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Column Marketing & Sales

Persuasion Versus Manipulation: Tactics to Utilize and Avoid


Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to not be a science, but an art.” – William Bernbach

In pop culture, the salesman is usually some man with slicked-back hair and a take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to closing the deal. They are typically arrogant, self-serving and manipulative, and the only outcome desired is to secure more wealth for themselves — even at the expense of their clients.

This spin has conditioned most people to approach any salesperson with caution. An equally devastating impact on the sales industry is that a lot of people who do work in sales do not want to be associated with that image. They will go to great efforts to distance themselves from the “sales” label. I will often hear some of our newer consultants lead by saying, “I don’t make commissions just FYI” entirely out of context. Make no mistake — consultants are not saying this to make the prospective client more comfortable. They do it to make themselves more comfortable. 

Let’s make one thing clear: If there is any transaction at the end of your process, then you work in sales whether you like it or not. Let’s deconstruct what you likely think you know about sales and then build back up from there. 

We all want to be more influential in our lives. If you vote in an election, you are trying to influence your world. If you are trying to convince your boss to give you a raise, whether it is through increased work efforts or a value building presentation, you are trying to influence their decision in your favor. But your ability to be influential hinges on how effective you are in the art of persuasion. You may want to influence that increase, but it is your ability to be persuasive that will determine how effective you are. 

Sometimes you may even hear, “Everything is a sale.” That’s less accurate than saying, “Everything is influence.” So once again, whether you consider yourself a salesperson or not, we all want to be more influential and persuasive in our lives. Fortunately, these are skills we can develop. Which instrumental skills you develop, however, will determine whether or not you are persuasive or manipulative. 

So, what is the difference between ethical selling and unethical selling? Ethical selling is when you intend to create a win-win scenario. For example, you would like the prospective client to sign up for personal training sessions because you believe they truly need it, and it also further secures you an income. Unethical selling is when you are merely looking for the best outcome for yourself. A good example here will be if you are trying to sell somebody five days a week of personal training as opposed to three days simply because you would generate a larger commission. 

Let’s look at three examples of each ethical and unethical selling

Unethical sales tactic: Negative Command. What is the first thing you do when I say, don’t think of a purple elephant? You think of the elephant despite the fact I just told you not to. 

Fitness example: “Fortunately, by getting you started with sessions today you won’t have to worry about how much worse your medical condition will become without our help.”

Unethical sales tactic: Diversion. Deflecting a legitimate concern to minimize how our service is not right for them. 

Fitness example: “Even though you still have three months of physical therapy left, I wouldn’t want you to miss out on this once-a-year sale on personal training that you will absolutely need.”

Unethical sales tactic: Words like “virtually.” There are plenty of words we recommend you use in any pitch. We call them “words that urge.” There are, however, choice words you should be suspicious of as a prospective client.

Fitness example: “Virtually everyone who signs up for my four weeks slim down and loses at least 15 to 20 pounds.”

Ethical sales tactic: Reduction. This is a tactic salespeople will use to help the prospective client quantify the financial or time commitment. 

Fitness example: “Although our service is $10 more a month than our competitors, I believe you would agree that for what amounts to.33 cents more per day you are receiving tremendously more value.”

Ethical sales tactic: Transparency. There should be no negative surprises in your process. I cannot tell you just how much I hate hearing stories of sales consultants who wait until the prospective new member is about to sign to say to them about the “annual enhancement fee.”

Fitness example: “When you join today there will be a one-time payment of $99 and 12 monthly payments of $39 per month after. On April 15th of each year, we draft an annual enhancement fee of $39, which allows us to ensure we can keep monthly fees low, while continuing to provide you with the very best equipment, classes and programs.” 

Ethical sales tactic: Selectively dissuade. You can generally make an argument that more personal training is better than less. But if the client has concerns about the expense, it is only right that we recommend solutions that fit their budget and meet their needs. 

Fitness example: “Based on what you are looking to accomplish coupled with your concerns centered around cost, let’s start with just two personal training sessions per week and supplement the remaining three days with large group fitness classes that are already included in your membership.”

If you believe in the value of what you are offering and are willing to invest in education to become a more persuasive salesperson, you do not need to resort to manipulation. If you feel like you need to leverage manipulative tactics to generate sales, you need to ask yourself, “Is what I am selling really worth what I am asking?” If the answer is no, you owe it to yourself to move on to something you do believe in. 

Success isn’t a happy accident, my friends. 

Jason R. Stowell is the division director of fitness and wellness for JCC of Greater Pittsburgh. He is an award-winning fitness leader with over 20 years of successful experience providing strategic planning, talent management, and expert-level sales training in the health and fitness industry. Connect with him on LinkedIn here

Jason R. Stowell

Jason R. Stowell is recognized as one of the highest-grossing sales performers over the last 25 years in the health and wellness industry. As an award-winning leader, Jason provides strategic planning, talent management and expert-level sales training through his Empowered Fitness Sales System workshops and industry-leading sales presentations at conferences internationally. Connect with him now on LinkedIn here

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1 Comment

  1. Ethan Smoorenburg October 1, 2019

    This is fantastic perspective! Thank you!


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