In 1925, a man walked into the Hotel de Crillon, one of the most prestigious hotels in Paris. Five other men entered with him, but this man was the one who was special.
This man would buy the Eiffel Tower.
His name was Andre Poisson. He’d been invited to the Hotel de Crillon by the deputy-director of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, as a leading scrap metal merchant known for his honesty and discretion.
After a short presentation, all six men were taken by limousine to inspect the Eiffel Tower. At this time, it was a bit of a wreck. It hadn’t been maintained well and the costs of keeping it painted were prohibitive.
The Minister told the group that due to an expected public outcry, they must keep all details secret until the deal was done. He then invited bids, to be submitted no later than tomorrow.
Andre Poisson jumped at the chance. He’d never felt like he was in the ‘inner circle’ of Paris business – landing this deal would put him into the big leagues.
His wife was a bit more suspicious. Why all the discretion?
The Minister set up another meeting to explain himself. As a government minister, his salary did not cover the kind of lifestyle he enjoyed. That meant he had to find ways to supplement it, and as such his dealings required some amount of… subtlety.
Selling the Eiffel Tower was unusual. Corrupt government officials were not. Satisfied, Andre handed over the money for the Eiffel Tower and a large bribe.
Of course, Andre hadn’t really bought the Eiffel Tower. He’d just given a large amount of money to one of the world’s best con-men, Victor Lustig.
It’s easy to laugh at Andre, but that’s under-estimating just how good Victor Lustig was at what he did.
The con he set up was well-presented. The presentation was in a prestigious location, and the limousine was expensive.
He played upon Andre’s insecurities, that feeling of wanting to take his business to the next level. Which of us hasn’t wanted that?
He made the unfamiliar, familiar. He made the unusual nature of the deal seem usual by clothing it in something – government corruption – that Andre dealt with every day.
Also, the deal really wasn’t that far-fetched. These days, the Eiffel Tower is a multi-billion dollar tourist attraction. In 1925, it was a poorly-maintained wreck. It was never even meant to be a permanent structure – it was built for the 1889 Paris Exposition, originally planned to be taken down in 1909.
(Remember that, next time you’re taking that lift all the way to the top)
But what Victor was incredibly good at was gaining trust.
And this is where we can learn something from him.
When you have someone’s trust, you can sell them pretty much anything.
Victor summed up his talents into ‘Ten Commandments for Con Men’.
- Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
- Never look bored.
- Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
- Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
- Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
- Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
- Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
- Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious.
- Never be untidy.
- Never get drunk.
And you can turn these into principles that will help you sell anything to anyone:
Care about your customer (1, 2, 5)
Think like your customer (3, 4)
Make your customer feel good (6, 7, 8)
Respect your customer (9, 10)
‘Sex talk’ is probably best not pursued, even if it does show you care about your customer. There’s no denying, though, that if you’re faced with a choice between two coffee shops, you’re going to go for the one where you fancy the waitress.
Ultimately, Victor was self-defeating. If he’d used his amazing skills at gaining trust to make that crucial first sale, then delivered awesome products so they kept coming back, he could have died a millionaire.
As it was, he died penniless, of pneumonia, in Alcatraz.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t use these exact same skills to provide something of real value to the world.
Because if they can successfully sell the Eiffel Tower, just imagine what they can do for you.