The 6 Dirty Tricks Customers Play on Sales Reps

Most customers realize that sales reps are a valuable resource. However, there's a subset of customers who see that resources as something to be exploited rather than respected. This post contains six ways that customers try to trick sales reps, usually in order to get something for nothing.

Needless to say, I've also explained how to counter each trick so that the scenario plays out to your advantage. As a bonus, I've added some real-life stories of how these tricks were used in actual sales situations... and what happened as a result.


DIRTY TRICK #1: The Free Consulting Request
  • Definition: Asking the sales rep to provide provide substantial up-front work without making any commitment to buy.
  • Example: "We'll consider you for the job if you write us a detailed, 50 page requirements document."
  • The Hidden Agenda: They want the benefit of your experience and knowledge for free.
  • Your Strategy: Before agreeing to do any up-front work, demand a significant concession that will help you close the business.
  • What YOU Say: "We'll be happy to work with you on that document, providing you give us regular access to your top management team."
  • What Will Happen: You'll get the inside track on developing the opportunity.
  • Warning: If you don't demand something significant, the customer will know you're a patsy.
  • Tales from the Front: I was once asked to develop a concept for an industry analyst publication covering the "services" segment of the Information Technology industry. I spent about a week scoping out how the information would be gathered, how it would be formatted, and even how it could be effectively sold. I did this work because I expected that the analyst firm in question would hire me to do the writing, which would have been a substantial long-term contract. They said: "Thanks!" and promptly brought the project in-house. Ten years later, it's one of their most profitable subscriptions and I've never seen a single dime. Was I dumb, or what?
DIRTY TRICK #2: The Stalking Horse
  • Definition: The prospect brings additional vendors to bid on an opportunity even though they've already decided to award the contract to the vendor that helped them develop the RFP.
  • Example: "This is a wonderful opportunity for your firm and we'd really like you to participate in our open and fair bidding process"
  • Their Hidden Agenda: They want to create the impression of impartiality so that the rest of the company doesn't think they're favoring a particular vendor.
  • Your Strategy: Don't bother bidding on any contract where you're reasonably certain another vendor has locked it down.
  • What YOU Say: "Has an RFP already been written? And what vendors have already participated in that process?"
  • What Will Happen: You'll probably find out that some other vendor has the inside track, in which case you simply withdraw from the fake opportunity.
  • Warning: You may have to dig to find out whether another vendor is pulling the strings. Hint: check LinkedIn for connections between customer contacts and competitive sales reps.
  • Tales from the Front: A guy I know was the sales rep (and manager) for a small firm that got involved in what looked like the opportunity of a lifetime -- a big contract from a Fortune 50 multinational. He was repeatedly told that the bidding process would be fair and that there would be a level playing field. The vendor presentations were to be given in Hong Kong, so he raided the last of his company's meager travel budget so that he could present the solution that he'd just spent two weeks preparing. When he got there, he discovered that there was only one other vendor, and that vendor had an 4 hour presentation from 1pm to 5pm. His presentation was scheduled for 1 hour -- at 7pm that night.

DIRTY TRICK #3: The Unreasonable Requirement.
  • Definition: A requirement surfaces that makes no business sense and which would involve an incredible amount of work to satisfy.
  • Example: "We'll need you to stop doing business with our competitors if you're doing business with us."
  • Their Hidden Agenda: They're planning to concede the unreasonable point and then ask you, in return, to concede a reasonable point.
  • Your Strategy: Treat the unreasonable requirement as if it's a deal-breaker.
  • What YOU Say: "Since that's not going to happen, it sounds like you're not really interested in buying. Is that the case?"
  • What Will Happen: If the customer is serious about buying, the unreasonable requirement will "magically" disappear.
  • Warning: The requirement may be a proxy for some other objection that the customer is reluctant to surface.
  • Tales From the Front: I once sold an article to a publication that was owned by Lucasfilm (the folk that make the Star Wars movies). The publication had nothing to do with the film industry and the article was only 1000 words long. They sent me a contract that was clearly written by the studio lawyers. It was, I kid you not, 35 pages long and, from what I could tell, pretty much gave them ownership of everything I've ever written and would ever write, in this and in subsequent lives. I told them "I'm not signing this, because it's ridiculous." They said: "OK, that's fine. Just write the article and we'll go on the agreement in our original letter." Turns out that they were hoping that some author would object, so that they could go back to the lawyers and tell them to come up with a simpler contract.

DIRTY TRICK #4: The Delayed Meeting
  • Definition: The customer introduces long and unnecessary gaps in the sales cycle, by constantly rescheduling important meetings.
  • Example: "We can't meet on Friday to discuss this; how about next month?"
  • Their Hidden Agenda: They're trying to scare you into thinking you'll lose the deal so that you'll offer more concessions.
  • Your Basic Strategy: Surface some negative consequences of delaying the sale.
  • What YOU Say: "Happy to meet then. However, I should let you know that our prices will be rising next month, so if you're at all interested in moving forward, we might want to meet a bit earlier."
  • What Will Happen: If it's just a trick (and there are no budget problems), the key meetings will be moved forward.
  • Warning: The customer may be having problems working internal budget issues.
  • Tales from the Front: Back when I worked in a Fortune 100 company, I saw this method applied in order to force small companies who wanted to do business with us to feel more "impressed" when they finally got to meet a top executive. It got so bad that our vendors started calling our corporate headquarters "The Death Star."

DIRTY TRICK #5: False Cold Feet
  • Definition: During the final negotiations, the prospect pretends to question the wisdom of the deal.
  • Example: "I realized we've been working on this for a long time, but we're not really sure that this is the right thing for us to do at this time."
  • Their Hidden Agenda: They're trying to scare you into thinking you'll lose the deal so that you'll offer some concessions.
  • Your Strategy: Determine whether there's a real problem. If so, roll back the sales cycle; if not, push through.
  • What YOU Say: "Exactly what is making you question the deal?"
  • What Will Happen: If (as is likely) the objection isn't real, the negotiation will proceed as before.
  • Warning: If the objection IS real, you'll need to step back from the negotiation process and return to an earlier stage in your sales cycle.
  • Tales from the Front: For a while I was on the negotiation team that was trying to cut a deal for Digital Equipment Corporation to buy Lotus Development Corp. The two negotiating teams kept coming to tentative agreements, but it seemed impossible to get closure from the top executives on either side. Eventually it became clear that no sale was going to take place, but the deal remained "in negotiation" until the prime mover (the second in command at DEC) got canned by the CEO. At that point, the zombie deal fell apart and Lotus was later purchased by IBM.

DIRTY TRICK #6. The Last-Minute Discount.
  • Definition: The customer demands for a steep discount after the price has already been defined.
  • Example: "There will be no deal unless you agree to drop the price 25 percent."
  • Their Hidden Agenda: They're checking to confirm that you've given them the best deal.
  • Your Strategy: Make it clear from the start that you are offering the best price possible.
  • What YOU Say: "I don't play the games that some of my competitors play. You will always get the best price from me the first time around. If we need to remove something from the quote to meet your budget, we can certainly do that."
  • What Will Happen: The prospect will back down from the demand, and you will get more respect from them in the future.
  • Warning: You ABSOLUTELY must be willing to walk away from the deal.
  • Tales from the Front: A friend of mine once spent six months developing an opportunity with an up-and-coming dot-com firm. The deal went to contract and, since it was a huge deal, there was to be a formal contract signing. As my friend sat down to sign the contract, he noticed that the price had been dropped by 25% from what had been negotiated. He pretty much screamed bloody murder and was ready to walk out. Turns out that the CEO (a true corporate Jackass) had decided that he could get a better deal and told the contract lawyer to write it up that way "to see what would happen." The discount was scratched out of the contract and the negotiated terms replaced but (and I bet you can see this coming) the deal went sour during implementation.
READERS: Any other dirty tricks that I should have included?