Cold calling: The ethical bait-and-switch trick

by Steli Efti
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Many different kinds of businesses use the bait-and-switch technique. In some industries, it’s almost become a standard practice we as consumers come to expect (e.g., a flight that’s advertised as $224 after all the fees, taxes, and surcharges costs $826).

The reason why companies keep using this technique? It’s just damn effective.

Bait-and-switch for sales reps and SDRs

But we’re not interested in how airlines or telecommunication conglomerates nudge their profits up a couple of percentage points. The question we’re concerned with is this: How can you, as an individual salesperson, use the bait-and-switch technique to open more sales conversations with prospects and qualify them?

In the following paragraphs, you’ll learn how to pull the bait-and-switch technique off in an ethical way, in a way that actually provides value to the prospects that take your bait.

If you’ve ever tried to engage a cold prospect on your first call, you know how hard it is and how low the success rate is.

It’s not just a numbers game—there’s more to effective prospecting than that—but it’s also a numbers game: You need to dial a lot of numbers before you get to have a productive conversation with a prospect.

People, especially decision-makers, are very protective of their time and very quickly get their defenses up when they think you are trying to sell them something.

What makes the bait-and-switch technique so effective?

The bait-and-switch technique helps to overcome two of the most common challenges salespeople struggle with:

  1. Get the attention of prospective customers.
  2. Lower the prospective customer's guard and make it easy to get them engaged in a productive conversation

Now that we know the bait-and-switch technique can be highly effective, can we find a way to employ it in a way that doesn't make us—or our customers—feel icky?

Isn’t the bait-and-switch just for scammers?

Unfortunately, many people have taken this technique too far. They use the bait-and-switch technique to cheat, mislead, and defraud their customers.

That’s not what I advocate. Everything I share on this blog is based on the assumption that what you’re selling provides true value to your customers and that you have your customers’ best interests at heart—not just your own economic gain.

Founders and salespeople sometimes object: “I don’t want to resort to tricks to get customers.”

I don’t want to get too far into semantics here, but don’t think of this as an underhanded maneuver designed to deceive. Instead, think of it as a skillfully-executed technique designed to create meaningful conversations.

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Many upstanding and ethical companies, including some highly prominent startups, use the bait-and-switch technique to boost their revenues and compete in saturated markets.

Let’s look at mistakes to avoid and best practices to employ when implementing the bait-and-switch technique.

How not to do the bait-and-switch

Even if you try to do an ethical bait-and-switch with your prospect’s best interest in mind, if you don’t do it skillfully, it won’t work.

Bad example #1: Survey prospects to gather intel (and then sneakily use it against them)

I know of one sales team that would cold call prospective customers and ask them to participate in a survey. The questions were designed to get insights into the prospect’s challenges, wants, and needs. At the end of the call, they’d just say thank you and end the call. No pitch.

The following day, someone else from the sales team would call the same prospect. They would have all the intel the other person had gathered the previous day and use that information to pitch the product to the prospect—without disclosing that they possessed this data or belonged to the same company.

Apart from the dishonesty, it was also a very ineffective approach that sometimes backfired. In some cases, prospects would get suspicious about the coincidence, and in others, they weren’t receptive to listening to the caller in the first place.

The mistake: After having gained trust by getting the prospect to participate in a survey, the sales team abused that trust instead of leveraging it with a more forthright approach.

Bad example #2: Offering an attractive deal

Another sales team offered an attractive and exclusive deal to local businesses. They offered them a way to advertise to the customer base of a local bank, which was a very compelling value proposition for many of the prospects.

Once the prospect expressed interest, the salesperson launched into a 5-minute presentation that pitched their offer … completely failing to mention the attractive deal they used to initially get the prospect interested. The prospect disengaged.

The mistake made: The sales team established expectations which they didn’t fulfill. They didn’t bridge the gap between the bait and the switch, which created a strong disconnect and ultimately led to the prospects feeling deceived and becoming disengaged.

How to do the bait-and-switch effectively and ethically

The most important thing is that your bait needs to provide an actual value to your prospects. Even if they never buy from you, your prospects should benefit just from taking the bait.

Once you have your valuable bait, follow these three steps to using the bait-and-switch technique effectively:

  1. Throw your bait.
  2. Once you get the prospect’s attention, and they lower their guard and open up to you, let them have the bait, let them enjoy it.
  3. Transition to your pitch by asking for permission to deliver it, and explicitly make this an optional offer. Don’t force-feed them or try to shove it down their throat just because they’ve taken your bait. Make them understand why it’s in their own interest to listen to your pitch. But if they think otherwise, accept their wish, and don’t pitch your offer.

All of this requires your genuine engagement and care. salespeople like to fret about disengaged prospects who show no interest, but how many of these salespeople are truly engaged and interested themselves?

All too often, they deliver their sales pitches without attention and care, mechanically going through the motions. Your prospects won’t give you their attention if you don’t earn it. It’s a two-way street.

Good cold call bait-and-switch example: The survey

A common bait-and-switch technique for sales calls is to ask your prospect if they would like to participate in an industry survey.

Throw your bait

Tell your prospect you’re doing market research in their industry and will release a white paper that will be made available to all participants free of charge.

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“This white paper will contain valuable industry insights and showcase best practices that are working right now for businesses like yours, challenges other companies in your industry are facing, and how they are adjusting to the changing realities of the marketplace.”

(If you want an example of how to deliver this pitch, jump forward to 8:22 seconds into the video.)

Qualify

Once you’ve got your prospect’s consent and they’ve answered your questions, ask follow-up questions to better understand them and learn more about what their answers really mean. Don’t stay on the surface level—dig deeper so that there’s a real conversation unfolding.

During this conversation, it’s your job to figure out whether this prospect is qualified: Is what you have to offer of value to them or not?

Create a really engaging conversation here, and give the other person an opportunity to express and clarify their thoughts and make them feel understood.

If the answers they give you during this survey strongly indicate they’d be a great customer for your product, don’t suddenly switch gears and start pitching. You’re not there yet. In this phase, it’s all about asking questions and understanding the prospect better.

Ask for permission to pitch

At the end of the conversation, thank them. Assuming you’ve identified a qualified prospect, ask them for permission to pitch your offer:

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Sales rep: “Thanks for taking the time to participate. I feel you’ve provided us with really valuable insights here. In this specific case, I’d love to reciprocate and offer something even more valuable than just a copy of the whitepaper. And it’s really your choice, so if you decide to end the conversation here, we’ll hang up, and I’ll send you the whitepaper as soon as it’s ready.”

You’re making it very clear that it’s up to them. If you had a meaningful conversation with them, most of the prospects will give you a couple more minutes at this point.

Sales rep: “We’ve worked with many businesses like yours (same industry, same size, etc.) who face some of the same challenges you mentioned (not getting enough qualified leads, dealing with competitors who undercut prices, etc.) and helped them to achieve their objective (double the number of qualified leads within 60 days, etc.).”

Use what you’ve learned about them during the survey to customize your pitch to their wants and needs.

Sales rep: “I’d be happy to spend three minutes with you to share how this works. Let me know if you’re interested to learn more. I truly believe this could be the solution to the problems you’re facing, but it’s completely up to you. Would you like to take three more minutes to explore this together?”

Again, very few people will reject this if you’ve gotten this far in the conversation, and they will feel well-treated because you’re giving all the power to them rather than trying to coerce or manipulate them into your pitch.

Will you include the bait-and-switch in your sales process?

Whenever I share this method with founders and salespeople, I typically get one of two responses: Either they get very excited about it and can’t wait to try it, or they reject it as unethical.

I respect both choices, and whenever I find myself in a situation where I walk a fine line, I ask myself: Will this potentially have negative consequences for the other party? How would I feel if someone tried the same technique on me?

I think we’ve all experienced someone trying to use the bait-and-switch technique in a negative, deceitful, way. Have you ever experienced it implemented in a positive way? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Want to learn more about effevtive cold calling? Click below!

B2B cold calling for startups and SMBs