Sales insights from a gentleman thief

A recent New Yorker feature on Apollo Robbins described the Las Vegas-based entertainer as a “theatrical pickpocket” who, in pursuit of his craft, has incorporated principles from aikido, sales and Latin ballroom dancing. The sales part left us curious (OK, the aikido and ballroom dancing did, too), so we gave him a call.

SMM:You have a unique talent and you are in high demand for corporate functions. How does what you do translate in that setting?

Robbins: That’s in transition because it used to be in the entertainment capacity; now it’s more on the training side, as well as keynotes. In the past couple of years, I have worked with law enforcement, the Department of Defense and military developing training modules in applied deception. I try to teach a lot about attention and awareness in a rather unusual way. It goes into a social experiment space. I’m really passionate about the idea of experience design, and I think that the style of work that I do, which is similar and somewhat related to magic, is only a portion – like one tool in the toolbox. I like the idea of how you can create more immersive experiences for people – sometimes they entertain and sometimes they educate. The commonality of it is creating that experience that heightens their attention and that makes them more palatable to having a good time or if you’re trying to input data there.

SMM: Do you hope to increase that kind of work with corporations and government entities?

Robbins: That’s where my main focus is, although my agents would love for me to go more toward the Broadway show or do more movie or TV deals (Robbins is regularly featured in the National Geographic Channels’ new show “Brain Games”). To me, my best opportunities have come by meeting experts in the fields that I’m looking at. I’m borrowing from a cross-section of game mechanics, alternate reality games and transmedia – where you’re using multiple sorts of media – to cross over through those areas. If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Game” with Michael Douglas, that’s the space I’m trying to play in – the man behind the curtain creating an experience. The only difference is, when they finish it, I want them to walk away with a story that is interesting. Ideally, I can covertly teach them skills so that by going through the experience they are learning something in the process.

SMM: You were in telemarketing when you were young and you have said that you incorporate aspects of sales into what you do. Can you elaborate?

Robbins: It happens when I’m performing and it also happens during the process of negotiating contracts. I’ve often been a fan of win-win negotiations and I don’t want it to be a battle where it is win or lose. If I can align myself and my objectives with the objectives of whomever it is that is talking to me or in a performance – if it’s somebody I’m working with and they are worried about the status of how they’re perceived in that group – if I can align myself with that, there is not this [question] of who is the smarter person or who is going to pay the cost? Instead, I’m facilitating a way that I become a vehicle for them to achieve their objectives.

SMM: Going in the other direction, are there aspects you could take from your entertainment experience and incorporate into sales?

Robbins: Con artists are able to engage trust very quickly and to establish confidence inside their marks. Most people feel being liked is more important than trust. But trust, I feel, is much more important for a sale than liking. If you can have both, great. But if you can only have one or the other, I’d say go for trust. You can like a friend, but you may not trust their competency to do something or to deliver a service. On the other side, you can trust somebody that you don’t care for. As long as they seem transparent, if you can understand their goals, where they’re going and what they’re trying to do, you’ll do business with them. There are ways to create trust by giving a strong sense of transparency and being very simple to observe. Too many times I think when people are in sales they have what looks like a poker hand held in front of them and they’re putting their cards down and looking at you and expecting you to put your cards down and you can see that there is something they’re trying to hold behind the curtain. That doesn’t foster trust. It slows down the relationship-building process.

[At this point in the interview, Robbins mentioned using “pattern interrupts” or “cognitive hiccups” to inject unexpected behavior into a conversation as an element to create trust and gain an ally. He used the example of conversations with customer service representatives who are used to hearing complaints as a main component of their job.]

“They become jaded, desensitized and they’re not going to respond to you. They’re going to have certain responses that they are trained to say. So if you can change that pattern and pull the anchor up so they don’t have a foundation to work on, you can now take the lead and they can look at it with fresh eyes.”

[Robbins recalled a time when his wife and he were stuck in Europe as a result of a canceled flight and needed to get to Las Vegas for an important business appointment. They were due to fly out the next morning, but they were told there were no flights available. His wife was getting nowhere with the airline customer service rep despite stressing the importance of this business appointment. Robbins got on the phone and turned the conversation around.]

“I said, ‘You seem to know quite a bit about your job. Is there something we’re not seeing… something we don’t know about how you do what you do that would help us?’” He stressed the importance of getting to Las Vegas, and how it could mean the difference between he and his wife keeping their jobs and losing them.

I removed myself from the frustration and put myself alongside her. She said, ‘Just a moment.’ A few minutes later she came back on the line: ‘Mr. Robbins, you’re flying out at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning…’”

They arrived in Las Vegas on time.

SMM: In the New Yorker profile you talked about “grift sense,” defining it as the ability to step outside yourself and see through the other person’s eyes and think through their mind. That, it seems, is a skill that salespeople could make some hay with.

Robbins: Grift sense for me is understanding the mindset of the person you are dealing with. I’ve always felt like a con man’s golden rule would be different than the traditional golden rule. Instead of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the con man would say that is very selfish and would never work because you’re only thinking from your perspective, and what if they don’t want what you want? The better way would be “do unto others as others they would have done unto themselves.” That’s translatable to sales as well. The more information you know about their goals, how they perceive things and what their biases are, the more you can develop a grift sense.

Apollo Robbins has joined forces with likeminded individuals to form Ludus Development, a company that approaches corporate training with an emphasis on games and challenges. For more information, email

SMM: What have you read lately that is non-sales related but would help salespeople in their jobs?

Robbins: “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman is almost magical in discussing how the mind works. He talks about the process of the brain. It’s a diamond. You can’t believe your mind works that way.

See Apollo in action HERE.