business contacts say they want to ask my opinion, but it’s really a sales pitch

A reader writes:

Your post last week about informational interviews made me realize I have a similar question. I’m a mid-career professional, and while I do sometimes get requests for the type of informational interview that that post was about, more often I get asked for a different type: the request for a phone conversation from someone in a related industry who wants to “ask my opinion” about some aspect of my area of expertise, and after 30 minutes of conversation it turns into a sales pitch for whatever product they’re working on or company they’re consulting for.

I find this incredibly rude — I get it both from people I’ve met at conferences or networking events as well as complete strangers. I’m less likely to agree to a phone call with a stranger, since I assume it’s more likely to be about selling me something, but find it awkward to decline a call with someone I’ve met, especially if I’m likely to see them again.

How can I agree to a conversation with someone but say at the outset “please don’t make this a sales call” without being rude myself? I know that etiquette advisers say that responding to other people’s rudeness doesn’t make you the rude one, and I’m fine with that in my personal life, but professionally, I don’t want to get a reputation as a jerk (unjust though it might be). These conversations do help establish me in my field as authoritative about my area of expertise and I think they can help me broaden my professional reputation (which then leads to invitations for speaking engagements and so on), so I don’t necessarily want to just outright refuse them – they’re not entirely a waste of time. But I don’t like feeling like I’ve been taken advantage of.

Yeah, I think this whole thing where they start out by saying they want your opinion because of your expertise but it’s really a back-door way into a sales pitch has become a trend. I get a ton of this from complete strangers and I always shut it down by saying, “Oh, I’m not talking on any new consulting projects right now” … and more than half the time, they come back with a sales pitch. (I used to have fun with it by quoting them a hourly fee for consulting, and it was amazing how much people would bristle at that.)

Anyway, I think you have conflicting desires here: You want to do the calls because they’re useful to your reputation and professional relationships, but you want to change the content of the calls. I don’t think you can do that, unfortunately. If the whole reason the person is calling you is to lead up to a sales pitch, I don’t think you can say, essentially, “let’s talk but not about what you want to talk about.”

That said, I totally agree with you that this is hugely annoying — and rude. It’s the same kind of bait and switch as when people request informational interviews when they really want job leads. However, I do think you can use a similar tactic before booking the call as I recommended in last week’s post: You can say something like, “I’d love to talk. To help me prepare for the call and to make sure I’m the best person for you to talk to, can you give me a sense here in email of what you’re hoping to discuss?” Do keep in mind, though, that for people who are more relationship-oriented than task-oriented, this risk coming off a little cold or brusque. That doesn’t mean it’s not the right way to go, but you’d want to factor that in.

If you don’t want to do that, something else you can try is booking the calls for shorter amounts of time. If they’re not getting to their sales pitch until 30 minutes in, these calls are probably too long. You could say ahead of time, “My schedule is pretty tight right now, but I’ve got 20 minutes on Thursday at 2 — would that work?” Or even just, “Great. How about 2:00 – 2:20 on Thursday?” If nothing else, that means they’ll have to move things along faster and you’ll get to what they really want more quickly.

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Snarkus Aurelius

    You know how I know something is a sales pitch versus be”questions about [my] work?” The person won’t email me first because I’ll see his signature or Google his company name. Everyone else complies with my request for email because they know I need something I can easily forward to get an answer, if need be.

    Example: I have multiple voicemails from an unknown Canadian number that refuse to tell me what this matter is about and will not email me like my VM message says. Been getting those on and off for two years.

    Reply
    1. AMT

      Good on you! No one worth your time is ever going to be that secretive. It reminds me of the whole “meet me for lunch to discuss this golden opportunity that I can only discuss in person” thing that multilevel marketing people do to their friends. They know that if they told you what they really wanted, you’d never agree to talk to them, but once they get you in person or on the phone, it’s a lot harder (for some people, at least) to tell them no.

      Reply
    2. Optimistic Prime

      Yeah, people who want to do sales pitches really like the phone, and they really like trying to call you at different times on different days hoping they’ll “catch you” without setting up an appointment like a normal person. Good luck, because I don’t answer my work phone. (In my business, literally no one I actually work with ever calls me. I don’t even actually have a phone; the calls all go through Skype.)

      Reply
  2. Jaguar

    Yeah, limit your time. My strategy is similar: “I’m right in the middle of something [this is typically a blatant lie] and don’t have any time to talk. Could you e-mail and provide some idea of what you’re looking for and times I can get ahold of you?”

    Reply
      1. The Gunslinger

        But it’s very reasonable to push back once the lie is overt. Once you’re on the call/at the meeting and they try to sell you a new glazer instead of asking about your experiences with white chocolate teapots, it’s a lot easier to say “I’m sorry, I’ve only brought information on white chocolate because that’s all you mentioned in your email. I’m afraid I don’t have time to discuss a new glazer.”

        Many people find that more comfortable to say, and asking up-front does put the other party in the position of directly lying to you. Some won’t want to do that if they’re trying to make a sale and will quietly disappear instead.

        Reply
  3. CBH

    What about saying something along the lines of “I’d love to talk about topic XYZ. It’s such a relief to meet a professional looking to talk about an interesting subject. I get so many calls like this that turn into a sales pitch.” I’m sure there is a more professional way to say this.

    Reply
    1. OP

      Ha – I love this. Or, “Sure, it would be so great to talk about something else besides how bad our finances are right now! I mean, we can barely afford toilet paper here!… Hello?”

      Reply
      1. Magenta Sky

        That’s how ugly rumors get started, and in the business world, rumors can easily become self fulfilling prophecies.

        Reply
      2. CBH

        Exactly! Just something to make your “networker” realize this isn’t going to be a sales call. I’m sure that there is a more business-manner way to say things but it might cut some of the calls off before the pass.

        Reply
      3. DecorativeCacti

        I would be careful until you know for sure it’s a sales call. You don’t want to have to transition out of a fake British accent or something. I always have to be careful about that when the toner pirates call. I don’t want to accidentally be obnoxious to our legit copy company.

        Reply
    2. Goffic

      Is there really something rude about responding to the request with “Would this be a sales call?” As long as the tone isn’t accusatory/hostile, it gets to the point you want to make and sets boundaries without being harsh. Then if it does turn out to be a sales call, you can be obviously annoyed when you tell them you’re not interested in discussing their sales pitch and end the call—if they don’t get anywhere with sneaky sales, they’ll stop doing it.

      (And if asking the purpose of the call is rude, god help me in the business world.)

      Reply
      1. CBH

        +1

        My comment was trying an indirect route to ask the same question. I was worried I would seem rude to be direct and tarnish the potential networking aspect. I guess it’s not too rude to ask when scheduling the appointment.

        Reply
      2. Joe

        What if you even made it seem like you were trying to help them out? “Would this be a sales call? I want to make sure we have the appropriate people on the phone to move forward if it is.” And then if they say it is a sales call, you can point out that “the appropriate people” actually means “nobody”, because you have no intention of wasting your time on a sales call.

        Reply
  4. Hiring Mgr

    If a stranger is contacting you out of the blue asking for your time, I would pretty much assume it’s a sales pitch for something…And if you don’t want those I would do as suggested and get a more clear definition of what they want to talk about beforehand.

    Also, I wonder how much these discussions really “help establish me in my field as authoritative about my area of expertise and I think they can help me broaden my professional reputation” If they’re just sales calls I’m not sure if that’s happening–just mentioning this so you don’t feel like you’re missing out if you decline..

    Reply
    1. OP

      I almost never accept this type of request from strangers – the ones I do are from people I’ve met in professional contexts and am likely to see again. They generally make contact with me over e-mail after we’ve initially met once or twice and ask for a phone call (or even an in-person meeting, but I’m only willing to do phone calls) to “get my opinion on where [topic X] is going.” Topic X is often something I have recently spoken or published about.

      I should clarify that these are generally people I’d consider “influencers” – at high levels in their organization and with a strong professional reputation. So, they’re not people who sell for a living, but I think it’s just in their nature to be constantly promoting their company or product, and they kind of take advantage of their stature in the profession to get people they think might be potential customers on the phone.

      Reply
      1. LQ

        Huh…this sounds a little different from what I thought. Do you think they really want your input and then just sort of naturally are pushing their thing because it fits what you are talking about? Or are they getting you on the phone for the sole purpose of pushing their thing?
        (I still think time limit is the answer.)

        Reply
        1. OP

          I think it varies. When I get off the phone with someone, sometimes I can clearly see that the sales pitch was their primary motive all along (those are the ones that really irritate me, because I feel like I should have known better). But sometimes I think it can be more about more generally gauging the market through a kind of one-person focus group, and they mention their product as something they think would align with my expressed interests.

          Reply
          1. Anonymoose

            Honestly though, if they’re influencers and doing ‘sales pitches’ at these types of meetings, it sounds like this is your industry’s version of networking (scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours). I think you might just have to accept that this is how it is and start thinking of ways to strategically decline them.

            Also – I find it interesting that these influencers are always going to YOU as representation of the company you work for. Is this normal for your role? If not, perhaps you should invite your internal development head into it so 1) they have to decline Sales Dudes and you still look good, 2) it can show your organization that there is an interest in working with you personally to grow relationships (if this is something you’re interested in for your career/role), 3) highlights that you are not, in fact, the contact that deals with sales within the organization. I’m not sure how you can tactfully get a +1 to these calls/meetings but it might help in the long run.

            Reply
  5. Antilles

    One way to look at this is that you are getting benefits from them (networking, reputation as an expert, etc)…and hearing a sales pitch is basically the ‘cost’. In exchange for 28 minutes of valuable interaction and discussions, you have to sit through 2 minutes of a sales pitch at the end. The trick is just to make sure you are cold-blooded and firm about “no, thanks” when the topic comes up, so you can cut down that sales pitch in its’ tracks rather than letting it drag out forever.

    Reply
    1. OP

      Yeah, I think cutting down on the total amount of time I give them, as Alison mentioned, is key, and maybe trying to keep them talking about the non-sales-pitch stuff for as much of that time as possible would be good. Because these sales pitches are never 2 minutes, they’re more like 10 minutes that usually also involves them asking me if I can review their marketing materials for them (!). I think I have been too much of a sucker for letting people imply that my stature in the profession is somehow worthy of them asking me things like this. I read the suggested post at the end of this one about how to deal with cold-calling salespeople, which while that’s not my problem, had some good suggestions about how to get as comfortable saying no to salespeople in the workplace as I would be if they called me at home.

      Reply
      1. Anonymoose

        Wait, important influencers want you to review their own copy? That’s flattering! Is there something about what you’re presenting at these conferences that makes them think you’re for hire? If so, maybe you might consider working as a consultant instead… ;)

        Reply
  6. Marisol

    If you continue to take these calls, is there a way you can benefit from them, in addition to the benefit of broadening your professional reputation, for example, can whoever you speak to introduce you to someone else that you’d like access to? I’m trying to think of some way you can leverage this. If you listen to a sales pitch, then the other person is obligated to give you something…

    Reply
    1. Egalicorn

      I agree. OP, you should consider making part of the 15 min call about you. Either by email up front or at the beginning of the call, say, “I’m so glad you got in touch! I’ve been hoping to ask *your* advice on how to get connected to so and so/become a panelist at Big Conference/find a publisher for my book. It’s not rude, your time is worth something, and you certainly have plausible deniability ifthey get grumpy because hey, you’re just taking them at their word that this is confab of like minded thinkers and advice givers.

      Reply
      1. Mike C.

        Oh wait, I got that confused in your head – I thought you were suggesting that the OP hand off the call to someone else, not the other way around.

        Reply
          1. Marisol

            fellow adhd-er here, no worries…(you need to get out of my head though, it’s not safe in here…)

            Reply
  7. LQ

    15 minutes! The secret is you can always offer to follow up later if they really do seem genuinely interested. You won’t have time to answer all of their questions, but that’s ok. That’s really really ok. You can seem authoritative in a small amount of time and then move on, you can loop back later if needed or appropriate. And they’ll have better questions later too once they’ve taken that information. Think about giving people one solid nugget of information. You’re never going to brain dump successfully, so give them one and let them go use it.

    I do think that once they get into sales pitch you can cut them off pretty quickly. (I am a horrible cheater at this and just say, mostly honestly, that the person who makes those decisions is so far above me in the chain I don’t even know who it is.)

    Reply
    1. OP

      Thanks – limiting the time as much as possible while still leaving a meaningful amount of time to discuss what they’re purportedly interested in seems key.

      Reply
  8. Elizabeth West

    Ugh. This is the professional equivalent of someone wanting to get together only to make an attempt to foist Jamberry or something off on you. My aunt did this to me once when I lived in CA; she was passing through and wanted to meet for lunch, and I was so excited to see her. She spent the entire time pushing this melaleuca oil MLM stuff at me. I was so disappointed.

    I would be just as disappointed (and peeved) if I scheduled a professional meeting with someone, expecting to help them or make a connection of some kind, and they pulled that on me.

    Reply
    1. Goffic

      Aww, that’s terrible. I had a supervisor once who sold Jamberry; she mentioned this during onboarding and handed out the catalogs and some samples, then asked if we wanted to order anything at our one-on-one. If anyone complimented her nails… watch out because the cycle would start all over again.

      I’m sorry about what happened with your aunt. That would be worse because it’s family ffs. :(

      Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        OMG that is insanely inappropriate! Did anyone up the chain know what she was doing?

        (And heart emojis to Elizabeth West—it really really sucks when family does something like this.)

        Reply
      2. Elizabeth West

        I’ve had coworkers who sold Avon or Mary Kay; they handled it appropriately by saying, “Hey, I do this and I leave the catalog on the break room table/at my desk, if you’re ever interested.” AND THEN THEY LEAVE IT ALONE.
        I actually love Avon; I just can’t afford to buy something every week. If they had catalogs monthly, I’d probably spend more.

        Reply
    2. cornflower blue

      I had a coworker try to sell me Jamberry once. I thought she had gotten into canning, and was sort-of interested. When I found out what it really was, I was so confused. We aren’t even allowed to wear that stuff in the lab!

      Reply
  9. Stranger than fiction

    My first thought was are you sure it’s not just someone actually doing market research? But from the comments, I see this is actually a thing.

    Reply
  10. Robin Gottlieb

    Whenever I get such a request, I tell them at the outset that I’m not interested in any type of sales pitch, but I can spare 15 – 20 minutes to discuss the topics they mentioned. If/when it becomes a sales pitch, I remind them of what I said previously, that they live up to their side of the deal, but I will live up to mine, and hang up. Problem solved.

    Reply
    1. Government Worker

      I’ve done something similar, where when I’m contacted by someone who I know has a product to pitch I say that I’m happy to chat/have coffee, but that they should know going in that I’m not the decision-maker on new products/we don’t have budget for their category of service/other reason a full sales pitch will be useless. People generally still want to talk and their product/service still usually comes up, but it takes some of the edge off. It helps that I’m in a corner of government with near-daily news stories about our budget crisis, so it’s not hard to brush people off in advance with that excuse.

      But for me this has come up under 5 times in the year and a half I’ve been at this job. If it were more frequent I’d push back more.

      Reply
  11. Snatches & Cleans

    We are a website shop. Daily, we get emails from people requesting information about our sites. Really, it will turn into a pitch for SEO work, but they usually try to build the relationship first by exchanging several oh-so-helpful emails, thereby wasting our staff’s time. The persona is nearly always some college woman from South Carolina. They are getting smarter though — she now has a Facebook profile that is private. It’s actually some dude in another country though. It’s getting really hard for me to respond politely, but I feel I must, because what if it isn’t some dude selling SEO?

    Reply
  12. Ester

    A lot of these issues are really early career ones, when we all have less power and understanding of how we fit into our roles/uniquely bring to our work. They seem to also be challenges that can be addressed through the establishment of processes and systems, or using existing ones, to create new, better habits. Most of our style and whatever at work is habitual. Create new habits, stick with them and take ownership. Not everything is a pathology in need of diagnosis and able to be cured with meds.

    Reply
  13. Mookie

    These conversations do help establish me in my field as authoritative about my area of expertise and I think they can help me broaden my professional reputation (which then leads to invitations for speaking engagements and so on), so I don’t necessarily want to just outright refuse them – they’re not entirely a waste of time

    Can I ask how this works? The people you’re describing here work in a different but related field and therefore presumably have a great deal of contact with your peers and potential employers in your field. However, what they’re doing, even if it’s becoming commonplace, isn’t actually something most people would normally broadcast far and wide because (a) it’s a bit ethically dubious and (b) advertising it could reduce their standing and make people like you far more wary of speaking to them and therefore less receptive to their cold sales routines. So, how does a private conversation cum surprise sales pitch help to strengthen your professional reputation and establish you as an authority? I definitely understand not wanting to burn bridges and instead choosing to humor people you may work with, be hired by, or meet in a professional capacity down the line, but none of that makes you a better or stronger authority in your field than you would be if these conversations didn’t exist in the first place.

    Wasting your breath on people who aren’t really listening, just waiting for you to pause so they can pitch something, isn’t a productive use of your time, not the least of which because it is unlikely whatever you are saying during these conversations will be absorbed or repeated to anyone else. They’re not in the business of advertising you as a product; they’re trying to sell you a product. It’s possible, of course, that when you decline whatever they’re selling they’ll potentially reach out later to tap you for some paid coaching or consultant work — even though they demonstrated themselves to be cheapskates here — but getting such gigs is rarely as passive and effortless a process as sitting through a sales pitch. If anything, were I to continue taking these calls, I’d be pitching right back at them and tapping them for contacts and referrals.

    Reply
  14. horse

    I think I’d try being genuinely hurt and confused once they started trying to sell you on something. Like: “Oh… Are you asking me to X? I took time out of my day because you told me you wanted to discuss Y. That’s really misleading. Why did you say that?” Or some other way of directly mentioning it in the call when it happens. I think people are relying on getting their foot in the door initially so you’ll be too polite to shut them down once the real juice comes out.

    Reply

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