Lies and Deception in Selling

By Gerhard Gschwandtner

In a research project at the University of California, over 500 men and women, including police detectives, psychiatrists, judges, polygraph testers and Secret Service officers, were tested on their ability to assess whether a person was lying or telling the truth. Surprisingly, only the Secret Service agents did better than chance at catching the liars. "The problem is," Dr. Ekman says, "we are not very good at reading lies because we don’t expect them."

Dr. Ekman has taught psychiatrists, judges, lawyers and government officials to improve their ability to spot lies. After his workshop, participants’ lie-catching scores usually improve from 50 percent to over 80 percent. In this Personal Selling Power article based on an exclusive interview, Dr. Paul Ekman helps you recognize the nonverbal clues to deception. He also discusses practical strategies for getting the truth to the surface in selling situations and during job interviews.

In his book Telling Lies, Dr. Ekman writes: "There are two primary ways to lie: to conceal and to falsify. In concealing, the liar withholds some information without actually saying anything untrue. In falsifying, the liar takes an additional step. Not only does the liar withhold true information, but he presents false information as if it were true."

Are there situations when deception is not considered a lie? Dr. Ekman says, "In social situations there is a mutual expectation that we will treat one another politely. There is a mutual expectation that we will act in a civil fashion and be considerate of each other’s feelings. That kind of deception should not be considered lying."

The most common way to conceal any strong emotion is to smile. How can we tell when a customer’s smile is not an expression of true enjoyment? Dr. Ekman, who has studied facial expressions among people in the United States, Europe, Russia and Japan, explains the subtle clues that tell the difference: "When people experience real enjoyment, the muscles that circle the eyes are involved in the smile. In a slight smile it is very easy to notice the contraction of the muscles around the eyes. If it is a very broad smile, then the signs become more subtle and you can’t look at the cheeks or the crow’s feet to get an accurate reading. You have to look at the skin above the eye. If the broad smile is a true enjoyment smile, the skin above the eye will come down a little, and the eyelids are slightly lower. This is the kind of smile that accompanies the changes in the brain that occur with enjoyment."

According to Dr. Ekman’s research, polite smiles often let other people know that we agree with what they are doing or saying. Sometimes salespeople put on a smile to show how much they are enjoying a customer’s amusing story when they actually think that it is boring. These smiles serve to facilitate rapport and can’t be considered as false smiles.

Why would we want to know when a customer’s smile is real or a polite mask? During product demonstrations, it pays to know exactly what product features the customer really likes. When the customer’s smile deepens the crow’s feet around the eyes, it may be the best time to ask for the order.

It’s Hard To Look Cool When We’re Hot

While it is easy to fake a smile, negative emotions are much harder to falsify. The hardest thing to do is to look cool when you feel real, strong emotions. It also takes great effort to falsify feelings of distress and fear, while expressions of anger or disgust are relatively simple to counterfeit.

Since emotions are expressed more clearly through body language, Dr. Ekman suggests paying close attention to such nonverbal communication channels as face, tone of voice and body. Scientific research confirms that when people focus only on words, they often miss critical information. "Everyone knows that when we use words, we can say whatever we want and easily conceal the truth," says Dr. Ekman, "but it takes extraordinary skills to deceive the trained eye with our face, voice and body."

For example, 70 percent of the people studied involuntarily raise the pitch of their voice when they get upset. Although some people raise the pitch when they are lying, Dr. Ekman warns against misinterpretations. "A raised pitch does not automatically indicate deception. Most of the time it only indicates the presence of fear, excitement or anger."

He also warns about misinterpreting a low, flat and unemotional tone of voice. It is possible for a gifted performer to deliver an emotionally charged story calmly and evenly. During the Watergate hearings, John Dean testified that President Nixon had approved payoffs. Years after his testimony, John Dean revealed in his book Blind Ambition (1976) that he had decided in advance to "read evenly, unemotionally and as coldly as possible and answer questions the same way." Dean reasoned that "people tend to think that somebody telling the truth will be calm about it." Judge John J. Sirica appeared to be impressed with John Dean’s unemotional tone of voice as he indicated in his book To Set The Record Straight (1979): "The committee members peppered him with hostile questions. But he stuck to his story. He didn’t appear upset in any way. His flat, unemotional tone of voice made him believable."

How To Get The Truth To Surface

What if you sense that someone may not be telling the truth? How do you obtain accurate information without antagonizing the other person and without leaving the door open to further lies?

Dr. Ekman suggests not putting people on the defensive: "Show them that you really want to build a bridge and encourage them to be frank." He also suggests being sensitive to the other person: "Most of us don’t like to admit to ourselves that we are lying. And whenever we do lie, we tend to think that we have a very good justification."

Why isn’t it a good strategy to call someone a liar? Simply because the moment you turn the relationship into an adversarial situation, people may refuse to talk with you further. If you depend on additional information from that particular source, you may be giving up your advantage. "In most instances," explains Dr. Ekman, "people will feel more comfortable if you can reassure them that they are not going to risk a lot if they tell you the truth."

How can we reassure other people that they won’t lose everything if they tell us the truth? Here are a few ways to get people to relax:

"Perhaps there is some reason why you can’t share with me what really happened."
"Are you worried about how I might react to what you are telling me?"
"I know that this may be uncomfortable, but it appears that there is more to this story. Let us put the cards on the table so we can put this issue to rest."
"I have a sense that there is really more to this story than what you have told me. Is there anything else that you would like to add?"

Fishing For Evidence

When asked how he would respond to nonverbal signs of deceit during a job interview, Dr. Ekman offered this advice: "I would ask a number of follow-up questions and try to see how the applicant would handle them." His research suggests that the chance of uncovering deceit is directly related to our ability to ask good questions.

For example, if the candidate came up with a convoluted answer to your question about why he left the previous company, you may follow up with, "How much notice did you give your previous employer? Did your decision have anything to do with any personal disagreements? Were there any personality clashes?"

While the candidate answers your questions, compare what is said in words to how the body expresses emotions. Lie catchers listen with their eyes and ears for subtle clues like:

– Does the tone of voice go up at the end of a sentence?
– Does the applicant’s voice hesitate?
– Do you notice small shrugs?

When the person talks about a positive situation, are the eyebrows relaxed or drawn together?

– Do self-touching gestures increase while answering your question?
– Does the applicant assume a stiffer posture?
– Does the candidate become more quiet and withdrawn?

When you notice contradictions, don’t just trust what the person is saying, even though his words may be very convincing. Dr. Ekman cautions against premature judgments: "We can’t find conclusive proof that the person has lied just by observing behavioral clues; all we can learn from them is that we had better do some more checking before taking the next step."

Understanding Why Prospects Lie

Dr. Ekman explains that prospects often get embarrassed by the fact that they really can’t afford the product. He says, "I recently looked at a piece of equipment and when I asked for the price it was so far beyond my budget that I told the salesman that I had to take some measurements first to see that it fits. I used this excuse to get out of the situation and avoid embarrassment."

When asked how he would have handled the situation if the roles had been reversed, Dr. Ekman answered, "I would say to the customer, ‘I understand that this seems like a lot more money than what you thought about spending on this, but the product has so many more features, it lasts much longer and it will retain its value much longer. In addition, there is a payment plan that really makes this affordable for almost everyone.’" Dr. Ekman suggests that salespeople should anticipate the client’s fears and be prepared to deal with them in a polite and diplomatic fashion.

Build Trust, Don’t Let Deception Beget Deception

While it is often frustrating to be deceived by a customer, salespeople should resist the temptation to respond in kind.

Sales managers must educate salespeople that lying is not an option in the pursuit of a sale – even though their customers aren’t always truthful. Dr. Ekman warns that there is a substantial difference between concealing your true feelings about your customers and concealing the truth about the qualities of your product.

Dr. Ekman cites an example from his own experience: "I like classical music and I like to buy from one store in town that isn’t known for low prices, but for quality service. For example, their salespeople can tell you the different versions of a symphony and they know the subtle details about the different recordings. To me, expert knowledge builds confidence and I am willing to pay more money when I can get good advice."

Caveat For The Seller

"Many times, customers are not as experienced as the salesperson," explains Dr. Ekman. "For example, in my lifetime I have purchased about seven cars. This puts me at a great disadvantage when I talk to a salesperson who may sell seven cars in a week. Salespeople are more experienced in being convincing and most buyers can’t tell if the salesperson is truthful to them."

While buyers are told caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware) before every important purchase, in every selling situation the seller’s moral judgment is challenged by four temptations:

– It is easier to fool unsuspecting people than to serve people.
– It takes less courage to hide the truth than to admit it.
– It takes less time to lie than it takes to build trust.
– It is easier to conceal the truth than to uncover deception.

On every call, salespeople have a choice to do what’s right or what is easy and expedient. To do what’s right is a question of moral judgment.

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Peter Carr sharing his thoughts on the subject: "Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly."

How can you tell when people are lying to you?

When your prospect says,
"I’ll be back."

When your job applicant says,
"I’ve left to better myself."

When your boyfriend says,
"I had to work late last night."

When your real estate agent says,
"They won’t take less than 125K."

When your husband says,
"Your dress looks really smashing."

When your friend says,
"That fish was over
25 pounds!"

When your customer says,
"The check was sent yesterday."

TellTale Signals

1. Watch for contradictions and verbal mistakes

People don’t always remember what they have said before. They may leak parts of the truth through either a slip of the tongue or lapse of memory. Take notes on these contradictions during or immediately after your meeting. Never assume that a verbal mistake is a sure sign of a lie.

2. Compare two different conversations

Pay attention to the discrepancies between what the person says on two different occasions. For example, a job applicant displays a slight amount of nervousness during the first interview and when you ask why she left the previous company, the applicant pauses for a moment then delivers the answer flawlessly with a big smile. During the second interview you lead the conversation to the same subject. The applicant pauses again but this time the answer is more convoluted and the pitch of her voice increases. Although you have no proof that the candidate is lying, the wide discrepancy between the answers from two different interviews suggests investigating the subject in more detail.

3. Watch for contradictions between verbal and nonverbal messages

While you listen to your customers, observe their facial expressions. Listen for tone of voice; watch for hand motions and self-touching gestures, along with foot swinging or body shifts. The discrepancies between what people say and what their bodies express will give you clues that you should question the verbal information more closely. Also, any increase or decrease of habitual nonverbal signals during a conversation should warn you to proceed with caution.

10 CLassic Lies Customers Will Use on You

When prospects fail to recognize the benefits of buying, they are often too embarrassed to tell the truth. Instead of taking the time to objectively investigate the opportunity you are presenting, they seek an immediate shortcut by fabricating a small lie. Although any of the statements below sound true, and can be true, you will never know if they really are, unless you probe further to isolate the true reason behind your prospect’s shortcut. The most common lies in selling follow the 10 distinct patterns listed below:

1. Denial

– "I don’t need this new product."
– "I would not think of trading in my old machine."
– "There’s no reason for changing now."

2. Alibi

– "I don’t have the money to buy."
– "I don’t have the authority."

3. Blaming

– "It’s not my responsibility to make that decision."
– "My boss doesn’t like products like that."
– "I want it, but my husband (wife) doesn’t like it."

4. Minimizing

– "This new idea won’t do us much good."

– "I don’t see what’s so great about this."
– "There is little value to spending money on this."

5. Justification

– "We do have a need, but we are too busy with our reorganization."
– "I would like to go ahead right now, but the budget hasn’t been approved."
– "It’s no use, as long as business is slow, we can’t spend money."

6. Derogation

– "I heard that these things suffer from frequent breakdowns."
– "When it comes to service, nobody will be around to help us."
– "You don’t have a good reputation in this area."

7. Yes, but…

– "It’s a good idea, but it won’t work here."
– "Yes, it is inexpensive, but we still can’t afford it."
– "We’d like to buy two, but not right now."

8. Helplessness

– "It’s out of my hands, I can’t do this deal."
– "If I could convince my boss, I’d buy it today."
– "There is no way my wife would agree to that."

9. I have no choice

– "I tried my best, but I had no choice but to go along with the majority."
– "With the many problems we’ve had in the past, I had no choice but to cancel the order."
– "Based on the lower offer that we’ve received from your competitor, I had no choice but to go with them."

10. Reframing reality

– "Robin Hood was not stealing, he just redistributed the wealth."
– "Our purchasing system is not unfair, we are just limiting the number of suppliers."
– "We may have caused you a minor inconvenience by canceling this order, but believe me, we are saving you a lot of money in the future, because your product would have had a lot of service problems with this type of application."