The Ethical Pitfalls of Selling


Scott Farrell Comments:

Perhaps no two concepts are further apart in today’s society than “honor” and “salesperson.” Yet, although many people think of sales as an inherently distasteful, dishonest and even dishonorable profession, it does not have to be that way. Salespeople can be ethical and forthright — and still make a profit. There are more than 16 million people working as sales representatives in the U.S. alone, and as the prime money-makers for most businesses, salespeople can become models of leadership within the companies they work for — if they conduct themselves with diginty, chivalry and honor. The National Association of Sales Professionals (who graciously provided this article) is working to restore an image of integrity to salespeople at all levels of industry.

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handshakeAlmost a day doesn’t go by where there isn’t some news report of a firm or individual that has gotten caught for some “wrong doing” in the conduct of business activities. This range is very broad, such as hiring undocumented workers, failing to pay taxes, or deceptive advertising practices — just to name a few. However, what is most important to recognize is that vigilance over the activities of businesses today is greater than ever in the past. Computers, competitors, and disgruntled workers are just a couple of watchdogs that can instantly cause a supposedly well operated business to quickly tumble into the jaws of legal death.

Within the vast sea of opportunity for any business or person to get in trouble lurks the sales function. Probably no other activity is so laden with chances to destroy a company or individual’s career. To truly understand this, let’s first take a look back into the history of selling here in the U.S.

As the country was being settled from east to west, transportation and communication were critical factors that controlled the rate of growth and expansion. In other words, it was difficult to market anything into remote areas because there was no way for a buyer to transmit an order back to a company. By “remote” is meant areas of the country which did not have any rail, mail or telegraph service. For people living in these parts, their buying needs were satisfied by wagon merchants.

This type of traveling salesperson literally hauled merchandise from town to town and sold products right off of the wagons. As can be imagined, wagon merchants had a strong incentive to close any orders right on the spot for fear of losing the prospect to the next wagon merchant that would hit town a couple days behind them. These same traveling merchants would also take orders for custom merchandise which they would deliver on their next visit or have shipped via rail to a larger town for pickup by the customer.

If anyone ever wondered where all those jokes came from years ago about the “traveling salesman and the farmers daughter,” this is it. In fact, some of these “visitors” were so bad in character that husbands forbid their wives to be out in public while these men were still in town.

Traveling salespeople in those days could not be paid any other way than just straight commission. There was just no alternative because it was impossible to manage how they spent their time, as opposed to someone working under local supervision. Therefore, the theory was “no sales — no income.” Another factor was the wagon merchants who bought merchandise at wholesale prices direct from the manufacturer and resold everything at a higher price. Thus, failure to sell anything when visiting a particular town was financial disaster. Additionally, there was a big desire to sell everything that was in the wagon before returning back for more new inventory.

One has only to imagine the persuasive selling tactics employed by this group of roving salespeople. In fact, this resulted in many wagon merchants only hitting an area just once, because the personal guarantees they made about some of the questionable products they sold cultivated some very angry customers who couldn’t wait to get their hands on that particular salesman. Very often they would never see that person again.

These historical factors provide a brief glimpse into why salespeople today have the heritage of such a poor reputation. In fact, no other profession in the world suffers from so much negative “public relations.”

Another facet about the relationship between sales and ethics is the lack of preparation and planning needed in order to work as a salesperson. To begin with, few people grow up desiring to be in sales in the first place. Often, most young people fall into it because they can’t get any other type of “real” job. Second, nothing is taught in classrooms about sales, either at the high school or college level. Even though over 16 million people in the U.S. work in some form of sales today, few schools recognize sales as a valid career path. To them, it’s something no mother should ever want her offspring to become.

So, now we have the picture of a career that takes no prescribed training or qualifications to get into, has no on-going education requirements, and represents the type of work that people seek when they have failed at everything else. No wonder it can serve as a haven for dishonest people!

© 2005 National Assn. of Sales Professionals.

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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.

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