From the start of the pitch to the close of the sale, the truth is always your best ally.

Two colleagues sharing ideas and discussing them at meeting

Buy this. It’s the best. As a surefire selling point, you can’t beat the promise that your product or service is the best available. The cheapest. The most reliable. The highest quality. Whatever the gold standard is, your product meets it and more. And if any part of that isn’t exactly 100% true … well, facts can always be buffed to a convincing shine, right?

Salespeople may fall into a trap if they feel like they need to close a sale at all costs, even if it takes creative rendering of the truth. It’s a common, perhaps even pervasive, belief in society. The underlying principle of property law—caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware”—is basically a warning that a seller will, as a rule, try to fool a buyer. And cultural stereotypes about pushy, dishonest salespeople reinforce that view.

Lots of folks enhance the truth for their own benefit. Adolescent boys are experts—just ask adolescent girls. Being researchers, we must tell you in the interest of full disclosure that psychologists exaggerate, too. So do attorneys trying to win a case. Motivational speakers exaggerate more than almost anyone.

But, the same behavior that might seem charming in your teenage neighbor’s romantic exploits becomes more sinister when there’s money—and trust—involved. Charges of dishonesty tend to dog the sales profession as a whole. The pervasive stereotype leads many people to presume they’re going to face exaggeration and half-truths from salespeople.

How do you fight those charges? Do you even know how you stack up when it comes to selling truthfully?

To begin with, not all exaggeration is hurtful or intended to be so. Sometimes it can even move you closer to a goal or aspiration. For example, a series of studies have demonstrated that when college students verbally overstate their GPAs, they don’t display the signs of physical stress typically associated with deception. Researchers have concluded that such exaggerations are “intrapsychic”—meant to motivate the teller of the untruth, rather than influence the listener. And it may work: following one study, students actually raised their grades to the level of their exaggerated claims.

That doesn’t give you a free pass on dishonest behavior regardless of the pressure you may be facing to “hit your numbers.” Confidence-boosting white lies are one thing; it’s a tougher sell to justify using exaggeration to get people to buy something they might not have bought otherwise. Where does an honest salesperson draw the line between product enhancement and deception?

Over years of working with natural self-promoters—from the blameless to the shameless—we’ve distilled four behavioral markers of truthful selling. We suspect that no one is above a bit of truth-stretching, but people who truly walk the walk of forthrightness tend to follow what we call the “Four C’s” of honest behavior.

1. Candor

Simply put, be upfront about what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. Don’t pretend your product does something it doesn’t, or that a business transaction is an overture of friendship. Customers who can tell the difference won’t trust you. Customers who can’t tell the difference may jump ship when they learn the truth.

2. Correspondence

It’s just not as easy to exaggerate as it used to be. Nowadays, anyone with an internet connection can easily verify your claims from your company’s track record to your competitor’s prices. That’s why what you tell your customers should correspond to objective facts. The truth is out there, and they’ll find it.

3. Completeness

The difference between honesty and deception often lies in a technicality. There’s the truth, and there’s the whole truth. Of course, spotlighting the strongest features of your product is your job. But be careful. If what you leave out of your presentation paints a clearer picture than what you put in, consider whether your motives are truly honorable.

4. Consistency

Bait-and-switch is one of the oldest tricks in the book—and one of the most dishonest. Unethical sellers tend to spend a lot of time smoothing over “misunderstandings” and “miscommunications” that result from tweaking the truth as they see fit. Ethical behavior is conspicuous in its fairness: What you represent in your opening pitch is what you represent when you close the sale. Anything less will strain the trust of your customers.

In today’s hyper-competitive world, meeting these benchmarks may be easier said than done. If you find yourself wanting more assurance that you’re staying inside the lines, try this simple trick. The next time you’re giving a sales presentation or making a persuasive argument, tell your audience upfront that you’re going, to be honest with them. Recent research suggests that when people are asked to declare the truth of what they’re about to say, they exaggerate less than they would if they made the same statement after the fact, or not at all.

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