The Problem with MLM’s – Deception and Manipulation

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MLM – Multi Level Marketing. It is a marketing strategy in which the sales force is compensated not only for sales they generate, but also for the sales of the other salespeople that they recruit. This recruited sales force is referred to as the participant’s “downline”, and can provide multiple levels of compensation.


Sounds like a great business model right? There are many of them out there that offer someone the opportunity to create a business and the sky is the limit to how much they can earn if they work hard enough. MLM’s are hard work. For a person to make it successful they have to be motivated themselves. Most MLM’s offer events to inspire and motivate its sales force to go out and convince others about how great the “opportunity” is. I have been in and out of a few MLM’s. One of them I have been a part of since the 80’s either from using the product or being a part of its sales force is Mary Kay Cosmetics, which has been in business since 1963.

So what is the problem with MLM’s if they offer such great opportunities to make money? Aside from those pyramid scheme type which are illegal (and not what is being addressed here), the problem isn’t the MLM, it’s how the sales force is trained to get prospects through manipulation and deception.

I remember way back in the early 90’s when people would call me and say “I’d like to talk to you about network marketing.” This was an Amway pitch that started the whole “network marketing” buzz word. It wasn’t a well-known term then but it was deceptive because they wouldn’t tell you it was about Amway on the phone, they wanted to meet and discuss it.

Mary Kay always taught us to offer a complimentary facial and to never lead with the business opportunity. The person needed to sample the products and like them before they would be interested in selling them.

These days my time is very precious and limited. If someone deceives me into getting on the phone with them or meeting them in person, I will never do business with them on what they are offering or anything else for that matter.

Persuasion vs Manipulation

Here are a couple of recent examples of people who have been deceptive with me in order to share or pitch an MLM:

  1. I got a text message that said  “I need to talk to you about something.” This should have sent up a red flag but it was someone who I knew and had a know, like and trust factor with, from an organization we are part of, plus veteran stuff. When we finally got on the phone she pitched me some MLM that was going to get me “great exposure” and it was only $500 to get started and $99 a month and if I got like 3 or 5 people myself I wouldn’t have to pay the $99 a month. I was annoyed that she used the deceptive “I need to talk to you” to get me on the phone. That’s no way to win friends and influence people but this is the problem with MLM’s today, they teach people to be deceptive up front and expect that someone would entertain doing business with them. As a result I will not trust her in the future because she deceived me.
  2. A friend I had gone through a year of training with several years ago reached out to me. She said she was going to be in town (she was from Northern California) and would like to “get together to catch up.” I was looking forward to seeing her and having a nice lunch. We arranged a lunch at one of my favorite establishments. The day of the lunch I found out one of her “friends” was going to join us. When I arrived I found out a friend of the friend was going to meet her there too as they hadn’t seen each other in a while. I thought the more the merrier. When my friend and her “friend” got there we chatted for a few minutes, ordered our food and then they started pitching me some health products MLM. My friends friend took over and fire hosed me with so much information that I tuned her out. I was so mad I could barely contain myself. I wanted to get up and walk out but because my friend was there I used it as an opportunity to give her feedback. However, I was really flaming mad. So much so that the other friend came in and told me how jacked up my energy was and that I needed her “help” to heal from that. I had to laugh later. Of course my energy was jacked up. I was furious at being deceived and having my time wasted!
  3. My daughter had a guy come into where she worked regularly. He told her he could get her a job at a higher end restaurant, that he knew the manager and had told him about her and he was interested in meeting her. This guy was like in his 40’s, my daughter was 22 at the time so she didn’t think anything of it. She made an appointment to meet the guy at the restaurant. When she got there she soon realized the manager wasn’t there and this guy lied to her to attempt to get a date with her. My daughter quickly left. Did the guy think that was a good way to attempt to start a relationship with someone?

I could go on with the deceptive pitch practices from the past but the first two caught me off guard because they were friends who I had a level of trust with. Now that trust has been broken and I’m not likely to respond to any requests to meet or talk. My daughter now has to think twice about people’s intention’s when they mention a job to her.

I have had other people contact me about my interest in certain MLM’s. They were upfront which was appreciated. I don’t have any time or desire to devote to an MLM today. MLM’s are a great business model for people. It allows those who want to work hard an opportunity to be in business for a small investment. However, it takes a lot of energy and commitment to work an MLM. You have to focus a lot of time and constantly work on it to be successful. The fallacy that it’s easy to get 3 or 5 people to sign up so you don’t have to pay for your monthly fee is deceptive in itself. Easily convince 3 people? You have to speak to at least 10-20 to get 3 and don’t think your friends and family are the answer, most of the time they are not interested.


In negotiation I teach about getting to the point and integrity first. Being deceptive to trick people into talking to you so you can pitch them on something or deceive them into talking to you about something is not only a bad business practice, it’s a way to lose credibility and friends. If you are in an MLM and they are teaching you to be deceptive like this to get people, you may want to think about whether or not it’s a good MLM to be a part of if you have to start out by tricking people into talking to you.  People don’t have time to waste. Don’t deceive them into meeting you only to waste your time and theirs in the long run. Being honest may get you more no’s vs. a yes but in the end you will feel better about how you manage your business and keep your valuable relationships.



Eldonna Lewis Fernandez
Eldonna Lewis Fernandez
Veteran negotiation and contracts expert Eldonna Lewis-Fernandez, author of “Think Like a Negotiator,” has over 30 years of experience crafting killer deals both stateside and internationally, many in excess of $100 million. She’s currently the CEO of Dynamic Vision International — a specialized consulting and training firm that helps individuals hone negotiation skills — as well as a nationally regarded keynote speaker, session leader and panelist on the Art of Negotiation. Eldonna may be reached online at

1 Comment


    Loved your treatment of this subject ~ well said….

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