“The Art Of The Bluff”


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I was stunned and appalled to read
an article sponsored by a major sales publication promoting the “Art of the
bluff.” The author was cautious to highlight the negative connotations around
bluffing–the feeling of manipulation, the proximity to lying, and the knife
edge a “bluffer’ must walk to avoid lying. 

Trying as hard as I could, I sought something
redeeming in the article and that I could learn.  I couldn’t find a thing, in fact the article
was dangerously out of touch with modern buying/selling, portraying sales as a
battle between the buyer and the seller, with each seeking advantage over the
other in a zero-sum game of winners and losers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After reading the article, I quickly
looked up the definition of bluffing (ignoring those that had to do with a
bluff as some form or hill or cliff) to find:

“Merriam-Webster: card games : to deceive (an opponent) by a bold bet on an inferior hand was bluffed out of a winning hand (This was appropriate since the author was using bluffing in poker as a comparison.

Dictionary.com verb (used with object) to mislead by a display of strength, self-confidence, or the like: He bluffed me into believing that he was a doctor.  To gain by bluffing: He bluffed his way into the job. Poker. to deceive by a show of confidence in the strength of one’s cards.

Cambridge Dictionary: to try to trick someone into believing something, esp. in order to get an advantage over that person”

I could go on, but you get the idea.
Bluffing has to do with deceiving, tricking, or misleading someone. I tried to
understand that fine line the sales person must walk to bluff, yet not lie.

The author then digs a deeper hole
by providing the following example:

“There’s admittedly a fine line between a bluff and a lie. It can be helpful to think about a bluff as a tactic used in a zero-sum game where both parties are on an even playing field and trying to maximize their individual outcomes. For that reason, a bluff is generally considered ethical, whereas a flat-out lie is not. For example, if you’re trying to negotiate a price, then both parties have the opportunity to bluff. But if you’re selling a product and a customer asks a question about a product capability and you answer dishonestly, you’re likely out of bounds.”

There is so much wrong with the
concepts the author outlines. The most egregious are:

Thinking of buying/selling as a “zero-sum
Game…..Maximizing our individual outcomes.”  There is nothing even remotely correct about
this.  Buying and selling is about shared
value creation. The very concept of buying and selling is achieving something,
together, that we can’t achieve without each other. Our customers buy because
it is the most effective and efficient way for them to achieve our goals. And
we get an order for a return we believe to be fair and reasonable–otherwise,
why would be accept an order?

The notion of buying/selling or
negotiation as a zero sum, win/lose game has never been a part of professional,
value-based selling or procurement. Any person promoting this notion of buying
and selling should be avoided.

The second idea, implying, as long
as we are doing it to each other–lying to each other, it’s OK, it’s part of the
bluff. But when it’s one way, it’s a lie.

What kind of twisted logic is this?
How can one even think of this as ethical?

Then the author goes on to talk
about how to leverage knowledge gaps to your advantage.   I suppose the logic is, “What the customer
doesn’t know can’t hurt her…..” 

We can and should leverage knowledge
gaps, but not to manipulate and take advantage of the customer.  Instead, we should seek to help the customer
learn, to help them think about how they could more effectively achieve their

As if this isn’t enough, the author
goes on to provide tips in mastering the art of bluffing in sales.

He starts with “knowing your
customer.”  Of course we have to know our
customer, but in this case the author wants to understand their style so we can
learn how to appropriately bluff them—deceive and manipulate them.  His tip, “The more you know about the
stakeholders in a deal, the better you can leverage that information to your

His second tip is to be on the
lookout for opportunities where we can take advantage of our customer’s
behavior, using these opportunities to “get an upper hand.”

He also suggests telling a believable
story.  Of course story telling is
important to help customers learn, understand and internalize what we are
selling.  But the context of his storytelling
advice is focused on finding leverage to take advantage of the customer—not help

Finally, he suggests practice.  Practice makes perfect and he suggest
practice in bluffing to learn how to effectively push people.

He ends with the suggestion, “artful
sales leaders are always on the lookout to gain fair advantage…”

It’s hard to believe advise that is
so misguided.  It’s hard to believe these
tactics were ever very effective, yet in today’s world of buying and selling,
they are totally out of place.

It’s even harder to believe a once
respectable publication, promotes these values and attitudes a appropriate in sales
and marketing.


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