is a social construct, and we entrust it to reveal the truth. According to Marcia McNutt, former head of the US Geological Survey, and now editor of the magazine, Science, “science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis on the laws of nature, or not.” Which is why it’s destructive when people misuse the term in a marketing or sales context. Often, their authoritative assertions come from far less rigorous investigation. Or worse, simply from what they think. Or even worse, from what they want us to think.

Where should the line be drawn, then? Fair question. In their case against Viatek, the regulators at the FTC placed it right about here:

“For purposes of this order, the following definitions shall apply: ‘Competent and reliable scientific evidence’ shall mean tests, analyses, research, studies, or other evidence based on the expertise of professionals in the relevant area, that have been conducted and evaluated in an objective manner by persons qualified to do so, using procedures generally accepted in the profession to yield accurate and reliable results.”

The definition still allows considerable legal wiggle room. To borrow from the familiar proverb, Science is in the eye of the beholder. Which is why it’s important to differentiate good science from bad science / pseudo-science.

Good science

Good science begins with using the modern scientific method:

• Ask a Question
• Do Background Research
• Construct a Hypothesis
• Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
• Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
• Communicate Your Results

The scientific method has democratized science in our time, and makes scientific discovery accessible to anyone – from kindergarteners to great-grandparents. You don’t need an advanced degree to engage in scientific research, just a commitment to approach the experiment through the scientific method. This method galvanizes communities of knowledge, and helps people cohere the experimental conclusions of others, expanding our learning opportunities. In our society, what matters most in vetting the believability of science is the basis for the experiment, and the integrity of the methods used.

Good science uses experimental methods that are clearly documented and open to a peer community. Good science develops experiments that can be replicated by others, enabling the results to be independently verified. Good science has explanatory and predictive power. But this does not mean that good science cannot be disproven. Good science accepts reasonable challenges to its findings, and encourages peer review.

Bad science and pseudo-science

According to Wikipedia, “Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, contradictory, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories.” Often, the experimenter has an ulterior motive for conducting the experiment, such as personal financial gain, or power and influence. The experimental method does not conform to the modern scientific method, and there’s often pressure to confirm what the researchers (or the study’s sponsors) already believe. The variables are often not controlled. Most notably, bad science lacks community. The results cannot be reliably tested by others, and are rarely, if ever, embedded in other research, cited in academic journals, or re-used in any way. The results are often self-proclaimed as “inerrant,” or “beyond debate.”

What’s the best antidote to being suckered by scientific hokum? Constant skepticism. And a sharp eye for finding holes, gaps and anomalies in things that others claim as fact. Something to keep in mind the next time you read or hear anything claiming indisputable evidence or scientific proof.

“Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation.” Joel Achenbach wrote. “Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or an absolute certainty. Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.”

Further reading: Guidelines for Evaluating Scientific Studies