Why Selling Leaves a Sting

In the 1973 classic ‘The Sting’ starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford we follow a group of con men, led by Newman’s character Henry Gondorf who is effectively the Yoda of the ‘long con’ and Johnny Hooker, a small time grifter played by Redford. Hooker and his partner Luther unwittingly run a con that upsets a big time criminal leading to Luther’s untimely death and a contract being placed on Hookers life. He flees and joins forces with Gondorf to avenge the killing of their friend. Together with a crack group of talented con artists they plan and stage the ultimate con.

There mark is no sap though, he is none other than mob boss Doyle Lonnegan, played by Robert Shaw. Suffice to say the stakes in this con are as high as they get! Despite the tension and danger Gondorf and Hooker hold their nerve and play Lonnegan expertly, he takes the bait and is ultimately parted with his money.

If you haven’t seen this fantastic and timeless classic do yourself a favour and get it on your must watch list immediately. In the meantime here’s a taste:

So how does all this relate to sales? Well I fear that all too often we can treat our clients a little like Gondorf and Hooker treat Doyle Lonnegan, like someone to be played. Although he was a bad man and he ultimately got what was coming to him, if we put his character to one side for the moment, he thought he was engaging in a ‘legitimate’ (and I use that term loosely given the plot of the movie) business opportunity, but all the time he was being manipulated, cajoled, lied to, pushed and deceived by some very talented people on a mission to do one thing – get his money.

Although I certainly don’t consider sales professional to be like the con men depicted in the movie we can’t deny there are parallels. Let’s take a look at them through the four acts in the film:

The Set-Up

In the movie they rent property and fit it out to look like a high-end gambling parlour, no detail is left to chance. They also construct a complex backstory designed to entice Lonnegan and make him feel he always has the upper hand.

In the real world we often hear stories of selling organisations who have invested heavily in marketing, branding and sales collateral in order to promote the attractiveness and benefits of their products or services and entice new customers. Only for those same customers to be left with products or services that simply do not deliver promised results or worse.

We even know of companies actively teaching their people to sell products and services they know are not up to scratch or that they have no idea how they would deliver. They are so focused on getting the clients money into their pockets all of their efforts are focused on making sales rather than on delivering real value.

The Hook

In the movie Hooker pretends to turn on Gondorf. He confides in Lonnegan telling him that he wants to take down his boss and take over his operation but that he needs Lonnegans help to make it happen. At this stage Lonnegan has a powerful hatred for Gondorf so he jumps at the opportunity for revenge, unwittingly taking the bait.

In the real world sales people are often guilty of a little play-acting. They claim to understand how you feel and that others have felt the same but they’ve found…..you get it. Although this classic feel, felt, found technique is very old school the fear for many clients or customers when dealing with a ‘sales person’ is that they’re not actually having a real conversation with a real person.

They fear that we’re simply using our skills and techniques to gain their confidence, that we have an ulterior motive and that we’re only in it for the money. We are often seen as lacking ethics and morals and not really caring about our prospects and customers. There is a general feeling that we are not to be trusted, that we're are out to manipulate people or rip someone off; and with plenty of news coverage and general industry chatter about the latest exploits of sales people, some would say these perceptions have been well earned. 

No wonder sales has become much harder than in needs to be.

The Wire

In the movie they consider a wide range of options before settling on The Wire to run their con. They choose the wire because it’s been “…out of date for ten years” so Lonnegan won’t know it, giving them a much better chance of success.

In the real world many sales people and sales organisations are wedded to equally outdated sales attitudes, mindsets and strategies. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with employing a well-founded technique or strategy, in fact you could say we’re returning to the character ethic Dale Carnegie wrote about in his seminal work How to Win Friends and Influence People back in 1936, but now we call it purpose.

It’s not the strategy or technique, it’s the intent behind it. As we see in The Sting, The Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room and Glengarry Glen Ross where a range of fairly unpalatable sales behaviours are on display; they were all driven by a self-centred, ego driven intent.

As long as we're focused on our needs, we cant focus on the clients needs. That's not my opinion its fact, neuroscience tells us the the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with motivation, focus, attention and coordinates messages to other parts of the brain, has real trouble dividing its attention between tasks. It slows you down and you make more mistakes. The bottom line is that your brain cannot multitask, so stop trying to make it. Invest 100% of your brains considerable power in your client and what they're trying to achieve.

The Sting

In the movie everything comes together in the final big scene where Lonnegan places his $500,000 bet on Lucky Dan to win the third race at Riverside. Everything comes together beautifully and rather dramatically, with tempers in the red zone and bullets flying, for moment it seems as though the crack team of con artists have been undone by their own infighting and the ever-watchful FBI. But not to worry, everything that transpires is exactly as our ‘heroes’ Gondorf and Hooker had planned.

In the real world of sales the poetry we see in the final scene of The Sting is elusive at best. We typically see disconnected systems and processes, poor planning and management, dysfunctional cultures and combative relationships between colleagues and departments. Of course all of this is happening out of the clients line of sight, the external brand they experience has been meticulously curated and polished to a high sheen. They know nothing of the back biting, politics and bad blood playing out behind the brushed velvet curtain, that is until the shine comes off once they become a paying customer.  

To that end in some ways we are no better than Gondorf and Hooker. Although they are willing and active participants in their chosen career of deception and fakery, by turning a blind eye to our own failings, dysfunctions, conflicts, ego’s, motivations, agendas and the collective effect they have on the wellbeing of our people and our ability to deliver what we ‘sell’ to our clients, we’re perpetuating our very own con and leaving our clients with a painful sting.

Ian J Lowe is the Founder & CEO of eccoh, a sales transformation, coaching and consulting organisation pioneering a movement to change the way the world thinks about sales.

Image Credit: The Sting movie 1973, Universal Pictures