Spies Like Us: How to Use CIA Tactics in Sales

UPDATED: February 27, 2013
PUBLISHED: February 27, 2013

Sales can be as challenging as espionage if you don’t have the right training. That’s the message in former CIA agent J.C. Carleson’s book Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer. Here are four techniques used by CIA officers to increase the odds that their target will accept a pitch.

1. Be a Chameleon

Whether you are selling yourself as the “product” during an interview or trying to broker a major deal, you can benefit from a thorough assessment of your potential customer. Do your homework up front and try to learn as much as possible about your target before you meet face-to-face. The most important assessment work, however, needs to happen during your initial contact.

First, identify common interests or background elements that can help establish an early rapport with your target. (“You went to the University of Washington? Me too!”) A genuine personal connection is invaluable for reducing some of the pressure and formality of a business interaction.

Next, figure out what type of customer your target is and what his or her vulnerabilities might be. Is he the type that will respond to a backslapping, expensive-dinner-buying approach? Or is she the type who will respond negatively to this tactic? You should have a whole arsenal of approaches at your disposal, ready to deploy quickly once you get a sense of your target’s personality and vulnerabilities.

2. Lose the Canned Pitch

The canned pitch is a crutch that can do more harm than good. For starters, it is often painfully obvious. People who shift from casual conversation to an overly rehearsed soliloquy tend to give away the transition with a number of behavioral clues: they stand or sit up a little straighter, their language becomes either more formal or more unnaturally animated, they sometimes insert verbal artifices such as rhetorical questions (“have you ever wondered why . . .”), and the tone and pitch of their voice tends to change slightly. None of these things are bad per se, but all too often sincerity takes a backseat when your rehearsed pitch is given verbatim at the expense of responsiveness to your audience.

Worse yet, a canned pitch tends to put speakers on autopilot. Speakers in autopilot mode have a bad habit of ignoring audience cues that could prompt them to go in a different direction, or of not listening carefully to questions. A memorized interview response to an anticipated question can lead the speaker to miss the subtleties and nuances of the specific question. Do yourself a favor and ditch the canned speech in favor of knowing your product inside and out and giving yourself the ability to speak extemporaneously.

3. Maintain Input and Output

My first recruitment as a CIA officer was nerve-racking. I had gone through the recruitment cycle dozens of times in training, but this was the real deal. I was asking someone to quite literally put his life in danger in order to provide me with sensitive information. It’s a lot to ask of someone, and I was nervous.

In an effort to calm my nerves I prepared an elaborate and flowery recruitment speech. I wanted to convey to him just how important his role would be and just how positive the impact of his cooperation could be. Less than a minute into my little speech, my target glanced at his watch. A few seconds later he fidgeted. Then he glanced out the window. Then fidgeted some more.

The fact was, he didn’t need the speech. He knew what I was asking, and he had already made up his mind to say yes. My speech was unnecessary, and quite clearly annoying to him. I cut it short, cut to the chase, and we were toasting our new arrangement minutes later.

Too often people choose either input or output. They’re either listening or they’re talking. The best speakers and the best salespeople can detect the moment when they begin to lose their audience. Watch for the signs as part of your ongoing assessment, and correct course instantly.

4. Don’t Negotiate

CIA officers “negotiate” in the sense that they engage in discussions intended to produce agreements. But the clandestine version of negotiations looks quite unlike anything you will see in either the diplomatic or the corporate worlds.

Minimize the number of participants. CIA officers prefer as few people to be involved in a decision as possible. More people mean more leaks, more risks, more biases, more arguments, more time, more possible naysayers, and more minds to change.

Meet on neutral ground. Agreeing to meet at your negotiating opponent’s office makes it too easy for them to bring in other participants, such as legal advisers or assistants. Establish control by choosing a venue that is more conducive to small meetings. In fact, use the idea of a meeting on a sailboat as your gold standard. Participation is limited, privacy is maximized, the surroundings are conducive to pleasure and relaxation, and you maintain total control over the timing. Even if you can’t literally procure a sailboat for your meeting site, always make an effort to woo your negotiating opponent before getting down to business.

Keep it positive. CIA officers use carrots far more often than sticks. An eager, willing partner is always preferable to a begrudging, reluctant one. Establish mutual benefits and shared gains whenever possible; the most productive negotiations always hinge on positive benefits rather than negative consequences.

Excerpted from WORK LIKE A SPY: BUSINESS TIPS FROM A FORMER CIA OFFICER. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright J.C. Carleson, 2013.

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