A few days ago, we received a call to our office. The caller claimed to be a friend of mine and advised that the matter was urgent. After some interrogation, we found out that he was not a friend of mine and was trying to sell something we couldn’t possibly use. I am sure that many people reading this will have had similar experiences. To the population at large, salespeople have a bad reputation - and perhaps a justified one - and no discernible code of ethics.
Here at the Institute of Sales Management, we recognised that acting ethically and professionally in the sales arena is not only the correct moral thing to do but also the most effective way of achieving business success. People who act unethically tend to reap the reward of their actions in the long term.
Sales currently has no code of ethics for salespeople to follow
Of course, there are challenges. People in personal sales typically work on their own and often earn the bulk of their income through commission. This inevitably generates pressure to close sales by any means. In addition, there is often a disparity of information between buyer and seller, creating an opportunity for exaggeration, misrepresentation or even outright deception. True, the advent of the internet and social media has rebalanced power into the hands of the consumer to a point, but products and services are often too complex for most people to understand.
Sales is perhaps still not seen as being a profession. Many salespeople see their jobs as being temporary and sales teams typically see a high turnover of staff. This in turn leads to a pressure to reduce training expenditure. The results of training can be hard to measure and if people are not staying long, establishing a return on investment can be difficult.
Despite all this, salespeople typically face more ethical dilemmas than most.
A good example of these dilemmas is the representation of products. There is a fine line between boasting and exaggerating a bit and totally misrepresenting a product to a customer. Sales puffery, where the salesperson hypes the product or service up, is generally not illegal, but misrepresentation, where false claims are made, usually is. Crossing the line between the two is easy to do, even if unintentional.
Every opportunity must be used to professionalise sales
So how do we address these challenges? At the Institute of Sales Management our primary objective is to “raise the value of sales”, which essentially means professionalising selling generally. Clearly there are many things that can be done to achieve this. Having a code of ethics for salespeople is a good starting point. People often transgress simply because they are unaware of what is right and wrong. There is also a strong argument for salespeople having a basic knowledge of applicable legislation.
In truth, there are many opportunities to professionalise salespeople. There is increasing interest in apprenticeships with several sales standards being produced. Apprenticeship degrees, which allow salespeople to learn and complete qualifications as they work, are becoming available. Academic qualifications are now being delivered in a range of formats that enable salespeople to study in their spare time.
Ultimately, everything needs to be sold and for the serious sales professionals, who are willing to develop themselves and act in accordance with a structured code of ethics, the opportunities are tremendous.