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Ethical selling: When does persuasion turn into manipulation?

You don't have to sell your soul to sell your product.

Par Sven Riehle

Dernière mise à jour March 18, 2022

The following is a guest post by Sven Riehle of Userlike, a live chat provider for website and mobile support.

For the archetypical salesperson, any tactic or technique that leads to a sale is the right one, as long as it’s not outright fraud. And a prospect that can’t parry his tricks should either gear up or expect to become easy game.

This approach to sales is both outdated and obsolete because there is a growing overlap of the ethical and the economic perspective in today’s transactions. In fact, in the Age of the Customer, this duality is increasingly considered the norm.

In order to stay on the right path, let’s take a closer look at how influence works.

1. The difference between persuasion and manipulation

Any sales talk with an undecided prospect is at its heart an attempt to influence him to make a purchase, either through persuasion or manipulation. While persuasion will be expected, manipulation will be perceived as offensive. So, how do you know when you cross the line?

One way is to distinguish persuasion and manipulation based on intent: in sales, “good intentions” could mean “in the prospect’s best interest.” Then, as long as the outcome you pursue matches that ideal, the words you use to persuade don‘t matter so much.

Conversely, any persuasion effort will be perceived as manipulation if your intention merely is to maximize your own benefit, even at the expense of your prospect’s if need be.

2. Objective and subjective need

But what if the prospect sends mixed signals, mentioning that he really likes a certain feature while he doesn’t have a use for it?

Here, the attempt to convince your prospect of the upselling option might be well-intentioned but not necessarily in his best interest. The scenario prompts the question about objective and subjective need.

Arguably, a product with practical value for its buyer serves an objective need while a product purchased merely for the sake of owning it serves a rather subjective need. Thus, you can’t always trust your best intentions to be in line with your prospect’s best interest.

Here, it helps to look at common behavioral patterns in sales talks:

  • Making someone aware of a problem they previously didn’t see and presenting an effective fix. → persuasion
  • Addressing a prospect’s problem by presenting a more effective but different solution than he had in mind. → persuasion
  • Making someone believe there’s a problem worth fixing (through your product) when there is none. → manipulation
  • Misrepresenting your product as a fix for a problem it can’t fix. → manipulation
  • Misrepresenting your product as a permanent fix when it’s only temporary. → manipulation

Consequently, basing your persuasion on good intentions won‘t excuse you if you needed to lie to your prospect in order to make the sale.

3. Why the customer’s best interest is your best interest

There are many good reasons to focus completely on adding value. One is that we almost never purchase something we don’t inherently desire on some level. If we do, we usually regret it and blame the vendor’s manipulative sales methods.

“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 a huge selection of vendors and high standards in product quality and service. They spend their money on the buying experience, not only the product itself. They (re)buy from those vendors that provide the best overall experience.

Customers that feel you’ve played foul or were overly focused on the transaction won’t be at all satisfied, even if they got the product they wanted. So, focus your energy and resources on those prospects for whom you can actually add value on all levels.

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?

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Ethical Selling Techniques

Following the principles stated in the previous points, these hands-on sales techniques enable you to persuade without deceit:

Education-based selling

This technique aims at making prospects more independent, confident customers by informing them in-depth about your type of product.

For instance, a $100 handmade shoe of well-chosen materials can look exactly like its $40 fast fashion twin. Most prospects will go for the cheaper version.

A prospect, however, that knows what makes a shoe durable and comfortable, and the implications of different manufacturing techniques, will recognize the superior quality of your product and the consequential benefits. Also, thanks to your transparency, he’ll build trust in you.

Value-based selling

This technique is the antithesis to randomly boasting about your product’s features. Instead, you uncover and reinforce the reasons why a specific product is valuable to a specific prospect by asking questions and listening.

This works best for high-effort products like anything very expensive (financial effort), but also more practically with a new laptop (setup), complex software (onboarding), or even bike saddles.

For example, the company Brooks offers extremely durable and comfortable high-end bike saddles; however, they require a painful 1,000 kilometers break-in period supplemented with regular leather care. Along with the price tag, this could put off many prospects.

If you as a vendor, however, get a prospect who wants a saddle that will last through the next decade(s), you can emphasize the 49,000 or so kilometers of comfort and reliability ahead of him and loads of money saved thereby. Both the relatively high price and the initial hardship will seem negligible in comparison.

Risk adoption

At times, some downsides of a product scare off your prospect although they are irrelevant in their intended application of it. You can remove such uncertainty by taking responsibility for the product to work in the way that your prospect wants and expects it to. Pledge to make up for it if this isn’t the case via a customer-friendly return policy, for instance.

Contrary to popular belief, embedding ethical principles in sales is not a matter of trading off ethics against profitability. When your intention is to provide the best overall experience to prospects and provide the maximum added value for both transaction parties, transparently emphasizing your product‘s strengths is the strongest sales angle.

This post originally ran on the Base blog. Please visit if you’d like to learn more about Zendesk Sell.

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