Sincerity is overrated: It is necessary, but not sufficient

Steve had just been through some trust-based sales training wherein he learned that he should eliminate sales pressure and just try having a conversation with prospects and customers.

It all made so much sense: Build trust by being real, authentic, sincere! “Oh how liberating,” he thought to himself!

Within days he was in front of customers putting his epiphany into action with a first-time prospect.

“I just wanted to mention that we don’t believe in pressuring people or assuming they need what we have. We believe in operating as problem-solvers, not as people focusing on just trying to close the sale. I hope you’re comfortable with that,” said Steve with all the sincerity he could muster.

Actually, there was no mustering needed; Steve was sincere. That, he thought, is what was so magical about this approach. So you can imagine his shock when the customer laughed…literally!

“I haven’t heard that one before. What do they call it in sales school, the ‘Be totally up-front, sincere and direct’ opening?” His prospect asked with a benign chuckle. Steve froze. And who wouldn’t?

Customers hear your words, not your heart.

Why did his prospect not respond to Steve’s sincere approach? Was Steve crossing his fingers behind his back and the prospect knew it? Hardly!

Strange as it sounds, it happened because the buyer/seller relationship is among the oldest in human history and, as a consequence, “salesman” triggers have been coded into the customer’s DNA for millennia. Salesman triggers don’t respond to intent, motivations or sincerity. They respond only to words and actions.

And Steve’s words triggered the “salesman” response…despite their total sincerity!

Honesty and sincerity are not enough.

Most everyone understands the principle of a “necessary but not sufficient” condition. We applied it every day back in my engineering days. In sales, sincerity is necessary – vital. But, mostly because of the “salesman” stereotype coded into all customers’ DNA, sincerity is definitely not a sufficient condition to create trust inside the customer interaction.

Once after giving a talk on ways that salespeople can, as I say it, “operate non-transactionally,” one of the participants approached me, congratulated me on the great talk and voiced his wild agreement with the subject: “Yeah, every time I meet with customers I say that, ‘I’m not here to sell you anything today. I just wanted to sit down, get to know you and try to understand your needs.'”

I’m not proud of this, but I laughed. But only because I thought he was joking as I had used that phrase almost verbatim as one that has the right intention (sincerity) but triggered the “salesman” response. He wasn’t kidding! (I guess I didn’t fully engage him in the talk, either. Shame on me.)

You sincerely care.

Let’s say you are the most selfless, empathetic person in the world. You care about nothing but the wellbeing of other people, even total strangers. So much so that you wouldn’t even consider engaging in a conversation with a prospect or customer until you are sure he or she is well.

So, on cold phone calls, when the other person says, “Hi, this is Al,” you, because you love everyone and care only about their wellbeing, open your end of the conversation with, “Hi Al, this is Mark Williams from XYZ Company. How are you today?” You are completely sincere in your desire to know. You’re also completely talking to a dial tone four seconds later.

You sincerely love bass fishing.

Or you meet a new prospect and spot the smallmouth bass on the wall of his office. You, being a sincere lover of bass fishing, inquire: “Oh, you’re a bass fisherman?” Of course, the last 487 salespeople that sat in your chair asked the same thing. But, you reason, it’s different coming from you because you sincerely love bass fishing. Sorry, in the customer’s eyes, you’re no different. And you’ve just triggered the “schmoozing salesman” response.

You sincerely want to implement your sales process.

You just went through some strategic sales training wherein you learned the importance of understanding the customer’s business objectives, strategies and key initiatives.

That makes sense, you think. In fact, you fall in love with your new sales process. So off you go, with total sincerity you ask the customer, “Would you mind if I asked you some questions about your business objectives, strategies and key initiatives?” Then you’re left stunned when she clams right up because she heard language that triggered the “salesman’s sales process.”

Similarly, you’ve learned the enormous value of meeting with customers simply to gain information. You oozed sincerity when you then called Charlie, your best customer, and said you wanted to “get together just to ask him some questions and get some information.” You felt Charlie’s defenses go up as he demanded, “What kind of information are you looking for?” Why? Despite the depths of your genuine, heartfelt sincerity, your language triggered the “Oh-oh, salesman’s interrogation” automatic response from Charlie. He literally can’t help it.

Let your language breathe life into your authenticity.

You are trustworthy, sincere, authentic. Your prospects and customers will figure that out as they get to know you. But you need to help them along by being aware that their minds are almost incapable of sensing that sincerity in a “sales” interaction if their ears hear language triggers that signal “salesman.”

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Delafield-based Stapleton Resources LLC ( He is also the author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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