“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” – Barry Le Platner
The upcoming movie The Wolf of Wall Street chronicles the exploits of Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) who bilked investors out of millions of dollars though a pump and dump style brokerage chop house in the 1990s.
Belfort paid his dues, went to prison and now works with large companies developing their sales tactics while also giving motivational speeches about his past mistakes.
In a great Businessweek article last week Belfort described the sales system he used to get people to trust him with their hard earned dollars:
Belfort calls his method the Straight Line Persuasion System. “There are certain elements of influence that you have to line up before someone says yes,” he says, pulling out a pen and starting to scribble on a flyer lying on the table in front of him. “At the highest level, sales is the transference of emotion. And the primary emotion you’re transferring is certainty.” He draws a line to represent a continuum of certainty from 1 to 10, explaining that almost anyone can learn how to prod reluctant customers, whether they’re considering buying real estate or shares in your company, along the scale toward the vaunted 10 by lowering their “action threshold”—whatever it takes to prompt them to buy—and their “pain threshold”—whatever is making them uncomfortable about a transaction. “You know,” Belfort says, “I had a gift from a very young age not just to sell, but to train salespeople.”
The primary emotion of certainty that Belfort describes here is the one that gets people into trouble. It’s why we are constantly looking for and making predictions about the future even though we know it’s impossible to say for sure what’s going to transpire.
The search for certainty leads people to get duped by those that promise “safe” and “consistent” returns year after year even though it’s a fairytale. Bernie Madoff swindled numerous investors through the promise of certainty.
It’s why salespeople usually find more success gaining investors than analytical number crunchers.
I was talking to an ex-banker recently who told me about his bank’s pre-2008 selling practices. They would package high-fee, impossible to understand products all within the underlying promise of certainty.
A simple, consistent return assumption would be presented to the client followed by a maze of technical, smart sounding financial terms that didn’t make much sense.
When the client would ask questions, the salesperson would tell them that they weren’t supposed to understand the product. That’s what the bank and their advisors were there for.
I was told that this bank doesn’t sell their product this way anymore. Color me skeptical. Selling is what these places do. Pushing products and earning fees is how they stay in business.
My advice would be that if an investment opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If the salesperson relies on charm over simplicity, you should keep asking questions.
It’s difficult to turn down an investment idea when you have a good salesperson extolling its many virtues. A good narrative can suck you in because it feels comfortable to invest with someone that seems so sure of themselves and the product they are pushing.
Here’s some advice from Warren Buffett on how to think about new investments:
The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.
It’s a terrible mistake to think that you have to have an opinion on everything.
Salespeople do have to have an opinion on everything and they want more than anything for you to say yes. Luckily, you can be patient, keep things simple and say no to the majority of investment ideas that you hear about year in and year out.
Remember that there’s a difference between financial firms that are only out to gather assets or earn commissions than those that would like to help you make good investment decisions. Forget the former and try very hard to find the latter.
Check out the trailer for Wolf of Wall Street:
More Uncertainty Ahead?