If we think about sales, we often think about the work salespeople do. From selling complicated enterprise software products to selling new telephone contracts. But as many people who actually work in sales say, sales is not just ‘sales’.

In fact, you can also see sales as a more all-encompassing term. Perhaps you sell yourself, when going to a job interview. Or you ‘sell’ your book club to a friend, trying to get them to join. In that sense, selling is something we all do.

But however you sell something or whatever you sell, all these types of selling have one thing in common: Lying. And lying in sales is so common, that we all do it, whether we actually work as salespeople or not.


Distorting the Truth and Selling Software

The idea of the prevalence of lying in sales came to me when talking to my girlfriend about software sales (indeed an incredibly romantic topic). In both our experiences working in software companies, we’ve seen that lying in software sales is super common.

And just as the term ‘sales’ can be quite broad, similarly the term ‘lying’ can be quite broad. So perhaps we should call it ‘distorting the truth’ instead. But however you call it, it’s common.

Case in point: A SaaS (Software as a Service) startup where I worked some time ago. When demoing the software in front of potential clients, I would specifically show certain aspects of the software — which I knew were working well.

Other aspects, like certain bugs or database entries that weren’t fully populated, I would purposefully not show. Similarly, I would try to avoid as much as possible to get the potential client in control of the software, as he/she might see things that weren’t finished or working yet.

This is not to say that the software wasn’t working at all — it still provided value. But showing your software’s bugs would definitely not get you the client. And this kind of distorting the truth is done by almost any salesperson, in software or other industries.


Upgrading your CV

Another example of lying in sales (again, taking both ‘lying’ and ‘sales’ as broad concepts), is making yourself look better than you are during a job application.

Starting with your CV, you may indicate you’re an ‘intermediate Spanish speaker’ whereas you’ve finished only half of Duolingo’s exercises. Or you say you ‘led a team of 4’, even though there wasn’t really a leader in the team.

Or during the job interview, most people will choose to not give the full picture. Instead of ‘filling in an Excel spreadsheet’, you ‘created a financial model’; instead of ‘assisting a professor’, you ‘conducted independent research’; or instead of ‘being let go’, you simply ‘took a break’.

Surely, there are varying degrees of lying — you can take a small or large step away from the truth. But the fact is, we all do it.


Fake It Till You Make It

And in these particular cases, it often comes down to ‘fake it till you make it’. What does that mean?

Well, you first fake it. In other words, you distort the truth, tell white lies, are dishonest, false, or perhaps even mendacious or perfidious (thanks, thesaurus). In other words, you make the truth look better than it actually is.

And then, you make it. Even though you have made the truth better than it actually is, you now have to deliver on that promise. You now have to actually show you can create financial models, conduct independent research, or speak Spanish relatively well.

However, this is not always the case. When you lie, you don’t always fake it till you make it. Especially when you’re not lying about yourself. Take my first example: if you’re selling software, you’re often not responsible for delivering the software you sell. In other words, sometimes you fake it ’till others make it. Because you’re selling a lie that others have to deliver on.

Sometimes you fake it ’till others make it.

Or, perhaps you fake it to pass initial scrutiny, for instance on your CV. No one will actually test you for that specific knowledge (i.e. the great Spanish you definitely speak), but it is something that you could lie about to sell yourself to a potential employer.


Downsides of Lying in Sales

Now I’m not saying that you should lie about speaking Spanish while applying for a job in Barcelona. Or that you should say your software has features X and Y, while it only has feature Z. I’m not sure whether that’s a criminal offence, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend it. In any case, it won’t withstand any scrutiny.

But there are more realistic downsides than facing prison, when lying in sales. One negative impact of ‘faking it till you make it’, is stress.

Depending on the situation, it can be incredibly stressful to act like you know some topic or have experience in a particular field, without actually having this. It means you have to ‘stay ahead’ — just like teachers sometimes do; making sure they’re one page ahead of the class.

And in case you’re faking it till others make it, you can make life seriously difficult for your colleagues. Suppose you sell those features X and Y to a new client, and the client ends up buying your software. Now the developers in your company have to be able to deliver on these features that you sold; or you’ll lose the client.


Lying to Yourself?

Another downside of lying is that it may result in cognitive dissonance. In my personal case, I’m known to be quite an honest person. I also pride myself in being honest. So if I lie on my CV or in a sales demo, that means I’m going against a specific value I find very important, which leaves me (at the very least) with a bad taste.

But despite these downsides, distorting the truth is incredibly common. And in this sense, I think it’s not something to frown upon.

Especially if you consider that this lying is something we must do — even when you’re the most honest person in the world. Because in the end, you’re competing with others. Competing to land a job, a particular client, or even a new member for your book club.

Whatever it is, you’re competing. And that means that if you are totally honest, you probably won’t stack up against the competition. And sure, this is a slippery slope and a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. But it seems that if you want to compete in both sales and life, you may just have to lie a little.