I was pondering why Rick’s post struck such a nerve, and I think it’s because I’m still struggling to be an effective salesman without becoming a douchebag. As an engineer and an Englishman, I’ve got two sets of cultural prejudice against salesmen to overcome. The Jargon File’s entry for Marketroid captures the prevailing engineering view of marketers as clueless slimeballs whose job is to trick customers into buying something. The theory is that products should stand on their own merits, and people should be left alone to make rational decisions about which is best for them. Instead, engineers see technically inferior tools beating out their favorites, and blame the evil power of marketing.
As I got more experienced, I began to realize this wasn’t true. Nobody starts from first principles and logically works out what product meets their requirements, that would just take too much time. Instead, we all rely on mental shortcuts to help us make decisions. We’ll look at what our friends are doing, turn to trusted media for reviews, even just look at the packaging to see which looks most professional. There’s also a lot of fuzzy criteria like trust in a company that factor into a purchase, that just aren’t captured in the technical specifications.
Sales and marketing are all about tapping into those human decision-making processes. You look at what actually drives people to make a purchase, and you try to communicate the right information to sway their decision. It’s the art of persuading, and while it can be used for evil, if it’s done right you’re doing people a favor. They need to make the decision anyway, and you’re providing them with the information so they can make up their mind.
The bright line is that you have to be completely truthful in everything you’re saying during the sales process. You have to sincerely believe that you understand the customer’s needs, and they’ll be happy if they choose your product. What’s tough is that part of that decision will be based on non-verbal cues about your own belief and confidence in what you’re saying. If you’re hesitating and stopping to think a lot during the conversation, you come across as nervous and insincere. I try to conquer that by anticipating every question I can, and really knowing the area I’m talking about, since I’m awful at bluffing anyway.
That’s why Rick’s fake question about OS/2 would stress me out. It’s so random, I would have to shift mental gears and think about what he just said for a few seconds before I’d be able to give any answer, probably blinking and looking confused. Then I’d have to give the confidence-sapping answer of "I don’t know" and move on. I also have a tiny nagging fear that maybe I wouldn’t understand, and I’d think I had heard something about it, and give a completely bogus answer.
You don’t have to be a liar to sell, but trying too hard to sound confident leads you into danger. Really confident people will say "I don’t know", and that can even help signal that you’re sincere in your other answers.