“Here’s the truth: I lie.”

It was a moment of startling honesty from a salesperson I met a while back. Her job was to cold call mid-level and senior executives to set up sales meetings for her company. That’s a really tough job, so I had casually asked her how she did it. And that was her answer.

“Tell me more,” I said, which is my go-to line when I’m not quite sure how to proceed in a conversation.

“Well, I tell them that I’m new to the company and that I have a file on their organization in my notes. In that file, it says that my predecessor had talked with them six months ago but I can’t make sense of the notes. I was hoping they could help me by answering a few questions.”

“And how much of that is true.”

A pause. Then, “Well, I’m kinda new with the company…”

Now before all of you non-sales types chuckle and say to yourselves, “Yup, another ignorant sales slug,” spare a thought for this young lady. Why does she do this? Simply because it works better than anything anyone in the company has suggested. She gets people to talk. She gets appointments. They make sales. She gets a paycheck and keeps her job. She might even walk the stage at sales award time.

And apparently telling the truth didn’t work so well.

Salespeople play fast and loose with the truth not because they’re morally inferior to folks from other functions. They do it because the company hasn’t equipped them to explain the real value of the product or service they are selling. So they have to solve their personal problem – i.e. keeping their jobs – somehow. And they’re creative.

When sharing “best practices” like these with managers and colleagues, the initial response should be, “What???? Stop that right now!” Instead, too often it’s, “Hmmm… Very interesting. Maybe we should try that.”

To which we should all say, “Yikes!”

Here’s why:

  • This kind of misrepresentation takes a sledgehammer to the brand. Don’t think for a second that your salespeople can compartmentalize their lying once they get started. A relationship founded on a lie can only go one direction – more lies and bigger lies. So now salespeople will feel free – even compelled – to lie about how well your product or service works or how fast things will get done or how painful easy it will be to do the implementation.

  • Eventually – tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year – those lies will come home to roost. No, it may not affect that salesperson or even the immediate revenue from that customer. But it will definitely affect your company’s reputation over time. People talk, and information about less-than-noble company practices spread quickly in our highly connected society. See also United Airlines and Bank of America.

  • Lying – or anything that takes advantage of customers – also damages the brand internally. People know whether their company does things on the up and up or not. Sure, they can pass bad behavior off as salespeople being salespeople. But what it says to our organizations when we ignore bad behavior – or even condone it with a sly wink – is that we’ll do anything for a buck. We’re not really about doing the right thing. We’re not really all that noble. All of our high-minded rhetoric about being customer-focused or a great company to work for will begin to sound hollow. We might be proud of producing results. But we can’t be proud of who we are.  Over time, the kind of people who you want on your team – the ones who do the right thing even when no one is looking – will find another place to invest their talents. Prepare to have all sorts of fun times with your HR and legal team with those who remain.

Whenever you see questionable behavior in the front line, start by looking at these actions to get things back on track.

  • Clarify the value the company provides to different kinds of customers. When a salesperson talks with a prospect or customer, the thought bubble above that customer’s head reads, “Why is it a good idea for us to spend time together?” Without a clear answer to this question, no matter what the salesperson says, the customer will hear this response: “Because I have to make my quota.”

  • Put together a convincing and authentic reason potential customers might want to talk to your front line people. Your reason for customers to speak to your front line can be marketing fluff or it can be a tangible hypothesis. If the salesperson I described above was equipped to say, “Based on what I know about your company, my rough guess is that by working together we can help you save $250K – but I’d like to check my assumptions with you before going any further,” I think she’d have a better shot at gaining access without having to lie. Of course, that hypothesis had better hold water. But it’s the company’s job to provide the salesperson with a credible model for shaping those hypotheses.

  • Instill the mindset that we only engage when we can provide a remarkably valuable experience for customers; that we’d rather walk away or wait than get a customer who won’t get that value; that there are plenty of viable opportunities out there if we keep looking for them; and that we respect our customers and ourselves enough to only accept healthy business for both parties. While this mindset matters in sales and service, it needs to permeate every nook and cranny of the company for it to smell genuine to the outside world.

Creative sales behavior is just a symptom of more fundamental issues in any company. Addressing those issues is hard work.  But that hard work is what separates healthy, exceptional companies from those that just achieve short-term results.