Professional Selling and the Line Between Persuasion and Manipulation

BY Jessica Helinski
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The ability to persuade others is an important skill in professional selling. According to SalesFuel’s research, more than one-​third of sellers say being persuasive is a top skill necessary in sales. 

But sellers must be careful that they don’t cross the line between being persuasive and manipulating others. As the American Management Association (AMA) notes, “Some persuasion tactics can stop us from thinking critically and making good decisions, because the person using them seeks to bend decisions their way by provoking fear, anger, and confusion. While the user may not always be deliberate in manipulating others’ emotions for their own benefit, the result is the same.”

To maintain credibility, trust and your reputation, it’s best to stay far from tactics that even border on manipulative. 

There’s no place for manipulation in professional selling

But, as the AMA points out, a seller, in an effort to be persuasive, may not even realize they’re actually triggering strong emotions in the buyer. And certain emotions, like fear and confusion, will keep buyers from thinking clearly and rationally, impacting their decision-making.

Common tactics that sellers should avoid

Can you recognize persuasion techniques that are actually manipulative? The AMA shares a few examples of tactics to avoid when attempting to sway buyers:

  • The Slippery Slope argument, in which the seller suggests that if A happens, B, C and D will happen, inevitably leading to E — an extremely negative outcome.
  • Circular Reasoning, which, AMA explains, is “an argument that merely restates the conclusion rather than proving it. This tactic is often used by someone who has not done the research and data gathering needed to construct a solid proposal.”
  • The Band Wagon effect, also known as “FOMO,” or the Fear of Missing Out. This attempts to coerce a decision by playing on the fear of being left out of something everyone is doing or buying into.

Ethical techniques to use instead

Rather than risk being manipulative, make conscious efforts to only use persuasive techniques that are honest and ethical. Sven Riehle, writing for Zendesk Blog, offers suggestions for tried-​and-​true professional selling tactics that are both effective and ethical:

Education-​based selling. Impress buyers with the details and facts that make your solution the best choice for them. Rather than riling up emotions, present them with insight and research that reveals why they should buy from you. “This technique aims at making prospects more independent, confident customers by informing them in-​depth about your type of product,” Riehle explains. 

Value-​based selling is another strategy that wows buyers without triggering strong emotions. Emphasizing exactly how your solution can help the buyer, i.e., demonstrating personalized value, allows you to be persuasive without manipulating. From value propositions to storytelling, there are a variety of professional selling techniques to show value. 

And buyers appreciate this type of selling: Over half of B2B buyers say they want to work with a seller who knows their products and how to use them to solve the buyer’s business problem or achieve their goal.

It comes down to intention

Yes, there is a fine line at times in sales when it comes to persuasion and manipulation. But at the very heart of an effort to persuade lies a major element: intention. “One way is to distinguish persuasion and manipulation based on intent: in sales, ‘good intentions’ could mean ‘in the prospect’s best interest.’ 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."

Keep this in mind each time you work with a buyer. Simply having more awareness about this topic can keep you more mindful about the professional selling tactics you use. 

Photo by Christina Morillo