Defining the Boundaries of Honor in Sales

Scott Farrell Comments:

In the conclusion of this article, the NASP considers the changing role of the salesperson within the global corporate community of the 21st century. No longer is the sales rep a “fly by night” huckster who simply wants to sell as many bottles of snake-oil as possible before leaving town. Today, as whole industries struggle to overcome the effects of scandals and corruption, tolerance for shady, disreputable sales practices is on the decline among both customers and managers. In order to prosper in today’s world, sales representatives need to see themselves as honorable executives who adhere to the leadership principles of the Code of Chivalry.

shakeAnother dimension is the well known fact that many people in business think it is ok to “bend the rules” once in a while if it results in getting ahead. This attitude prevails not because it’s permissible, but because few people are seldom caught and punished for these actions. After all, booking that last order of the year that puts you over quota by lying to the prospect about a pending price increase isn’t going to get you fired. At worst, the company will tell you never to do it again — while at the same time handing you a plaque commemorating your quota busting achievement!

Just why do we have this huge “gray area” when it comes to ethics in sales? Well, part of the reason is that each of us has our own definition or standards of what constitutes ethical conduct. Family background, religious beliefs, geographic locale, and industry practices all have an impact. For example, actions that are the norm in the car sales industry are out of the question in selling financial securities. High pressure closing tactics used to sell life insurance would be out of the question in the medical equipment field. Regardless of the cause, in someone else’s eyes people can act unethically because very often their personal belief system says it’s permissible. In other words, they don’t know any different. But in our society today, ethical standards are set by the group as a whole, not the individual. Unfortunately, various groups have differing opinions on what is ethical or not. Therefore, if you are outside of a particular group, then selling practices that you observe or hear about will be interpreted differently than if you belonged to that actual group.

So just how does someone go about deciding what is ethical? Several criteria can be applied to every questionable sales activity to determine this more clearly. The initial test is whether you would want someone to do the same thing to you. How would you feel not getting the whole story about a used car you are going to purchase for your spouse? What if the seller knows, but never states, that the car was in a terrible front end collision and the alignment can never be fixed to where it doesn’t affect the steering? Consider the stockbroker who calls you to buy a new mutual fund that he considers to be a good investment for the future. Of course, you never learn that right now the broker is getting a triple commission during the introductory period from the promoters of the mutual fund as an added incentive.

The next test is whether you would want others in the general public to know what you did. Another way to view this is being prepared to have the buyer stand up before your church congregation and recite every detail they found out about having business dealings with you. Would the things they say all be nice and complimentary, or would the details embarrass you in front of your family and friends? Consider if you had to tell your parents about each and every one of your sales. Would mom or dad be proud of you, or ashamed you are their offspring?

A final guideline is whether or not anyone can suffer any degree of damage by your choice of conduct. It’s similar to the old adage that if there is no victim, then there’s no crime. If there’s no basis for making any future restitution, then chances are you did what was within the confines of ethical behavior. There is also the implied concept of intent here. This queries whether your conduct was intended to deceive, or did it just happen to turn out wrong based on the occurrence of other factors beyond your control? Every salesperson at one time or another has gotten caught in the trap of role conflict. This is especially a sensitive area regarding pricing adjustments, like with temporary sales promotions.

Today it’s very possible for any salesperson to rationalize away the justification for unethical conduct. This is especially true when things aren’t going well in your sales career. That’s when the temptation enters to bend the rules or do something wrong where the outcome is very beneficial for you. The reason salespeople are even faced with these opportunities to stray across the line is partly due to their loose supervision by others. Often, salespeople are remotely managed and their actions are not witnessed by company executives. Giving sales reps this much implied trust requires that those hired must have a strong sense of ethical values. Over time, a so called “loose cannon” out in a territory can do more than just damage customer relations — it can bring down an entire company.

Another factor influencing ethics is the growing trend towards sales technology, where the buyer seldom meets the salesperson in a face to face situation. For example, the Internet and video conferencing certainly have their cost-saving benefits for salespeople by reducing the need for overnight travel. But, what will be the impact on developing those personal relationships so necessary to maintaining ethical boundaries in business transactions? Do new technologies like these reduce the decision making process to only who has the lowest price? And will sellers respond by crossing the line into the arena of illegal price cutting?

In summary, ethics is at the foundation of the effort to elevate sales as a true profession in its own right. Probably the most singular reason sales has such a poor image centers on the topic of ethics and personal standards of conduct. By reinforcing the concept that the size of the gray area between legal and ethical conduct is narrow, not large, progress will have been made in raising the standards expected of all salespeople.

The field of sales is undergoing dramatic change and evolution thanks to technology and other automation. These advancements will bring about the opportunity to act appropriately as opposed to sliding into abusive practices which will discredit the seller. Out of this picture a new breed of salesperson has emerged — the sales executive. This highly skilled and educated individual will have risen through the ranks of field selling by virtue of his or her commitment to a personal code of conduct. In the new order of selling, there will no longer be any room at the top for those whose conduct is anything else but absolutely ethical.

© 2005 National Assn. of Sales Professionals.

This article is reprinted from the website of the National Association of Sales Professionals as part of their Ethics Study Guide. After reading this overview of sales ethics, NASP members are encouraged to review the group’s series of ethical case studies and consider how the principles of honor and ethics can be applied in “real world” situations — Chivalry Today readers are invited to do the same. This article is reprinted courtesy of the NASP and may not be reproduced in any way without their permission.