Know Thy Enemy: Understand the Salesperson’s Tools

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“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not your enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – From translation of Sun Tzu’s Art of War

In this article, I’m going to try to identify a salesperson’s tools, why they work, and hopefully what you can do to defend against them whenever you’re going to make a purchase. These aren’t tricks or scams, these are just solid sales techniques that have been proven to work. I won’t go over things that are outright scams, like baiting and switching or “the one you want is out of stock, how about this one” or “whoops I added this up wrong and it’s way too high, lemme see how you react,” just the ones that are generally honest and just good tactics.

Throughout reading all this, remember one truism: Salespeople need to eat. They will try their hardest to sell you something and they will persist if you give them any reason to believe a sale can be made. Being polite is one thing, but being honest and forthright is better because it allows a salesperson to work on a customer willing to buy. If you’ve made a decision not to buy, make it very very clear and the salesperson should understand. If they don’t, they won’t be in sales for long! If they do, they’ll be thankful to be able to get a good excuse and move onto someone who will turn into a commission check.

Becoming Your Friend

All salespeople worth their suit will try to build up a rapport, try to get into the comfort zone with you, and ultimately try to become your friend. I’ve seen it in a car dealership, I’ve seen it with real estate agents, and I’ve seen it in Chinese restaurants. The key to business has always been about building relationships and building networks. Business owners build relationships with customers, customers come back for more and are more trusting, right? Would you buy from a random store or one in which the owner has shown an interest in your well being? Certainly the latter. This practice extends to salespeople, by building a relationship, you might not buy right now, but you when you do buy, you’re more likely to return.

Here’s what you need to do – become their friend but don’t drop your guard. The goal of any business person, even if they are becoming your friend, is to close on a sale and earn another dollar. You can take advantage of this by asking for discounts today in return for promises of future business and using word of mouth. “If you help me out and knock off a few bucks, I’ll be sure to tell all my friends to shop here.”

Yes leads to more Yes

Psychology studies have shown that people who are in a “yes” frame of mine are more agreeable. I know it sounds ridiculous and I can’t find the study (maybe it was in Tipping Point or something) but it’s true. What this means is that a salesperson will ask you a bunch of yes questions in the hopes that it primes you to agree to a sale. Sometimes the questions are ridiculously obvious, “do you want something that lasts? something with a brand name?” and sometimes they’re not so obvious. Don’t confuse these primer questions with legitimate questions about your needs, but still keep on your guard.

What you should do it answer everything truthfully because some of those questions are information seeking, but just remember in the back of your mind there’s some salesperson psychology work going on here.

Making You Wait

This always happens at a car dealership. You test drive a car, you start talking numbers with the salesperson, then they have to get their manager to review the numbers. He or she leaves for what seems like a while, comes back and says the manager is on the phone, hold on a minute. Then they start up a, usually, unrelated conversation about weather, what you like to do, their kids, etc. Then the manager might show up or they disappear for a while. Sometimes the manager is honestly busy, sometimes they’re trying to tire you out by making you wait. People make mistakes when they’re tired, they’re hoping your guard lowers a little more with every passing minute. (Note that this doesn’t happen when you first show up, only when you start talking numbers!) This is also another opportunity for the relationship building to continue, maybe you learn about his kid who needs braces or is starting up school, maybe you find our she has a son that broke his arm, who knows.

If they make you wait more than five minutes for a manager, get up and leave. If you feel tired and drained, get up and tell them you want to sleep on it because you are tired. If they say hold on, don’t hold on. Firmly shake their hand, ask for their business card, thank them, and walk away. You should never make a large capital purchase, such as a car, without reviewing the paperwork with at least two people you trust and certainly never do it if you’re not 100% clearheaded.

Special Offer, Today Only, Building Urgency! Now!

I talked about this when I got a quote on windows (and again when I got a quote on carpet), but it’s “special offer” price that’s good only for the next four hours. Or the next day. Or a week. Whatever the case, they cut a few percentage points off the price in order to get you to sign up right now. It’s creating a sense of urgency where none exists. If you had a hole in your roof, they wouldn’t need to drop the price to entice you – you already have that sense of urgency.

The deal is not a special offer and will be valid for at least a week if you ask. The fact of the matter is that once they recognize you aren’t going to bite on a “deal that expires in 10 seconds,” they aren’t going to insult your intellect by insisting on it. Just ask them if they’ll extend it a week and if they won’t, walk away because it won’t be the best offer out there. I think it’s unreasonable to ask for a month because prices of raw materials fluctuate but it can’t hurt to ask!

The Sample Close

I forgot about this great tactic until SavingFreak reminded me (thanks!) in the comments below, but this is where they something along the lines of “if we were able to do this, this and this, would we have a deal?” A close cousin of this would be if the salesperson said “what would I have to win your business today?” or something similar. With the first version, they try to guess what roadblocks you may have and overcome them right off the bat. If they guessed wrong, they’re hoping you reveal what it is preventing you from signing and try to address that if they can. The second one gets right to the point and asks you.

When they ask, tell them what you want and tell them everything you want. If it sounds unreasonable, that’s okay, tell them anyway because that’s what it would take! Don’t ever give up something without them asking for it first. For example, if you need $500 knocked off the price, 12 months of 0% same as cash financing, and for it to be leather and not cloth – demand it. You never know until you ask and you don’t want to just say $250 off and then feel compelled to sign when they make it happen.

The Hand Off

Some people are good at buttering people up, some people are good at explaining technical details, and some people are good at closing deals. The Hand Off occurs when it appears that you, the prospect, aren’t going to buy. This is a last ditch effort where they bring in the big guns, a VP or a sales manager or something similarly titled, to come in and “solve your problems.”

The salesperson will usually tell you that they want to get their manager to speak with you, don’t bother arguing because chances are he or she will get fired if they never employ this tactic. Just say “Ok, but I need to leave in five minutes for [insert something].” At the very least, you can give the salesperson an excuse they can give to their boss if needed.


The few tactics I outlined above are tried and true methods that have sold a lot of things to people. There is much more to sales than those ideas, such as identifying the benefits of products, being persistent, working hard, etc., and you can find a plethora of books about it, but those are the tactics that can turn an otherwise level-headed buyer into a foolish one. I suspect that you’ve encountered one, if not all, of the tactics above, so please share your experience! I’d be interested to see if there were any other ones that I missed.

{ 5 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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5 Responses to “Know Thy Enemy: Understand the Salesperson’s Tools”

  1. Saving Freak says:

    You hit the nail on the head here. These are all classic sales techniques. I would add one more. The sample close. This is a question where you paint yourself into a corner. It always comes after they have collected what you are looking for and it goes something like, “If I can make XYZ happen today would you be willing to buy?” This works with tons of people.

    My goal whether I am the consumer or the seller is to build a relationship but never cede control of the conversation. Whenever you are purchasing I would suggest doing the same.

  2. I agree with Saving Freek but I’ve always heard it was called a Tie Down.
    Control is the key, anything you can do to take control from the Salesperson is your biggest protection!
    At a car dealership dont follow the program if you are out looking at cars research online and know what you will pay for the car before you go! get quotes for the loan from your local credit union, or bank! Dont give them the finance control! When you go in, stay at that predetermined price! Get up and walk away every chance you get!!! This puts the urgengy back on the sales person instead of you! now they are thinking “I am going to lose this commission if I dont meet their price” I have seen Consumers do this and walk away with new cars valued at $24,000 for only $12,000!

    The service industry like alarm companies and pest control will commonly use the FUD factor. This means they repeatedly send you a message of Fear Unceartanty and Doubt if you do not purchase thier services! They will talk alot about poisonous pests or break ins in the area, and how their services eliminate the risk. And how they get calls every day from people who had turned down the opportunity to use thier service and now thier home was burglarized so they are now signing up!

    Just a few more techniques I see quite often!

  3. Trent Hamm says:

    I am very hesitant to enter a store without knowing *exactly* why I’m there. Salesmen are the biggest reason why “social shopping” is a terrible idea – if you’re there without a reason, they’ll try to give you one (and scan your credit card in the process, of course).

  4. Todd says:

    The internet has made buying durable goods much easier, because there is very little excuse for not knowing the market value of anything ! That’s one of the reasons I’m surprised each day that Ebay goes without publishing a quarterly/annual bluebook containing virtually anything of any value !

  5. Greg says:

    When shopping, I do my homework and am always ready to leave, but am also prepared to wait them out.

    For example, when my wife and I bought our first car after we were married, we told the salesman up front we would not buy or talk numbers; we just wanted to drive the car. After the test drive, we said we wanted to think about it, if we wanted to buy the car, we would be there in the morning.

    We showed up when they opened the next morning (we set the entire day aside to work numbers). We packed snacks, drinks, and lunch. We brought reading materials. We sent the message that we were planning on being there as long as they were.

    The result was paying $1500 less than we intended to pay when we walked in the door (and it was not a nasty or confrontational experience).

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