4 Snake-Oil Sales Lessons to Ethically Grow Your Business

Snake oil. Just hearing the words in your mind probably conjures up images of some slick, smarmy dude, hyping and hawking his wares to the unsuspecting crowd.

Makes your stomach turn, doesn’t it?

But what you don’t know about these slimy peddlers may be what’s holding you back from seeing success in your sales endeavors.

According to Wikipedia:

Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine made from the Chinese Water Snake (Enhydris chinensis), which is used to treat joint pain. However, the most common usage of the phrase is as a derogatory term for quack medicine. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable and/or unverifiable quality or benefit.

Thus, the downfall of true snake-oil salesman began when an unscrupulous few started touting unsubstantiated claims that the oil could solve everyone’s ills. These charlatans were damaging the reputation of legitimate snake-oil salesman, and often times were selling cod liver oil, or some other liquid with a doctored-up label.

In direct sales, we, too have been subjected to this kind of misrepresentation. And every time you hear the refrain “Is this a pyramid scheme?” you feel the effects of some smarmy peddler that smeared the good name of folks like us.

But you can use the snake-oil salesman’s own tactics to your advantage. Here are the sales lessons you need to know to put these tactics to use legitimately in your own direct sales business:

Lesson #1: Find a crowd with a problem

In countless “wild west” films, Mr. Smarmy, our snake-oil charlatan, is found singing the praises of his miraculous panacea to a crowd of curious onlookers. These folks had aches, pains and other maladies that needed a remedy. To look at this throng, you’d think there was nothing in common: some were young, others old. Some wealthy, others poor. To Mr. Smarmy, all those faces had one commonality: they had a problem he knew he could solve.

While Mr. Smarmy used deceptive business practices, including selling defective product, he got the sale. You, on the other hand, don’t need to resort to anything deceptive because you DO have products and services that can solve your client’s problems. All you need to do is figure out who they are. Create a Perfect-Fit Customer Profile and figure out what products and services you offer that will best solve their problems.

Lesson #2: It’s not about the product, it’s about the solution

Mr. Smarmy doesn’t sell snake oil. He calls it snake oil, but as we’ve mentioned, few, if any, snakes were involved in the making of his “product”. Instead, Mr. Smarmy sells a solution to his customer’s problems. In fact, you probably hear the well-tuned script in your head from every old movie you’ve ever seen: “step right up, folks and see this modern wonder in action. It’ll cure your skin problems, money problems, and event your marital problems. It makes short men tall, poor men rich, and ugly men attractive to the ladies.”

Mr. Smarmy focused on benefits, NOT on the features of the product. Because it’s not about the product, it’s about the solution your product provides. When you get clear on how your products help your client, you can present the real benefits of your products in a way that makes your clients eager to invest in your solution.

Lesson #3: Use an accomplice

Mr. Smarmy doesn’t work alone. He always has an accomplice in the audience, praising the product, boasting about his success and how he was “miraculously” healed. This equally under-handed deceiver is fleecing the unsuspecting crowd by creating a fake endorsement for Mr. Smarmy and his wonder products. Because of the crowd believes the “third party” endorsement of Mr. Accomplice, they become even more convinced of the efficacy of Mr. Smarmy’s fantastic heal-all product.

You don’t need a phony accomplice to tell lies about how great your products are. You have client testimonials that are honest and authentic. Use them. You have a host that loves the products (and you). Let HER praise you to her friends. Your bona-fide third party endorsement will soften the hearts and open the wallets of your clients.

Lesson #4: Have an incredible offer

After Mr. Accomplice lauds the wondrous miracles of the so-called snake-oil, that’s when Mr. Smarmy makes his final move. In a thinly veiled attempt to part even more customers from their hard-earned cash, Mr. Smarmy makes an incredible “today only” offer to get not one, not two, but THREE bottles of this amazing elixir of life for the price of just one regular bottle. The crowd, already wooed by the velvety words of Mr. Accomplice, can no longer resist this incredible offer, and folks start pushing past each other in a mad scramble to get as many of the few remaining bottles in Mr. Smarmy’s buckboard.

When clients have an aching need, they’ll buy a little to give it a try. When they know you have their solution, they buy more, so they have some on hand. When you make an irresistible offer, they buy a LOT more, because you make it easy to say ‘yes’. The key to increasing sales is to be willing to give more value in return for the investment. Would it be worth it to you to take a small cut on your commission if it meant selling even more product? You might make less of a sales percentage, but because you’d be selling even more product, your actual total profit would be higher because you’re selling in larger quantities. Warehouse stores do this all the time. You can buy a 1 pound bag of rice for a dollar, or a 50-pound bag of rice for $20. Either way, the store makes money, but they’ll make more money if they sell the 50-pound bag. Look for ways to offer better deals for bigger purchases, and customers will be crawling over each other to get the better deal.

So yes, there are a few take aways from Mr. Smarmy that you can use in your business. The key is to apply his principles ethically, honestly, and in a way that resonates with your clients. Cultivate loyalty with your clients and instead of being given the bum’s rush, you’ll be the town hero.

© 2011 Lisa Robbin Young



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Lisa Robbin Young is a direct sales coach and trainer helping direct sellers grow a real business instead of an expensive hobby. Sign up for her free weekly ezine at


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  2. Carla K.

    I really LOVE this… Automatically, I thought of examples in my business which goes with each lesson. … As always, your articles are a pleasure to read and gives me food for thought on how to improve my business.

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