Avoiding the Snake-Oil Salesmen

You’ve seen them out in the business world. When they start talking, you’re reminded of late-night commercials that purport to tell you that the perfect knife set can be yours for only $19.95, satisfaction guaranteed. But, wait… there’s more.  They’re the modern snake-oil salesmen.

My grandfather had a lot of good sayings, and I’m well aware that most of them are ones that he’d lifted from somewhere. But that doesn’t make them any less accurate. One of his favorites was, “If something seems like it’s too good be true, it probably is.”

That’s really the key to avoiding the snake-oil salesmen of business topics. When you’re watching them, reading something they’ve written, or talking to one of them, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, pay attention to that. There are psychological processes in our minds that tend to make us react unconsciously even if we don’t react consciously. When those call out, then it’s best to at the very least pay attention to them.

But, you don’t always want to react that way. If you do react every time you feel slightly skeptical, you’ll rule out even the honest people. So, you can usually ask some questions that’ll help you decide which business propositions have some merit and which ones are designed to separate you from your money.

1) “Can you share some documentation about how this works?” – When you go to buy a car, it’s best that you don’t just take the word of the salesman about how well the car works. You drive it. You kick the tires. You look under the hood. If someone is trying to get you to spend a part of your budget, you need to be just as interested in the inner-workings. If you don’t understand what they give you as evidence, then seek out an expert and ask their opinion.

2) “Do you have some case studies I can read and/or some references I can talk to?” – Anyone who’s not willing to let you talk to the people they’ve done work for, should give you pause about handing them any money. Furthermore, use Google. In the Internet age we’ve got the ability to perform some of our own background checks. Let you fingers do some walking and see what you can find out about them.

3) “Are there other people who are using the same sort of idea?” – Asking a question like this allows you to get an idea of what sort of theory this person is using. It’s also a good way to get a sense of whether you’re dealing with a passionate advocate of an idea or a snake-oil salesman. A snake-oil salesman is going to try to make sure that you think they’re you’re only resource; a passionate advocate will want to talk to you about their ideas and how they came up with them.

This isn’t necessarily a complete list of what you’d want to ask, because depending on the exact situation, you may have specific details you want to cover. But this list gives you an idea of the kinds of things you want to try to get at. Cast some light around. The average snake-oil proposition is going to wilt in the light of day, and you’ll be able to feel better about walking away from such a deal.

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