The Art of the Bluff: How This Poker Tactic Could Boost Your Sales

Author: 
Greg McBeth

“Bluffing” isn’t a word you’ll hear often in the professional world, partly because it conjures some negative connotations. It’s often interpreted synonymously with lying. But this staple tactic of the poker table can be a valuable and valid tool in sales negotiations.

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.

At the poker table, bluffing is the strategy of disguising your hand to distort other players’ expectations. In a sales situation, bluffing can help you maximize your revenue outcomes. It can mean using knowledge gaps to present a potential price that suits both parties, for example, while gaining the upper hand in a negotiation. Say you believe that your prospect is willing to pay $15,000 to $20,000, a range you’re willing to accept, so you make an offer that's “at your floor” of $20,000 – you've bluffed, and your prospect now has the chance to call.

Integrating artful bluffing into your sales strategy can also empower sales representatives to achieve their potential. According to CSO Insights’ "2018 Sales Talent Study," the cost of representatives failing to maximize their selling ability is taking a toll on businesses, with 49 percent of organizations recognizing the need to improve their salesforce’s deal-making performance.

How to Master the Art of Bluffing in Sales

Bluffing in sales is more complex than in poker and can take many forms in the sales process. Bluffing can range from subtle to direct according to what phase you’re in and how established the customer relationship is. Here are four ways to adapt the art of the bluff to your organization:

1. Know your audience. Successful poker players learn to read the players around the table to become more shrewd in their bluffing. It may even take several rounds to establish the foundation of a good bluff, learning who the conservative players are, who is willing to gamble, and who is inclined to bluff themselves.

You can use the same technique in your sales cycle. Learn how your prospect behaves, and use this insight to determine your bluffing style. Is he knowledgeable or uninformed, rigid or flexible, experienced or naive? The more you know about the stakeholders in a deal, the better you can leverage that information to your advantage.

2. Be on the lookout for opportunities. The successful bluffer will look for situations where she can take advantage of another player’s behavior. If a player has just lost a lot of money, for example, he may well start playing more conservatively or more aggressively because losing tends to polarize people’s actions. In the right situation, this person is a prime bluff target.

In sales, any information you glean from a prospect can be an opportunity. Say you learn that the company you’re selling to is under a tight time pressure to complete a project that your product will help support. You can leverage that information to get an upper hand on pricing or legal terms. Similarly, if you know that company is under extreme cost-cutting measures, bluffing aggressively on price may be a losing strategy.

3. Tell a believable story. Storytelling is a crucial part of good bluffing technique and a successful sales strategy. A story helps the other person relate to and believe in what you’re saying. At the poker table, stories can be made up of body language, bet sizes, what cards are visible to the table, the personality of the players, and more.

In sales, you can assemble a coherent narrative with the pieces of information you choose to share. For example, share that you’re in a fundraising stage and are being cost-conscious, and you may get a better deal on a new tool than if you just shared news that your company just raised $100 million in capital.

4. Practice. Executing a bluff, especially in less-than-favorable circumstances, requires confidence and skill. To do it successfully will take practice, especially if you’re not a bluffer by nature. Start by integrating the technique in small ways. Test the water and make sure you can walk back from the bluff if you’re called out on it.

Only by practicing will you develop a poker-like instinct for determining how far you can push people in different scenarios and gain confidence in observing and predicting others’ behavior.

Artful sales leaders and representatives are always on the lookout for ways to gain fair advantages and come out with a good deal. They’re watchful of their environment and the other players in the game, ready to adapt their strategy. The art of bluffing will never be the primary tool in your set, but it can add a little fire to your sales cycle.

Greg McBeth is the head of revenue at Node.io, the first turnkey AI platform that enables businesses to embed artificial intelligence into their own products, customer databases, and external systems of record, all via a standard API.