Five Things Salespeople Can Learn From 419 Scammers

Sometimes we get the better of the scammers.

“The money’s the same, whether you earn it or scam it.”
–Bobby “The Brain” Heenan

Recently, Microsoft conducted a study of Nigerian scam e-mails to determine why the e-mails are so blatantly, obviously illegitimate. If you’ve read one of these e-mails, it’s pretty clear that the son of a Nigerian oil baron doesn’t have $53 million to give to you. The typos are rampant, and these “barristers” and “diplomats” readily admit that they are not from the United Kingdom or the United States. Everything about these e-mails screams out “SCAM” to common sense.

Yet, as the study shows, the scammers aren’t appealing to those with common sense. What they are trying to do, although undoubtedly few, if any of the scammers realize (or know about) it, is reduce the incidence of false positives. A false positive, in this case, is someone who would respond but would then later on catch on that the offer was a scam. The scammer will have wasted time and resources trying to get money from someone who will not give him money. It’s much simpler to go after the easy mark, the person who will readily run to the Western Union and ship away thousands of dollars after two e-mail exchanges than to work for months trying to convince the dubious with an uncertain payout at the end of the line.

If you’re in sales, you’ve probably experienced the same thing. You’ve done endless calls, dinners, meetings, and presentations with a lead who always seems on the fence but can never commit. What are Nigerian 419 scammers doing right that you’re not?

  1. The communication weeds out the uninterested. By writing in poor English and making outlandish claims, the 419 scammer provides enough information for those who are not his target to make a decision to walk away from the transaction.
  2. Pre-qualify the lead. By the second or third communication, the 419 scammer is talking money and how much it will cost (initially) to enter into the transaction. This ensures that the target has money enough to do the transaction.
  3. Get the target emotionally involved. The more emotionally committed someone is to an idea, the more likely he is to invest resources in the idea.
  4. Don’t spend time on those unlikely to provide a return. The more effort that a target requires out of the scammer, the more likely the scammer is to drop the target and move on to someone who requires less work. The pattern of behavior will be the same after the close, too, if you do close the sale. They’re called “customers from hell.”
  5. The bigger the net, the more fish you’ll catch. 419 scammers send out e-mail blasts to thousands and sometimes millions of e-mail addresses. Even though the response rates are exceptionally low, they benefit from the law of large numbers. The marginal cost of an incremental e-mail when sending out a blast that large is effectively zero, so it’s more effective for the scammer to send out as large of a blast as possible. Therefore, the more leads you have, the more chances you have to convert one.

419 scamming is a big business. Otherwise, it wouldn’t draw as many scammers as it does. The ethics behind the scamming industry are abhorrent, but there are lessons to be learned in the process which salespeople can use to ethically increase sales.

Want to help fight 419 scammers? Join ScamWarners and 419 Eater.

What other lessons can salespeople learn from Nigerian scammers? Give us your ideas in the comments below!

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Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

7 thoughts on “Five Things Salespeople Can Learn From 419 Scammers

  1. “The bigger the net, the more fish” … that reminds me of a saying that I often hear in business/marketing, which is “It’s a numbers game.” Call as many people as possible, they say, and don’t spend too much time on any of them until / unless they give you a reason to do so. I felt relieved when I learned that tip, because it relieved me — the salesperson — from getting emotionally invested in trying to convert a lead. I don’t try to convert leads anymore; I just put the info out there and let them decide. It sounds like this is the 419 scam strategy, as well … cast a wide net, pre-qualify the lead, and don’t waste your time.

    1. Unfortunately, it is a numbers game. You have to fill the top of the funnel to get sales through the bottom. The more you can stuff in the top, the more that comes out of the bottom. I have been fortunate that I’ve never had to do cold calls because it would take me a long time to get over the emotional trauma of so many rejections. I really like your approach (and it’s the one that I try to have as well) – I put the information out there, and let the potential customers decide. Of course, at some level, it still comes down to getting that information in front of as many eyes as possible.

  2. Seeing this post again makes me think that it was the first if yours that I read, Jason, which still begs the question: how did I find you in the first place?

    It’ll come to me. In the meantime, I wanted to tell you that I love this post as much today as the first time I read it. It helped clarify for me that building my business around my version of The Ideal Client will narrow my audience, but in a good way.

    Excellent writing, as usual.

    1. I went to a presentation by Erika Napoletano about writing for your tribe. Her theme was dare to be unpopular. I originally started out this website by trying to dodge taking most stands (except that commissioned sales brokers who sell you 5.9% front load mutual funds compete with scum in the food chain). However, that wasn’t truly me. I’m pretty dang opinionated. I busted my a$$ to get to a point where I could be here, and I learned a lot of lessons along the way. I didn’t just fall out of my college graduation, start blogging about my little debt journey, and hitch on to some wirehouse smiling and dialing for dollars. So, after watching Erika’s presentation, I realized that I needed to really write about what I truly cared about and take a stand. Sure, I’ll tick some people off and they won’t like what I say. They can go away. They’d never be clients of mine either. Same for the people who think that everything on the Internet should be free. They need not return. If they don’t value my wisdom and expertise, then I don’t want them. Why bust my hump trying to convince the unconvinceable? I’d rather focus on the people whom I can truly help and who value what I have to offer. Those are the ones for whom I can move the needle and for whom I write and serve. I don’t care if it’s 1, 100, or 100,000. As long as someone gets it and values it, then I’ve succeeded.

      I simply do not have the motivation at this point in life to waste my time with those who are going to waste mine. Time is my most precious asset. As Erika said, kicking the people out who are going to be haters simply creates more room for those who get it to come in.

      Cast a wide net, but make sure it has large holes to keep you from catching the fish you didn’t actually want.

      Rant over! 😉

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