Most people not familiar with sales would pretty quickly highlight the archetypal salesman of used cars and the ongoing scandal of mis-sold financial products such as payment protection insurance or PPI as clearly unethical and in many cases illegal. Put in place decent regulation and business processes, and the problem will disappear.
But it won’t, until business leaders consider two issues that are important for all types of company. Firstly, it’s not easy because regulation is retroactive and there will always be new types of product and ways of selling that rapidly outpace any rules we have, and you can’t rein in a selling culture, and indeed national culture, by making piecemeal changes in processes. Secondly, the subject of ethical selling and business ethics in wider contexts is much more complicated and multifaceted than just mis-selling. Put simply, is selling just about getting to the end, closing the deal, or is how you get there as important?
Addressing the big picture of ethical selling means your company will be much better placed to deal with change and keep ahead of the competition in the reputation stakes.
Many company executives, unless they’ve been involved in sales, don’t appreciate just how multidimensional selling is. Apart from the organisational and psychological skills necessary to progress a deal through an often long sales cycle, ethics alone can be a big and complex concern.
In our Institute of Sales Management (ISM) qualifications for salespeople, understanding the law and ethics of selling is a fundamental module and, in addition to knowing aspects of law such as contract law, data and consumer protection, and the sale of goods act, salespeople have to know what constitutes misleading actions or omissions, and aggressive and banned practices such as bribery.
Some of these may be written in law, but there are many everyday ethical dilemmas that salespeople, especially, encounter such as whether to promise a delivery date that probably won’t be met or whether to correct a beneficial assumption made by a buyer about a product feature that isn’t quite right.
Ethics apply also within a company, as salespeople and sales managers are often under constant pressure to account for data that directly affects shareholder value and corporate reputation. Salespeople have to juggle a large number of personal and corporate value judgments, and there is sometimes no right answer that will satisfy all their stakeholders.
We know though that buyers greatly value the knowledge and service they get from the best salespeople as a deal progresses as much if not more than the product or service they are buying, which is why one company will consistently win even in commodity markets driven by price. In complex corporate contracts, the effect is magnified. The salesperson who has an open and honest approach is far more likely to develop trust than one whose eye is always on the next deal.
At the ISM, we assess the attributes of salespeople for professionalism in terms of how well they can seek out mutually aligned value for customers and their own organisations. Win-win may be a well-worn cliché, however it underpins both ethical selling and high performance. But salespeople have to apply it across a wide range of skills and activities, from customer contact and engagement, to negotiation and closing, to managing information and deploying the right business skills such as value judgments.
There’s one more point I want to stress. All this also depends on your company taking an ethical stance. The best salespeople can be forced to compromise their values if they are ordered to take shortcuts to bring in a deal in a certain quarter, for example.
Your salespeople are the primary and often most important customer-facing representatives of your company, which is why they must reflect the business goals and ethics you put in place at the top. Your professionalism depends on putting professionalism into selling – and that’s just what we do.