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Every time you use a selfish sales tactic, you’re destroying the trust between you and your buyer — but you’re not just hurting yourself. When a salesperson uses a slimy sales tactic, the entire sales profession takes one step backward.
So many salespeople have done so many slimy things over the years that at this point, buyers now think of “sales” itself as a dirty word. If you've used slimy sales tactics in the past, or if you’re using them today, I implore you: please stop.
If you see a colleague giving salespeople a bad name by doing something shady, show them the right way instead. If you‘re buying something and the salesperson is underhanded and duplicitous, call them out on their approach and don’t give them your business. Below is a story of the slimiest salesperson I ever encountered and the four slimy sales tactics he used on me. Don’t be this person.
How I Nearly Bought a Mattress on Craigslist for the “Guests I Don’t Care About”
Ten years ago, I had a horrible buying experience.
The backstory: In 2007, my eight-month-pregnant wife and I had just bought our first home. For four years prior, I was trying to get a startup off the ground, and long story short, we were in a hefty amount of personal credit card debt and living paycheck to paycheck.
But, our new house had a guest room in it. Being hours away from both of our families and expecting our first child, we were excited to have guests stay at our house. It would be the first time family could visit without staying in a hotel.
Just one problem: we didn't have a bed to put in our guest room. We decided to make a mattress our first post-home-ownership investment.
Here's the dialogue between me and the salesperson at the mattress store:
Salesperson: “Good afternoon, folks. Can I help you with anything today?”
Me: “Can you point me to your cheapest mattress?”
Salesperson: [Walks us over to the middle of the store and starts talking about the features and benefits of a $900 mattress and box spring combo.]
Me: Is this the cheapest mattress you have?
Salesperson: Well, no. This is the cheapest one I'd recommend. [Invites my wife to sit on the mattress that he wants to sell us.]
Me: [Getting pretty pissed off at this point.] Can you please show me which of your mattresses is the cheapest one?
Salesperson: Well, yeah. That's the one over there. [Points in the general direction of a few mattresses and walks away].
At this point, my wife and I tried both beds — the cheapest, and the more expensive. There wasn't a big difference. The more expensive one was perhaps a bit more comfortable, but not by much.
That’s when I see the salesperson strolling back in our direction.
Salesperson: So, what do you think of the two?
Me: [Slightly calmer] “We weren’t sure which one you pointed to. Is this the cheapest one? This is for a guest room, so it'll get used very infrequently.”
Salesperson: “Yes. That’s the cheapest one we have ... but you know you can get a cheaper used mattress on Craigslist, right?”
Me: [Angrier now] “I don't want a used mattress. I am looking for the cheapest one here.”
Salesperson: “Yes. Well, if you don't care about the person sleeping on it, that one is fine.”
Me: “Okay. We'll let you know.”
(Not fully trusting him, I did a lap around the store.)
We ended up buying the cheap mattress. My parents, in-laws, and other family have all slept soundly in the bed over the years. My wife and I have slept on it occasionally when one of us is sick. Of course, we joke that it‘s the bed for "people we don’t care about." But, it is perfectly fine.
4 Slimy Sales Tactics This Mattress Salesperson Tried to Use on Me
This salesperson — like many others before and since — used some seriously slimy sales tactics to try and get us to buy a more expensive mattress. In pursuit of a bigger commission check, he pulled out all the stops. He lied. He tried to oversell. He insulted me and he tried to make us feel guilty about our cost-conscious buying criteria.
Here are the four things he did that you definitely shouldn’t, and what to do instead.
If a customer asks a question, acknowledge the question and answer it. Don't ignore it like the mattress salesman ignored my “Where is your cheapest mattress?” question (not just once, but twice). When a prospect asks a question, simply restating it is a good way to acknowledge they’ve been heard. He could have said, “You’d like me to show you the cheapest mattress?”
Whatever you do, don’t pretend you’re answering their question when you know that you’re not. When this mattress salesperson showed us the first mattress, he did it implying it was the cheapest one. That was a lie. And once he lied, I didn’t trust anything he said.
I imagine that this mattress salesperson got away with lying in the past. Some people are embarrassed to talk about money or admit they don’t have the money for a more expensive option.
He probably didn't expect me to so unabashedly tell him I was looking for the cheapest one three times. But, just because you can get away with lying doesn’t mean you should. Eventually, lying not only catches up to individual salespeople, but it also damages the reputation of our entire profession.
There is a difference between upselling and overselling. There is nothing wrong with upselling a customer if the more expensive option is truly the right fit for them. But, empower prospects to make that decision — don't try to make it for them. Prospects see salespeople’s agenda a mile away these days when they try to push a higher-priced option.
If your pricing is transparent, don‘t be afraid to walk your buyer through the benefits of different packages. But since buyers are so used to getting upsold, don’t recommend the more expensive package unless it's in their best interest. Certainly, explain what they could get if they chose the more expensive package, but err on the side of recommending the less expensive package.
That could sound like, “I recommend our starter package for you since price seems to be your biggest concern and because you are just getting started with this new initiative. The middle package would get you X which would be nice, but probably not necessary to start.”
Using this rule of thumb, the mattress salesperson might have said, “Price sounds like the most important thing for you right now since you’re obviously just starting a family. This is our least expensive mattress right here. But before you make your decision, I recommend you lay on this one for a bit. This one will last longer and be more comfortable for your guests if you can afford it. But the least expensive one will work for your guest room too.”
Salespeople gain trust with prospects when they recommend a less expensive product. Upselling then becomes significantly easier down the line once a prospect has derived value and an ROI from their initial purchase.
If you sell a product or service that can’t be upsold at a later date (you can‘t upsell a mattress after the initial sale, I guess), focus on delivering a positive experience to increase your chances of getting referrals and repeat purchases. The next time my wife and I bought a mattress, we certainly didn’t go back to that store.
3. Insulting Your Prospects
Truthfully, I don't understand the trick the salesperson was trying to pull by suggesting I buy a used mattress on Craigslist. (I later checked out of curiosity — there are in fact used mattresses available on the site.)
Although he might say he was trying to be helpful by suggesting a used mattress, I doubt he was making this recommendation to save me a few bucks. If anything, he was probably testing me to see whether I was going to buy anything at all. But, he could have done this in a much more effective (and polite) way by asking, “Do you have guests visiting any time soon? When do you need this mattress?”
So, my conclusion was (and still is) that he was trying to make me feel guilty for buying a cheap mattress instead of the one he wanted to sell us — the one that would earn him a higher commission. Either way, the suggestion he made would be interpreted as an insult by most people, I think.
It is not smart to insult your prospects purposefully, even if you have plausible deniability that you weren‘t trying to. Prospects aren’t stupid. And if they’re being frugal or asking for something specific, they probably have their reasons. If anything, chat them up and understand why they're asking for the thing they’re asking for. Then, and only then, introduce the benefits of the more expensive option.
4. Don't try to guilt your prospects.
The last slimy sales tactic this mattress salesperson used was guilt. He tried several times to make me feel guilty for buying a cheap mattress. His comment that cheap mattresses are fine for “people you don't care about” was indisputably meant to make me feel guilty.
I imagine some people in this scenario would feel guilty enough to buy the slightly more expensive, slightly softer one. But, even then, they'd probably feel a bit pissed about spending more than they wanted to spend.
Don’t make your prospects feel guilty for choosing a cheaper version or not choosing you. If they don’t choose you, It’s not worth burning the bridge. Instead, call them back in a week or a few months to see how your competitor is faring. If they are unhappy with their selection, you may get another shot at the business.
Let’s put slimy sales tactics in the past.
Salespeople (mattress or otherwise) always need to keep others top of mind — namely, their prospects and other sales professionals. Slimy sales tactics will eventually undermine your efforts and give your fellow sales pros a bad rap.
So be sure to think beyond yourself, ditch selfish selling, and approach potential customers with integrity and goodwill — you'll be doing everyone a favor.